[Hello? Is this thing on?! ... By the time I finish writing this trip report, we'll be on our way to Cleveland for Christmas.]
We woke up the next morning to find that the previous day's rain & clouds had blown away overnight and it was shaping up to be a beautiful day.
After a quick breakfast at a cafe close to the hotel, we made our way to National to pick up our rental car. We had reserved a midsize SUV online several weeks before the trip, so imagine my surprise when we showed up and there was a dirty Subaru Forester sitting in the parking lot waiting for us. Nothing against Forester's but even the Subaru commercials call it a small SUV and there was no way I was paying the upgraded price for what was nowhere near the vehicle we reserved. Nevermind the fact that the interior was littered with the last renter's trash and the seats had smudges and mud all over them. We walked next door to Budget and ended up getting a Jeep Patriot for less than our previous rental because they had a 10% off deal reserved for Fairmont guests. The Jeep is by no means a luxury car, but it had decent ride height and at least matched the category of rental car we had reserved. Looking back, had the Subaru been clean when we arrived, I may have just kept it and gone along with the whole thing but the fact that it was the only vehicle they had on the lot and they were trying to pass it off to us in its current condition did not please me. You know, it occurs to me that we've ran into this problem a couple of times now with National, specifically. On one of our trips to Kauai the Jeep Wrangler they tried to give us still had a lot of the previous renters' mud inside (since the mud in Kauai is red, this was not subtle). Maybe that company just has different standards of cleanliness? Not like Hertz on our last trip to Kauai where we got a pristine Mustang. Now that was CLEAN.
Anyhow ... I digress.
On our way out of Victoria we tried to find a Best Buy so that we could buy an auxiliary jack to listen to the iPod on the drive. I am notorious for falling asleep within an hour of being on the road unless there is music playing. The further we drove, the more we realized that we weren't going to find a store, so I fought tooth and nail to stay awake and I'm glad I did because about 45 minutes outside of Victoria, you're suddenly in the wilderness with lakes and beautiful cedar lined hillsides hugging the highway and then it opens up onto the bay and you can see for miles in every direction.
Prior to leaving on this vacation, I had done a bit of reading on the wine region on Vancouver Island. And then mere days before we left the September issue of Sunset magazine arrived, featuring a story on the Island's Cowichan Valley and some of the wines there. Given our love of wine, we decided to stop at a few of the more conveniently located wineries along the main highway up to Tofino to sample some varietals we don't have access to in California. Because the climate is so different than what we have year, the grapes that thrive aren't the varietals we normally drink. Instead there were several grapes I'd never even heard of (and to this day probably couldn't spell properly if I tried).
Our first stop was Cherry Point Vineyards, famous for its blackberry wines (blackberries are EVERYWHERE on Vancouver Island. We later found that blueberries can be found everywhere as well). The owners first visited the winery several years ago and the husband fell in love with it. He tried to buy it for several years but the deal never went through. Then about a year ago he was able to come to a deal with its then-owners, a First Nations tribe, and as they say the rest is history. The wife runs the tasting room and you can see the love they have for the property and for the wine making process. We didn't love many of their wines but I found the Solera to be interesting and tasty enough to buy a bottle for revisiting later.
On our way to the next winery we found ourselves getting lost and driving in circles. The roads weren't exactly marked extraordinarily well and it was only a rather peculiar paint job on this one house that assured me we'd already been down that road once before. We ended up skipping the next place that was supposed to be on our itinerary and instead made our way over to Blue Grouse Winery, one of the most beautifully rustic and simple wineries you've ever been to. As you turn off the main road, you think to yourself this couldn't possibly be the right way. When driving up a somewhat steep gravel drive, you wonder if you should turn back. As you turn off that road and you pull up to what looks like someone's house you're convinced that surely you're in the wrong place. And then you see the little sign inviting you to the tasting room around the way, but not before passing a vegetable garden that puts ours to shame. Surprisingly, we weren't the only ones there. With about four couples in the room, the woman was having a bit of fun explaining the different wines she was pouring and describing the history of the area. The Cowichan Valley hasn't always been known for its wines. In the 80s, a handful of folks planted grapes successfully and its slowly grown from there to be about twenty wineries. I think you could find that in a three block radius in Sonoma.
Leaving the area we stopped outside of Nanaimo for lunch at a Burger King. I used to love BK and would valiantly defend the Whopper against claims of Big Mac supremacy. I'm sad to say those days are over. The fake "flame broiled" flavor almost made me sick. Blech. We also managed to find a Best Buy a couple of miles down the road to buy an auxiliary cable for the iPod. Score! It is with some trepidation that I admit the reason I was so keen on listening to the radio at this point was because I wanted to listed to my Twilight soundtracks. (Shut up, even the hoighty-toity music magazines had to admit they were good.)
Turning off Highway 19 onto Highway 4 is like entering a different world. Suddenly the landscape goes from being coastal to mountain wilderness, with giant peaks rising up alongside you thousands of feet up. It was the beginning of September and off in the distance I could see a snow-capped granite peak, standing solitary over the rest of the landscape. This is untamed land, mostly untouched by humans or industry or any of the other signs of "progress" that forever changes the landscape. And it was beautiful in a way that nothing we've seen is. Tahoe and Yosemite come close, but even there you're surrounded by hundreds of other people taking in the same sights. For much of the drive we were the only vehicle within range. Given that it was coming up on a holiday weekend, I expected the road to Tofino to be a clogged mess, similar to what you'd find on 80 heading up to Tahoe. Thankfully my expectations were unfounded. We could drive as fast or as slow as we want, slowing down to gape at the majesty around us. "It's so gorgeous" would become our mantra for the next several days. (Followed by variations of "It's so peaceful" and "It's just so beautiful" in a steady rotation.)
We arrived at Middle Beach Lodge sometime around 4 p.m., unsure of what we would find. To say that I did a lot of research on the accommodations on this particular leg of our trip would be an understatement. From rustic lodges to upscale b&bs, I looked into anything and everything as an option. The one thing I'll say is that nothing is cheap in Tofino. The Best Western - which isn't particularly well rated on TripAdvisor - was going for $299/night. A room in a random person's house (not even a full-scale b&b) was being offered at $200/night. There were a couple of condos in Downtown Tofino on the inlet side going for $170/night, but they were furnished from head to toe in cheap Ikea furniture and I just couldn't bring myself to want to stay there to save a couple of hundred dollars off the total cost of the trip. From the very beginning MBL was a place I kept coming back to and the photos and reviews only cemented that longing. A perfect mix of luxury and rusticity, it was definitely more than we wanted to spend per night (more than we paid at Ashford Castle, even) but I'm convinced that it helped make this leg of the trip so relaxing and peaceful and just plain wonderful. Set on a rocky bluff, bordering a wide flat beach, it's far enough from town to be isolated, but close enough to everything that you're only a couple of minutes away from anything the area has to offer. We reserved a "deluxe sixplex suite" which means absolutely nothing to anyone except the folks who own the place because there aren't a lot of photos showing what that means. Having convinced Alan this is where I wanted to stay, I was so nervous pulling up to the lodge because we had no idea what to expect. We couldn't have been happier. The main lodge has a gorgeous, comfortable and inviting main area with big, oversized chairs and couches looking out over the water. Our room, part of a six unit building, sat off to the left, away from the other units, and overlooking the ocean and Mackenzie Beach to the left. We were surrounded by short walks that took you to other parts of the property, but you always felt like you could have been alone in the middle of the forest. It turns out that our suite was really a one bedroom unit with full (albeit small) kitchen, huge bathroom with soaking tub and a deck overlooking the ocean. In a word, perfect. I could have stayed forever. It wasn't fancy by any stretch of the imagination but it was comfort personified.
After settling in and getting a bit of a rest we made our way into Tofino to find out about some of the wilderness tours and to get dinner. After a bit of back & forth about what we wanted to eat and how much we wanted to spend we found ourselves at the Sea Shanty restaurant, overlooking Clayoquot Sound and the Tofino Inlet. I was in love. I can still close my eyes and see the islands dotting the landscape, and the still, glassy water with the float planes landing and the small boats coming and going and the sun as it dropped behind the mountain range.