In the late afternoon, the sea-chilled air rushes up the Alberni Inlet from the Pacific Ocean, and when it meets the warm inland air in Port Alberni, fierce gusts of thermal wind blow across Harbour Quay.
Moored to the pier is a 70 year old tugboat, now painted bright red and yellow and white. In the gusts of afternoon wind, the tugboat lists up and down with each swell of the water. This is the Swept Away Inn, our home for two nights on our British Columbia trip.
Swept Away Inn has been a labor of love of Daniel and Bouchra Savard since 2015, and the love radiates from the minute you walk in. We arrived early Thursday evening, after I overcame my anxiety of jumping from the red pier onto the metal steps of the tugboat. (“It’s not as hard as it looks” said Daniel with a knowing grin, and he was right.) We crossed the deck and entered the paneled and carpeted “living room” of the tug, immediately sheltered from the strong winds. The 70-year old wood has aged to a fine glow.
Bouchra, a native of Casablanca who has lived in Canada for 30 years, was in the galley kitchen adding spices and onions to the kefta (Moroccan meatballs) she was making for dinner. “You are staying for dinner, of course?,” she asked. I could already smell the pungent cumin and sweet cinnamon and other spices Bouchra brings back from her trips back to Morocco— so of course, the answer was “yes”.
Daniel led us up a narrow ladder to our “berth”—a tiny room with a window that looked out onto this last finger of the Pacific Ocean. We could still feel the slight rocking of the boat in the wind, like a gentle cradle. I’ve never wanted to live on a boat, but I love being on the water—like being at the top of a mountain, I feel enveloped by vastness and mystery.
At the bow end of this upper level was another open deck, and just inside, a book-filled room with an enormous leather armchair in which I could happily settle down to read and watch the grey-blue waves and the lights on the shore.
Pete and I had an hour or so before dinner, so we climbed back up the metal stairs onto the pier to see what was in Port Alberni. Which is to say, not too much. Port Alberni isn’t exactly a tourist destination. When I had mentioned my plans to a friend in Victoria, she looked a little puzzled as if she was struggling to find something encouraging to say about Port Alberni (“I know someone who lives there” she said, helpfully). The town does have a down-and-out feel, the small buildings dwarfed by a paper mill, many stores are shuttered and you sense the economic struggle. On the Harbour Quay flutter banners that say “Rotary International:Arts District”— a jewelry shop, a gift shop or two, a taco bar and a candy store called Sugar Shak. The two nights we were there, a local band was playing while a few older women danced on the sidewalk, cheerfully ignoring the strong winds
When we returned from our evening stroll, Bouchra had set out the kefta sprinkled with chèvre and couscous with sliced dates in brightly colored tangines. Daniel poured the wine generously. We were joined by Marc and Carole, a world travelin retired couple from France (“that’s Kah-rrull”, she said, correcting my French pronunciation) and Tobias and Marika, a young couple from Germany. Elsewhere on the boat, though not at dinner, were a family from England who had been surfing in Tofino and a Canadian couple from north of Vancouver.
Before long, we were telling our stories of travel, of work and of family. We learned that the tugboat had been built in the USA in 1943 and was used as a minesweeper in World War II, that Daniel and Bouchra had renovated it themselves and had been welcoming visitors since 2015 (“We always loved to entertain” they said, by way of explaining how they left their day jobs to renovate a tugboat). “We’re famous in Europe” Daniel told us — they had been written up in a hitchhikers guide, and, as a result, nearly every night had visitors from all over Europe. Bouchra chatted animatedly in French with Marc and Carole (who actually spoke English as did the Germans), every now and then turning to the rest of us to translate. By the end of the evening, we felt like long-lost relatives who had been welcomed home.
On our second night in Port Alberni, Bouchra was taking a break from cooking (“I need to chill a bit”). But when we returned from a delightful dinner at Brie and Barrel, a local wine bar, Daniel and Bouchra once again offered us wine and conversation with old friends of theirs who had just arrived from Alberta. We could have chatted well into the evening but Pete and I had to leave at 5:30 the next morning to catch a ferry in Nanaimo.
If there is one thing I’ve learned when traveling, it’s to not expect too much and you will often be pleasantly surprised. More than once, I have arrived at a place and thought “what have we done?,” only to to settle in and find comfort and hospitality. Whatever your surroundings, the welcome you receive from a gracious host will stay with you long after.