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Head to South Beach for clean breaks


By Jack Christie, Photography by Louise Christie

Winter tempests stir the hearts of surf lovers and storm watchers alike along the West Coast. When it comes to weather, nature draws no distinction as to whether combers break on Long Beach near Tofino or in the South Beach region of Washington State.

By car, count on spending equal amounts of time to reach either destination. The difference? A trip to Tofino entails an increasingly expensive, two-hour ferry journey followed by a mountainous drive across Vancouver Island. Conversely, South Beach, in particular the seaside towns of Westport and, wait for it, Tokeland, is a straight shot along divided highways. With that in mind, it seems a moot point as to which direction to head.

One thing's for certain: at this time of the year, you'll have either spot pretty much to yourself. In fact, as Pique discovered during a visit to the South Beach region, despite the fact that Westport and Tofino have similar year-round populations, the pace of life on the isolated Washington coast remains consistently mellow from season to season while travellers to Tofino at peak times may scramble to find affordable accommodation.

There's yet another reason to consider visiting the South Beach region that stretches between Westport on the south side of wide-mouthed Grays Harbour and the Willapa Bay intertidal wetlands. Over the past decade or so, Tofino's reputation as B.C.'s surf nexus has grown to the point where it overshadows historically hallowed locations such as Jordan River and Sombrio Beach on Vancouver Island's southwest coast. Competition among wave riders in "Tough City" has intensified. Locals can be understandably protective of their place in the lineup offshore Long Beach. Any attempt to drop in out of turn is bad manners. Granted, given the big weather and bone-rattling water temperatures surfers endure in order to catch breaking waves, they might be forgiven for experiencing a little roller rage incited by a pounding ice cream headache.

The hinterland town of Westport-which lies 100 kilometres west of Washington state's capital, Olympia-and Tofino have even more in common. Local resource engines, such as logging and fishing, are both on the ropes. Fortunately, burgeoning cranberry and Dungeness-crab industries have given the South Beach region a boost in the face of long-term economic collapse. Tourism helps too. Just as Pacific Rim National Park Reserve draws surfers and storm watchers to Tofino, so do a series of three state parks that dot the 30-kilometre-long South Beach Seashore Conservation Area, including Westhaven State Park.

A paved pathway winds south from a three-storey observation tower on Westport's waterfront through sheltering sand dunes, past a parking lot full of VW vans plastered with surf-themed decals, then down onto a wide, hard-packed strand where squadrons of brown pelicans overfly pods of surfers. Beyond stands the imperial Grays Harbour lighthouse. Built in 1898, the 32-metre beacon is the tallest on the Washington coast. Climb the steps for a view of the boggy wetlands-ideal for cranberry cultivation-that spread inland. Architectural leftovers from the town's whaling heritage are easily picked out among rows of weather-beaten, modestly sized homes. By far the most charming is the Nantucket-style Maritime Museum with its gabled roof, watchtower, and widow's walk. In front, a breakwater shelters a marina, popular with local families who, come dinnertime, toss traps off the docks and, within minutes, head home with coolers full of Dungeness crabs.

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