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Embrace BC’s Softer Side:
Spas, Holistic Health, and the Great Outdoors

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There are myriad reasons to explore British Columbia this fall, and here’s one worthy of note: If you’re looking for getaways that combine self-care and wellness with a connection to place, BC delivers.

The province’s vibrant rainforest, snow-capped mountains, and pristine coastlines provide the backdrop for forest bathing, guided wellness experiences, and outdoor spa treatments. And with more than 70 per cent of eligible BC residents fully vaccinated, fall is a prime window for cross-border travel, with fewer crowds and increased health and safety protocols still in place.

This fall, make your first international trip to British Columbia, where you can recharge in the great outdoors (or in a treatment room), and rediscover BC at the same time.

Note: This story has been written specifically for the unique travel circumstances of 2021. Information is accurate at the time of publication; we recommend you contact businesses directly to confirm availability and familiarize yourself with their COVID policies. Plan ahead and visit our Know Before You Go page, where you’ll find important, real-time information on the Canadian border, local public health orders and recommendations, driving routes, wildfires, and more. 

Heading out on the Talking Trees tour of Stanley Park with Talaysay Tours. | @vancitywild

Reconnect With Nature in Vancouver

The word Shangri-La describes a remote, beautiful, and fictional place where life approaches perfection, and the term has certainly been used to characterize Vancouver. Ringed by misty mountains and lush rainforest, and with a scenic harbor, a health holiday in Lotus Land can be an idyllic way to unwind and reconnect with nature.

Begin your wellness renewal at the Shangri-La Vancouver, a chic urban sanctuary with a renowned spa, CHI. Embark on one of CHI’s Wellness Journeys, a themed holistic spa experience with multiple full-body treatments. The “West Coast Retreat,” for example, is inspired by Northwest Coast Indigenous wellness practices and includes a detox wrap and seaweed body polish using Seaflora, a made-in-BC certified organic seaweed-based skin care line.

Step outside in your newly glowy skin and do some mental cleansing in Lighthouse Park on the North Shore. Meanwhile, Rockwood Adventures leads a Rainforest Bathing Wellness & Salmon Adventure that teaches how to be in the moment among 500-year-old Western redcedars and towering Douglas fir trees. To see the forest canopy through a different lens, join the Talking Trees Tour in iconic Stanley Park. An Indigenous guide with Talaysay Tours will share history and stories, while educating participants about how local trees and plants were historically used for food, medicine, and building materials.

For a bird’s-eye view, take in the view of Howe Sound from the Sea to Sky Gondola near Squamish, or hop on a boat with Prince of Whales from Granville Island to catch a glimpse of the marine wildlife that call this area home. If a full-body cleanse is preferred, try stand-up paddleboarding; Vancouver Water Adventures offers SUP tours along the coast departing from Granville Island. This trendy pastime is meditative when the water is calm, and it will tone your core and improve your balance. Chances are good you’ll also become one with the water (translation: Fall in and get wet!)

The Sunken Garden at The Butchart Gardens. | @localwanderer

Detox with Tea and Trees in Victoria

With mountain views, marine air, and manicured gardens, Victoria is a city best experienced outdoors. There are no better places to get Zen than stepping across the water stones at the exquisite Japanese Garden inside The Butchart Gardens, or stopping for a high tea detox downtown in Abkhazi Gardens, a blooming masterpiece. Then, when you’re ready for some pampering, move it inside at one of the city’s many day spas.

Start your wellness escape by learning the art of walking contemplation: Elemental Magick Adventures leads nature walks through the rainforest in Francis King Regional Park. A guide will instruct you to imagine being a tree rooted to the ground, a visualization exercise that helps participants be present in the moment as they walk to meet a forest elder—a 650-year-old Douglas fir.

It’s equally meditative being out on the water in the Victoria Harbour, where every dip of a kayak or SUP paddle can be a rhythmic call for introspection. Kelp Reef Adventures and Ocean River both offer tours in the protected harbor, where the pretty scenery of Fisherman’s Wharf, bobbing seals, and eagles soaring overhead will certainly be a balm for the soul.

When it’s time to call it a day, Victoria has no lack of hotels with spas onsite. Located right on the Inner Harbour, the Fairmont Empress and its Willow Stream Spa is the most iconic. Level up to the Gold Floor for the royal treatment, with sumptuous rooms, a private guest lounge, and daily happy-hour canapes (be sure to check out the hotel’s Wellness at the Empress package for maximum pampering). Across town, the oceanfront Oak Bay Beach Hotel is home to the Boathouse Spa and a series of tempting mineral pools overlooking the Salish Sea.

Fairmont Vancouver Airport hotel. | @vancitywild

De-stress With the Birds in Richmond

Birdwatching is a pastime that grew wings during the pandemic. But who knew that observing feathered friends preen, bathe, and pull worms out of the ground is not only entertaining but good for you, too? An article published in BioScience in 2017 found that watching birds do bird things is good for your mental health, particularly for city dwellers. It’s called “ornitherapy.”

One of the best places to reap the benefits of birds in BC is in Richmond, which is located on the Pacific Flyway, a migratory path near the Fraser River Delta where you can spy herons probing for fish in the shallows or see wigeons stealing food from other “sitting ducks” in the water. Spot a multitude of winged creatures while cruising on a bike or on a boat with Vancouver Whale Watch, or join a Birding 101 class with local ornithologist Liron Gertsman at birding hotspot Iona Beach Regional Park. For a more DIY experience, book the Birding Package at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport, located between Richmond and the Fraser River. You’ll be kitted out with a birding backpack complete with binoculars, maps, a bird guide, and a picnic lunch for two.

Consider upgrading to the spacious Jade Wellness Suite on the hotel’s Fairmont Gold level, where you can do your own preening thanks to a jetted soaker tub and wellness amenities including bath salts, body balm, and a chamomile body scrub, plus a diffuser with essential oils.

For professional treatments, Richmond has a number of spas, including local favorite Spa Versanté. There are also spots in town where you can try an Asian-influenced massage such as Thai, Shiatsu, or foot reflexology. If you’d rather just try to perfect your bird of paradise pose, head to YYoga at the Richmond Olympic Oval, which offers more than 40 classes a week, from hot yoga to yoga sculpt.

Scandinave Spa Whistler | @ameliapatillo

Hike to Health in Whistler

Renowned for its four-season resort and the vertical thrills delivered from skiing, mountain biking, and ziplining, there’s also a Zen side to Whistler that’s worth exploring. With numerous spas and yoga studios, mellow outdoor activities in abundance such as paddleboarding on Alta Lake, and a reputation for fresh, wholesome food, it’s just as easy to lower your heart rate in Whistler as it is to spike the adrenaline.

Unplug on a forest path such as those in the Whistler Interpretive Forest by the Cheakamus River, or the winding trails in Lost Lake Park, close to Whistler Village. Then, instead of hiking toward a destination, slow down and experience nature with more senses than just sight: Feel the soft, mossy tree trunks, smell the damp of leaves and undergrowth, hear the breeze in the canopy, or the squawk of a Steller’s Jay. This mindfulness in nature is called forest bathing, and it’s been shown to reduce blood pressure, boost mood and feelings of happiness, and improve sleep.

For a real forest bath, head to Scandinave Spa Whistler (tip: Reserve a time in advance for guaranteed access). These popular outdoor Scandinavian hot baths and plunge pools are as famous for their setting nestled in the woods as they are for the hydrotherapy circuit that detoxifies and rejuvenates as you cycle through in silence (no talking or cell phones allowed).

When it’s time to collapse in a relaxed puddle, Nita Lake Lodge has spacious suites with soaker tubs and comfy king beds. Plus, it has a full-service spa with rooftop hot tubs and a Mountain Après package that includes a Swedish massage and a signature facial that’s pure bliss.

Featured image: Cycling along the bridge at Green Lake, Whistler. | Hubert Kang

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