A Sense of Place

by Rona Berg

Getting to Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge, on the pristine 600-acre, UNESCO-designated Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve, requires riding a seaplane, boat or helicopter into the wild.

It may not be easy, but that’s a good part of the fun—knowing that once you arrive, you will immerse in a true wilderness experience, wildlife encounters and incomparable natural beauty. Guests stay in luxurious canvas tents along the estuary, which are packed down at the end of the season and built back up the next year.

Choosing among experiences unique to the surroundings, guests can paddle canoes and kayaks into wildlife habitats; follow the Wild Side First Nations Interpretive Trail; boat into Clayoquot Sound to see whales, sea lions, porpoises, otters, eagles and bears; horseback ride through old-growth forest to glacial river crossings and abandoned gold mines; and canyon up glacier-fed Bedwell River to a waterfall channel with hidden waterholes.

Archery, catch-and-release fishing, disc golf, mountain biking, rock climbing and helicopter adventures (including heli hiking and heli fly-fishing) in this environment guarantee an utterly unique experience. And, after a day of exploration, the Healing Grounds Spa is the perfect place to wind down. Tucked amid the primordial forest along Clayoquot Sound, the secluded Spa is a true sanctuary with massage tent, yoga and meditation room, sauna, cedar hot tubs—and an incomparable view.

Every activity is elevated beyond expectation and executed flawlessly, which is what you’d expect at a Relais & Chateaux, even one in the wilderness. And that level of good taste is well evident in the cuisine, a potential challenge for a chef in such a remote spot. But Chef Asher Blackford creates dishes of rustic refinement that draw from the land and a true sense of place.

Hailing from Australia, Blackford has worked with Clayoquot owners Hayley and James Baillie, of Baillie Lodges, for years. Most recently, he was executive chef at the renowned Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island, off the southern tip of Australia. (The exquisite Lodge was destroyed in the bushfires that engulfed the region a year ago, but plans are underway to rebuild the iconic property, expected to reopen in late 2022.)

Before that, Blackford owned restaurants in Melbourne and Brisbane, chasing awards and accolades like most chefs, but he wasn’t entirely happy—until he realized how much peace was to be found working in remote, natural outposts like the Lodges.

Not only did Blackford fall in love with the majestic beauty of the region, the local bounty piqued his curiosity and stirred his creativity as a chef. “The concept is to showcase the best of the best from this region,” he says, and a majority of ingredients—including wine and sake, honey, fruits and vegetables, seafood and more—come from British Columbia, and, in many cases, Vancouver Island itself. He works closely with small Island growers, and Blackford, an avid fisherman, employs a small fleet of local fisherfolk who drive their boats right up to the Clayoquot docks with the day’s Ocean Wise-Approved catch.

The team also forages regularly, which has led them to create wildly inventive dishes from local mushrooms, salmon berries, licorice fern root, thimbleberries, sea asparagus, kelp and more. There is a food cellar on the property where they store a range of fermented foods.

“The food experience is a continuation of the experiences the guests have during their day,” Blackford says. “Consciously and unconsciously, we want guests to link the flavors to their experiences.” A great example is Carmelized Hay Ice Cream, inspired by the Equine Program.

“We keep our footprint small. You want to do what you can to protect such a pristine environment,” says Blackford. “It’s one of the most stunning landscapes I’ve ever come across in my life.”

“My food philosophy solely and wholly is built on the intent to work in beautiful, remote locations,” says Blackford. “I love to be humbled by nature. It’s all about being out in the wild.”

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