These Two Luxury Lodges in British Columbia Deliver the Ultimate Wilderness Escape
Directly in front of us was an unnamed waterfall as tall as a skyscraper—one of half a dozen tumbling into this remote valley.
"How high do you think it is?" I asked.
"Let's find out," said our pilot, Riley Wilson, who proceeded to drop our five-seat Bell 206 helicopter through the air as fast as the water in front of us was falling. In moments, we were hovering eye-to-eye with the base of the falls, which plunged down among car-sized boulders before joining the river below. Then, with one eye on the altimeter, Wilson took us up again, filling our field of vision with tumbling white water. "Watch for mountain goats," he said. They are white, and it's hard to tell them from the scattered patches of early October snow dotting the upper reaches of this valley.
I was mesmerized by the torrent in front of me. "Four hundred feet," Wilson said as we ascended. "Five hundred. Six hundred. Seven hundred." We popped up over the lip of the falls and found ourselves in a glacial bowl filled with dark-sapphire water, nature's own infinity pool. "Seven hundred and fifty feet." Even Murray was impressed, and he grew up in this region.
There is no easy way into the hidden recesses of British Columbia's coastal wilderness. For starters, the shoreline is more than 15,000 miles long—a convoluted maze of islands, inlets, and fjords, some of which snake inland for a hundred miles. Drop a rock into the water and it may not hit bottom for a thousand feet. Tucked away in these forested coves and bays you'll find a handful of lodges, and their remote environments offer a tacit guarantee: you simply cannot survive out here unless you're in the hands of people who know what they're doing.
Last fall, I visited Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge and Nimmo Bay, two lodges that have been thriving here for decades now. Both were founded by visionaries who established barge-based toeholds in prime locations, gradually adding on not just lodges, cabins, and outbuildings but also docks, helipads, even horse stables. To arrive dockside and be greeted with cocktails by a host clad in late-season fleece and Gore-Tex is to experience a wondrous conundrum: How can a place so wild feel so welcoming and luxurious? I grappled with this question every day I was out there, and I loved it.
Small boats, floatplanes, and helicopters are the preferred modes of transport. To my delight, I arrived at Nimmo Bay in a Grumman Goose, the legendary flying boat of World War II fame. The last ones in commercial service operate out of Port Hardy, at the north end of Vancouver Island, the launching pad for many journeys into these hinterlands. Equipped with retractable wheels and pontoons, the Goose holds 10 people plus gear; the pilot steers with a wheel that looks like it came off a vintage tractor. These planes fly low out of necessity, and the view from the 80-year-old jump seat is breathtaking: small islands, almost all uninhabited, dot this inland sea like green muffins scattered across an aquamarine baking pan. Beyond them, larger islands, and then countless mountains, some frosted with fresh snow or ancient glaciers, ripple outward to the horizon. There is not a town, or even a house, to be seen.
Nimmo Bay is nestled deep within the mid-coast's rain forest. The lodge is the brainchild of Craig Murray and his dauntless wife, Deborah, Fraser Murray's parents. While raising their three children, the Murrays took an outside-the-box approach to upscale wilderness hospitality: an off-grid floating lodge, a waterfall-powered Pelton wheel for electricity, and helicopters for unparalleled remote access. Initially the focus was on fishing, but over the years, the lodge's mission has broadened to include health and wellness, ultra-local cuisine, and wilderness experiences that emphasize immersion and connection over simply catching fish.
Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge, perched at the head of Bedwell Sound on the western coast of Vancouver Island, has been in operation since 1998 (as of 2020, it is managed by the Australian company Baillie Lodges). A logo says a thousand words, and the one stamped onto Clayoquot's menus may be unique among the world's luxury resorts: a horse and a whale. A couple hundred yards from the main lodge, fat, glossy, salmon-fed black bears lounge and graze in the horse paddocks, often with the horses. It's weird, but it seems to make sense here where, between land, sea, and staff, all needs are met—no matter how many legs (or fins) you have.
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At both lodges, the segue from sea to river to forest is as seamless as a card trick, but this is how it is in the watercolor blur of B.C.'s coast: out here, it's not either/or. It's both/and.
I am a bit skeptical of bespoke adventuring, but these lodges deliver it. During some quiet moment around coffee time or cocktail hour, a guide will appear, exuding competence and genuine good cheer, and say something to the effect of, "Here we have a vast and beautiful wilderness at our doorstep—mountains to the back of us, ocean in front, rivers all through it—and we'd love to show it to you. By kayak, paddleboard, motorboat, helicopter, or horse? In a bathing suit, wet suit, or no suit at all? Would you prefer to settle in for a cocktail of the bartender's own invention by the fire, on a floating deck, or in a hot tub with a waterfall?"
Guests don't have to come with a plan, but it helps, and I brought with me an old dream. Once upon a time, I worked as a commercial salmon fisherman, but as beautiful as these iconic fish may look on the line or the dinner plate, nothing matches seeing them in the water. I explained this to Will Hazen, one of Nimmo Bay's head guides: I wanted to see salmon on their own terms, eye to eye. "Let me see what I can do," he said.
Hazen said this because this is what guides say at Nimmo Bay and at Clayoquot, where I requested the same thing. Both are located in prime salmon, whale, and bear habitat. Between Nimmo Bay's fleet of custom-built, high-speed boats and the flock of helicopters at its disposal, there are few places you can't go. The same goes for Clayoquot: if you can stand on it, they can land on it. Sunset champagne toast on a mountaintop with hundred-mile views? Pick a peak. Fancy a "rip and dip" (a naked plunge in a remote summit lake)? They can make it happen.
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For my adventure, I needed a wet suit, a mask, a snorkel, and a river with salmon running in it. It was mid-October—late for salmon—and, in Canada, wild runs have been severely impacted by fish farms, overfishing, and, increasingly, climate change. But they are still out there. Our plan was to locate a school and float down into it, driftwood fashion. In our first attempt, at the foot of a massive waterfall lined with aspens shedding golden leaves, conditions were excellent, but the fish were skittish and wouldn't let us approach. We tried another river, but the water was so deep and turbid from a storm that the fish weren't easily visible. We would have to look elsewhere.
This highlights a key aspect of the experience at lodges like Nimmo Bay and Clayoquot: these are not canned activities. The coast is a dynamic place; weather changes, wildlife moves, rivers and tides rise and fall. To be happy and successful requires adaptability and flexibility. The upside is that a traveler may get to experience something seasoned guides see only once in a season, or once in a lifetime.
I had the rare privilege of weathering an autumn gale in one of Clayoquot's ingenious canvas-walled tents. Built along a narrow estuary, these fanciful pavilions appear airy and graceful, but they are built like tanks. The rain was torrential that night, and the tent walls heaved in the gusting wind; overhead mature Sitka spruce and red cedar groaned under the strain. With only two layers of canvas between me and the warring elements, I felt like I was in the storm—part of it, and yet magically safe and warm and dry. I drifted off to sleep marveling at that ongoing conundrum: How can I be sleeping under a massive duvet, in a luxurious suite warmed by a cast-iron stove, and still feel like I'm outside? It was thrilling and comforting at the same time. In the morning, I awoke to birdsong and racing clouds. Just beyond the window, a line of water droplets shimmered like fairy lights along the edge of the canvas roof. You need a hundred words for water here.
Back at Nimmo Bay, which favors pretty shingled cabins over canvas tents, Hazen and Murray wouldn't give up on my salmon dream, and neither would our helicopter pilot. Many of the guides, boat operators, and pilots grew up in the region, so they know it like it's their neighborhood. Soon, we were descending into a wedge-shaped valley thick with cedar that had never seen an axe or saw. Flowing below us was the river, a French braid of copper-colored stones shimmering beneath a layer of water so clear that only reflections revealed its presence. Fish were everywhere. Wilson settled the helicopter gently on a gravel bar, and we suited up.
Salmon have evolved to avoid large creatures that are moving rapidly, so Murray and I did the opposite: nothing. We just drifted with the current, facedown, the river bottom mere inches from our masks. By imitating the fish instead of hunting them, we got to be with them, and in so doing we participated in something truly ancient. Salmon have been embarking from and returning to this coast for millions of years. In those shallow waters we got a glimpse of deep time.
I do not think of myself as "old," but after spending time with these enthusiastic young people, I found myself thinking, "My God, I feel young again!" It's like we were kids playing a spontaneous, made-up game in one of the most beautiful places imaginable. One of my favorite activities was paddleboarding down the Bedwell River. It had never occurred to me to do such a thing, but it occurred to Justin Szabo, one of the guides at Clayoquot. He thought this would be a fun way to search for salmon—and who was I to disagree?
I was new to the sport, and I haven't had so much fun in the water in a long time. Paddleboarding, it turns out, is a perfect way to explore this coastline's protected rivers, bays, and estuaries. The visibility is better than from a kayak, and a paddleboard is much easier to get onto. Its maneuverability enabled us to tuck into the tightest spaces and explore the shallowest creeks. Somewhere in there, you might find a centuries-old pictograph, or your own private waterfall (the only other place I've seen so many is Hawaii).
I am not a crier, but I swear there were times as I looked around—at the flickering reflection of ocean ripples on a rock face, at a river's movement over sunlit stones—when my throat caught and I found myself momentarily stunned by the sheer, raw beauty of the place.
This variety of experience—physical, sensual, gustatory, aesthetic, therapeutic, immersive—doesn't come cheap. But what the premium price is really buying, besides extraordinary access, is a quality of attention. Murray calls this style of guiding omakase—a Japanese concept in which you put yourself in the hands of a master chef and let him work his magic. A businesswoman from Calgary summed up the success of this approach: "Nothing's out of reach here," she told me, "and it helps you reach yourself. I haven't felt this relaxed in three years."
The guides, pilots, boat operators, chefs, servers, and massage therapists are not just "staff" in the functional sense; they are all substantial individuals who love this coast and whose winning combination of true adventurousness and extraordinary people skills made me feel like I was on a wild lark with good friends.
One of the things that struck me at both lodges was how happy the other guests seemed to be—no matter the weather. One couple in their seventies kept to themselves the whole time, but on the night of the storm I got a glimpse of them through the window of Clayoquot's dining room. The way she was smiling at him—so openly and youthfully, you could see how they fell in love all those decades ago. This is what you hope will happen on a trip like this, and I witnessed it with my own eyes.
My fellow guests, it must be said, were people who can afford to go wherever they want—and yet one woman said to me, with real emotion in her voice, "I've been here for four days, and I don't want to go home."
I felt the same way.
A version of this story first appeared in the February 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline The Shape of Water.