Between Sonora Resort's luxury lodge in the pristine Discovery Islands and the most elegant camping experience at Clayoquot Wilderness Resort in Tofino, Vancouver Island's Relais and Chateaux properties bring visitors up close and personal with bears, whales, elk, sea lions and bald eagles.
In the remote coastal rainforest of Vancouver Island, Sonora Resort and Clayoquot Wilderness Resort are an adventure traveler's dream. Both are accessible only by air and water and they make quite the impression as you swoop in by helicopter or float plane. The water taxi might seem like the least glamourous entrance to Sonora, but when you see orcas and humpback whales along the way, it's just as thrilling.
I'm here at Sonora for the grizzlies. These kings of the forest rule the Orford River from late August through October. While there are no guarantees, grizzlies are not shy and we spotted 19 grizzly bears in less than three hours one sunny September morning. There were moms with cubs, including a few cubs that nearly got swept away by a swift river current, and lone juvenile grizzlies just beginning to explore the vast rainforest on their own. We're escorted from one viewing platform to the next by two excellent guides from Homalco Wildlife Tours, teaching us folklore and Homalco First Nations history along the way.
"I'm here at Sonora for the grizzlies."
There are so many grizzlies this time of year because they're feasting on spawning salmon and salmon fishing is another big draw at Sonora. Die hard fishermen aim to catch a tyee – a salmon weighing more than 30 pounds. I saw a couple enjoying a beautiful chinook they'd caught the day before at dinner served with an array of summer vegetables prepared by executive chef Lukas Gurtner. The Sonora team will fillet, vacuum pack and freeze your catch to take home, or have it processed and shipped directly to you. Some guests even have local artist Eiji Umemura make a gyotaku fish rubbing of their catch, a delicately painted life-sized artist's impression done in the Japanese tradition.
Unlike at Sonora where you touch down right in front of the lodge, landing on the ocean at Clayoquot Wilderness Retreat, you don't see any buildings at all, just mountains and trees. A horse-drawn carriage arrives to whisk you to the most elegant campsite, where ensuite tents have heated bathroom floors, outdoor showers and double sinks.
There are no grizzlies here, but black bears are so common that we all have bear horns beneath our nightstands and are vehemently warned against bringing any food or drink into our tents. The closest I come to a black bear is by boat on a wildlife viewing tour, watching solitary bears digging for crab on the beach. That same morning we also see bald eagles, sea lions, grey whales and sea otters. Elusive cougars and wolves are around too, but they are far more likely to spot us than we are them.
"At Clayoquot there are no grizzlies but black bears are very common."
I visited during the stormiest, wettest days of the entire season, and by evening I was ready for a sumptuous meal. Executive Chef Michael Pataran is new this season and prepares seven or nine-course tasting menus each night for up to 10 guests at the chef's counter. Pataran previously worked in Cambodia and Asian influences permeate his food, from a corn chawanmushi to beef marinated in cherry miso. Foodies can ask to go foraging with chef, helping to pick spruce tips, wild blackberries, salal berries and mushrooms that you'll find on your plate the next day.