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The Outer Limits

Philip Newton

Photo: Philip Newton

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.


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