Fleetwood Mac is blaring through the speaker as our helicopter glides over the hundreds of craggy islands that make up the Broughton Archipelago on Canada's remote Pacific coast. Pilot Morgan Barratt skims the tops of Sitka spruces and western hemlock trees as he curls around the inlets and mountains of the Great Bear Rainforest. Carpets of green give way to the shimmering blue expanse of the Queen Charlotte Strait and he dips low to point out some humpback whales fluking and a pod of orcas travelling north towards Alaska.
This is the kind of sight you'd travel half the world to see. But our 20-minute flight to Port McNeill is merely commuting, British Columbia style, and the only way in and out of Nimmo Bay Resort, the final stop in a three-stop itinerary offering a new way to see Canada's wild west when you're poor for time but not funds. "Eight or nine out of 10 people will let me know it's been a mind-blowing experience here," says Dylan Dick, who runs activities at Nimmo Bay.
Six days criss-crossing British Columbia, from the world's largest coastal temperate rainforest to the relative "big smoke" of the quaint capital, Victoria, is enough to make me feel rejuvenated, awe-struck and disconnected from the grind of city life.
Days are spent hiking among ancient conifers, chasing bears and whales, eating seaweed and freshly-caught halibut, kayaking through misty waters and hunkering down with a glass of port to watch storms roll in off the Pacific Ocean. Huge distances are crunched into quick trips aboard private aircraft.All those forest phytoncides must have gone to my head because rain-induced transport woes only feel like part of the adventure. Let Mother Nature do her thing, I say.
"From a luxury perspective, what a modern traveller is looking for is not chandeliers and high thread count sheets," Tracey Drake, of Victoria's 111-year-old Fairmont Empress hotel tells me. "They're looking for an experience that is locally authentic."
At the Empress, one of three high-end hotels teaming up for the Ultimate BC Experience, there are luxurious beds and original chandeliers in the high tea parlour, where millions of visitors, including generations of the royal family, have sipped tea. But an authentic local experience is just as much about craft beer and salty island air.
Vancouver Island is bigger than Belgium yet locals speak of it as a secluded outpost where the living is easy. "The air is fresher, life is slower," a bartender at Swans Pub says. This is despite Victoria being a thriving mini-metropolis with New York Times-approved cocktail bars such as Little Jumbo and 15 craft breweries in a city of 300,000 (a solid ratio that ensures a schooner is never far away).
The city's "Little Britain" reputation is being replaced with a proud Pacific Northwest identity, from the cult Le Vieux Pin wine on the menu at Wind Cries Mary to the Hendrik.Lou sweaters in boutiques along Johnson Street. Life slows considerably as seaweed, hand-harvested in Sooke, is placed on my eyes during a Salish Sea-inspired facial at the Empress. You can even forage for your own facial which perfectly encapsulates the week: rugged opulence.
Victoria's pleasantness is punctured by a turbulent 45-minute private jet ride to Tofino on the island's west coast, with the first storm of the wet season hot on our heels. It seems counter-intuituve to fly into a place that describes itself as the town at the end of the road, where hippies, surfers, draft dodgers, hermits and rednecks converged after a logging road was built in 1959, finally connecting Tofino with the rest of the country.
"It's an end of the road culture here," fisherman and Surfside Grill owner Jeff Mikus, who runs a my-boat-to-your-plate operation, says over fish tacos and kombucha.
The ocean and the three metres of rain that fall between November and February shape much of Tofino. It makes for the hardiest of residents. It makes for the world's best cold water surfing that's only better on a rainy day judging by the wetsuit-clad surfers biking around Tofino in the wet. It also put Tofino on the map as a storm-watching centre. Visitors flock in winter to either snuggle up at the Wickaninnish Inn or head out to experience it face first – known as the Tofino facial.
"We're so connected with the ocean here there is no real distinction between ocean and forest," Liam Ogle, who runs Long Beach Nature Tours, says as we stand on a beach in Pacific Rim National Park, surrounded by old growth rainforest and a roaring sea dumping alien-like seaweed at our feet.
The feeling of submersion continues at the Wick, where elements of the outside are everywhere inside. You're tucked between ancient forest and ocean, surrounded by driftwood furniture and yellow cedar doors and Vancouver Island bedrock protrudes dramatically into a cellar beneath the Wick's Pointe Restaurant. Land and ocean are on the table everywhere in foodie-centric Tofino, too: foraged nettle soup at SoBo, sea buckthorn sorbet or halibut with sea asparagus at The Pointe, local wild salmon chowder at Shelter.
Nimmo Bay Resort, the final stop, is the week's crown jewel, a rugged nirvana tucked in Mackenzie Sound, built beside a raging waterfall that provides power, drinking water and views for the hot tubs built into the side of Mount Stevens. It's one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
Forty years ago, Craig and Deb Murray tugged an old float house here and opened a heli-fishing lodge popular with corporate groups. They were eco-pioneers, signing an accord with the Indigenous Kwakwaka'wakw people to respect their land and culture and practice catch-and-release fishing only. When son Fraser and his wife Becky took over 10 years ago, they wanted to shift to a family-friendly destination of just nine cabins, where yoga and cocktails are as big as fishing. "I grew up in a fishing lodge and I didn't want to run a fishing lodge," Fraser says.
The day's activities are curated each morning based on the weather and your mood, a reminder of what it's like to holiday without a plan. You might feel like a hike, a kayak to the floating sauna, a long massage, wild salmon fishing or a helicopter trip to remote glaciers.
I head out on a boat and find humpbacks frolicking in the late October chill, pods of Pacific white-sided dolphins and harbour porpoises, Steller sea lions loafing on little islands and bald eagles hunting from the tops of mist-covered spruces.
Some couples come to reconnect through days of meditation and writing. A painter recently came to rediscover inspiration. You could easily come for the food alone, served in the original floating lodge – fresh morning pastries, evening canapes of spot prawns and sustainable caviar, degustation dinners and one of the best Manhattan cocktails I've ever had using cedar-infused whisky.
Rain once again interrupts travel from Nimmo Bay, forcing us to shuffle between several towns and aircraft until finally reaching Vancouver. But flying from place to place, over pristine oceans and unbridled wildlife and cedars that have never seen a human touch, is the kind of disruption I can take. That's island life for you.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO
Victoria is so bike-friendly you can embark on a riding pub crawl, but the serious pedaller might prefer part of the Galloping Goose Trail, named after the train that ran from Sooke to Victoria in the 1920s.
Nimmo Bay offers one of the more bizarre activities I've heard of. Trundling consists of flying to the top of a remote mountain and using teamwork to push a huge boulder off the top, cheering as it makes a thunderous descent.
If flying is not an option, the five-hour drive from Victoria to Tofino is like the Amalfi Coast meets Big Sur. Stop for 800-year-old Douglas firs in Cathedral Grove and Goats on a Roof, a charming grocery store known for its resident roof dwellers.
Vancouver Island has great indigenous food, including 32 edible berries including salaal, salmonberry and cynamoka. Keep an eye out for hallowed gooseneck barnacles clinging to rocks on Tofino beaches.
Several practitioners, including at Nimmo Bay, offer trips into BC's stunning coastal temperate rainforest for forest bathing, the Japanese practice of guided meditation incorporating the forest atmosphere. Close your eyes and breathe in that dewy forest air.
Rachel Olding was a guest of Ultimate BC Adventure and Destination BC.
Air Canada flies to Vancouver from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Multiple airlines offer daily 20-minute flights from Vancouver to Victoria. See aircanada.com
The Ultimate BC Adventure is organised by the Fairmont Empress in Victoria, the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino and Nimmo Bay Resort. Activities and transport are tailored to travellers' interests and budgets. Itineraries start at $8000 for six days.