For most of the past 20 years, Vancouver Island's west coast has been a magnet for environmentalists. Their clashes with the timber industry made headlines in 1993 when more than 800 protesters were arrested at Clayoquot Sound for blocking logging operations on its shores—a vast 650,000-acre tract of rain forest, half of which had been open to clear-cutting since 1955. The human blockade, one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in Canada's history, brought local forestry companies to their knees.
Last year, Clayoquot Sound was named a unesco Biosphere Reserve, and a kind, gentle form of ecotourism began to appear in the area. Yesterday's logging roads are today's mountain-biking trails. Trophy fishing is out; catch-and-release is in. Desolate winters have become high season for storm-watching, and campgrounds are no longer the only way to get close to nature. A handful of luxury lodges are the fortunate occupants of some of the last land open to development along the 25-mile coastline between Barkley and Clayoquot sounds. The rest belongs to Pacific Rim National Park, where thousand-year-old cedars, spruces, and hemlocks and hundreds of species of wildlife make up some of the most diverse and pristine ecosystems in the world. With a backyard like that—plus access to first-class scuba diving, kayaking, and surfing—these five lodges appeal to everyone, from spa hounds to equestrians, from idle dreamers to athletes in training. And each reflects the character of the locals who run it.
ROOTS LODGE AT REEF POINT
For a town whose name means "people with a safe landing place" in the Nootka language, Ucluelet (pronounced "yu-clue-let") has not received much attention during the current ecotourism boom. While its neighbor Tofino (population 1,100) is a hub of coffee shops and outfitters, Ucluelet seems downright neglected. But Roots Lodge at Reef Point, which opened two years ago, has plans to turn the tide in this sleepy town's favor. Beyond its brand recognition—the Roots chain of clothing stores is to Canadians what Banana Republic is to Americans—it hosts a monthly concert in the lodge's warehouse-like lobby, featuring Canadian acts like Soul Decision and Grapes of Wrath. "Some people turn their noses up at Ucluelet—it's always been about ten years behind Tofino," says manager and avid surfer Stephen Duke. "But this lodge has helped open their eyes to the town's possibilities."
The big draw here isn't the celebrities or the scene. It's the great surfing on Florencia Bay, a couple of miles up the coast; kayaking around the Broken Group Islands in Barkley Sound; the He-Tin-Kis trail, a mile-long boardwalk through the rain forest, with benches overlooking the water; and the stylish lodge itself. Critics at first resented what they saw as Roots' attempt to "brand the wilderness," but so far, the resort's secluded setting hasn't been compromised by the low-key hipsters who come here—Teva-clad newlyweds, families with their dogs, sunbaked surfers—or by the architecture. Because the main lodge is on an elevated platform, and the cabins (on stilts) are connected by a raised boardwalk, even the forest floor remains intact. To be sure, all 10 cabins and 14 suites bear the mark of the owners: they're outfitted in Roots' brown leather couches, gray fleece throw pillows, and cream jersey sheets. But in keeping with the camping feel, they all have kitchenettes stocked with tin cups and dishes that seem better suited to a wienie roast than a luxury lodge.
CLAYOQUOT WILDERNESS RESORT
Tucked away in remote Quait Bay, 10 miles across the sound from Tofino, this resort is the epitome of Vancouver Island's new economy. A Canadian family bought the first 200 acres from a defunct timber company in 1996, with an eye to revitalizing the sound through ecotourism. Rough-cut cedar and other scraps that loggers had left behind were used to refit an old coal barge into a 16-room floating lodge and restaurant; 125 miles of abandoned roads were rechristened as mountain-biking trails. John "Cowboy" Caton, with his ten-gallon hat and swagger to match, runs the resort with his wife, Adele, and their two grown sons. "I was in the music business"—booking the rock bands Blue Rodeo and Barenaked Ladies—"but that ended with a major coronary, so I had to change my lifestyle," he says. Caton moved to Ontario's exclusive Griffith Island Club, where he earned his nickname as a ranch-and-game manager. When he was hired to run Clayoquot, he relocated his family to the wilderness. Four years into it, Caton has big plans for expansion. A spa opens later this summer, with treatment rooms in cabins surrounding a lake, all connected by cedar boardwalks. "Think Japanese gardens, only not Japanese," Caton says. "We're incorporating the natural elements of cedar, water, and stone in a way that emphasizes Vancouver Island's West Coast and First Nations cultures."
More impressive than the floating lodge or the spa is the resort's Outpost, a cluster of tents nine miles away by boat at the mouth of the Bedwell River, designed in the spirit of Rockefeller-era prospector camps. The 10 sleeping tents, pitched on wooden platforms, have Adirondack furniture, down comforters, and solar-powered heaters. At the water's edge sits a wooden hot tub warmed by a woodstove. Guests are collected from the morning campfire by the resort's dozen horses (cared for up here by Caton's son Chad) and taken on rides around the 500-acre property. For those wanting to explore further, the Caton boys can deliver nearly any outdoor activity, from an overnight canoe trip or a helicopter ride over Strathcona Provincial Park's Della waterfalls—North America's highest—to a hike on Flores Island led by Ahousaht guides, whose tribe has lived there for thousands of years.
The inn and the adjoining Ancient Cedars Spa are only three miles down the road from the coffeehouses and outfitters in Tofino, but the atmosphere is worlds apart. For one thing, owner Charles McDiarmid gets excited when heavy rains keep his guests indoors. It's not schadenfreude, it's just that the 46-room inn was designed with storm-watching in mind: windows facing the sea are built low to the ground, allowing them to be sprayed by the occasional 20-foot wave. Bose speakers amplify nature's brouhaha in the Pointe Restaurant. The entire place has an edge-of-the-wilderness feel, with massages and ocean-view bathtubs thrown into the survival kit. On dry evenings, a wandering flutist trills notes against the rocky surf beneath guest room balconies. She's not a Venus from the sea (though you're supposed to think she might be); she just works here.
Reverence for nature is emphasized in the spa, where Ayurvedic medicine forms the basis of such treatments as the Sacred Sea (a salt exfoliation followed by an essential-oil massage and a plant- and flower-essence body wrap) and Jin Shin Do (meaning, "the way of the compassionate spirit" in Chinese), which aims to realign the chakras through acupressure.
At the Pointe Restaurant, even condiments get a higher calling in the form of, say, tahini-and-cassis butter. Chef Jim Garraway devises his organic menu with indigenous ingredients, including a dozen varieties of mushrooms grown right outside the inn's front door, giant roasting oysters from Clayoquot Sound, and produce from Coombs Market, near Nanaimo. His version of West Coast Canadian cuisine might take the form of rock scallops in a saskatoon berry reduction, or smoked black cod with chive custard, making an early evening indoors an event indeed. As McDiarmid says, "Let it rain!"
A 1974 family vacation to Barkley Sound, east of Ucluelet, turned into a permanent move for Jennifer and Wayne Wenstob when they discovered the remote island of Tzartus, accessible only by air or water. "It was love at first sight, and we never left," says Jennifer, whose faint accent betrays her British origins. The pair spent their first six months camping on the beach with their children (two of whom now help run the lodge), and eventually moved into a custom-built fishing barge. When it was destroyed by a colossal storm in 1992, the misfortune spurred Wayne, an architect, to accelerate his long-held plans to build the Shahowis Resort on land.
Their backyard is an ancient virgin rain forest, and the front looks onto a vast cove. While the 15 guest rooms are basic—mismatched blankets and quilts, bathrooms with unfinished wood walls and unlit showers—more than half have a view of the sound. Quiet hours are best spent lounging in front of the huge granite fireplace. It's outdone in size only by the 12-foot-wide trunk of a 680-year-old spruce tree, which rises 40 feet through the center of the lodge. Struck by lightning in the 1992 storm, the upper reaches of the tree's trunk now make up the lodge's floors and a large, communal dinner table.
At that table, Rachel, the second of three daughters, and her mother serve hearty dishes prepared with herbs and vegetables from their own garden and fish caught in their waters. The Wenstobs' oldest daughter, Jessica, takes guests on the sound in search of dinner, but the catch becomes secondary to the birds that can be viewed in the treetops—bald eagles, Steller's jays, cormorants—and the teeming life in the water. With contagious enthusiasm, Jessica points out orange-and-purple starfish and the ubiquitous bull kelp, whose gas-filled bulbs float on the surface of the water like the distended eyeballs of some fantastic sea creature.
The Wenstobs' youngest daughter, Stella, is only 11, but she can be persuaded, along with Jessica's eight-year-old son, Hjalmer, to lead walks through the old-growth forest, offering snacks of wild huckleberries along the way. The young explorers also jump at the chance to show guests their pride and joy—a 1,500-year-old hollowed-out cedar tree that would make the Swiss family Robinson jealous.
BRITISH COLUMBIA: THE FACTS
In summer, daily charter flights are scheduled to Tofino's airport from Vancouver, Seattle, and Victoria. Flying saves time, but the three-hour drive from Nanaimo (following a ferry crossing from Vancouver) cuts through some spectacular forests.
Roots Lodge at Reef Point 310 Seabridge Way, Ucluelet; 888/594-7333 or 250/726-2700, fax 250/726-2701; rooms $77-283.
Middle Beach Lodge 400 Mackenzie Beach Rd., Tofino; 250/725-2900, fax 250/725-2901; doubles from $67, cabins from $110, both including breakfast.
Clayoquot Wilderness Resort Quait Bay, Clayoquot Sound; 888/333-5405 or 250/726-8235, fax 250/726-8558; lodge rooms from Rooms $245 per person, Outpost camp from $449 per person, meals and water transfers included.
Wickaninnish Inn Osprey Lane at Chesterman Beach, Tofino; 800/333-4604 or 250/725-3100, fax 250/725-3110; doubles from $165.
Shahowis Resort Tzartus Island, Barkley Sound; 250/388-6515, fax (in Seattle) 253/833-0342; doubles from $270, including meals and boat transfer from Bamfield.
Common Loaf Bake Shop 180 First St., Tofino; 250/725-3915; lunch for two $10. The hearty muffins and salads served here attract local hippies.
Coffee Pod 151 Campbell St., Tofino; 250/725-4246; lunch for two $8. Sandwiches and coffee drinks any way you like them.
Raincoast Café 120 Fourth St., Suite 101, Tofino; 250/725-2215; dinner for two $40. Asian-inspired and vegetarian food in a minimalist setting.
Schooner Restaurant 311 Campbell St., Tofino; 250/725-3444; dinner for two $45. Reserve your table—the surf-and-turf menu packs the house every night.
Crab Bar 601 Campbell St., Tofino; 250/725-3733; dinner for two $32. Get a crab fix at this local favorite.
Wickaninnish Restaurant 1 Wick Rd., at the Wickaninnish Information Centre in Pacific Rim National Park; 250/726-7706; dinner for two $40. Not to be confused with the inn of the same name. Try the black bear martini (vodka, grape juice, blackberry liqueur) and a plate of house-smoked maple salmon.
Tofino Sea Kayaking Co. 320 Main St., Tofino; 250/725-4222; day trips from $28 per person. Choose from sunrise and sunset paddles, or multi-day excursions to Vargas Island, with overnights in a rustic lodge or at a campsite on the beach. Don't leave without checking out the in-house Wildside Booksellers.
Inner Rhythm Surf Camp 2490 Pacific Rim Hwy., about two miles north of Ucluelet; 250/726-2211; surf classes from $44, including all gear. Daily surfing classes cover the basics of beach safety, paddling, and wave etiquette while getting beginners on their feet.
Undersea Dive Charters 380 Main St., Tofino; 250/725-2755; snorkeling from $69, diving from $109, including all gear. Trips to Clayoquot and Barkley sounds access some of the most varied underwater life in North America, from starfish to giant octopuses.
Explore the rain forests and beaches of Pacific Rim National Park (call 250/726-4212 for information). Don't miss the park's Shorepine Bog Trail, a 30-minute walk through the "weird woods," where centuries-old shore pine trees look like giant broccoli stalks.