Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 15, 2017
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Wild Kingdom

They may be far from civilization, but BC's
coastal inns brim with refined pleasures

If any place in Canada perfects the art of the great escape, it is, quite naturally, British Columbia. BC has the beauty and the climate. And BC offers inns and resorts of distinct character from the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island to the rolling slopes of the Okanagan, from Whistler Mountain to Salt Spring Island. If there's a trend, it's balancing the yin of body worship with the yang of gourmandizing, a duet of spas and restaurants in which guilt can be acquired and exorcized almost at the same time. Welcome to the great West Coast pleasuring trail.

The cradle of CanCuisine, Sooke Harbour House (1528 Whiffen Spit Road, Sooke; tel: 800-889-9688/250-642-3421; www.sookeharbourhouse.com) isn't so much a genteel country hostelry as a work of passion by groundbreaking, bar-raising innkeepers Sinclair and Frédérique Philip. It's the icon of BC originality and hospitality. Travel and Leisure magazine ranks it in the top 10 of the world's top 100 hotels and the second-best hotel on this continent. Gourmet magazine rates it the second-best country inn in the world. Vancouver magazine recently awarded it best out-of-town restaurant, which in BC is saying something.

The inn's 28 rooms come with individual appointments such as four-poster beds, feathery duvets, wood-burning fireplaces for chilly nights, antiques, handcrafted ceramic basins, original West Coast art and glorious views of the Olympic Mountains. These are the sort of things that define the West Coast approach to pleasuring.

Art is also a Sooke signature. Local artists exploring powerful natural themes show regularly at the Philips' gallery. April saw the launch of The Art of Sooke Harbour House, which addresses the inn's two great preoccupations, managing to be both art catalogue and recipe book at the same time.

There is a spa, too. Treatments are ministered in the Potlatch Room, decorated with West Coast aboriginal masks, a totem and a floor-to-ceiling fireplace. The menu runs the gamut from aromatherapy massage to sea-salt scrub and seaweed wrap, often with two therapists working in tandem, and a more relaxing setting is unimaginable.

Sinclair Philip is the visionary who grows 400 varieties of herbs and flowers in his surreal, all-organic garden by the ocean. A walk in this garden is an eye-opener, and yes, you can eat everything in it from mugwort to fennel flowers. Not only that, he gets them to the table in ways that make you wonder what you've been eating all your life.

What best explains Sooke's fame and an international clientele that includes Richard Gere and Angela Lansbury, is food. At dinner, you gaze through a veil of mist over the Pacific and ooh and aah at a procession of wholly original dishes -- you don't see too many of those around -- festooned with accents from the garden.

This is a journey through the Pacific Northwest and through the gastronomic imagination. Chef Edward Tuson stuffs dumplings with duck confit and cicely root and sets them afloat in a Dungeness crab and rosemary broth. A mugwort-infused potato and seaweed salad comes layered with tuberous begonia petals, Salt Spring goat cheese, hyssop parfait and kelp crisp. The vaunted sablefish, the soul of West Coast delicacy, arrives sauced with briny gooseneck barnacles and garnished with purple basil. And if you're really, really lucky, wild sea asparagus harvested from local waters will show up somewhere.

And you ask about wine? Although he won't turn his nose up at a Chëteau Mouton-Rothschild, Philip maintains the most comprehensive cellar of BC wines in the world, an inventory of 400 labels. For fish, knock yourself dead with a racy Sumac Ridge Meritage Blanc. Meat courses are powerfully underscored with Stag's Hollow Renaissance Merlot, roaring with depth and spice, a fine example of the grape destined to emerge as Queen of the Okanagan Valley. Little wonder people come away swearing Sooke delivered the best meal of their lives -- and if not the absolute best, at least the most interesting.

All Manor of Things
Of Canada's dozen Relais & Chëteaux, members of that elite fellowship of country inns and small hotels based in Paris, BC has four including the renowned Wickaninnish Inn at Tofino and the lesser-known Hastings House (160 Upper Ganges Road, Salt Spring Island; tel: 800-661-9255/250-537-2362; www.hastingshouse.com). This faux Sussex manor house and its attendant cottages are set amid the bucolic surroundings of Salt Spring Island, the largest of the 200 or so Gulf Islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Hastings House is for the laid-back and people who yearn to be laid-back. Bring fat books and hiking boots. Snuggle under a quilt in the manor, a reconstructed barn or a century-old farmhouse.

Dining is the event, in a half-timbered room with gorgeous views of Ganges Harbour. Chef Marcel Kauer rolls goat cheese in eggplant and zaps it with balsamic vinegar. He marinates fresh halibut, sauces it with peppery nasturtium coulis and pops a flower on top. Salmon gets respect. Duck carpaccio may be the best you'll encounter, ever. Salt-meadow lamb, fed on grass sprayed by the ocean, is a signature here, as it is on the west coast of France. Kauer goes through 250 lamb legs a year, and when shank is available, jump at it. With such a dish and a bottle of Nota Bene, a miraculous south Okanagan blend redolent of truffles, olives and berries, it's easy to fall for Hastings House.

 

Wild Refinement
To get still further away from it all in eye-popping scenery, it's hard to imagine anything more West Coast than Clayoquot Wilderness Resorts (Clayoquot Sound, Tofino; tel: 888-333-5405/250-726-8235; www.wildretreat.com). It straddles two locations, a floating hotel and outpost camp, both in the wilderness of once-endangered Clayoquot Sound. Remember Clayoquot? A decade ago, environmentalists protesting, little old ladies being hauled off to jail and loggers and government bullying tree-huggers created a stir. Thankfully, the protesters won. Clayoquot has been protected as an international Biosphere Reserve since 1996.

Welcome to a genuine find: pastimes range from ocean fishing and whale watching to horseback riding and mountain biking. "In summer, the fish here get really big," says general manager John Caton, who traded a life in rock 'n' roll to commune with horses and hawks in the middle of nowhere. People come from all over the world for mammoth 20-kilogram Tyee and even larger halibut.

The newest element at the floating hotel on Quait Bay is the Healing Grounds Spa, a cedar and slate palace set in swirling mists and pristine rainforest. It brings into play indigenous products, from 14,000-year-old glacial clays to basalt stones from Clayoquot beaches. If it can only infuse its treatments with the human warmth and personality the environment calls for, mainlanders will be water-taxiing out from Tofino with the fervour of the born-again.

There is, however, no "if" with chef Timothy May's cuisine. May, former chef at the Hotel Vancouver's 900 West, knows what to do with prime BC ingredients, especially fish and seafood. His flavours are strong, clean and harmonious. His open kitchen, wafting with garlic and herbs, qualifies as dinner theatre, the chef's fastidious last-minute plating a showstopper. The kickline includes massive Dungeness crabs, thick slabs of tuna seared just enough to not distress the sublime flesh, sweet and juicy quails and polenta lashed with truffle oil. This is wilderness? Pass us our beaver hats.

Nor is May's breakfast an afterthought: the bounteous buffet includes rolls of smoked BC salmon, back bacon, eggs Benedict and local berries. The chef may even treat you to a slab of pan-fried fresh halibut sided with chanterelles. Finish with an Illy cappuccino and you might as well go back to bed because the day isn't going to get any better.

The resort's Wilderness Outpost at Bedwell River imbues remoteness with luxury and cuisine. Yes, you're camping out, in one of 10 guest tents suitable for, say, Louis XIV, with raised wooden floors, Oriental rugs, wood-burning stoves, down duvets, tropical-insect netting and fine china and crystal. You have your own horse for the duration of the stay, but you also have a US Navy Landing Craft to establish your own beachhead -- skinny-dipping, anyone? -- against the 1000-year-old cedars of one of the last temperate rainforests. Dinner? Light the barbecue, light the candles and bring on the salal berry-cured wild Pacific salmon with spit-roasted purple potato succotash.

King of Spas
Neither Relais nor retreat, the Kingfisher Oceanside Resort & Spa (4330 Island Highway South, Courtenay; tel: 800-663-7929/250-338-1323; www.kingfisherspa.com) on Vancouver Island is a handsome family-style resort on the Strait of Georgia shore with a postcard view of the Coast Mountains. It offers a full deck of outdoor activities, but doesn't make you feel guilty if all you want to do is curl up like an escargot with a book.

There's a restaurant, family-style, at its best for the Friday night seafood buffet. This is where you can tuck into Cajun-spiced smoked oysters, shrimp-and-scallop terrine, salmon tartare, peppered salmon, stone crab claws, creamy Fanny Bay oysters and stir-fry of shrimps and scallops handily. Not everything works -- smoked black Alaska cod is wet and rubbery and there is some lamentable overcooking -- but these people have a concept that could, with refinement, emerge as the definitive taste of BC.

Kingfisher is also the property that exemplifies the maturation of spa in BC. The fine art of touch is a tall order -- one beyond the grasp of most spas -- calling for sensuality, warmth and connection, even compassion. You can't teach any of these things, but you can source them. That's what they do here.

No fluff-and-buff flummery at Kingfisher: the staff displays a natural affinity for touch. You may want to skip the body wraps and mud baths for La Stone, which sounds a trifle ooh-la-la, but is seamlessly realized by the ministrations of massage therapists like Kelly Mainse.

La Stone calls for 54 hot and 18 cold stones positioned at strategic points on your body, in your hands and in the therapist's. In Mainse's hands, the stones seem fused into a single entity. She applies warm oil and massages in long, sweeping strokes that prompt a grown man to purr. And imagine, a massage of chin and cheeks transformed into something akin to rebirth. That sounds crazy, but it happens, and you wind up wishing it would happen every day.

Wet your Whistle
Finally, a handsome hostelry at Canada's most celebrated resort village. The Westin Whistler Resort (tel: 604-905-5000; www.westinwhistler.net) provides an urbane, polished alternative to the wilderness experience. It's the only all-suite resort in hip Whistler Village, stylish and comfortable with maybe too much to do. Everybody seems to know about Whistler's assets as a winter destination, but less heralded is the vast summer and early fall menu including golf at Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Robert Trent Jones courses, biking, fishing, rafting, jet-boating, kayaking, paragliding and horseback riding.

The Aubergine Grill is the hotel's restaurant where the furious open kitchen makes fine use of fresh ingredients from sockeye salmon to Salt Spring goat cheese, with a certain penchant for towering cuisine. Gossamer sablefish atop a grid of thinly sliced cucumber with ginger and miso is Aubergine at its best. Duck breast, aged almost two weeks, is sensationally tender and flavourful. And what may be the best dessert in BC is a "study" of five intensely defined crème brûlées from coffee with chocolate-coated beans to pistachio with slivered almonds. If this is a study, sign us up for PhDs, will you?

 

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

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