I am midway through an epic massage in Baan Thai, a suite atop a two-storey structure ornamented with teak furnishings and bejewelled elephant figurines. Designed by Pinyo Suwankiri – one of Thailand’s most famous architects, whose stamp marks temples and royal sites throughout his country – the space invites luxuriant relaxation. My eyes close, the scent of massage oil hanging sweet in the air.
When I reopen them 90 minutes later (I am now massaged to a supple pulp by the capable hands of Wanna Nuphan), it’s to the reality that I’m not actually in Thailand but at a nouveau dude ranch, deep in the heart of British Columbia’s cowboy country. Outside, the sun sets mauve over the Marble Range, where wrangler Mark Utton, his Cockney accent as brisk as the day he left London’s East End, leads a herd of horses out to a lush green pasture dotted with sedges and wildflower bulbs.
I’m on the trail on the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast, a rolling landscape of rivers, lakes and grasslands that’s bounded by snowy peaks and animated by a history of gold seeking and cattle ranching. This sparsely populated chunk of B.C.’s interior has a magnetic appeal, especially for a certain kind of entrepreneur with big dreams and big personality, as I’m already learning a day into my stay at Echo Valley Ranch and Spa, the first in a trio of unique guest ranches I am visiting. Pondering its colourful cultural contradictions, I realize that my preconceived ideas of the dude ranch will be forever cached in the dusty pages of a Zane Grey western.
Yin and twang
The next day I saddle up an agreeable steed named Ernie and clip-clop behind Utton, who leads us to a spectacular overlook above the Big Bar Creek, a tributary of the mighty Fraser River that cuts through this semiarid country like a northern Grand Canyon.
From here it’s easy to understand why the Echo Valley owners – Brit-born Norm Dove and his Thai wife Nan, who he met on a business trip to Thailand in 1985 – fell in love with this quarter section. That was almost 25 years ago, and since then they have seamlessly applied their own brand of Southeast Asian hospitality to the rugged realm of leather saddles, cowboy boots and Stetsons.
The Doves have seamlessly applied their own brand of Southeast Asian hospitality to the rugged realm of leather saddles and Stetsons.
Feeling a little bowlegged from the ride, I amble over to the main lodge for dinner. Dining is family-style at Echo Valley. Staff take turns serving and, on off-nights, sit at the table with guests. Chef Jason Folk starts with a tuna tataki followed by a beef roulade. The beef comes from ranch-raised, free-range cattle and the greens are harvested from the nearby greenhouse.
Norm Dove is proud of the ranch cuisine, which includes a weekly Thai night with traditional post-dinner dance performed by spa director and long-time employee Yalaporn Yaemphathee. He’s also fond of the spa, where you can indulge in not only traditional Thai and western massage, but also aromatherapy and a range of esthetic treatments including enzymatic mud wraps.
“When was the last time you had a facial?” Dove prods me with a laugh. It’s a question that would make a cowboy grimace, but luckily I’m about as much a cattle rustler as John Wayne was a fan of ballet.
To fully understand the transformation of the guest ranch experience into something much more, you have to visit one of the pioneers of this hospitality niche, the Hills Health Ranch. I’ve seen Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer, but I never expected to actually try my hand at it in a horse corral. Yet here at this ranch, situated on a forested knoll next to Highway 97, anything seems possible, including the spiritually energizing practice of bonding with animals. Owner Pat Corbett leans on the fence, swatting the occasional mosquito while I follow the movements of resident horse whisperer Sherry May. She directs a restless paint horse named Trixie with an intense stare that mimics the drama of dominance and submission that characterizes horse-herd hierarchy. “It’s all about body language,” May explains. Now it’s my turn. I follow May’s lead, maintaining eye contact with the horse as she circles the corral, then I attempt to redirect her by raising what May calls the “feeling beam,” a wand used as a communication tool.
To my astonishment, Trixie soon starts nodding her head in a display of submission, indicating that she’s prepared to join my metaphorical herd. That was easy, I think (though I have a feeling Corbett and May set me up for success with a particularly cooperative mare).
With its horse whispering and traditional trail rides, Hills Health Ranch caters to the equine enthusiast, but it’s equally positioned to meet the needs of the fitness crowd. Zumba, aquafit, yoga, hiking and weight training are all on the daily roster of activities.
Corbett and I walk back up the hill and step inside 1871 Lodge, named to commemorate B.C.’s union with the Canadian Confederation, when the Cariboo Gold Rush had reached a feverish peak. He, along with wife and business partner Juanita, paid careful attention to detail when they designed the building’s saloon, even researching the style of wallpaper that would have appeared in a turn-of-the-century tavern.
As we sit down at a window table that offers a view across undulating forested country toward an ashen limestone bluff, Corbett tells me he was in the business of real estate development in 1983, when economic opportunity and personal circumstance propelled him into resort ownership. “I bought 140 acres over the phone and then I heard of another adjoining 120 acres for sale,” he says as the server delivers a thick New York steak that I fear will require a week of compensational Zumba.
We’re soon joined by Juanita, who has a particularly compelling life story. Born in Tennessee, she and her sibling were former teenage country singing sensations, known as the Suttles Sisters. Together, they performed alongside the likes of Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis at the Grand Ole Opry. However, before she had even cracked her twenties, wary of the boom, bust and moral decay that often accompany music stardom, Juanita turned down a contract offer from MGM and opted instead to pursue a career in cosmetology, eventually landing in B.C., where she met Pat.
This sparsely populated chunk of B.C.’s interior has a magnetic appeal, especially for a certain kind of entrepreneur with big dreams and a big personality.
Around the time the Corbetts closed the property deal, Juanita was battling kidney problems that conventional healthcare proved ineffective in treating. A visit to a California holistic doctor identified a vitamin A deficiency, and a swift recovery followed the revelation. The experience cemented the couple’s determination to incorporate wellness into the guest ranch experience. Three decades on, the philosophy remains. While managing the spa, Juanita also oversees the production of essential oils pressed from the seeds of vitamin- and anti-oxidant-rich rosehip bushes that grow wild on the ranch. So respected is Hills Health Ranch’s approach to well-being that a stay here is even covered for Finnish nationals by their ministry of health.
The next morning I sign up for an early yoga class before joining a small group for a fitness walk, following horse and cow trails out to Tatton Lake. Trembling aspens rustle in the breeze and I spot Juanita’s rosehip bushes, alive with pink blossoms.
I bid farewell to the Corbetts and, mesmerized by a tangerine sunset, exit Highway 97 again. As I follow some crude directions to Siwash Lake Ranch, pavement turns to gravel, and eventually gravel turns to a rutted single lane cutting through stands of towering Douglas firs. It feels as though I am on a road to a remote homestead rather than to a resort that has, year after year, made numerous travel rating lists as one of Canada’s top luxury properties. Just when my calm is about to give way to mild panic, I spot the beams of owner Allyson Rogers’ pickup truck piercing the darkness. As promised, Rogers has stayed up late to greet me and soon has me installed in one of the resort’s luxury tents, a five-star canvas-walled abode that would be fit for a 19th-century colonial magistrate on Kenyan safari. But rather than the sounds of the Serengeti, I fall asleep to the haunting call of a loon echoing across Siwash Lake.
The general silence and darkness of a wilderness night is rejuvenating, and it’s the lowing of cows that finally awakes me in the morning. Unzipping the tent door, I step out onto the wooden deck and spot the glassy surface of the lake through the trees. Following a protracted rinse in an outdoor shower with heated concrete floor, I wander down to the log Ranch House for an early-morning coffee to enjoy on the dock. A thin mist hangs over the water, while mallards float peacefully among the bulrushes. By 8 a.m., the kitchen team of executive chef Derek Bendig, who two years ago ended a 12-year tenure at Toronto’s tony Pangaea Restaurant, has breakfast prepared, with eggs from the ranch’s own hens and bacon cured from last year’s pigs. Given its remote location, Siwash’s devotion to sustainability is both impressive and necessary, with a fleet of solar panels that meets all of the resort’s electricity needs and organic food sourced from the gardens and pens surrounding the lodge.
Rogers grew up in West Vancouver, the daughter of a British immigrant father who founded Outward Bound Canada, a global outdoor education school. Her urban sensibilities were balanced from a young age by an active life. When she was 30, she headed for the Cariboo. “I wanted adventure and to live close to nature. Other than that I didn’t have a big vision for this place,” Rogers says as she leads me to the barn to get fitted with boots in preparation for the horse orientation.
At the tack room entrance, a sign reads My Barn, My Rules, a fitting reflection of Rogers’ plucky approach. Though Siwash offers a range of adventures for guests, from stand-up paddleboarding to hiking, horseback riding remains at the core of the experience. Following Rogers’ lead, I soon find myself grooming my horse with a brush before picking and cleaning its hooves, hesitant at first to be manipulating the limbs of such a powerful animal. Then I learn how to lay on the blanket and saddle, the final step in the horse orientation before hitting the trail to Bird Lake, through Indian paintbrush and a quilt of deciduous and conifer trees. Occasionally Rogers points to where a bear has tilled the soil or left claw marks on an aspen trunk – my private Canadian safari.
Later on in the ranch house, we linger over a dinner of seafood risotto, housemade chorizo and pan-fried steelhead salmon. With darkness settling over the Cariboo landscape, I walk back to my royal-ready tent camp, following the narrow beam of my flashlight through the trees. Inside, the propane hearth flickers warmly. Right on cue, a loon sings its melancholy song and I surrender to the notion that my archaic concept of the dude ranch has been forever trampled like bunchgrass under horse hooves.