Just Back From

Coastal British Columbia

It seemed like all 50 sea lions on the rocky outcrop were trying to talk at once. The 2000-pound alpha males opened their throats wide to bellow great guttural roars. Even the smaller sea lion pups tipped their heads back to growl and howl at the sky with all their might, sounding a bit like 10-year-old boys trying to burp as loudly as possible. Some lay sacked out on the ledge in piles to keep warm, while others got jostled into the ocean, where they bobbed around nipping playfully at each other’s snouts.

Our day at Nimmo Bay, on the coast of British Columbia in the Broughton archipelago, had begun inauspiciously, with fog and light drizzle as we boarded the boat for our wildlife safari. But once we rounded the corner and our captain, Fraser Murray, spotted a mother bear on the beach, we snapped to attention. We drifted close as she ambled along, flipping rocks with her paw to get the crabs beneath. Then she ducked into a thicket and began to shake a huckleberry bush vigorously. We looked up and there, 50 feet in the air, were her two cubs, clinging to either side of the tiptop of a cedar. We heard the mother grunt gently and the cubs began to climb down, paw over paw. As they ducked off into the forest, we motored across the bay, where we spied another mother bear. She lifted her head and watched us carefully as three cubs trotted out of the undergrowth. Two stood on their hind legs and wrestled while the third romped around them in circles. On our way to our picnic lunch on an island, we saw a humpback whale putting on quite a show, breaching and flip-flopping his enormous tail repeatedly, almost as if he were showing off. Just another morning in British Columbia.

I have now been on the coast around Vancouver Island for seven days scouting two very different but equally special five-star wilderness lodges, Clayoquot and Nimmo Bay. Located on opposite sides of the island, both are intimate, family-run passion projects developed, tweaked and refined over decades. Both offer highly customized excursions, outstanding food and soulful service in gorgeous, remote locations. I had hoped to see some wildlife, but I had no idea it would be so abundant.

My adventure began a week earlier in Vancouver, as our sea plane’s propeller began to thrum and whirr. As we rose to the west over Vancouver Island, the roads and houses slowly disappeared from view and soon it was just endless mountains, their summits jagged and cloaked in snow, their ridges ruffled by pine trees, their crevices sheltering alpine lakes. Then we were banking and descending onto Bedwell Sound, vast and glittering in the afternoon light, and coasting along the surface of the water. As we turned towards the dock, where the entire Clayoquot staff was lined up to greet us, we began to sense the magic of this retreat: We were deep in the rugged Pacific Northwest in a spot unreached by any road, but we would be cared for and coddled in a cozy oasis.

Situated where the Bedwell River meets the Pacific Ocean, Clayoquot is an intimate lodge where guests stay in luxurious tents, similar to an African safari. Adventure and wildlife are central to any stay, and John Caton, a charismatic character known as “Cowboy”, who runs the place with his wife Adele, will make sure you get plenty of both. The signature excursion is a combination boat trip and hike called the Wild Side. Amid the swells of the Pacific, we glimpsed grey whales spouting and breaching, with a cresting curve of barnacled back. Then we headed to an island where we hiked through a forest amid hundred-foot cedars dripping with Spanish moss and had a picnic lunch on a stunning deserted beach. After a barefoot walk through the soft sand, we climbed onto our waiting pontoon boat. But the coup de grace of our day was hearing the high-pitched cry of bald eagles and seeing three plunge down from different directions to snatch a fish by our boat, their wing spans six feet wide, their feathers silhouetted against the blue sky. At night, we sat with a glass of wine by the crackling fire, eating fresh oysters and swapping tales from our day.

Nimmo Bay, just northeast of Vancouver Island, is even more secluded; it’s a two-hour boat ride from the nearest town. When they were first starting their fishing lodge some 30 years ago, owners Craig and Deborah Murray picked this spot for its waterfall, seeing its potential to provide hydroelectric power, which it does to this day. The coastal Great Bear Rainforest here is quite inhospitable, with steep, rocky mountainsides that are thickly covered in cedars, hemlocks and pines, so local residents tend to build themselves floating homes. (It’s a habit leftover from the days of loggers, who would tow their floathouses from spot to spot as they worked.) Nimmo Bay Lodge is built on great floating red cedar logs and connected by wooden docks. The original building, towed here by Craig in 1981 from Vancouver Island across Queen Charlotte Straights, was nearly destroyed when a sudden storm hit during the crossing. It’s one of many stories that the Murrays will regale you with as you sit around the fire on the dock at night. How they stayed out here year-round to build the lodge, living off the sea, harvesting then smoking clams and mussels and fishing for salmon and halibut. How to make ends meet, Deborah did a long commute with her two babies to her job as a schoolteacher each day in a tiny open-top tin skiff with no radio. The Murray family built this place painstakingly over three decades, pouring their heart and soul into it. Their passion for the area and their connection to the natural world bring an authenticity to the experience that makes a visit here feel like staying at the home of friends. Craig may even play guitar and sing for you after dinner (he’s quite a talented musician, and his son has become a famous tenor).

My days here in British Columbia start with early morning yoga, then it’s on to hiking through the rainforest, kayaking along the shoreline with a fascinating naturalist guide, and cruising in the boat to see the abundant wildlife. Everywhere we go, it’s just us and the vast rainforest and inlets, bays and ocean, one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world, a UNESCO biosphere. When I arrived in Vancouver, I was tightly wound and stressed with a nagging cough, and now, one week later, I feel invigorated, grounded and peaceful. These are expensive resorts, but I don’t think I could put a price on what they’ve done to bring me back to myself.

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