IN SEARCH OF THE PERFECT SOAK IN B.C.'S HOT SPRINGS? BUSHWHACK OR GO LUXE TO GET A BUBBLY FIX
My name is Beverley. I'm a hot-springs addict.
It started innocently enough, with annual family gatherings at the Harrison Hot Springs Resort & Spa. At first, its two hot pools in a building with the décor of an aging community swimming pool were enough for me. But, like any good dealer, the resort offered me just a little extra, just a little something new with each rendezvous. First, it was the plush white robe. Then, two huge outdoor hot pools. Next, a full-service spa. Another time, remodelled indoor pools and an outdoor bar. Add to that the evolution of the resort's food from mediocre spaghetti to exquisite pork tenderloin with figs, and I don't think I can really be held responsible for wanting more.
Fortunately, given that I live in Vancouver, most of Canada's 110 known hot springs are in B.C., according to Hot Springs of Western Canada. I'm not sure what known means, but I know about one that isn't in the book and I'm not telling where it is. I can't, anyway. All I remember about how to get there is bushwhacking and scrambling through the forest near Gingolx, a Nisga'a village on the Nass River. A local guy I know led the way. At first, our hike to the hot spring had seemed like a sort of pilgrimage, but after the stinging nettle and thorny devil's club, it just seemed like a bad idea.
However, when he stopped at a spot that looked precisely like all the other spots along the way, reached behind a tree for the small shovel he kept there, and scooped away a layer of leaves to reveal first steam, then water, then a path from me to the pool, I was back in pilgrimage mode.
At its best, a hot-springs experience involves the forest and/or the sea, cool fresh air, the sky, the feeling of lying back chin deep in a pool of steaming hot water bubbling up from the earth, your head supported by a perfect-fit mossy stone, and that whole one-with-nature thing. At its worst, it involves standing around in a pool of tepid water with a bunch of people you don't want to know while staying on alert to avoid touching any part of their bodies with any part of yours and wondering exactly how all those young children might be affected by all that warm water.
As with everything, hot springs range from barely okay to spectacular.
In the natural category, with a rating of most spectacular, the winner is Hot Springs Cove, 37 kilometres northwest of Tofino, accessible only by boat, kayak, or plane.
First thing: forget the day-trip idea. Lots of other people have the same plan, which means that you end up in these idyllic hot pools by the ocean with too many people and who needs that? Camp at the nearby campsite for a night or two and make the trek to the pools in the morning before the parade of tourist-laden seaplanes arrives. You will be mightily rewarded, first with a beautiful 1.5-kilometre boardwalk through the woods, then with the hot pools themselves.
They're perched on the edge of the ocean at the base of a cliff, so you've got the magic combination of hot water, rocks, sea air, trees, and the ocean to obliterate anything that usually worries you. If that's not enough, there's always the hot waterfall that lands perfectly on the lucky person sitting on a particular boulder. The pools nearest the ocean are warm, cool, or empty, depending on the tide; the pools nearest the cliff are very hot. When you finally manage to climb out of the water, your skin will feel like silk and, as you walk back through the trees, you'll have that every-cell-is-contented feeling.
At the commercial end of the hot-springs spectrum, I award my most-spectacular rating only if the whole experience satisfies that "pamper me, pamper me" longing and leaves me with a sense of overall well-being. Harrison Hot Springs, with the added advantage of my fondness for the place that started my obsession, wins.
Most mornings at the hotel's swimming pool, you see little kids, slippery as seals, clambering over their dads, then, come evening, dancing with even littler kids, grandparents, and everybody else to the Jones Boys in the Copper Room Restaurant. The Boys, who've been performing here for 1,245,679 years, announce celebrations from first anniversaries to 90th birthdays between tunes that range from Glen Miller's "In the Mood" (great) to the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" (cheesy, but who cares?), and everyone does a lot of smiling.
After a day of canoeing on Harrison Lake followed by a few turns around the dance floor, a stint of lolling in one of the hot mineral pools could well be accompanied by such thoughts as Remember to steal housekeeping cart and bribe nephew to wheel self to room, thereby avoiding standing and/or walking now that bones have disappeared and muscles are new kind of liquid.
It was in just such a state that I recalled another of the hot-springs experiences that keep me seeking more. It was the middle of the night, a colder-than-cold, darker-than-dark January night at Nakusp Hot Springs. There were no stars, no lights, no people but my friend and I in the pool. I was utterly relaxed, eyes closed, floating on my back, only my face above the surface of the water, his hand on the small of my back as he turned me slowly, like the needle of a compass, until I lost all sense of north and south, up and down. There was only my own heartbeat, the dark, the water sliding around my skin, and then, softly, unexpectedly, cool feathers and icy petals touching my face. Snow.
There are worse addictions.
ACCESS: Hot Springs of Western Canada by Glenn Woodsworth (Gordon Soules Book Publishers, $24.95; second edition 1999) is the bible of the hot-spring seeker. It includes detailed info, including directions, for hot springs in B.C., Alberta, Washington, and Alaska. Hot Springs is a good book to take with you on a road trip: there are plenty of springs reasonably accessible from well-travelled roads.
Call 1-800-663-2266 or check harrisonhot
springshotel.com/ for info on the Harrison Hot Springs Resort & Spa; call the Tofino Chamber of Commerce ( 725-3414) or visit www.island.net/~tofino/ for info on Hot Springs Cove; details on Nakusp Hot Springs are at (250) 265-3788 and nakusphotsprings.com/.
Ainsworth Hot Springs, near Nelson, is also worth a visit ( 668-1171, www.hot
naturally.com/). The hot pool in a large cave makes for an unusual experience, but it's crowded in the summer.
Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park, 320 kilometres north of Fort Nelson, is fantastic. There is a boardwalk to the two largest pools, along with changing rooms and surrounding decks, but there are also lots of small pools that haven't been developed and that you can discover for yourself. The park is known for its unusual plant life--including more than a dozen species of orchids, according to Hot Springs--because of the microclimate created by the springs. For info, go to wlapwww.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/ex
Be warned: Meager Creek Hot Springs, about 40 kilometres from Pemberton, has, tragically, evolved from a truly spectacular place to one that is environmentally threatened because of large numbers of visitors, many of whom don't respect either the place or other people there. If concern about environmental damage isn't enough to keep you away, concern about the rowdiness should be.