News & Reviews Rest of the World Canada Review: Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, Vancouver

Clayoquot Wilderness Resort

Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, Vancouver
Room type: Waterfront Ensuite Tent
Duration: 16th > 19th August, 2018
Booked with: Dorsia Travel

Every year I take it upon myself to hype somewhere up to a point that mathematicians everywhere collectively groan at having to once again create a new scale.  The Hype Scale has officially just surpassed infinity and is on its way to doubling within the next 12 months.  I decided that this year the honour will fall upon Bisate Lodge in Rwanda and Clayoquot in British Columbia.  No stone will be unturned in my quest to tell any willing – or otherwise – life form of my delight in meeting gorillas and orcas respectively.  The first test came at Clayoquot, a property on Vancouver Island, accessible only by seaplane, boat or Russian submarines.  I already knew how this holiday would begin: a pod of orcas greeting me on arrival, probably telling me classic punchline jokes; maybe we’d even have a tea party, dress up as 1970s TV detectives, wear silly hats and draw fake moustaches on each other.  At the very least they’d sing Nessun Dorma to me in the highest octave.  Hankies were at the ready.

Sea otters would salute me as this was ongoing

So you can well imagine how disappointing I found the entire welcome.  Now I know where you think this is going.  No orcas, you say?  Worse.  They forced me into a group welcome and made me wait 30 minutes for the privilege of it.  This is where my newly developed cross-between-a-spider-and-orca sense started to tingle.  Am I….about to be forced to be sociable?  All the signs were there, glaring at me like the twist ending of a porno; how did I not see the plumber having alternative motives?

The experience began as unglamorous as any other C$5,000/n hotel stay.  Naturally at this price point, arriving at a seaplane terminal along with 30 other people was what I expected.  The choice of 4 indoor seats, standing outside or walking down the street to the nearest bar that’s employment criteria was based on how little you’re prepared to wear, you will probably double check your plane ticket to make sure you’re heading in the right direction.  The 50 minute flight through breathtaking scenery will re-focus your mind and begin to give you a taste of what will be your home for the next 3 days.  By the time you’ve arrived and Owen, the longest standing employee, collects you with the horse and cart to transport you back to the lodge, you’ll be ready to start shouting yehaa as you discover your inner cowboy that got lost when you turned 9, or 19 if you’re me.

I will charge my horse off this mountain and make Leonardo DiCaprio proud.

I cannot say there were many hints of luxury in the first 30 minutes.  There were 55 arrivals that day, and with us all stood around waiting for yet another group to arrive so we could be collectively be informed of all the usual things, I was not admiring the organisational skills at place.  It felt like Summer camp – with absolutely no respect intended.  Canapés and drinks were forthcoming, as we watched the previous groups depart and wondered when ours would all finally arrive.  As the staff were introduced, some giving speeches, others notably deciding to take a vowel of silence and say nothing, such as the GM, I was wondering why this could not have been done individually.  Then we were released and given individual tours of the property, leaving the back of my head firmly scratched as all the details were explained to us again one-on-one.

The look on my face during all of this.

As we walked across the bridge and approached our tent, I could not help notice that they were so closely packed together that I assumed the developers previously worked for the Red Cross.  Of the 25 tents only 19 are en-suite, leaving the remaining, lucky 6 tents to fend for themselves with a shared shower; a proposition only slightly more appealing than prison.  Rarely do I consider booking the top suite – I’m too cheap – but at Clayoquot you may as well just admit that you don’t love your wife, children or have any self respect if you book this room type.  Luckily I did not, so I can go on looking in that mirror and only feeling the usual 95% shame.

Pile it high and sell it expensive

Before the tent unveiling could take place, we had to sign the longest waiver I’ve ever seen.  Were I to have read it, I would have needed to stay the whole week, and then extend to actually see the property.  They also asked for a credit card form to be manually filled in, as what’s one extra form at this point?  I think I may have consented to never insult a Canadian again, so does anyone know a good lawyer?  I need to get outta this.

Until then: it’s a beautiful country.

As the grand tent unveil took place, my point of view began to change.  Sure, this is no Singita or Aman-i-Khas in terms of design, quality, privacy – not even close, but it’s everything I could ask for, excluding the mind numbing, cripplingly slow Internet that was so far behind and out of date, it still thought the earth was flat.  That and the fact that your neighbour is 3 feet away, so you’ll spend your time whispering to each other exactly what your co-inhabitant is: “do you think they can hear us?”.  The tents though are spacious, offer underfloor heating in the bathroom, an outdoor shower, electric fire, sofa, patio and plenty of fine materials used for the bathrobes and bedding.  No, really, the beds were so comfortable that had a bear charged me, I doubt it would have woken me up from my slumber.  The bathrobes, an absolute delight, and I did not need to be told twice that it was fine to wear them around the property.

I am never a fan of the outdoor shower, always seeing it as a quirk, yet not at Clayoquot – it’s your only choice.  Hats off, it is beautifully built, with the wood covering you up to head height so you can look into the woods, or wave good morning to your neighbours.  Of course, they decided to make it entirely free to the elements, so whilst they warned us of keeping our tent zipped at nights to stop mosquitos coming in, they decided not to offer any protection whilst showering – and trust me, they were there.  Pros of outdoor shower: beautiful views and being one with nature; cons: stepping on slugs and getting assaulted by mosquitos.  Due to further nature – bears – no food is allowed in the tents, meaning your only choice of beverage is water from the tap.  There’s not even a phone or radio, simply a bear alarm, a nice piece of Hitchcock foreshadowing.

    

The reason I may be so happy to praise these tents is that we spent such little time in them.  If you are at Clayoquot for activities, there’s a good chance you will simply sleep in your tent and be on your way.  And if you are not here for any of the activities, I would question your state of mind.  Even if you chose to sit around all day, I can see no reason you would do it in your tent.  There is a newly built bar, Ivanhoe Lounge, open from 3pm; 3 hob tubs, 2 sauna, a games room, pool table room, gym, child’s play area, business centre and spa.  Whilst I could not help but admire that they put a separate hot tub and sauna near our tents, which were some off the further away from the property, they were surrounded by mosquitos and were so hot that even ol’ Mr. I-Ain’t-Afraid-Of-No-Heat here found it too much.  It must have been a chilly day in hell that day, but I truly did just reject something for being too hot.

A surprise one hour massage per person was included, mine being donated to Lucie so she could thoroughly review it: absolutely fantastic, apparently.  And if you get bored, you can even do some shopping in their retail shop, an unstaffed store where you simply write down what you took and your room number.  What better way to enact revenge on a guest that ate the last cookie than write down the entire store contents and their tent number?

Whilst being here to see some orcas and bears, I decided going out would offer a higher chance of this happening.  Once again, my impressions were not positive; on reviewing the size of our group, it fell into a new dawn of horror: double digits.  There was 10 of us, consisting of two other groups, for the Wildside Tour, a trip in a Zodiac to see bears (check) and whales (hmm), then ending with a walk through an ancient First Nations island.  Plenty of non-grillzy bears were to be seen, and a few sea otters, eagles, sea lions and puffins were thrown in for good measure.  We saw a whale for all 2 seconds, which coincidentally was the same amount of time we saw the GM. It is certainly not comparable to an African safari, but it kept me entertained for a day – which I think is the limit.  With very little to see in the ocean, the entertainment came from riding the waves like a rollercoaster.  Initially calm surrounded us whilst in land, but by the time we got to the open water the sea was rougher than a mermaids arse.

Mr. Bubbles trying to escape the smell of our packed lunch by climbing anything within sight.

I found the implementation the biggest issue at Clayoquot.  There are too many elements that fail to feel luxurious and lunch time was the pinnacle.  The night before we got to decide what we wanted for a packed lunch on this trip.  The food came looking like something an orca chewed on and spat out.  Unfortunately it tasted like another orca then ate the waste and shit it onto our plates.  It was so awful it’d act as a bear deterrent.  We reminisced back to our time in Botswana and South Africa, where this would have been a moment of wonder, but instead were wondering how no one else thought to complain.  We joined yet another group, so having lunch with 18 other guests and only rocks and logs to sit on did not scream luxury.  Could no one have come ahead and prepared this to some degree of quality?  We ended up packing away our own lunch, that by now looked like an orca had molested another orca’s anus, and began the hike.  As we arrived back around 5pm, deprived of food, but filled with knowledge from our impressive guide, we realised that Clayoquot had a hidden agenda: it was the perfect holiday for slimming and Internet addiction.

Mother Nature is a bitch

Fortunately things significantly picked up from here; food was not so scarce after all.  I will confess that this peculiar experience of having to share my holiday with other people did not bode well with Mr. Anti-Social here.  However, it turned out that everyone at the property was a delight.  All the same, the most joy I got from the activities that were private, including horse-riding, hiking and mountain biking.  The horse-riding in particular was stand out, due to the unrivalled views, and even the hike to the top of the creek managed to surprise and delight.  The activities really were superb and the point behind Clayoquot.  There is enough here to entertain, with 3 nights having felt fine for us, but one more would not have hurt.

As it turns out, seeing orcas here is “incredibly rare” due to them all being transient vs resident.  Those bloody immigrants!  All you hear is how they should go home, but then when they do they still can’t win and I’m still left deeply unsatisfied.  Not to be deterred, I requested to go out on the final day to try my luck, but with 5 minutes until the activity was told they had no one available to take me out on the boat.

Eurgh. Had to be subjected to this travesty instead.

Just like the activities, there were some wildly differing experiences with the food.  I have never had such inconsistency before, with it verging between amazing and ok.  On one hand their pastry chefs are geniuses, and their black cod is truly Nobu-esq, but then others just failed to offer much flavour. Some dishes would appear a day later tasting different.  And then I’m once again legally obliged to mention the packed lunch.

The implementation once again felt low-end, with someone asking you every morning when you would like to have dinner.  I suppose this is all well and good so the kitchen can prepare, but on the first night we had to wait for a table, whereas on the second night we sat immediately but had to wait nearly 50 minutes for a starter.  If it’s that crowded why not ask what we want for dinner either early evening or lunch so they can prepare it? It would still not be luxury, but an improvement.

Breakfast offers a small selection buffet and a smaller a la carte, but I was not displeased with any of it, in particular the pastries.  Lunch offered 5 perfectly adequate courses and a selection of fantastic pizzas, and once the bar opens, you can order a series of snacks to eat in there, such as a cheese board.  The evening menu slightly changes each evening, and there is always a daily special for both starter and main.

Being all-inclusive, you will not go hungry, but only if you’re prepared to keep asking for extra portions.  It seemed at times they were rationing food, with a side of mushrooms looking like it was picked during a famine and ice cream scooped using a scalpel.  With no room service allowed due to demonic bears, and therefore the only possibility of dining either booked for private dining, or in their main restaurant, it had that very communal and low-end feeling that reminded me of a Harvester.

Yet what makes Clayoquot is the intangible, which is made up of the guests and staff.  Everyone is pleased to be here, with everyone walking around with a smile and a desire to please.  That is, except the joint GMs.  Of the 100 staff, we never once saw housekeeping – even though the room was always spotless on our return, even on the final day – and we never saw the GM interact with any guests.  Apparently the odds of seeing a orca is about 35 million to 1; the same as seeing the GM talking to a guest.  From the lack of introduction during the initiation, to seeing them walking around during dinner times but not coming to speak to anyone, to their overall absence throughout.  For a property of this size, that is unheard of.  The only time this occurs is when the GM passes the baton onto anther senior member of staff, but neither that happened, so it often felt like not one was in charge; certainly no one was ever checking on the guests.

The dogs were good, but not that good.

Do not go thinking the service is going to be like Aman, even if prices look similar; it is more reactive rather than proactive.  They’ll make sure you get what you want rather than anticipating your needs for remembering preferences – not surprising when you have 50+ people leaving and another similar amount arriving on a single day.  But none of this bothered me due to the sheer kindness on display.  In fact, I was impressed by the service more so when discovering that only 6 of the 100 staff from last season were here.  Almost everyone is on short-term contracts and yet they’ve managed to find some absolute gems, almost entirely consisting of young, knowledgeable and passionate people.  The concern is that if you come back next year, what might you find?  Yet this year, they can be proud of what they achieved.  There were a few snafus, particularly around their desire to never to send anything to your room, and then wrong laundry ending up in there, but the only real issue was when I managed to speak to the GM for about 2 minutes prior to departure.

He mentioned that there would be no taxis waiting at the sea plane terminal when we return, and as it can get busy it’s best one is called.  He went to make sure one was present for us.  It’s the thought that counts, as none were waiting for us on arrival, so we had to sort it out ourselves and the other family we were traveling with were not aware of this either.  For the money charged every guest should have their own chauffeur with their names waiting for them.

Worth Knowing

The temperatures were quite extreme, going from needing sunscreen to needing more layers in the space of a few hours.  Take both your mankini and your eskimo outfit.  The days all started off cold, often warming up by the afternoon.  Clayoquot is only open from May until mid-September, as it is almost entirely uninhabitable the rest of the year.

The Good

  • I was forced to being sociable and turns out it’s not so bad

The Bad

  • All the same, it could achieve all of this without feeling so low-end

The Luxurious

  • Waking up every morning, turning on the fire and watching that landscape change right before your eyes.
  • Experiencing a fraction of the beauty in Canada

Conclusion

The world of luxury travel is now that there is a legitimate choice between going on safari in South Africa or Vancouver.  As with all my reviews, I am looking at this as a luxury property.  How the reality and logistics work, I’ll leave that to someone else.  If you charge $18,000 CAD for 3 nights, you set an expectation.

If you’re looking to get away from it all and spend days by yourself, you have come to the wrong place.

But I was not, so I loved it.  I would have loved it a lot more had there been some orcas, but that must just be part of those sneaky Canadians ploy to get me to return and spend more in other properties.

Clayoquot started to feel like a community.  You arrive at the same time as groups, you see them at the airport, you see them whilst having breakfast, you see them every morning at the activity centre, for lunch, for the afternoon activity, whilst in the bar.  You can even hear your neighbours at it every night, taking team bonding to a new level.

I know what you did last Summer

On top of this, the experience lends itself to getting to know the staff, especially as so many brought their own dogs that wonder around the property – a good conversation starter if ever I saw one.

There is a significant amount to love about Clayoquot, and a surprisingly large amount that could be improved.  It felt luxury in facilities and most off the accommodation (maybe food), but not in implementation.

Sometimes I even confuse myself by writing something that reads negative, but my experience is a positive one.  It is harder to describe a feeling than an experience.  Clayoquot got better the longer we stayed, forged by some astonishing views, excellent staff, activities and even guests.  Yet whilst I’m glad we came, and whilst I’m glad to recommend it, I’ll unlikely return anytime soon.  Instead it’s given me a hunger to try other lodges of a similar nature, such as Nimmo Bay and Churchill Wild.

More of this, please

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 26th Aug '18

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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