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Adventures in five-star style: Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge is a trip of a lifetime

One of the best places to experience the wilderness and beauty of Clayoquot Sound is Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge, 18 nautical miles from Tofino.

Clayoquot Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, is truly the epitome of “super natural” British Columbia.

Here you find glacier carved inlets, thick forests anchored on steep mountain slopes, alpine meadows, rocky beaches, salmon-spawning rivers and nutrient-rich estuaries. Not to mention an abundance of wildlife, from humpback whales and black bears to grey wolves and sea lions.

One of the best places to experience the wilderness and beauty of Clayoquot Sound is Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge, 18 nautical miles from Tofino.

After being closed due to the pandemic, the eco-tourism retreat re-opened last summer providing visitors with off-the-grid luxury, and adventures in this wild and beautiful place between Strathcona Provincial Park to the east and the Pacific Ocean.

As soon as my daughter and I arrive we are greeted at the boat and floatplane landing (air and sea are the only ways to get to this remote lodge) by manager Sarah Cruse, who oversees operations under the property’s new co-owners Baillie Lodges. The Australian-based company is well known in the travel industry for their luxury wilderness lodges in Australia and New Zealand, but this is their first Canadian venture.

After acquiring the 600-acre property in 2019, the company immediately spent over a million dollars updating its accommodation. Guests stay in one of the 25 large, white canvas safari tents connected by wooden boardwalks, through the forests, alongside the estuary. There’s also safari tents parallel to the oceanfront near the main lodge buildings.

Antique furniture that gave the tents a Frontier feel have been swapped out for furniture with a contemporary, clean-line look. And since this is luxury the tents are kept toasty warm by a cast iron stove (conveniently lit by a thermostat). The accommodation update also included building ensuite bathrooms, with heated floors that lead out to an outdoor shower among the Western Red Cedar, and Sitka Spruce trees.

Also new is The Ivanhoe Lounge, named for Clayoquot’s vintage 110-foot long craft boat, the SS Ivanhoe resting at the edge of the estuary. The Ivanhoe Lounge has rooftop seating and floor-to-ceiling widows to fully take in Bedwell Sound, where the river meets the ocean. I can’t think of a better place to relax and enjoy a handcrafted cocktail and canapes while watching possible eagle, blue heron and otter sightings directly outside.

The second stage of the renovation will be a redesign of the Cookout, the hub for dining, drinking and lounging at the lodge. Here, guests enjoy five-star meals that elevate guest experience, from adventure to culinary as well. The multi-million dollar rebuild will nearly double the Cookout’s current dining capacity, from 40 to 70 seats, and create a great hall for guests to lounge around the stone fireplace, which is now best viewed from outside on a comfortable sofa and armchairs.

The lodge, which used to be known as the Clayoquot Wilderness Resort when it was first established here in 1995, is in the heart of the Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve, listed in 2000 by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

“I truly feel this property is one of a kind, where there’s this unbelievable pure energy,” says Cruse. “It’s hard to describe the intangibles of the property. It gets into your heart and soul and leaves an imprint in your memory,’ she says.

Cruse sums up her life at Clayoquot with this enviable comment: “I live in the house of Mother Nature.”

As my daughter and I begin our first outing I immediately understand what Cruse means. This place brings us out of our ordinary lives and we too get to embrace nature every moment of our stay.

Our first adventure begins with a guided walk along the riverbank and through the temperate rainforest. It had been rainy days earlier so the trail was muddy in places but luckily I was able to borrow hiking boots from the lodge, which is fully equipped from raincoats to walking poles.

Before venturing out, our guide reminds us black bears were recently spotted near the lodge, playing on the pasture in front of the horse paddock, so there’s a quick reminder of what to do and not do in case we meet a bear in the woods. (Never run and slowly back away to give them their space.)

When we come across fresh bear scat it’s nice to know one of the eight dogs at the lodge, who is joining us for this walk, will no doubt give us a heads up.

Maui, a friendly, blue-eyed husky who loves to chew on stones, eventually signals an interest in something off our path but it turns out to be a moss-covered elk skull. While not a bear, the elk’s skull reminds us we are in wild country.

That specific walk and skull later turns up in an unexpected place - the dinner menu with a decadent dessert called the Bedwell Forest Floor, consisting of cacao barry, sourdough streusel, garden mint and cherry sorbet.

Executive Chef Asher Blackford explains the “tent walk,” which begins where the boardwalk ends and skirts the river, was his inspiration for the dish which replicates the elk skull and forest features like twigs, moss and stone.

Another dish, the Elderflower and Creme Fraiche, is inspired by the snow-topped mountains Blackford saw when he first flew into the lodge.

“Our food philosophy is more of an extension of the daily experience. We like the connection between the food and guest experience. Earthy, witty and wise are the three worlds I like to link to my food. I use mother nature and local produce as inspiration,” he says.

And while taste is obviously important the chef and his staff pay special attention to plating, since the chef is a firm believer “people eat with their eyes.”

“The plating is very organic, landscape styled rather than perfectly structured,” he says.

And for those guests who want to try their hand at foraging for their own food the kitchen will cook up the wild mushrooms, crabs, fish and prawns they bring back from their guided outings.

While my daughter and I didn’t opt for a fishing adventure and enjoy our own freshly caught sea bounty there was still lots of delicious choices to make on the lodge’s ever changing menu. Favourites included ceviche, with locally caught white fish, wild salmon with a puttanesca sauce and line caught halibut. This is the place for a seafood lover like myself.

In retrospect, I regret not trying my hand at fishing but it was impossible to do it all considering all of the adventure choices.

Part of the luxury experience is guests gets a personalized itinerary and they can opt from such outings as ancient forests hikes, horseback riding to alpine meadows, and ocean kayaking. But the lodge’s signature “Sights of the Sound” boat outing is not to be missed. On our half-day tour we saw a black bear on the shoreline flipping over rocks on the search for crabs and other crustaceans and grey whales feeding in shallow waters off Cox Bay.

Choosing ones’ own adventures and getting five-star treatment in B.C.’s wild country made visiting Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge a trip of a lifetime, and leaves no doubt why this province deservedly earns its reputation as “super natural B.C.”

The lodge will be reopening May 12 and continuing until late September.

kpemberton@shaw.ca