West of West: The Ultimate B.C. Adventure
Article Information & Social Sharing
Original Article by Christine Sarkis for Smarter Travel
I stare at the map on my laptop screen, zooming in and out on the land and water. I’m looking for clues, attempting to read these topographic wiggles like a oujia board scanning for any hint as to what my future will be in this far-west corner of North America. The gate agent makes an unintelligible announcement and people start gathering their things. But I don’t move yet; I keep panning across the southwest edge of British Columbia, hovering over green—so much green—and blue—even more blue—wondering whether, as I embark on the Ultimate B.C. Adventure, a partnership of unrelated hotels, I’m in for a pleasant vacation or something more.
Because here’s the thing: I choose something more.
I look at the map and wonder if these coordinates fall beyond the reach of meetings, bottomless to-do lists, emails, texts, conferences, leaky basements, and school fundraisers. In this rewarding-but-very-overstuffed life, a simple break isn’t the fix for what ails me. I need a … something. This is where I realize that I’m up against a gut feeling rather than a concrete idea. In the past, travel had the power to bring me back to myself. Maybe that’s what I’m scanning the map for.
My three-leg journey begins in the small but thriving city of Victoria, on Vancouver Island. It then meanders up the coast to the town of Tofino, home to big waves and dense rainforest. And then, plunges off the map in pursuit of the wilderness of the Great Bear Rainforest. The digital squiggles, the lines between land and sea, betray nothing. People are boarding in earnest now. I slap the laptop shut and grab my suitcase.
From Vancouver, it’s a 15-minute flight to Victoria, at a cruising altitude of 4,000 feet. On the plane, I’m low enough to see Vancouver Island’s coastline, towns, and farms, and the sparkling Pacific beyond. This island just off the coast of Vancouver is the length of England but is home to just 500,000 people. As I peer down and see little but forest, I start to suspect that here, trees rule.
In the small city of Victoria, I check in at the Fairmont Empress, known to locals as, simply, The Empress. It’s grand but playful; everything from framed menus from the hotel’s century of service to the modern-art takes on Queen Victoria tells a story.
Here, I recover from travel and the weight of daily responsibilities, and begin to resemble a human again. A human who does things like walk and breathe and notice the sky. Victoria helps by being perfectly walkable, by smelling like Sitka spruce and salt water and scones, and by offering a surprising amount of sunshine for a famously rainy corner of Canada.
I slow down and begin to linger. I don’t even notice it at first, but then I look around and think: Did I really just spend 10 minutes watching a seaplane slowly taxi into the harbor? Have I been sitting in the Empress’ tea room with a pot of tea for a full hour? Time has shifted, become more languid, less hurried.
I walk through Victoria, along the waterfront, down its streets that seemed sized for daily life—here, the skyscrapers don’t get much taller than six stories, and little boutiques beat out big department stores. I explore 550 million years of natural history at the Royal BC Museum, wander through Canada’s oldest Chinatown, stroll the parks in this City of Gardens, and in the evenings, I discover firsthand Victoria’s thriving cocktail culture. I know this is only the first stop on the journey, but a few times, I catch myself thinking: How could it get better than this?
My second stop is Tofino, a town perched on the wild western edge of Vancouver Island. Here, the open-Pacific views are next-stop-Japan, and the annual rainfall rivals the height of the houses. Known for cold-water surfing and winter storm watching, Tofino’s city limits are the untamed ocean and the thick forest that surrounds it in a green embrace.
I wend my way up the long lane to the Wickanninish Inn—the paved road curves gently, ducking among the roots and trunks of the trees that have been growing here for centuries. I emerge where forest meets ocean to find a hotel nestled onto an outcropping that extends very nearly into the ocean. Where Victoria and The Empress were all cosmopolitan elegance on a human scale, Tofino and the Wickanninish offer an artisan approach, one in which nature is always the star and there’s infinite time for beauty. I’ve found myself in an understated wonderland of hand-carved columns, roaring fireplaces, and seascapes that feel like mine alone.
In Tofino, nature turns up the drama a notch. As I venture into the forest and onto the beach, I start noticing how small I am. Compared to that tree. Compared to that wave. It doesn’t feel bad, though, this comparative insignificance. It allows me, at least for a little while, to let go of all the life things—among them a constantly dinging calendar app and deadlines—that usually seem so big, so demanding. The trees are there to help; they demonstrate the way branches wave in the wind and a thousand other small things that jigsaw together to become these bigger ideas: Forest. Beach.
I notice the people, too. I see the locals doing unusual things, like running toward—rather than away from—the roiling ocean every time it rains, carrying surfboards under their arms as they make a counterintuitive beach sprint. I see them doing things like foraging and farming and fishing, and then returning to their kitchens to create and share foods that taste like this place—the fish still carries its saltwater hint, the mushrooms’ umami punch sketches undulations of the deep forest floor to my quieted senses. And, as I really start to watch the people who surround me in Tofino, I catch the artistry that runs through their daily life, their carving and painting and creating in a dance of deep engagement that looks an awful lot like thriving. I notice, too, that some part of me is remembering, back to a time when breathing and seeing and being took up more space than constant doing.
Reboot: Great Bear Rainforest
I’m ready. I’ve been eased off civilization and into nature. I’ve taken a series of consecutively smaller planes to get to Nimmo Bay Resort in the Great Bear Rainforest. There are no more roads, just trees and mountains and water, and this small collection of picturesque cottages sitting in the intertidal zone of a tiny bay. The humans are vastly outnumbered by animals—whales and dolphins and porpoises and bald eagles and osprey and bears.
At Nimmo Bay and in the surrounding millions of acres of rainforest, I stop thinking about how small I am. Not because I’m not small, but because I’ve become too absorbed thinking about how big nature is. How vast. How here, for every one person within 50 miles, there are at least a zillion trees and fish—I’m not getting bogged down in exact numbers, because exact numbers are something I’ve left behind in Tofino, along with the habit of obsessively checking my phone. Even my phone is now on vacation.
I think: This feels like having a national park all to myself. I start to imagine my life as a rugged outdoorsperson, kayaking to get supplies, cooking fish over an open fire. But right then someone hands me a warm blanket and a freshly baked cookie, and I have to back off the analogy. But not the cookie. I double down and have two—they’re delicious, and nature really works up an appetite.
I find adventure and relaxation in just the right measures. Or rather, these things find me, because each morning, someone at the lodge with the job title “experiences optimizer,” someone who knows this wilderness and this lodge intimately, asks me broad questions about my mood and hopes, and then matches me with the experience I didn’t even know I needed to have that day. I return—from a wildlife-spotting boat journey, a picnic on an uninhabited island, forest bathing, kayaking to a floating sauna—unable to imagine having done anything else, anything better.
At night, the electricity flickers like candlelight because it’s running off a generator powered by the waterfall that’s at the heart of this tiny enclave. Guests gather in the dining room, and we taste what surrounds us: nootka rose, lichen, halibut, transformed elegantly by heat and human ingenuity. I walk back to my cottage in darkness tempered by starlight, passing the waterfall that exhales the rainforest steadily into the sea.
I return home and see differently. The basement still leaks and my inbox continues to overflow, but I remember how to look at leaves as they change and to smell the autumn air. And even though I have left these places, they remain in me. Family and friends ask about it, and I use words and pictures to tell the stories; but I quietly carry the knowledge that words and pictures can only convey about 50 percent of it. The other half is a thin invisible thread that connects me to this part of British Columbia. It’s a connection I didn’t see coming, but there it is. Every once in a while I give the thread a little tug to see if it’s still holding tight. It is, and I know I’ll trace the line back someday.