The Best Storm-Chasing Destinations

Stories from Travel + Leisure
Nov. 6 2011 6:39 AM

A Perfect Storm

The best storm-chasing destinations.

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This piece is reprinted from Travel + Leisure.

One December morning, a 30-foot wave and hurricane-force gales pummeled British Columbia’s Chesterman Beach. The tidal surge brought the water right up to Wickaninnish Inn, giving guests a spectacular view of nature’s unremitting fury—just as they’d hoped.

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Welcome to storm chasing, where travelers eschew sunshine to seek out lightning, twisters, and brooding cumulonimbus clouds. (See the  amazing photographs of a veteran storm chaser here.) It’s a growing trend whose affordable thrills are particularly attractive in this recession era. Credit also goes to disaster films like Twister and The Perfect Storm, which provided a virtual experience and drew attention to the pastime. Sophisticated, up-to-the-minute weather data and apps like Storm Spotters have made it easier to track storms. And more and more, enthusiasts want to experience the real thing.

“When we first opened in 1996, winter occupancies in Tofino were in the 30 percent range,” says Charles McDiarmid, managing director of the Wickaninnish Inn, a T+L World’s Best Hotel award winner in British Columbia. “But as word of mouth of our storm watching spread, our winter storm season occupancy rose to around 55 percent,” he continues. What’s more, the “off-season” hotel’s rates have jumped from $100 to $300 a night for a chance to witness the arctic blasts that swoop across the Pacific Ocean.

Many have been intrigued by thunder and lightning chasing throughout history, most famously Ben Franklin, whose key and kite experiments answered several mysteries about electricity. But modern storm-chasing began as a scientific pursuit in the American Midwest in the 1940s with Roger Jensen, considered the pioneer storm chaser. His data led to new understanding of storms and climate. Our perspective continues to evolve, as do storm patterns themselves.

Dozens of storm-chasing companies in the Midwest and southern U.S. are well established in the business—even attracting international visitors—but there’s a recent uptick of storm-chasing tours in Europe, Africa, and Australia in response to interest in new and unusual storm weather phenomena. The Namib Desert, for instance, provides the ultimate conditions for wraithlike sandstorms that whirl over its red curvaceous dunescapes.

Snow thunder in Antarctica, Spanish hailstorms, and giant rolling fog banks in Maine prove that Mother Nature has no shortage of creativity when it comes to staging an electrifying show.

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