How I got Lost in British Columbia
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Original Article by Brandon Withrow for Daily Beast
Weightless. That’s how I felt in my kayak as I floated motionlessly near Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort in British Columbia. My travel companions and I had paddled out to a secluded platform with a floating sauna. They stayed as I went on a little farther, surrounding myself with thick forest, mountain peaks draped around the waist by a soft-white fog, and my breath breaking the crisp, damp air—scattered raindrops felt like end punctuation on my attempted thoughts.
The art of the vacation disconnect is not my strength, I’m told—often—because I tend to hike or cycle myself to exhaustion—I get a strong case of FOMO. But this time, all it took to give myself permission to get lost was an unexpected invite to join a B.C. adventure that began in the city and whisked me off to the wilderness, complete with private flights, wildlife spotting, multiple spa experiences, and gourmet sustainable cuisine in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Yes. All it took was a bucket-list trip.
But more importantly, I’ve learned two things this last year: the first is to say “yes” more often. The second is that my ability to truly disconnect requires mindful moments in nature, and not just the hike-until-you-die kind. I can have all the luxury in the world, but nature speaks my language—though it doesn’t hurt to also include a spa experience.
This getaway was a chance for travel writers to experience what is known as The Ultimate B.C. Adventure—a less conventional luxury trip that is not so much about taking you away from everything, as it is about progressively creating a more intimate experience with nature. The adventure, which begins in the city and ends in the remote wild, is a collaboration of three outstanding stays: The Fairmont Empress, The Wickaninnish Inn, and Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort.
The Fairmont Empress in Victoria—B.C.’s capital—is (like much of the Fairmont brand) a stately and iconic building. The Empress boasts harbor view rooms, and a beautiful lounge with terrace to match. Just around the corner from B.C.’s equally aristocratic parliament, and in the middle of one of the most walkable cities in the world, The Empress is known for many things, likes its collection of the royal china of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, its tendency to draw celebrity and royalty, and Afternoon Tea—a tradition observed at The Empress since 1908.
First, a confession: while I’m not a stranger to fine cuisine and luxury accommodations, when it comes to Afternoon Tea, I’m a Midwestern American commoner. In the spirit of saying “yes,” I went with it, but also not wanting to embarrass myself, I looked it up on YouTube to learn the rules of the road, like only break open a scone with your hand (not a knife) and that there is sometimes heated debate on how to even pronounce “scone.”
More than 80,000 guests a year come to enjoy The Empress’ 21 globally curated and ethically sourced teas, as well as a locally sourced menu that included everything from cold-smoked pacific sockeye salmon, matcha green tea macarons, spiced pecan shortbread, honey from their beehives, and lavender collected from their rooftop garden. The china pattern for the Afternoon Tea is even modeled after the royal set.
Another confession: I’m a full-grown man who has never had a spa experience, including any form of professional relaxation massage, let alone one that included nutrient rich locally harvested seaweed skincare. In my defense, having once weighed 115 lbs more than I do now and still holding onto a low body self-image, spas were never appealing.
But again, this is my year of “yes,” so at The Empress I embraced it. I attempted to distract myself on the table by writing an article in my head—which speaks to my aforementioned inability to relax. But within a few short minutes, I found myself disappearing into complete thoughtlessness.
And I know that saying spa experiences are amazing could be the equivalent of saying, “have you tried sliced bread?” But have you?
This somewhat chilled version of me, however, was very soon reset.
Our casual breakfast on our final day at The Empress was cut short so we could beat a storm rushing towards Tofino, our next destination. Small planes, helicopters, and boats are common modes of getting around parts of Vancouver Island quickly. For the better half of an hour in a small, and what would otherwise be a cozy Execujet, we fought violent turbulence—as in, revisiting-your-breakfast, kind of turbulence.
Goodbye, spa experience.
While Victoria is a city of approximately 92,000 people, Tofino is smaller by about 90,000. An isthmus on the island facing the Pacific, the town is home to beautiful rainforests and wilderness. It’s a place where visitors go for storm watching while locals love cold weather surfing. I’m not sure anyone plans to move to Tofino, as much as Tofino wins them over when they pass through. I can understand that siren call from the start, as I find myself disappearing in the sounds of powerful swells crashing against the small rocky inlet just outside my balcony at The Wickaninnish Inn.
While Tofino is small—and the town limits new construction to keep it that way—new bike trails are being added to connect locals to Pacific Rim National Park and to improve local access into town. Despite its size, Tofino has several great food options, like dinner at Shelter Restaurant, which focuses on locally sourced (farm and sea to table) ingredients or a snacks and a flight with a wide flavor pallet at Tofino Brewing Company.
My home for the next couple of days, “The Wick,” as it is called, is accessible by road. My room is spacious and the air outside is fresher than I imagined. Sitting on a rocky foundation, The Wick faces the Pacific and behind it is forest, where I wandered a short relaxing rainforest trail alone.
Leading off from The Wick, I followed a path down to the driftwood scattered beach to watch surfers, while long stretches of waves rolled over the sand and erased my footsteps behind me.
Goodbye, shock of turbulence.
It is this hypnotic view of the ocean breaking against the wilderness that is front and center for everything at The Wick, whether it is at their Ancient Cedars Spa—yes, I had another massage—or their The Pointe Restaurant, where guests can enjoy a locally sourced Pacific coast menu in front of 180 degrees of floor to ceiling windows.
As wild as Tofino feels, the final leg of our trip took us to a place without roads, where access is entirely limited to boat, float plane, or—for us—helicopter. Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort is all-inclusive and set in a cove surrounded by mountains in the incomparable Great Bear Rainforest on the B.C. mainland.
Nimmo Bay instantly feels less like a resort and more like you’re invited into someone’s family home. And there is a good reason for that, as the resort was founded by Craig and Deborah Murray in 1981. Here they set up a home and raised their family. Their son Fraser and his wife, Becky, now manage it. She tells me that they are shifting their focus to make the resort a family destination—to give children a chance to explore and enjoy the wilderness around them.
Guests stay in nicely appointed private intertidal cabins with a view of the bay or forest cabins. Nimmo Bay is entirely off-the-grid, powered primarily by a waterfall, which also supplies the drinking water and along which one can kick-back in a hot tub. Cuisine is locally sourced and freshly fished or foraged from the wild both in the forest and underwater, like sea urchin, sea cucumbers, halibut, prawns, or lichen.
There are very few limitations to the outdoor experiences you can have at Nimmo Bay, which include everything from heli-fishing, kayaking, hiking, helicopter flights to glaciers, and bear watching to coastal safaris that can include spotting porpoises, dolphins, humpback whales, sea lions, and seals. The Nimmo Bay team capped off our coastal safari with setting us down on a small island where we found a table set with a gourmet meal and a bottle of wine.
Wellness is also a large part of the stay, with the ability to start your day off with yoga or have a—wait for it—therapeutic or relaxation massages with a view to the surrounding wilderness. No longer being a spa virgin, I couldn’t say no. I’ve now gone from having no spa experiences to three in less than a week—and from not wanting to be touched to the opinion of “have at it.”
Still, as relaxing as a massage is, sitting in that kayak and letting my mind drift away to the rhythm of duck wings slapping against the water was a good reminder that (spa or not), nothing delivers like allowing oneself some mindful time with nature. For that moment, as my mind went somewhere else, I forgot I was even in a kayak.
I’m reminded of my patron saint, John Muir, who said, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”—forests and mountains, he says, serve “as fountains of life.” This felt especially true in British Columbia, where every benefit of nature—the sounds, the cityscape free sights, the fresh air—can be found in one place.
With the whirlwind of a week over, we boarded the helicopter and reluctantly said goodbye to the wild, soaring over those fountains of life and heading back to being over-civilized people.
But when I got home, I scheduled another massage.