Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 24, 2021
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The calm after the storm

The road to relaxation is yours on Vancouver Island's spa and culinary trail

Heavenly. Never has the middle seat on a long, economy-class flight felt so good. My eyes peacefully closed, my body floating on air as memories of the spa escape that induced this sublime state waft through my mind.

It was while dreaming of escaping the grip of winter that images of Vancouver Island danced into my head. The island is one of the first places in Canada to warm up in spring with fragrant cherry blossoms, serene rainforest paths, snow-capped mountains glittering in the sun, vast beaches lapped by gentle waves and craggy coastlines thrashed by curls of surf.

Vancouver Island has long been a magnet for lovers of outdoor pursuits from golfing to canoeing, kayaking, windsurfing, sailing, scuba diving, fishing and hiking. Now, with the latest crop of resorts specializing in gourmet cuisine and therapeutic spa treatments, it is becoming a mecca for culinary aficionados and those in need of a little well-deserved pampering.

I chose to fly to Tofino at the north end of the island and take a leisurely drive south on the scenic road that winds between the sea and mountains to Victoria, with stops en route at four resorts acclaimed for their unique settings as well as food and spas.

Drizzling rain and a fresh-faced young man named Coby greeted me in Tofino. While driving along the two-lane road cut through the towering evergreen forests of Pacific Rim National Park, I mentioned that the air smelled so sweet and green. "We got 14 feet of rain this year," Coby answered. "We don't measure rainfall in inches or centimetres at the north end of the island, but in feet. It nourishes the trees." The cedars -- highly valued in foreign lumber markets today -- were indispensable to the Tla-o-qui-aht people native to this territory. The decay-resistant western red cedar, known to reach 59 metres tall and six metres thick, made hardy totem poles and dugout canoes, while the yellow cedar, some over 1200 years old, were smoothly sanded to paddles or carvings.

Clouds gave way to sunshine as we rolled toward the Wickaninnish Inn (tel: 800-333-4604; which sits on a rocky spur on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. If ever a place encapsulated the raw spirit of nature, this is it. In fair weather or foul, people gather in the wide-windowed lobby to watch sea birds in flight, whales migrating to and from Alaska (between March and October) or the spectacle of waves crashing against the rocks during storms.

After admiring my room's ocean-view balcony, fireplace stacked with logs, deep soaking tub and thoughtful amenities like binoculars, books and yellow rain slickers, I headed downstairs to the Ancient Cedars Spa. Soon I was seated on an outdoor terrace -- my body cuddled in terry blankets, my feet soaking in a copper basin brimming with jasmine-scented oils -- mesmerized by a duo of whales in the distance. My therapist broke the spell, only to cast another as she massaged my oiled body with hot volcanic stones, flipping and rolling them along my back and limbs with varying degrees of pressure.

Dinner that night was another treat, as much for the panoramic view, seafood stew and pasture-raised duck with Saskatoon berries, as for the fascinating story told by Charles McDiarmid, the resort's owner. In 1954, when Tofino was a remote fishing village accessible only by a rough logging trail, McDiarmid's father, a family physician, responded to an ad "begging" for a doctor. He immediately felt at home, and for 17 years he was the sole physician for miles around, running a six-bed hospital.

A connection with the land became second nature to young Charles, and later, while working for Four Seasons Hotels, he was inspired to open the Wickaninnish (which means "he whom no one sits in front of in the canoe") in this awesome, rugged location. Buoyed by international praise, he recently added 30 luxurious suites to the original 46-room resort, which opened in 1966.

Early next morning I hiked through the dewy, fragrant rainforest, imagining the first pioneers as I followed a trampled footpath that opened to a wide arc of beach. Except for the occasional beachcombers walking their dogs, I was alone, the only sounds the chirping of birds and gentle rush of waves.


On the road again that afternoon, we wound through gargantuan forests that opened to views of distant mountains or water. At the Kingfisher Oceanside Resort & Spa (tel: 250-238-1323; in Courtenay, I gasped at the spectacular view hiding on the other side of the door beyond reception. British Columbia's mainland mountains gleamed in the sunshine, forming a parade of peaks on the opposite side of Bayne Sound.

The 65-room resort -- which includes suites with kitchenettes and balconies -- is popular with Vancouverites, Germans and Scandinavians who indulge in its rejuvenating spa therapies and exercise programs. Decidedly European in style and treatments, the Oceanside Spa offers therapies that incorporate nutrient-rich coastal seaweed and glacial mud from the nearby Comox Valley. For the spa's novel Pacific Mist Hydropath guests follow a route from showers to a lavender soaking pool to a massage pool to a steam cave to a cold shower and on to a river walk. After a skin-tingling program of hydrotherapy, reflexology, body exfoliation and seaweed wrap, I lay cocooned in a thermal blanket, lulled to sleep.

The sun rising above the mountains the next morning cast an iridescent ribbon of light on the water, luring me out for an energetic coastal walk. A good thing, considering the hefty Pacific breakfast included thick smoked salmon on bagels.

The car climbed high up the Malahat Mountain to the Aerie Resort and Spa (tel: 800-518-1933/250-743-7115;, a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux circle. Overlooking the coastal seascape of Finlayson Arm, the Mediterranean-style resort blends whimsical decor with serious food and sumptuous spa treatments.

My attendant at the Aerie Wellness & Beauty Centre slathered me with a marine body wrap of seaweed and glacial mud, and suggested a facial using neroli oil, a signature aroma of distilled orange petals said to calm the sympathetic nervous system while increasing elasticity of the skin. It may not have been the oil, but all that kneading and massaging definitely softened my skin and mellowed my mind.

Later, while dining on seared sable fish and grilled Salt Spring Island lamb with manager-owner Marcus Griesser, he extolled the island's precious abundance: morel mushrooms foraged by locals; artisan cheeses from Salt Spring Island; tomatoes, asparagus and figs from Deep Cove; stone-ground flours from Spring Mill; pasture-raised poultry from Cowichan Bay; local game, fresh fish and seafood. There are four species of salmon alone: sockeye, chinook, pink and cohoe.

Next morning, I joined Mara Jernigan for an agri-tour. She and her partner, Alfons Obererlacher, own Engeler Farm and run tours that showcase local producers, often including a cooking session in their homey farmhouse. At Merridale Cidery, microbrewer Janet Docharty invited me to taste her prize ciders.

Sustainable agriculture is the rule at Cowichan Bay Farm, built by Lyle and Fiona Young on a site first cultivated by Young's great-grandfather. Their "pastured poultry" and rare and heritage animal breeds are raised on grass with no hormones, growth enhancers or preservatives. Art collectors and antique buffs flock to their farm in summer to see their archaic farm machinery and annual summer "art barn" exhibits.

When we left the next day, teeming rain added a moody tinge to the drive down the island highway past sheer walls of rock fringed a deep emerald.

Even in the rain Victoria shone and the Fairmont Empress Hotel (tel: 250-384-8111; held court over the harbour. I relaxed over a cool Bengal Tiger -- a heady mix of rum, apricot brandy, lemonade, pineapple juice and grenadine, before dining on delectable wild Pacific salmon at the hotel's much-lauded Kiplings Restaurant, where even the dessert menu offers wine pairings.

Which brings me to this morning, when I visited the hotel's Willow Stream Spa. I floated in a Hungarian mineral pool, before sitting on an elegant leather chair overlooking Victoria's inner harbour while every inch of my limbs was massaged, exfoliated with seaweed and glacial mud and creamed with scented emollients. Finally, my fingernails and toenails were immaculately painted. While they dried, I lunched on nutritious goodies presented in a Japanese bento box: smoked salmon, grilled tuna, field greens and fresh fruit with berry coulis.

Economy flight leg room? Airline food? No problem. I feel so good, it doesn't matter.


This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.