by Robin Esrock
The Great Canadian Bucket List is always on the hunt for unique Canadian experiences. If they happen to be located in a lush valley, surrounded by mountains and infused with notable hospitality, all the better. Echo Valley Ranch and Spa is a family-owned retreat that caught my attention for its location and unusual Asian influence. It’s a world apart from the ranch vacation I explored in Alberta. Think less horse manure, and more tranquil massage. Less roping, more ambling in the forest. Less hardened cowboy, more affable Englishman. Less yanking bales of hay, more yoga classes in the morning. Less bannock, more organic greens (grown on-site) fine wine and worn leather sofas.
The ranch is the home of Norm and Nan Dove, and for a Trip Advisor Travellers Choice and Boutique Hotel Award Winner, it feels remarkably like the dream home of a friend who has invited your family to come and visit. Canadian, English, Thai and Japanese staff are much like a large happy family themselves, and I was thrilled to bring along my own, including my parents, aunt and uncle visiting from California, my wife and two-year-old toddler Raquel. Guests retire to their beautifully appointed rooms, suites or cabins, but gather in the Dove Lodge for gourmet meals, chats around the fire place, activities in the Games Room, or dreamy reading sessions. Each evening, Mark, the head wrangler, asks us what activities might be of interest the following day. A horse ride into the forests of British Columbia’s Cariboo region? A bike ride or hike into the valley? How about an authentic Thai spa, massage or body treatment? You can also join Norm for some epic flightseeing in his leather-seated Cessna 206, which is exactly what I decided to do. I’d previously explored the Cariboo region piloting a Harley Davidson, and was eager to see what it looked like from the air. Only issue, my Dad and I had babysitting duties while my wife, mom and aunt went for a ride. “No problem,” says Norm, “just bring her along.” I get the feeling Norm says “No problem” and means no problem, quite a lot.
And this is how Norm’s once-in-a-lifetime flightseeing trip over the stunning Cariboo glaciers, gemstone lakes and Grand Canyonesque Fraser Valley also became Norm’s Toddler Nap Service. Little Raquel fell asleep shortly after take-off, and woke up two hours later after safely touching down. I love small planes. Between my daughter blissfully cradled in my arms, the jaw-dropping views, and my Dad flying a plane for a few minutes (ticking that one off his own bucket list) it became one of the most memorable flights of my career.
Horses rarely look this healthy. Vegetables, picked daily from the greenhouse or gardens, rarely taste this good. On the lush green lawns outside our homely cabin, my daughter plays Frisbee with Echo, one of the Ranch’s half dozen border collies. My wife is stretched out on the soft grass beneath the warm, BC-interior sun. On the patio, the older generation are chatting about their outstanding combo Thai/traditional massages while enjoying the cool valley breeze. The dinner bell sounds, and we gather with the other guests for yet another scrumptious meal. Norm and his Thai wife Nan are at every meal, with friendly staff serving meals or casually cleaning up in the open plan kitchen. While life is never quite as simple as it appears (this from a travel writer!) I’ve decided that Norm and Nan have indeed figured life out: they meet interesting people from around the world in their home, live with all the beauty and comforts one can imagine, and have Vancouver just a scenic one-hour flight away (or five hours if you’re driving). It’s as good as it gets.
My Dad and I are enjoying a Scotch from the Ranch Suite patio as we watch Raquel take a pony ride on a horse called Moonwalker. Initially reluctant to get in the saddle, Raquel is now beaming. My wife is literally fist-pumping the sky, celebrating that our daughter has overcame a fear, and will likely be a lifelong horse fan as a result. My Mom and Aunt are playing cards, my Uncle is taking an afternoon nap. “These are the days of our lives,” says my Dad.
I’m often asked how I describe a bucket list experience. It has to be unique (like a luxury family ranch/Asian spa). It has to be realistic and accessible (Echo Valley accepts reservations online). It has to deliver a great story, and and be memorable (like moments in the plane and on the patio described above). Checking out with warm handshakes and hugs, Norm asks me what I thought about our stay at the ranch. There was only thing I could say:
“Bucket List, Norm. Bucket List.”
For more information, visit Echo Valley Ranch online