Worlds apart: B.C’s Ultimate Adventure
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Original Article and photos by Abi Hayward for Canadian Geographic Travel
Helicopter blades spin, sending a light mist scurrying in eddies around the wooden deck that acts as a helipad at Nimmo Bay Resort. It lifts up into a beautiful B.C. landscape: forest blanketed hills, golden-glowing clouds snaking around lakes and mountains. It feels like the end credits to a movie. “Everywhere” by Fleetwood Mac is playing over the communication system.
Soaring over mist-drenched rainforest, the helicopter eventually reaches the ocean. On board, I’m trying to photograph the moment, alternating between my camera and phone. But when a spout of water shoots into the cerulean sky, I figure I’ll be able to capture what’s about to happen only in my memory. I watch as the void where the sparkling spray of water had been is filled first with a dorsal fin, then a smoothly shining body easing through the waves. A humpback whale. A flick of its flukes and it dives — but the water is so clear that I can see its body for a few seconds, huge and majestic, navigating the sea with lazy strokes of its powerful fins. Five minutes later, I see a pod of transient killer whales. The experience is like something out of a British Columbian picture book.
This was the incredible conclusion to my journey on the Ultimate B.C. Adventure, a new joint venture between three of the province’s luxury resorts — Victoria’s Fairmont Empress, Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn and Nimmo Bay Resort — and VIH Execujet, a private flight company. The itinerary invites you to “imagine marrying a vibrant city escape with a rugged wilderness adventure.” Starting out in the historic provincial capital Victoria, you move gradually further into the wilderness, stopping off first in storm-pummelled Tofino and finishing in Nimmo Bay, which feels literally in the middle of nowhere, reachable only by boat, sea- plane or helicopter. The trip promises a slow voyage of disconnecting – the idea being that as you move off the grid of bustling everyday life, your mind will follow. And details like where to stay and how to get there are covered in a tailored itinerary. Your toughest decision might be choosing between a yoga class or a misty morning kayak trip.
The plane touches down in Victoria mid-afternoon. It’s a short, smooth flight from Vancouver to Vancouver Island over a calm sea, tinged silver with a cloud-shrouded sun. I am met at the airport by L.A. Limousines and whisked to the Fairmont Empress — the impressive château-esque building that surveys Victoria’s parliament buildings and its harbour. The “Castle on the Coast” was built in 1908 by Canadian Pacific Hotels, a division of the same company that built the Canadian Pacific Railway. The prestigious bayside location was claimed from the sea: the site used to be part of what was the James Bay body of water, before it was filled in to build a hotel that boasted, and still does, the best inner-harbour views in Victoria. I’m checked into a Fairmont Gold room, one of 66 newly restored luxury accommodations with access to an exclusive lounge and terrace. A short time later, a dedicated Fairmont Gold concierge team member knocks at the door and offers me a complimentary gin and tonic, made with the hotel’s own Empress Gin. Royal blue in colour, the gin reflects the hotel’s long history of royal guests (Queen Elizabeth II has visited the Empress every decade since her coronation). When tonic water is added, the gin turns pale violet. I drink my G and T while admiring the view from my window — over the Fairmont rooftop garden and beyond to the ships floating in the harbour — before heading out to explore the city.
On my way out, I get lost, and wander around the silver wallpapered, thick-carpeted hotel, trying to find an exit. (I wonder whether they don’t want me to leave, not an awful prospect considering the hotel’s amenities, including a spa boasting seaweed treatments, afternoon tea complete with royal-inspired china and a tea sommelier, and a restaurant that showcases locally foraged ingredients). With relief, I find an elevator to the lobby.
Victoria, unlike many North American cities, is walkable. Within a couple of hours, I’ve explored Fan Tan Alley in Chinatown, which used to be a hotbed of opium dens and is now home to cute shops and Instagrammers conducting elaborate photo shoots. And I’ve moseyed round the city’s second-hand bookstores. Restaurants, bars, cafés and ice cream shops are crammed into narrow paved streets, and neon lights shine bright against red brick.
Victoria is a city of the old and new: some buildings are in the embrace of ivy; others are adorned with scaffolding in the midst of renovations. It’s one of the oldest cities in the Pacific Northwest. And while it was once known as a magnet for retirees, it’s becoming home to younger people as millennials flock to an increasingly trendy hub of culture.
It’s the perfect launch pad for this adventure. For a break from the urbane, I go to Beacon Hill Park — I’m making an honest effort to disconnect. I wander off the path and sit on a rock in the middle of the gnarled trees. The sky is pale and marbled; the sounds of the city are muffled in the mossy undergrowth. I can hear the fluttering of birds’ wings, their talons scratching on bark, the occasional cry of a gull. I settle into the moment, before taking out my notepad and jotting down my thoughts. “Documenting disconnecting — oxymoron?” I write. But it’s only the start of a journey.
An adventure, even. As I sit down to my final breakfast — eggs Benedict with crab — at the Fairmont, I get an urgent message: there’s a storm coming. I have to leave immediately to make it to Tofino. I rush to my room, stuff my clothes into a bag, check out, and throw myself into the car waiting outside. I get to the airport in record time, where a private plane is waiting on the runway. The other passengers and I and our possessions are bundled in, and we are given a mini bottle of champagne to drink during the flight. But the bottles remain unopened as the storm chases the plane to Tofino. Flying over rugged windswept beaches, the little plane quivers with turbulence. We touch down in Tofino in driving rain — B.C. in its truest form; it wouldn’t be an ultimate B.C. adventure without it.
At Tofino’s famed Wickaninnish Inn, storms are certainly part of the experience. But you can appreciate the rain from a distance, beside a cosy fireplace with a glass of port. If you want (and I absolutely did), you can even watch the rain mingle with waves crashing onto Chesterman Beach from your shower (through a glass partition that can be set to transparent for just that purpose). Tofino definitely delivers the “rugged” part of the adventure promised by this itinerary. But it’s a safe kind of rugged — the kind that comes with the comfortable knowledge that when you get back to your room from a rain-pounded nature walk, you can warm up with fresh towels, wrap yourself in a bathrobe and climb into a bed that has been turned down for you. You can truly disconnect from the world in the spa, where the soundscape is simply the waves crashing on the rocks below. Even the local lichen has been transformed into a culinary experience — candied, and delicious, especially on ice cream — at the inn’s The Pointe Restaurant.
I go for long walks on Chesterman Beach and watch the surfers that flock to Tofino, Canada’s surfing capital. They balance on the foamy crests of greyish waves and swoop toward the shore. I’m in awe at their skill. At one point, the rain ceases, the sun sets and the sea turns into molten silver. I’m very much at one with the world as I meander my way back to the inn along the beach.
In Tofino, the rawness of the rain and wind and rocks somewhat erode my constant need to be digitally connected. It’s a good frame of mind to have arrived at because, after a thrilling helicopter ride from Port Hardy, featuring rainbows descending from rain-soaked clouds, when I reach Nimmo Bay, there’s no cell service. And the Wi-Fi is spotty.
Here in Nimmo Bay, no Wi-Fi is now no problem. There are early morning kayak trips to a floating wooden sauna, there’s a hot tub beneath a waterfall, and there are meditative walks in the old-growth spruce of the southern Great Bear Rainforest. The lodge is a far cry from its early days as a “comfortably functional” helifishing accommodation. I’m staying in a cosy cabin on the shoreline with a view of the sound, where I watch the last of the day’s rain fall like diamonds as the light softens. Before dinner, I snack on canapés — halibut béarnaise, doughnuts with aioli, made from the bones of the fish, and local caviar. A bartender asks what kinds of cocktails I like, and whips up a Negroni-like creation with gin, Campari and a lemon rose tincture.
Being in this part of the province, I’m able to tick off a list of pretty much all the West Coast’s iconic animals: bald eagles, ravens, kingfishers, harbour seals, Steller sea lions, white-striped dolphins, porpoises, humpback whales, orcas and even the murky silhouette of a black bear, glimpsed through binoculars from a kayak in the pouring rain. If this isn’t B.C., I don’t know what is.
Aboard the 10-metre vessel Fathom as it skims across the glassy surface of the fiord, I set off for my last wilderness escapade before the ultimate B.C. adventure comes to a close. Past seals lounging on seaweed-embroidered rocks, past dolphins and porpoises frolicking in the water, the boat enters the Queen Charlotte Strait. I’ve never seen a humpback whale before, and a spout of water sends me rushing, windswept, to the railing. Seagulls, cormorants and a couple of eagles circle the spot where the spray hangs, momentarily suspended, in the air. The birds create a bait ball of fish, then up lunges the whale! “Lunge feed!” cries one of the guides. There is nothing but the boat, the whale breathing heavily into a cloud-scattered sky, the lichen-cloaked forest and the burnished-silver ocean. Wild B.C., in all its glory. No distractions.