|Skeletons hang from the ceiling of the Marine Services Building in Bamfield / Credit: Boomer Jerritt / Tourism Vancouver Island|
At first glance all seems perfectly remote and rustic in Bamfield. Poised at the edge of the wilderness shore that holds the famous West Coast Trail, it's a small rainforest town sufficiently far from the webs of modern life that half the town has no road connection to the rest of the world. Divided by a small inlet, the east shore of Bamfield is reached by the road from Port Alberni; the west shore of the inlet has a boardwalk along its waterfront. Water taxis shuttle between the two sides, and proposals to bring a road around have been unsuccessful for decades.
Whales, sea lions, eagles, bears, wolves and mountain lions prowl the waters and woods around Bamfield. Trail-toughened hikers reach the end of the arduous 77-kilometer trek along the coast from Port Renfrew, and eagerly dash for a hot shower in one of the town's small inns.
Charming, for sure.
But Bamfield has an alter ego: It's actually an edge-of-the-wilderness outpost for modern science and technology, and it has been for more than a century.
This tiny village was the point from which one of the first intercontinental telecommunications cables headed across the Pacific. The first cable was laid 4,000 miles to a mid-Pacific coral atoll in 1902, from whence it stretched on to New Zealand. A second cable headed to Fiji in 1926, and British Commonwealth communications spanned the globe through this hamlet at the edge of Vancouver Island.
When the cable station was moved in 1953, the station's buildings were razed or abandoned—until 1971, when the former station property was turned into the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre. Operated by four universities in Alberta and British Columbia, BMSC today draws hundreds of researchers and students to its campus each summer, where they learn about and work to expand knowledge of the complicated web of life here at the intersection of rainforest and Pacific shore.
This heady mix of influences--wilderness trekkers, scientists and students, tourists and just plain wanderers--results in a colorful locale with a wide array of visitor services. Deluxe lodges and backpacker hostels line the twin shores; pubs and lodge dining rooms focus on local seafood; and the general atmosphere is as intriguing as the landscape that surrounds this town that still seems like it is at the edge of the world.
|Ancient Cedar Spa / Credit: Boomer Jerritt / Tourism Vancouver Island|
As a large piece of land surrounded by ocean on every side, it makes sense that Vancouver Island derive much of its identity from the sea. The fresh air that rolls over the Island from the Pacific, the salty tang of beachfront in the breeze, the sibilant sound of light waves brushing the sand on our eastern shores, and the mesmerizing roar of surf crashing over rocky headlands on the western side--all these elements are born of the ocean, and provide indelible aspects of the character of our land.
All that sounds glorious (and it is) but some elements of our Pacific character are a little more modest. Consider seaweed, a seemingly prosaic, commonplace facet of nearshore ocean life. Half its name is "weed"--in this case, a wholly incorrect suffix, as that word means a plant growing where it's not wanted. But seaweed is a key part of the ocean ecosystem, providing habitat for many creatures (including young fish), dampening storm waves, exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen and such. And it's largely the source of that rich, musty smell that instantly evokes ocean.
It's also a premier ingredient for many things on shore, from marvelous foods to plain old fertilizer. And it's a signature element in the menus found at something else our Island is known for--spas.
Seaweed? Spas? Signature?
As with cuisine, music, recreation and other aspects of the travel experience, local flavor has become an important part of the spa industry's services. And on the Island seaweed is prominent in this trend. Gathered by local foragers and transformed into palliative and beneficial ointments and additives--sometimes simply just added to bath waters--seaweed holds many trace minerals and botanical substances that can be absorbed by the skin during body treatments.
And that makes sense, too: The ocean is the mother of life on earth. Our cells are direct descendants of organisms that evolved in the gentle bath of the sea's water. Seafood is a prime part of healthy diets. The sea brings many marvelous things to human life.
Thus, a signature spa treatment on Vancouver Island might consist of a body scrub with Pacific sea salt; followed by a body wrap in seaweed; followed by a hydrotherapy bath with seaweed powder added to the water.
Sounds indulgent... And it is.
You can find such treatments, and similar ones, at virtually all the top-notch luxury resorts found across the Island, from Victoria to Tofino to wilderness coves, all of which have spas. But this leads us to the most conspicuous misunderstanding about spas that persists today. While they offer many experiences that are "indulgent" in the sense they are pleasurable, spa treatments also confer great benefit to health and wellbeing. They are not just luxuries. They create what a popular day spa in Victoria, Le Spa Sereine, calls "conscious relaxation."
Physicians have known for years that stress produces toxins in the human body; today, some medical researchers are coming to believe that stress can be as damaging to health as more common vices such as obesity and smoking. But the opposite of stress, that conscious relaxation, produces endorphins which counteract the toxins of stress.
Anyone out there with no stress in their lives? Of course not. That's why stress reduction is so good for wellbeing--and why incorporating spa experiences into travel enhances vacations so much. In Europe, dozens of entire towns are devoted to this kind of travel, and have been for centuries. The very word "spa" is derived from one such town in Belgium. Many Europeans make an annual retreat to a spa town for a week of body treatments, physical conditioning, massage and healthful eating.
We have no spa towns. But we do have many delightful resorts that can offer a complete wellness vacation experience (along with attractions found nowhere in continental Europe, such as bear watching, salmon fishing and wilderness hiking).
A trip to a spa town (or a full-fledged wellness resort) would likely incorporate all the following:
- Exercise: aerobics, water exercises, spinning, walking, riding, resistance training, tennis, even golf.
- Conditioning: stretching and yoga; Pilates; physical therapy, tai chi, qi gong.
- Medical consultation: sessions with physicians, naturopaths, counselors, nutritionists, hypnotists and more.
- Mindfulness: meditation, guided imagery, cognitive therapy, progressive relaxation, prayer.
- Diet: vegetarian menus, sustainable cuisine, healthful cooking instruction.
- Body treatments: massage (innumerable types ranging from Swedish to Thai), aromatherapy, hydrotherapy, wraps, scrubs, watsu (in-pool stretching massage), reiki and many more. Plus steam, sauna, whirlpools, cold plunge pools and such.
Our Island resorts are not really destination spas, like those in Europe or Arizona. They are fine vacation properties that happen to offer guests many of the wellness activities above. In Europe, one might hike the ridgetop trails of the Black Forest; in Tofino, guests at the Wickaninnish Inn, Long Beach Lodge or several other resorts can set out for miles of walking along gorgeous, broad beaches... and then return to the Ancient Cedars Spa at the Wick for the Hishuk Ish Tsawalk Awakening Treatment, an experience derived from local Nuu Chah Nulth First Nations tradition: an Island seaweed body polish, followed by hot and cold water therapy; followed by a hot stone massage using heated local basalt stones.
In Ucluelet, at Black Rock Resort's Drift Spa, more than a dozen treatments feature ocean botanicals and salts, and rainforest botanicals figure in several treatments too--with the rainforest itself just steps away.
At Kingfisher Resort in Courtenay, the waters nearby are reflected in the spa's famous Pacific Hydropath, a complex in which guests pass through eight different water experiences--hot and cold showers and baths, mist rooms, whirlpools and steams. In Parksville, Tigh-Na-Mara's Grotto Spa offers guests a body treatment of Canadian glacial clay, after which they relax in the 2,500-square-foot mineral water warm pool, complete with waterfalls.
In Victoria, guests at the Empress can enjoy body rubs using Victoria lavender. Down the at Sooke Harbour House, whose grounds feature immense herbal gardens, herbal essences are naturally a key component of the spa's body treatments and facials.
Visiting the Island's remote wilderness does not exclude spa experiences. At Clayoquot Wilderness Resort's Bedwell Camp, visitors can receive a salt-and-seaweed body wrap, and conclude the cleansing by luxuriating in the resort's wood-fired cedar hot tubs or cedar sauna... After which, brave souls may plunge in the Bedwell River, mindful of the fact that the sudden hot-cold contrast helps flush the capillaries of those nasty toxins. (That's why the Finns do it.) At Sonora Resort, in the islands of the Inside Passage, local kelp and rockweed are combined in a signature body treatment.
In all these cases, what distinguishes our spas is the local element they take care to include. Add that to the local elements just outside--the sea, the mountains, the forest and all the creatures within--and we have spas that are second to none. Sampling their services will create a whole new perspective on seaweed, for sure; and boost the value of your visit in many marvelous ways.
|Rosie Bay, near Tofino / Credit: Boomer Jerritt / Tourism Vancouver Island|
Pacific surfing brings to mind images of brave young souls challenging towering waves under extreme circumstances hundreds of yards out at sea. Fair enough—and we certainly have occasions where winter storms bring swells as big as hills to our shores—but the reality of West Coast surfing is usually a kinder, gentler version of the sport. In fact, Tofino and Ucluelet are centres for those interested in less-than-extreme outdoor challenges to try their hands at a sport that has a serene, moderate side too.
Hundreds of visitors take advantage of surf schools in these two towns, donning dry suits and heading off to several beaches that are perfect for beginners. It's a chance geographical circumstance that creates this venue--shorelines such as Long Beach, the kilometers-long strand of curving sand in Pacific Rim National Park and Reserve, consist of broad flats with moderate slopes on which ocean swells build and break evenly. Most days, even many in winter, wave heights and conformation are suitable for all.
This means the West Coast is, among other things, a capital for women learning to surf. One of the first schools devoted exclusively to this pursuit, Surf Sister, is located in Tofino; its teachers have been guiding women and girls into the sport since 1999.
This is not to say men should pass by—especially those who did not first step up on a board as teenagers. From elementary school age to seniors, the region is perfect for all. It's easy to get out to the break; the breaks are predictable and smooth; the climate is mild and the atmosphere supportive.
And what a setting to surf: The spicy scent of spruce and cedar colors the air. The snowy peaks of the Island's central range rise in the distance beyond the rainforest. While you're waiting for a good wave to ride, sitting on your board a hundred yards offshore, you may spot a gray or humpback whale cruising by in spring or fall.
Not to suggest letting your mind wander... But this sport, in the version we're describing here, is a meditative dance with the energy of the ocean. Landlubbers often wonder why it's so appealing, until they spend a few hours in the ocean's lap, and a few minutes surging along atop a five-foot swell with the sight, sound, smell and taste of the sea infusing every inch of your body. It's an unsurpassed thrill, and it's here for all.
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