Canada: Escape to the wilderness and get back to nature without compromising on luxury
Canada’s British Columbia is bulging with breathtaking landscapes, and ‘getting away from it all’ here means not seeing another soul for days. Lizzie Pook embraces her surroundings
From the helicopter, the islands below look like shards of scattered pottery. They bristle with fir trees and beaches that glow the colour of freshly churned butter. As the propellers buzz like dragonfly wings, I peer down at pods of dolphins ruffling the waters of inky inlets, keeping my eyes trained on the channels for flukes of mighty humpback whales.
I’m on my way to Sonora, a luxury wilderness resort marooned in British Columbia’s Discovery Islands, and even the journey is proving to be something of an adventure. Choppers and seaplanes ferry guests to Sonora from Vancouver, but you can also take a floatplane from Seattle or a water taxi from nearby Campbell River (‘nearby’ being a relative concept in vast Canada; the journey takes just over an hour). Many guests, however, arrive here on their own charter flights, before smuggling themselves away to the privacy of Sonora’s luxurious villas.
I have already been in British Columbia for a few days, sampling the best ‘wild-wellness’ activities the province has to offer. In Harrison Hot Springs, known as ‘the bigfoot capital of the world’, I hiked through moss-draped forests looking for flashes of bigfoot fur and questionably-large footprints, then braced myself against the refreshing spray of thundering inland waterfalls. In E. C. Manning Provincial Park – where snow-dusted trees meet wide, yawning skies – I did yoga under the stars and took mindful strolls around beaver-filled lakes. Then, I headed to busy Vancouver, staying in the magnificent Fairmont Waterfront – where jetlag hauled me out of bed at 5am for a pre-dawn swim in the rooftop pool – and the Fairmont Pacific Rim, where I sipped on exquisite mezcal cocktails and sunk into healing rituals at the serene Willow Stream Spa. It was well worth the stop-off, but it’s been high-octane so far, and I’m looking forward to being cast away on an island for a while.
The Discovery Islands, it turns out, are almost absurdly beautiful, and as we touch down on Sonora’s pine-fringed helipad, what surrounds me is so divine I want to cut it up in to slices and eat it. The forests are alive with emerald greens and burnished gold. Spindly jetties jut out into glass-clear waters and the pebble-grey roofs of Sonora’s scattered buildings peek out from the treetops.
As we make our way along the waterfront, the air is filled with the nasal huff of sea lions, lurching out of the water with salmon wriggling in their jaws. Huge fish shelter at the shoreline, keeping away from rampaging seals, and bald eagles perch on witchy branches, screeching into the breeze. My heart leaps a little. It’s like a safari, yet I’d stepped out of the helicopter only a couple of minutes ago.
A home from home
It doesn’t take long to feel welcome at Sonora and after a quick tour of the amenities, I already have the lay of the land. It’s clear that Canadian-chic is the name of the game here, and I find plenty of cedar wood, crackling fires and paintings by First Nations artists adorning the walls. The hefty grizzly bear sculptures that peek out from amber bushes in the gardens make me grin too.
There are 88 rooms, including eight luxury villas with private hot tubs and an eye-popping collection of modern art. But the heart of the resort is the Tyee Dining Room, home to a colossal custom-built clinker canoe and stunning views of the Pacific. I’m assured that, even if I’m at dinner, I will be told if there happens to be a whale meandering past the jetty, or a black bear foraging for crabs on the shoreline. Phew.
My room is ready so I almost sprint up the steps, because I already know what I’m going to find in there – one of the most incredible floor-to-ceiling views I have ever been treated to. Tiny boats bob gently at the jetty and the oily blue water spills out like a blanket of silk, backed by pine-covered mountains that look like sleeping giants covered in acupuncture needles.
I’m luxuriating in it all – having a nosey at the all-inclusive minibar and testing out the L’Occitane products from the bathroom – when something catches my eye. Out on the water, about two hundred metres away, something is breaking the surface. I squint. It’s a huge fin, almost as big as the sail of a small ship. It can’t be. I rush for the binoculars at the end of the bed. I can’t believe it: it’s a family of killer whales, making their way through the channel. I squeal and rush down to the dock for a better view. Incredible. I’ve only just arrived and already I’ve ticked off a bucket‑list wildlife sighting.
At dinner we discuss the next day’s activities over an exquisite tasting menu, featuring black pearl oysters from nearby Quadra Island, autumn berries foraged from the surrounding forests, and tender sablefish with dashi broth and juicy spot prawns (all paired with crisp wines from the heaving cellar). Sadly, it’s the wrong season for heli-glacier trips, but I’m excited to hear we’ll be heading out with the Homalco First Nations (one of the only First Nations groups that has its own tourism company) in search of grizzly bears. The resort also offers heli-fishing, mountain biking and countless hikes, while those in search of relaxation can bliss out in the restful Ocean Currents spa.
The grizzly tour turns out to be fruitful, and with the Homalco as my guides we spot four impressive bears, shimmying along fallen trunks, uprooting berries and foraging on the shorelines of the mist-bloated Bute Inlet.
Later that day I head out on a boat tour from Sonora’s jetty. Almost immediately we are surrounded by belching, barking sea lions. But what happens next is truly remarkable. As we glide down the channel, suddenly something surfaces just feet from our boat. It’s unmistakable: the shiny monochrome form of a killer whale, its fin towering high above us. The breath is sucked from my lungs. My eyes widen in amazement. Suddenly, another fin. Then another. It’s a whole pod, within touching distance of our boat. As we respectfully allow them to pass, watching in awe as they swoosh on by, I think how lucky I am to be ‘marooned’ in such a spectacular place.
Book it: Prestige Holidays offers a 10-night package from £4,980 per person based on a June 1 departure. This includes return economy flights from Heathrow with Air Canada, private transfers to downtown Vancouver, two nights at the Fairmont Waterfront, helicopter transfers and two nights at Sonora Resort, three nights at Rowena’s Inn (Harrison Hot Springs), three nights at the Fairmont Pacific Rim and four days’ car rental.
The Wickaninnish Inn: Clinging to cliffs overlooking the churning waters of the Pacific, The Wick (as it is known by locals) is the epitome of laid-back luxury. Here, fine dining and flip-flops go hand-in-hand.
Four Seasons Whistler: Rooms at this luxury ski lodge come with lashings of red cedar, rainfall showers and soaring views of Olympic-class mountains. The Private Residences offer butlers and an in-suite restaurant service.
Nimmo Bay: Nimmo is a clutch of luxury cabins, scattered along the coastline of the Great Bear Rainforest. Your days will be spent heli-picnicking, kayaking with killer whales or kicking back in the al fresco hot tub.