King Pacific Lodge, Princess Royal Island, Canada
When I was thirteen years old, I stood covered in mud, the wind biting at my bare legs, my games teacher shouting at me: ‘Lacrosse is Canadian! You should be good at it!’ I cursed my heritage then and there – the Canadian part for mandating that I be a great team player, the English one for subjecting me to ancient boarding-school practices and making me ‘TACKLE!’ people with a long wooden stick.
Last summer, or during Construction, as the season is affectionately known (Almost Winter, Winter and Still Winter remain), in a bid to remind myself of the splendours of my mother’s homeland, I flew with my partner to Vancouver, boarded a jet for the coastal town of Bella Bella (population: 300) and there piled into a floatplane bound yet further north, to land yet more sparsely populated. A long, bitty trip, but one essential to knock your senses into life.
The tiny eight-seater sidles up to the deck. We scramble out of a door-hatch the size of an arm-hole and listen out for telling sounds of the great outdoors. ‘Champagne?’ offers Katie, an athletic-looking blonde in a parka. In a setting fit for a Ralph Lauren fashion spread – think log fire, cashmere throws slung over leather settees, a chandelier made of deer antlers – a welcome talk ensues. ‘Help yourself to cookies,’ says Katie. ‘Let Andy know around 6pm whether it’s kayaking, fishing or hiking you’d like the next day and he’ll set it up for you,’ she says. ‘The cigars work on an honour system, so keep a tab of how many you’ve had. Your doors don’t lock. Over here you have the room with all your wet-weather gear…’
Bedroom doors do not lock at King Pacific Lodge, I deduce, because thieves haven’t very far to go. Floating in Barnard Harbour, where wild animals outnumber humans by 10,000 to one and humpback and killer whales have the right of way over incoming aircraft half their size, KPL is isolated by anyone’s standards. Navigate your way out of the surrounding archipelago and reach hospitable territory before food and water supplies run dry and I’ll eat my personal belongings, never mind letting you steal them.
The night we arrive, we are treated to a dinner of organic squash and prosciutto bruschetta, a choice of roasted Vancouver island venison with huckleberry jus or albacore tuna burger with miso mayo, and a vanilla yogurt, braised plum and almond water concoction for dessert. I can barely move. Young, bearded and calm, chef Maxim Ridorossi epitomises the affable, kindly Canadian character made famous by Canadians abroad, cooking in a kitchen the size of a walk-in wardrobe, rustling up anything on demand ‘since guests have no place else to go,’ and giving in to provocation only when asked to serve venison well done.
Among those making the pilgrimage to the five-star, two-storey, seventeen-bedroom, fully mod-con behemoth of a buoyant structure that is King Pacific Lodge, are businessman Art and his teenage son Patrick, and a former BBC executive hell-bent on getting through a pile of novels as tall as her six-year-old. Past visitors include Hollywood actor Kevin Costner and friends, a Thyssen, and a financial tycoon who likes the place so much he lavishes iPods, GPS watches and cameras on all staff with each visit he makes.
We sip digestifs and read the next day’s schedule that Andy has just delivered and which happily caters to all our respective whims. A couple goes fly-fishing in one boat, my partner and I in another, at a time of our choosing. I am relieved. Content to break bread and swap business cards over breakfast and dinner, I am nonetheless in no mood for an adult version of summer camp (remember the aversion to team sports). One guest is going to ‘relax at the lodge,’ another will ‘explore Wolf Creek with Dan’. Art is booked in to heli-fish but balks at the fine print. This last activity incurs an additional C$1,875 to compensate for the helicopter’s negative effect on the surrounding ecosystem. ‘I wasn’t expecting that,’ he says. ‘My wife organised this trip for me and Patrick. She’ll spend $800 on a pair of Jimmy Choos and say it pays off because she wears them over and over again. But you can only ride a helicopter once.’
The Lodge is following a five-year plan to halve its carbon footprint, hence the expensive helicopter deterrent. In my book, the rotorcraft is superfluous. A whale the size of a London bus swam underneath my kayak on my first day here. I defy a helicopter to offer more perspective on man’s place in the food chain.
Efforts at preservation include capping the amount of salmon we can fish from the ocean – four Chinook maximum per day – and releasing anything caught in freshwater. I admit I don’t ‘get’ fishing at first. On our inaugural foray, we fly-fish in Tyler Bite, the salmon take on Place de la Concorde. They bite in a matter of seconds and I wince when grappling with a fish head and a hook I can’t dislodge. I wonder whether coming this far and professing such repulsion at the act of fishing doesn’t make me a fool, even if the majority of guests don’t come here for the fishing. When I ask what makes battling with sixteen pounds of pink meat a sport, our guide, Terran, turns and stares at my partner as if to say, ‘OK, who brought the girl?’
On our way back to the lodge we spot Sea Lion Rock, a dot of an island you almost smell before you see. It teams with massive, mustard-coloured beasts whose fangs rival my forearm in length. We hike the imposing and aptly named X Mountain the following day, trundling first over a dense and thorny forest floor heaving with overgrown roots and funghi the size of serving platters, before tackling the moss-covered rock face and boulders to reach the summit. At the top, a mixture of exhaustion, vertigo and euphoria runs through my veins.
When we take to the water again – one massage, much banter and yet another lavish dinner later – I brace myself for ocean fishing. The area surrounding the boat’s controls is the British Columbian equivalent of the white-van dashboard, only wilder: an eagle feather, fish hooks, a Freshwater Salmon Supplement (in lieu of an A to Z), a discarded glove, half a paddle and, yes, a packet of crisps. Parked in the direction of Japan, our monitor signals a bait ball that we waste no time casting our lines over, the first of several unexpected reactions on my part. Bite follows bite. Something about reeling in, clubbing and depositing fish in a cold store for our return to the lodge triggers a primal sensation of bringing home the bacon. I feel victorious.
Vacuum-packed smoked salmon in tow, leaving the vast expanse of Canada for the small rented floor-space of London stings a little. I’m left with a new-found respect for my ‘people’, arguably the nicest on earth except for the ones working as crew on Air Canada, who are not.
Perhaps the only minus to Canada were the midges. Nasty little buggers. On a par with the code of ethics of lacrosse, they merit eternal damnation.