From Vancouver Island to Sonora Island

Beaches and wildlife make British Columbia’s Strait of Georgia an adventure playground

Tigh-Na-Mara, Vancouver Island

Photo: Maureen Littlejohn
The View from Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort and Conference Centre is sandy beach as far as you can see.

Maureen Littlejohn

Toronto, CanadaLiving as I do in Toronto, it is easy to forget about the beauty of British Columbia. But last summer I was reminded with a quick thwap upside the head. Mountains, glittering water, verdant forests, and magnificent wildlife were on the agenda at the two spots I visited, one on Vancouver Island, the other on Sonora Island in the nearby Discovery Islands.

Tigh-Na-Mara
The tide was out, and the moist sand stretched endlessly into the horizon. My husband and I had just checked into Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort & Conference Centre (pronounced Tie-Na-Mara, it is a Gaelic phrase for “house by the sea”) and although I loved the fresh, bright, rustic style of our suite, the panoramic Strait of Georgia view had me mesmerized. After getting my fill of the gorgeous landscape, I surveyed the suite, which was spectacular too—king bed, comfy sitting area, gleaming kitchen, and a deep bathtub in the living area.

Located on 22 acres outside Parksville, on Vancouver Island, the resort was opened 70 years ago and has since become a traditional vacation spot for families. The conference center also draws corporate groups, and I was told there were 70 weddings on site last year. Log cabins dotted the property along with low-rise buildings—192 guestrooms altogether. The cottages were nestled under towering Douglas fir trees and had decks and BBQs, while the suites (like mine) featured spacious balconies. There was free Wi-Fi and an indoor pool, but the sandy beach with what the brochures called “the warmest swimming waters in Canada” was the only place I wanted to be.

“Nooooo! I don’t want to go back yet,” cried a small child. I looked over and saw that he and his family were standing by a huge sandcastle. No wonder he didn’t want to go. That castle, complete with minarets and moat and decorative shells for windows, would be gone once the tide came in. Warm water splashed over my feet as I peered down at live sand dollars and minnows trapped in the puddles. I had been to shallow beaches in the Great Lakes before, but I had never seen anything like this flat plain of sand skimmed with slowly receding water. It was the perfect playground for children and a delightful place for adults to slow down and enjoy nature.

My next water adventure was at the Grotto Spa, named the No. 1 spa in Canada by Spas of America. Before dipping my toes in the mineral pool, I had a facial featuring the Éminence organic skin care line. It smelled divine, with a faint citrus scent. The spa building also housed the Treetop Tapas & Grill, where I noshed on a few small bites of local fresh seafood. Then came hydrotherapy in the grotto, complimentary with every 60-minute treatment. Constructed to look like a glowing, blue-hued cave, the space featured mineral pool, hot tub, and cool showers (the Nordic way to get blood circulating). After an hour of paddling around, I was relaxed as a baby seal.

Dinner was in Cedars Restaurant. I indulged in mushroom caps stuffed with shrimp, roasted garlic, green onion, and cream cheese as a starter, then dug into a main of seared scallops and bacon with squash purée and watercress. Delicious.
Back in my room, tucked into the pillow-like bed, I drifted off to sleep with the hypnotic sound of soft waves drifting through the balcony door. What were they whispering? Could it be Tigh-Na-Mara? (Tigh-na-mara.com)

Tigh-Na-Mara activities

    • Caving at Horne Lake Caves, swimming at Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park, or golf (ParksvilleQualicumBeach.com).
    • Shop Coombs Old Country Market for kitchen gadgets or have lunch and view the goats chomping on the grass roof (Oldcountrymarket.com).
    • In July and August, take in the Canadian Open Sand Sculpting Competition & Exhibition at Parksville Beach (Parksvillebeachfest.ca).
    • At the North Island Wildlife Recovery and Educational Centre see rescued birds and a flight rehabilitation building for injured eagles. View rescued bears by video monitor (Niwra.org).

Sonora Resort
Viewing sea lions, seals, porpoises, grizzly bears, and even the occasional humpback whale is the marquee entertainment at Sonora Resort, on Sonora Island, part of British Columbia’s Discovery Islands. Guests at this Relais & Chateaux wilderness lodge have two transportation options: A two-hour boat ride starting in Campbell River on Vancouver Island or a 50-minute helicopter ride from Vancouver International Airport.

Upon arrival, I was ushered into the cozy main building, complete with multiple gas fireplaces, lounge area, long bar, dining room, and games room (a giant Scrabble board adorns one wall for team word sports). After getting a rundown of the 88-guest unit property with 30 hot tubs and a spa/fitness area with outdoor hot/cold mineral pools, sauna, and steam rooms, I headed to my room. Woodsy colors matched with gray slate tiles and warm, tea-colored hardwood floors brought me to the main living space, a bedroom with gas fireplace at the foot of the bed and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the water. Heavenly. This called for a treat from the mini-fridge that was stocked with complimentary snacks and drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic). I opted for BBQ peanuts and a glass of ruby red Okanagan pinot noir that sat atop the credenza. Staff had also thoughtfully supplied me with a metal water bottle with a tag saying “Sonora’s spring water is some of the purest drinking water in the world. Enjoy!” What a treat. I filled my bottle, and I took a sip. They were right. It was cold with a touch of mineral and a dash of sweetness.

I was there in peak grizzly-bear season (September and October), so I opted for an expedition to see the magnificent creatures on the Orford River where they feast on spawning Chinook salmon. We suited up in the gear room with warm jackets and gloves and boarded a covered boat for the hour-long ride to the Orford River. The grizzly-bear spotting site was on Homalco First Nation land, and the Homalco run the tours. Our guide, Jesse Recalma, met us at the dock, gave us a “Dos and don’ts” briefing and drove us to the first of many viewing towers overlooking the river. The nos included making noise, moving around too quickly, bringing food, and straying from the group. We all followed the rules to the letter and were rewarded with sightings of nine bears, including a mother and her loud cub that groaned and moaned as mother nudged him toward the river and the salmon. Recalma told us the guides had nicknamed him Noisy. He’s like one of those kids who’s always saying “Aw, Mom, do I have to?”

Sonora Island

Photo: Maureen Littlejohn
Grizzly Bears abound at Sonora Resort, and if you follow the dos and don’ts you can spot them in the wild without becoming their prey.

The bears ate well, and so did I. The resort’s chef Lukas Gurtner prepared delicately spiced and herbed dishes made from local seasonal ingredients and paired with British Columbia wines (Sonoraresort.com).

Experiencing the splendor of these two destinations made me realize just how much British Colombia has to offer—beauty, adventure, wildlife, top-notch resorts, spas, and fine food. Some ad campaigns really stretch the truth, but the province’s tourism department hit it spot on with their slogan “Super, Natural British Columbia.”

Sonora Resort activities
For an extra fee, Sonora Resort can arrange:

    •Grizzly-bear tours
    • Salmon fishing
    • Eco-adventure tours
    • Sea kayaking
    • Raft & snorkel with the salmon
    • Helicopter and whale watching tours

Maureen Littlejohn is a Canadian travel writer and Executive Editor of Culture Magazin. Originally written for Culture Magazin. Reprinted with the author’s permission.

This article originally appeared in the April 6, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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