Chilling out in the Cariboo

By Ilona Kauremszky

108 MILE RANCH, BC - Painter Emily Carr once remarked, "I can never love the Cariboo enough for all she gave to me. Mounted on a cowpony I roamed the land, not knowing where I went - to be alive, going, that was enough."

Nestled in the bosom of the coastal mountains and the Rockies of British Columbia lies the Cariboo. This vast landscape crescendoes into towering precipices along the rugged Fraser River Canyon and diminuendos into alpine valleys festooned with wild rosehip and yellow sagebrush.

During the mid 19th century at the height of the Gold Rush, dreamers arrived by the thousands to the "eighth wonder of the world" in search of gold. They built meager shacks on land considered to tough to settle. These days, most travelers could bypass this wilderness refuge on their road trip to more popular destinations such as Banff or Whistler.

But as I discovered on a trip last autumn, Cariboo country is panning for a new form of gold through a sluice box of dude ranches and luxury country spas.

The Hills Health Ranch

"Put these on while I sneak out for a minute," commands Cheryl, a masseuse extraordinaire. I caught my disposable undies - all which would protect me from the gritty paste, part of the Grapeseed Scrub with Rosehip Oil treatment popular here.

On cue, I disrobed and propped myself on the bed, lying there for the next spell. This was a far cry from the hullabaloo of Toronto. Earlier in the afternoon, I flew with a sturdy Dash-8 from Vancouver to the old forestry town of Williams Lake overlooking a symphony of color that curved along the serpentine Fraser River.

When owners Pat and Juanita Corbett first opened the spa in 1985, before the fad of new ageism, the couple insisted this was the place for people to get rejuvenated. What began as a one treatment room has flourished into one of Canada's most successful health and wellness retreats with 46 guest rooms, 16 treatment rooms, specially designed menus accentuating tasteful calories, a host of health practitioner's and of course, a team of horses, ready for those perfect trail rides into the western sunset.

A sweet aroma wafted throughout this womblike room as Cheryl rubbed rosehip oil. This house specialty was discovered by Juanita, a self confessed naturalist.

"We have so many rosehips," she says over lunch, "I thought there must be something we can do with them because they spread like gangbusters." In the bosom of the Cariboo's rolling hills, 3300 feet above sea level, the ranch is immersed in 20,000 acres of pure wilderness, and as Juanita adds, "It's a perfect altitude for growing rosehips."

After lunch, it was over to the stables for the afternoon horseback ride. A complete novice, I raised my hand quickly when Rory, our wrangler, sporting leather chaps and a riding coat, weaned out the first-timers from the pros.

The trail winds over hills ablazed in patches of yellow poplars, past the calm of a tear-shaped lake mirroring the jagged cliffs behind it. Our overworked, time-challenged North American sensibilities crumbled in the face of the sensual and sensible pace of Cariboo life.

That night beneath a canopy of shining stars, 15 strangers boarded a hayride helmed by seasoned wrangler, Joe. The fall leaves crackled under the galloping hooves as we headed towards Willy's Wigwam. Mulled cider and a blackened kettle steaming of hot chocolate fueled a sing-along that was already seriously underway.

Giddily, I joined the merriment. A pair of spoons clacked to the guitarist's tune while a young kid breathed life into an old harmonica. The music became more intoxicating throughout the evening.

Big Bar Guest Ranch

The next morning, I was off to spend a day in the Marble range, horseback riding at a dude ranch called "Big Bar Guest Ranch."

Owner Anne Freeman decided five years ago to wrangle three other women and opened the ranch. Big Bar provides adults a ranch open year round with plenty of home cooking, hopping activities, accommodations such as private rooms, cabins, teepees, camp sites, and trails that have been rated as "one of Canada's Top 10 Most Scenic Rides" by Canadian Cowboy Magazine.

Unloading my bag in a Spartan room fit for any cowboy, I hightailed it to the informal dining room for some chicken patties, loads of creamy potato salad and sweet pickles, in preparation for our two-hour ride.

At the stables, Dirk, our German-born wrangler, matches horses and surveys us, checking height, size and skill, a routine Freeman insists makes Big Bar a success. "Our horses ride all year. So, their care and well-being are very important because they are the heart and soul of the ranch," she says.

Trying to ease into the role of a hip cowboy, I still sheepishly moan, "beginner." Misty, a docile female, becomes my horse and together we languidly trundel behind our wrangler. Our intimate group trots silently past thatches of blue and yellow sage and tall aspens on our way to survey the best scenic view this side of the Cariboo.

"You'll see when we get there why people love to ride this trail," says Dirk about the Knoll that cradles a perfect 360-degree vista. Leaning back, the cool mountain breeze refreshed my face in the late afternoon sun, lulling me into a dream.

"What do you think?" Dirk asks.

I descend from Misty and stand mesmerized.

Above giant swirls of cirrus clouds set off the soft mounds that remind me of the hump of a camel's back. My eyes catch the verdant weave of a thousand pine trees that seem to mesh endlessly on the mountainside. Then I see it. Standing tall as a sentinel, Mount Bowman climbs to the heavens. Capped in snow, the prehistoric wonder sits radiantly, changing her mood to the passing clouds.

"Awesome," I reply.

Echo Valley Resort and Spa

It's easy to understand their slogan: "East Meets West."

When you arrive, you immediately spot a peculiar structure resembling a Thai temple. It turns out this cedar pagoda that elegantly crowns this plateau of soft silky grasses houses "Baan Thai" (house of healing), all part of the ultra-luxurious experience of Echo Valley Resort and Spa.

Situated on the fringe of the rugged Marble range to the east and the magnificent chasm of the Fraser River Canyon south, this secluded dude ranch and spa basks in the beauty of the Cariboo, offering a smorgasbord of activities from gold panning to white water rafting to fly fishing and everything in between.

Owners Norm and Nan Dove want you to feel at home and have considered every fine detail. This Shangri-la has no check-in counters and no room keys. It's really a home away from home but with all the accoutrements fit for a king. There are two satellite dishes for the email conscious, a $14,000 crystal chandelair hanging in the Dove's barn and a 1,040 metre long private runway for two private aircraft for their guest arrivals, departures and sightseeing.

Even the design of the spa's newest edition, "Baan Thai" was carefully conceived. No wonder. One of the Royal Thai family's architects was approached to design this sanctuary, the first of its kind in North America. Styled with orchids, Thai silks and carved teak imported from Thailand, a bedroom suite and a spacious massage emporium welcome stressed souls while the main floor contains a general purpose room for conferences and yoga classes.

Inside the Dove Lodge, Cordon Bleu Chef Kim Madsen is creating gourmet dishes and for the health conscious, there is the chef's special "Eat Right for your blood type" diet inspired by renowned Dr. Peter Adamo. I opt for the lunch buffet of banana squash soup (no cream), Swedish meatballs, orange chicken and a green salad drizzling in balsamic vinaigrette.

Over two long banquet tables, we munch and discuss the afternoon's activities: horseback riding, hiking one of the countless trails, observing a resident falconer or getting a Thai massage.

That was easy - the Thai massage.

A lemongrass fragrance floats by flickering candles while Nuch my spa therapist is hard at work. Through a series of pulls and thrusts, she knits her feet and legs into every muscle and loin of my body while her stealthy fingers capture sensitive pressure points along the temples, wrists and behind the ears, absolutely heavenly.

Afterwards, I meet Celinda who strikes a lotus position and says, "Welcome." As four of us twist and turn and ply our limbs into impossible positions, my newfound yogi instructs, "Don't forget. Breathe."

Outside, I spot four border collies playing on the grassy carpet that envelopes this exotic playground. The magical allure of the Cariboo transcends us all.


photos: Stephen Smith

If You Go:

Hills Health Ranch
Reservations: 1.250.791.5225

Big Bar Guest Ranch
Reservations: 1.250.459.2333

Echo Valley Ranch and Spa
For Reservations: 1.800.253.8831

Tourism British Columbia
Phone: 1.800.HELLO.BC

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