Wilderness supreme

Gourmet Traveller

Idyllic Clayoquot Sound, on Vancouver Island’s west coast, was once the scene of blockades and battles involving conservationists, logging companies and police. Against this backdrop of feisty dissent, eco-tourism has since firmly established itself as a viable alternative source of local income.

In the largest act of peaceful civil disobedience in Canadian history, 12,000 people gathered here 13 years ago to stop industrial logging of the Sound’s ancient temperate rainforests. This mass action helped reform logging practice in British Columbia.

Local conservationists say Clayoquot Sound is the largest tract of ancient temperate rainforest left on Vancouver Island, pointing out that the island is already three quarters clearcut. The Sound is now a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Such reserves are created as “laboratories” designed to mix conservation and sustainable economic development together with research, education and training.

Clayoquot Wilderness Lodges was the vanguard of local eco-tourism and now provides one of the island’s most luxurious wilderness experiences at two unique and secluded properties. One of them is a 16-room floating resort, moored in a placid corner of Quait Bay, a half-hour by boat from the coastal town of Tofino. The second property isĀ  The Outpost at Bedwell River, a small bush camp of pioneer prospector-style tents at the head of Bedwell Sound, 30 minutes by fast boat from Quait Bay.

The jumping-off point into the Sound is the fishing village of Tofino, now a burgeoning tourist town. There are long sandy beaches and dense forests nearby and a brace of holiday resorts along the coast between Tofino and the hamlet of Ucluelet to the south.

Migrating Pacific grey whales annually attract thousands of tourists to the area, as does the prospect of also seeing orcas, sea otters, sea lions and seals. March to May are the best whale watching months. Fishing, kayaking, wind surfing, scuba diving and hiking are other popular summer pursuits while, in winter, the big lure is “storm watching” from the warm comfort of your hotel room.

On our way to Quait Bay from Tofino the boat slows so we can see the bald eagle nest high amongst spiky pines covering a tiny uninhabited island. As if on cue, the great bird glides into view on widespread wings to alight beside this huge tangle of sticks.

Clayoquot’s tracts of undisturbed wilderness foster plenty of wildlife. But black bears are shy creatures. Making things harder is the time of year. Salmon berries, a bear’s favourite snack, are ripening throughout the forest, along with thimbleberries, huckleberries and blue berries. Sadly for me there’s not a bear to be seen foraging in the open or beside the water.

There’s no need for us to forage at Quait Bay. A core attraction at the floating hotel is executive chef Tim May’s talented take on West Coast dining, which he calls “modern natural cuisine” based on fresh natural products sourced within the Pacific Northwest. Interested guests get a close up look at all things edible by occupying one of the seats beside the counter of Quait Bay’s open kitchen.

May’s menus are anchored in fresh seafood and wed to local wines. A signature dish is his roasted oyster-cumin chowder using Clayoquot oysters. Dungeness crab and sea scallops are also from Clayoquot Sound, wild mushrooms from nearby Vargas Island, sea asparagus from Cypre Bay, chicken and muscovy duck from the Cowichan Valley.
May uses wild sockeye or chinook salmon, never the farmed Atlantic variety.

Our stay becomes as much local culinary exploration as it is soft adventure in the great outdoors. Sea lettuce scraped from rocks within the Sound makes its way into salads and sorbets. Goats cheese comes from Ucluelet. Organic greens and herbs are from Nanaimo on the east coast of Vancouver Island and organic berries and honey from Port Alberni.

Built on an old coal barge, the 16-room hotel is necessarily compact yet as luxurious as could be expected, given its unusual location. All rooms have balconies but there are no baths, only showers. The recipe of blissful relaxation coupled with adventurous outdoor pursuits perfectly suits couples with divergent interests.

The Healing Grounds Spa at Quait Bay, an all-wood building tucked among the trees at the water’s edge, incorporates a natural waterfall pool and has two cedar outdoor hot tubs.

The spa offers a range of soulful treatments as “respite from modern chaos”. These include an interpretation of the ceremonial sweatlodge, a popular First Nations cleansing ritual, and massage using small, smooth hot rocks from nearby rivers. Resort manager John Caton’s sports fishing boat lies moored in Quait Bay. It’s called Stress Buster, which says it all.

Fishing is one way of working up an appetite. There’s plenty of protected water within the Sound and the open sea is not far away. Chinook salmon and the smaller coho are prized catches between May and August.

Kayaking is the most tranquil way of exploring the Sound’s many islands and inlets. At water level, viewed across a glassy sea, the true grandeur of the surrounding landscape is revealed, a silent vastness fringed by snow-capped mountains.

Rocky islands rise from the water covered in western hemlock, Sitka spruce, cedar and red alder. Gliding past floating gardens of bull kelp we explored their rocky edges, peering down through the clear salt water at starfish and sea urchins. Occasionally a pale jellyfish drifted by.

We paddled into Freedom Cove to visit Wayne and Catherine Adams and see their floating herb garden. Wayne lived in Australia as a boy and attributes his skills of self reliance and his love of the outdoors to the enjoyment he experienced on scout camps in Victoria. A renowned carver of ivory, bone and sperm whale teeth, he and his wife have lived in their remote Clayoquot home for 12 years.

Another morning we set off further afield, to bounce across the swell into Cow Bay in search of grey whales. Within minutes we’d spotted a telltale spout of spray. We later headed far out to sea to find wandering humpbacks. On our return we saw groups of golden harbour seals lounging on wet rocks.

The day came for our transfer to The Outpost. At the Bedwell River landing we were met by a hand-crafted parade wagon pulled by two doughty Norwegian draft horses called Pete and Poke. We climbed into the tray for the short trip to camp. This quaint introduction suited to the Outpost’s period style far better than using a 4WD.

However remote its location any thoughts about hardships experienced by late 19th Century gold prospectors were soon quashed. The nearest cousin to The Outpost would be a luxury tented African safari camp and, in similar fashion, The Outpost excels at blending a “walk on the wild side” with deep creature comforts.

Guests stay in “prospector” tents, of which there are 11, each furnished with period antiques and each with remote-control propane wood stove so, on chill mornings, you can turn up the heat before getting out of bed.

Tents are a discreet distance apart and largely obscured by forest. Three more private ones are located a short walk from the camp. All have adjacent composting toilets and each tent gets its own shower. These are grouped together in one block.

There are two dining tents, a library tent with period armchairs and glass cabinets, a games tent with small pool table and two massage tents, one in the forest, the other beside the river. Massage is included in the Outpost package whereas spa treatments at Quait Bay are extra.

The camp heart is its kitchen with surrounding bar, all enclosed under a curved wooden roof. An outdoor grill, BBQ and twin wood-fired ovens are rendered with mortar and river stone. Meals reflect the rustic setting yet are equal in quality to the slightly more sophisticated fare of Quait Bay.

A fire burns constantly in a shelter at the rear of the camp. Bears occasionally wander close by but the camp dogs give fair warning of their approach. Cougars also live in these hills but are rarely seen.

Horseback is the best means of exploring further afield to visit old gold mines in the surrounding mountains and The Outpost has a stable of doughty steeds to suit all levels of rider. For some guests, however, it’s enough for them to simply slip into the tidal ebb and flow of daily life in a rather special corner of the Canadian wilderness.

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