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Northern Light

Vancouver and Vancouver Island offer all a romantic traveler could want, from vibrant city life to luminous natural wonders.

During a week-long stay in British Columbia, the Canadians were always friendly, as long as we didn't talk about becoming Canadians ourselves. But less than 24 hours after being in Vancouver, we could hardly help it. We arrived late at night in the Yaletown neighborhood, just a few blocks from the waterfront, which was bustling with a friendly brand of nightlife, the night-clubs and eateries looking warm and inviting. We awoke the next morning and looked out the windows of our 30th-floor suite of the Westin Grand onto a city of dynamic architecture (a public library shaped like the coliseum, the gleaming steel and glass apartment buildings on the waterfront, and the hotel itself shaped like a grand piano) under blue skies bordered by glistening Pacific. After breakfast at a café in one of Yaletown's converted warehouses on a pedestrian-friendly street, we were pampered at the casually chick Skoah spa by fresh-looking young women in jeans and pukka shell necklaces. By the time we had taken a small ferry across the bay to Granville Island and had settled in on a heated patio of the Sand Dollar Bar and Grill, wrapped in blankets provided by the management and noshing on fresh oyster po'boy sandwiches, we were almost ready to give up Southern California and sign an lease in one of the waterfront high-rises we could see from the restaurant.

" Where are you from?" asked the waitress when we told her we were thinking about becoming Kanooks. When we answered California, she said, "We don't have enough water for you."

The residents of British Columbia, as we experienced it, are fiercely protective of their territory, and rightly so. This most temperate region of Canada seems vulnerable to an invasion from the south, a glittering, green jewel with clean cities, comparatively low-cost housing, thriving native culture and outdoor recreation galore. British Columbia is acutely environmentally conscious. Every restaurant we ate in made sure to specify where it got its salmon; many served only organically grown foods. In Vancouver, it's illegal to water your grass, a fact that made my cheeks burn with shame, as I thought of the sprinklers outside my home in Irvine that spray every day to water the non-native sod, even after it's just rained.

But welcome or not, we couldn't help but fantasize about the beautiful life we might have here as we strolled the famous Granville Market, marveling at the brilliant array of fresh produce from the nearby Okanagan Valley, locally-made wines, and baked goods. Luxuriating in the Bacchus dining room in the Wedgewood Hotel in downtown Vancouver that evening, we felt sure there would be ample cultural and dining experiences to keep us happy here. In the week that followed, the fantasy got harder to resist. We ended our journey with a day in Victoria, lunching at the Il Terrazzo Ristorante and being pampered at the excellent La Spa Sereine before taking the Victoria Clipper back to the U.S. But what impressed us most was the time spent sandwiched between these two cities, submersing ourselves in what the locals call "super natural British Columbia" in two small towns on Vancouver Island.

The Back of Beyond

One doesn't end up in Tofino by accident. On the west coast of Vancouver Island, there's only one road in, and it's long and windy. From Vancouver, it's a full five-hour journey: two hours on the ferry from Horse Shoe Bay to Nanaimo on the island, and three on the road. En route we found cause for cheer, however. On the water, we floated past small, forested islands that pepper the Johnstone Strait. Once on land, we had the road nearly to ourselves, and out the window were afforded views of steep cliffs covered with conifers, cathedral groves of ancient trees, and glimpses of lakes and ocean inlets so pristine they looked like something from Tolkien's imagination.

Those who arrive at the end of this road make an eclectic group. Many are surfers; in the winter, Tofino is one of the great surf spots in North America, with offshore storms bringing huge swells that offer extended rides into Long and Chesterman Beaches. That, along with youth hostels, hiking... in Pacific Rim National Park, and sea kayaking, bring an abundance of hitchhikers (see them along tree-lined roads getting soaked in the heavy mist and looking perfectly contented). There are also the locals - fisherman, kayak guides, hippies/restaurateurs (the Common Loaf Bakery feeds both locals and hitchhikers fresh breads, salads and vegetarian fare).

And then there are the stormwatchers.

Charles McDiarmid, founder/manager of the Wickaninnish Inn, is said by some to be the initiator of Tofino's stormwatching culture - at least as it is experienced by the luxury traveler. The summer is a beautiful, temperate time for visiting the island, but in the winter, visitors now come in droves to watch the wild western storms thrash the coast. There's no better place to see nature in either mood than the Wickaninnish. "Rustic elegance on nature's edge" is the motto of the Wick (as it's affectionately called by locals). McDiarmid, a graduate of the Cornell School of Hotel Management, who managed the Four Seasons Newport Beach for eight years, conceived this property on his family-owned land, where old growth forest reached to the very edge of a rocky point overlooking sandy Chesterman Beach. McDiarmid's father wanted to build a motel; McDiarmid's vision was to create a luxury property, and achieve membership in the Relais and Châteaux hotel association (his only guidance from the French R&C office during the process: "You either are a Relais and Châteaux or you are not."). The first wing of this inn, built seven years ago and now referred to as Wickaninnish on the Pointe, offers unobstructed views of ocean, sky and shore line, from rooms outfitted in locally made driftwood furniture, with soaking tubs, heated stone floors, hand-hammered light fixtures - no detail left unattended to. The newest wing, Wickaninnish on the Beach, which we visited only one month after it had opened (and noticed not a single snafu in operation or atmosphere), is built further back in the trees, so that each room's view out across the sand is framed by old-growth trees. (We preferred the romance of this more sheltered atmosphere.) Another benefit of the beach wing is the addition of a glass shower wall so that bathers, whether in the soaking tub or the shower, have an ocean view. Views from the second-floor bedrooms of the spacious loft suites (which have one and half baths, full kitchens, and the same rustic elegance as regular rooms) fairly take one's breath away.

Though it was temping to enjoy the beach from the cozy vantage point of our leather chairs by the fireplace on a gray, misty day, the Wick wanted us to enjoy the outdoors as well. Evidence: the two sets of storm gear available in every closet (boots can be checked out at no cost at the front desk). So we donned gray rubber pants and yellow slickers on our first day in Tofino and explored the arc of Chesterman Beach, finding that comes to appoint on a small rocky peninsula. From there, we could look back ashore onto another curve of beach, as if we were standing on the hinge of a gigantic clamshell.

The walk was a great lead up to the cozy delight of dinner at the Wick's Pointe restaurant, where casually gourmet food was enhanced by the view of waves crashing almost to our window. (A note about eating in British Columbia: When in doubt, have the salmon, rare, and be ruined for Atlantic salmon for the rest of your life. My husband had salmon at least once a day for a week, and could have eaten more).

Every moment we spent at the Wickaninnish was infused with the sense that we were having an experience unique from the rest of the world - and a morning at the Ancient Cedars Spa was no exception. Built almost as an afterthought on the sublevel of the Point wing, the Aveda spa offers classic treatments with exceptional service. Scheduled for a facial, I arrived and was given a consultation with my therapist, who took a full skin history, and made special preparations for me because I was four months pregnant at the time. My treatment began, as every one does at Ancient Cedars, by being seated in an Adirondack chair outside under the trees and among wildflowers, where I could hear the ocean, but not see it. I was wrapped in blankets and my feet put ito seak in a copper basin filled with sea salts and marbles (for a little self massage). The expertly administered facial to follow was made all the better by this lovely 20 minutes of decompression.

Another great way to unwind in Tofino: sea kayaking in the beautiful bay. The harbor horizon is so scattered with forested peaks that we could never tell what was island and what a peninsula, but being on the water helped to clear that up - a little. This experience was led by Tofino Sea Kayaking, which offers tours for all ages and moderate fitness levels. Even pregnant, I had no trouble keeping up with our expert guide as my husband and I paddled our double kayak with four other couples through the bay and around an island, out into gentle swells. Having kayaked in various places along the California coast, I can say that this excursion, which afforded views of sea stars and kelp, open ocean, sandy beaches and coastal cottages was among my favorite water experiences.

The Spitting Image

We were loath to leave Tofino after three days, and not because we had to do the winding three-hour drive back to Nanaimo. We were headed to the small town of Sooke Harbour, known to bicyclist because of the Galloping Goose coastal trail, and to B&B lovers of North America for what seems like a bed and breakfast every quarter mile. If we could travel as the seabird flies, we could have reached in only a couple of hours, but as I said before, there's only one way out of Tofino - back across the island and then south around the tip. So back we went, stopping at Coombs Country Market for lunch (a local restaurant that draws tourists for having goats graze on their grass roof - never could find out why) and then passed the road to Victoria. As with Tofino, you don't visit Sooke Harbour for the nightlife or the abundance of fine dining, but for the spectacular natural setting - gorgeous shores and views across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Olympic Mountains in Washington - and, in our case, for the Sooke Harbour House.

In a town full of B&B's, this 28-room inn runs with the big boys. Travel and Leisure's Readers's Poll Awards in August 2002 put the Sooke Harbour House at number six in the world in the small hotels categories, and number nine in the world in the top 100 hotels of the world category (The Wick, by the way, is also on this list). Their wine cellar is considered the best in all of Canada, and has received the Grand Award by Wine Spectator magazine three years in a row. The reason for these accolades is Sinclair and Frederique Philip, the husband and wife team who opened the inn in 1974 and are known throughout British Columbia as uber-innkeepers. Sinclair, a native Canadian, has the vision behind the wine cellar, Frederique, born French, is the collector responsible for the house's charming themed rooms and the local art that fills the public spaces and gardens (of particular note is the cedar sculpture of salmon swimming upstream that divides the inn from the parking lot, the six-foot high metal lavendar sculpture that lights in the evening, and the jellyfish light fixtures created by the inn's resident blacksmith). Together they had the vision to build a property where each room has a balcony facing the dynamic tides of the Whiffen Spit; create and maintain an organic garden where every plant is edible and put to good use in breakfast delivered to your room at night; and the warm hospitality is felt unmistakably upon entry.

We had, we think, the best room in the house: the Blue Herron, a corner room with pitched ceilings and oddly shaped windows that made us feel we were in the captain's quarters on an old wooden ship. From our large deck we watched the tides rush in to the very border of the garden in the evening, followed closely by a blanket of fog. We lit our wood-burning fire (laid out for guests each night), turned on the giant soaking tub and felt that all was right with the world.

In the morning, the world was still right, but completely altered; at the foot of the garden was not shining water, but a shimmering forest of seaweed, the tide having moved three or four-hundred yards off shore. It was a scene ripe for adventure; luckily, one of Sooke Harbour's unique experiences is a tour with Diane Bernard, founder of Outer Coast Seaweeds, who make her living harvesting these highly nutritious slippery botanicals for restaurant and spa use. She met us in the lobby, handed us some knee-high rubber boots and walking sticks, and took us out to forage. Who knew seaweed was so fascinating? Bernard made a point of explaining that what we commonly know as seaweed, that which is washed up on the beach, is really the ocean's compost pile, and you should never judge a garden's produce by its compost. Further out into the soggy garden, she picked up and fed us (yes fed us, right out of B.C.'s clean ocean) a variety of crunchy, tasty seaweeds; like a wine connoisseur she could detect from among the alaria, egregia, rainbow seaweed, sea cabbage, and rockweed the subtleties in texture and flavor (one cucumber-y, one crunchy like jicama, one sweet) and had us fancying we could tell the difference too.

We had even more fun tasting the ocean's bounty that night in the Sooke Harbour House dining room. The restaurant offers a three-course (plus dessert) menu, created each afternoon based on what comes fresh out of the garden, the ocean, and from local growers that day. The menu is incredibly inventive, each entrée having upwards of five interesting ingredients. Example: Crispy bull kelp, poppy seed and cumin crusted Rosethorn Rockfish with a Shady Lane strawberry and Rustic Italian arugula salsa, a basil, kale, summer squash and Red Nugget Potato Frittata, eqqplant stirfry and purslane salad. Endless wine choices are of course available, and we sampled an array of British Columbia whites at the sommelier's suggestion. The highlight of my meal was dessert: Glohaven peaches and maple, caramel, mascarpone mousse in a sugar snap cup with a white chocolate lemon verbena foam, day lily, mint glaze and blueberry tarragon reduction. It tasted like something that Tinkerbell would eat.

Despite the Philips' overwhelming hospitality, it was in a chat with Frederique that we again were discouraged from making a permanent move north, and again because of our reputation as water gluttons. She even went so far as to say that the Canadians are sure the next American war won't be for oil, but for water. Though I may not have agreed with her political outlook, after a week in B.C. I felt just as protective of this natural wonder; I'd hate to see it overwhelmed by an immigration of SUV-driving, grass-watering SoCal residents. We decided, therefore, to be content to be repeat visitors, and thankfully, the Philips are more that happy to have us back.

  • A Proud Relais & Chateaux Member
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  • Traveller - The Gold List 2012
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  • 20th Annual Restaurant Awards Vancouver