The wilderness lodges… of British Columbia
The city of Victoria, at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, is a trifle misleading. In its quaint streets, you could be forgiven for thinking you had arrived in a little bit of England. The most anglophile city in North America, Victoria is all sweet domesticity: charming leafy streets, mock Tudor houses in manicured gardens, afternoon tea in the ivy-covered Fairmont Empress hotel. But Victoria is not a true reflection of Vancouver Island. For that, you need to head upcountry.
In Canada, they say, wilderness is always close, and on Vancouver Island, things get wild very quickly. Barely 20km from the front steps of Victoria’s Royal British Columbia Museum – frequently hailed as the best museum in North America – you are in forests of ancient Douglas fir and red cedar, where bears fish for salmon, wolves stalk the shadows and bald eagles soar on the thermals.
Most of Vancouver Island – and it’s almost a quarter of the size of England – is untrammelled wilderness. From Victoria, a single highway meanders up the east coast connecting towns isolated by great swathes of forest. On the west coast, there is no road at all; the rare communities are reached only by boat and seaplane. For thousands of square miles, this rugged island, facing the Pacific, is an enthralling mix of wild coastlines cut by fjord-like inlets and bays, stunning blue mountains, sparkling rivers and lakes, deep forests and First Nation cultures.
It is also home to some of the most luxurious wilderness lodges in North America. Two of my favourites are Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge and Nimmo Bay.
Shaffer Lake, Yoho National Park, British Columbia
If you thought sleeping in a tent on a riverbank in the middle of rainforest sounds a bit like roughing it, then you have never been to Clayoquot. This is a five-star wilderness property with comforts and facilities that barely seem possible in a place where everything and everyone arrives by floatplane or boat. On wooden decks along the Bedwell river, the tents are luxuriously appointed in a colonial western style: wide sofas with Navajo cushions, tribal carpets, a cast iron log burner to take the chill off those early Pacific mornings, a spacious bathroom and a delightful outside rain shower.
Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge bedroom
The stylish western theme of the tents permeates the whole property, from the big fireplaces in the lounge areas and the tented billiard room, to the chuck wagon that brings guests up from the dock and the saloon-style restaurant with its open kitchen. A Relais & Châteaux property, Clayoquot’s kitchen rates a special mention. Under chef Michael Pataran, the team produce menus that would be impressive in Manhattan; in the wilderness they are astonishing.
Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge tents
There is plenty of opportunity at Clayoquot to unwind: hot tubs and a first rate spa, wide decks with wide deck chairs to contemplate the beauty of the ocean and the coastal mountains, hammocks and nooks for that lazy afternoon nap. But the real excitement here is how much there is to do, for all ages.
Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge sitting room
The resort offers hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, archery, fresh and saltwater fishing, kayaking, target shooting, nature treks and helicopter touring. Take a horse and a trail guide and ride up to the abandoned gold mine in the back forests, hop on a Zodiac and head out along the coast with a nature guide to visit the colonies of sea lions perched on rocks in Calmus Passage, follow humpbacks and grey whales off Bartlett island, or simply enjoy the silence among the 1,000-year-old cedars on Meares island. And all of it is included in your room rate.
View from Clayoquot Sound
Finally there is Cloud Camp, Clayoquot’s secret retreat, available for one couple at a time. A helicopter arrives to take you 4,500 feet up to a tiny plateau just beneath a mountain summit. Other than a butler and a masseuse, you are alone here in your luxury tent. A chef creates a personalised menu. Dining outside on the deck, you have the most stunning view of North America’s Pacific coast laid out beneath you. And as the sun sets and a dense sky of stars appears, you realise you have never heard silence this profound.
Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge's Cloud Camp
Arrival is all part of the drama of this place. A short flight from Vancouver in one of Pacific Coastal’s small planes offers stunning panoramas of the Coast Mountains on the mainland on the right side and the majestic Vancouver Island Range out to the left. At Port Hardy, a helicopter awaits to whisk you across the channel to the Broughton archipelago. It is a thrilling ride, rising over forested peninsulas, skimming above the treetops and buzzing low along the sea channels to set you down finally on the heli dock at Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort, tucked deep inside an ocean inlet, enclosed by virgin forests.
Arrival into Nimmo Bay
Nimmo began as a traditional fishing lodge in 1980 and quickly became a legend among salmon fishermen across North America. Now one of the National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World and still a mecca for sportsmen and women, Nimmo has outgrown its fishing origins to become an all-inclusive wilderness resort lodge with a range of activities – hiking, kayaking, whale watching, birding, nature photography, stand-up paddle boarding and snorkelling. Boats take guests out every day, exploring the forested islands and inlets of this rugged archipelago in search of bears and bald eagles, dolphins and humpback whales, orcas and ospreys.
Humpback whale, Vancouver Island
Helicopters, so central to the lodge’s operations since its inception, are still an important part of Nimmo life. Ranging across almost 130,000 sq km of the Great Bear Rainforest, they ferry guests to the most spectacular locations: a glacier for a gourmet picnic, a snow-capped mountain top for a stunning ridge hike, a remote river for an afternoon’s salmon fishing.
But life at Nimmo is not all breathless activity. Awash with the reflections of mountains and forests, the bay itself is a retreat. Tranquil, pristine, still – an enclosed world that encourages you just to sit, look and listen. Take a yoga class, book a massage with one of the spa therapists, settle down in the cedar hot tub next to a cascading waterfall or rejuvenate with a quick dip in the plunge pool of water that comes straight from a 10,000-year-old glacier. In the evening, sunset cocktails and hors d’oeuvres are served on the main deck around the fire pit before guests are invited inside for a four-course gourmet dinner with wines from Nimmo’s excellent cellar.
Fire pit and seating, Nimmo Bay
Nimmo Bay is a family property, owned and run by two generations of the Murray clan. But it is not just the warm welcome of the owners that give Nimmo its special quality. The intimate size, the small numbers, the shared tables at dinner all create a sense of community here. Guests get to know one another as they share their experiences of the day. At Nimmo, you really do arrive as a guest and leave as a friend.
Recommended C&K tour: West Coast Wilderness in Style – 10 Days & 9 Nights from £7,195
Explore Canada’s west coast in comfort while staying in some of the finest accommodation found in British Columbia. Discover the picturesque city of Vancouver with a private guide, stay in a lodge hidden away in the forest next to the wild Pacific Ocean and explore the Great Bear Rainforest from a floating lodge.
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