Travel

In search of self-care: Exploring B.C.’s South Island Spirit Loop

A tired mom’s quest for rest on a solo road trip around southern Vancouver Island

A harbour seal paddles below the pier at Prestige Oceanfront Resort in Sooke, B.C.
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“You don’t look tired at all!”

The hostess at the Masters Lounge at the Westin Bear Mountain Resort in Langford, B.C. is, I’m certain, just being polite to a guest. My face is puffy from lack of sleep, my eyes burning red. It’s not just jet lag or the 4 a.m. start to my day; I’m tired on a cellular level. I’ve come to B.C. to explore the South Island Spirit Loop, a roughly 240-kilometre circuit around southern Vancouver Island that passes through the coastal communities of Sooke and Port Renfrew before cutting across the Seymour Range to Lake Cowichan and back to Langford through Malahat. It’s my job to write about travel, but I’m particularly invested in enjoying this experience to the fullest. It’s March 2022; the last time I got on a plane was in March 2020, when I was 18 weeks pregnant with my son, Marcus. Incidentally, that was also the last time I had an unbroken night’s sleep.

Halfway through my preview of chef Kiran Kolathodan’s spring menu, Jacqui Mays, manager of the resort’s Amatista Spa, comes by my table to remind me about my spa treatments. I’m booked in for a 90-minute Swedish massage, followed by a 90-minute West Coast Body Wrap, and while I appreciate the courtesy visit, nothing short of a natural disaster could stop me from showing up on time for this long-awaited pamper session.

“It’s okay if you nod off during the treatments,” Mays tells me. “It happens all the time.”

I want to nod off. More than anything in the world. I feel myself drifting as John, my masseuse, skillfully works the knots from my shoulders. Lotioned, exfoliated and swaddled in fragrant sheets during the West Coast Body Wrap with Amber, I feel supple and safe as a newborn. But I don’t sleep. Behind my closed eyes, I’m skimming through my to-do list, composing emails and texts, wondering if Marcus misses me and if my husband Jason knows where to find the diaper cream. It’s going to take longer than three hours for me to set down my mental load and rest.

Fresh halibut prepared with island vegetables by Chef Kiran Kolathodan and paired with a 2020 Black Hills Estate Winery viognier at the Masters Lounge at Westin Bear Mountain Resort in Langford.
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Ponzu confit yam salad with orange miso dressing, sesame seeds, edamame, purple yam chips and curry vanilla-soaked quail egg at House of Boateng in Langford.
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There’s something inherently satisfying about travelling in a circle: departing from a place and returning to that same place after a period of time, changed by all you’ve experienced along the way. That was why the communities situated along the Pacific Marine Circle — all popular tourism destinations in their own right — decided in late 2019 to band together and promote the entire route as the Spirit Loop. They could not have known, of course, that within a few months travel would cease altogether, nor that after two years of lockdowns, shifting public health restrictions, grim headlines and constant, low-level dread, rediscovering your spirit on a self-paced journey through old-growth forests, wild coastal vistas and friendly seaside communities would start to seem more like a genuine prescription for wellness than just pretty marketing.

“I think we’ve all changed a little bit,” says Donna Petrie, manager of business development and events for the City of Langford. “We’ve all had this realignment with ourselves, with the world, with our community.”

Travelling the Spirit Loop, she adds, particularly solo, as I’m doing, is as much an inward journey as it is a physical one — a way to reconnect with yourself as you re-enter the world.

My pandemic story is inextricably linked with the beginning of my son’s life. The day before Canada went into lockdown, I watched in amazement as he kicked and rolled and waved in response to the probing of the ultrasound technician. I attended the rest of my prenatal checkups alone. My first glimpses of my newborn were obscured by a face mask soaked with sweat and tears.  

It turned out that I had birthed a barnacle baby. A stage 5 clinger who preferred to sleep in his parents’ arms for the first year of his life and still wakes every couple of hours for milk, or water, or just to make sure we’re still there. I understood that closeness, for babies, is a biological imperative, but sometimes, on dim, lonely days, rocking my son to sleep in our beat-up old armchair, I would wonder if his particular intensity was a product of nature or circumstance.

When I first got pregnant, before “social distancing” entered the vernacular, I resolved not to lose myself in motherhood — I would keep going to the Running Room three times a week, keep seeing my friends, make time for hobbies, check out restaurants and hiking trails with my little family. There was some of that eventually, but mostly what I remember, with a mixture of longing and regret, are the long hours in the armchair by the window, alone, with my sleeping baby heavy in my arms.

After my spa treatments, I head into Langford for dinner at House of Boateng, where Executive Chef Castro Boateng serves up flavours from his native Ghana and the Caribbean with a west coast spin in a casual café setting. Between courses of ponzu confit yam salad with orange miso dressing, seared halibut on a pork cassoulet and sous vide striploin with kohlrabi mashed potatoes and mushroom ragout, I jot down random thoughts in my notebook and experiment with photographing the light in my wine glass. I gaze out the window at the cherry blossoms on the trees lining Peatt Road and passively absorb snippets of chatter from the tables around me. In the cheerful din of a normal Sunday night in a new place, with no obligations but to be present in the moment, my mind finally quiets. I fall into my bed at the Westin at 10 p.m. and sleep straight through until 6.

The luxe lobby at Prestige Oceanfront Resort in Sooke.
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Hanging with a harbour seal in Sooke.
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The next morning, I jump in my rented Toyota 4Runner and drive to WildPlay Victoria, where I confront the harsh reality of my postpartum, pandemic fitness. Marketing coordinator Kat Craats leads me through three adventure courses consisting of wobbly bridges, rain-slicked wood ladders, rope swings and ziplines which get progressively higher and harder until my arms and legs feel like wet noodles.

I FaceTime home as I’m sitting down to lunch at the 17 Mile House Pub, a historic Tudor-style roadhouse halfway between Langford and Sooke. My normally chatty toddler wears a tight, enigmatic smile as he peers at my image on his dad’s phone. Suddenly, he hops down off the couch and bursts into tears. Guilt pierces my heart, and I reason with myself, not for the first time this trip: My husband is capable. I need and deserve this break. I’m allowed to just be me for a few days.

That evening in Sooke, I leave my phone in my room and wander down to the marina below the Prestige Oceanfront Resort. The morning’s rain and mist have given way to clear skies and a cool, dry breeze off the water. Canada geese paddle around a raft of logs, sucking down strands of eelgrass like fettuccine noodles. A jellyfish bobs by on the outgoing tide. I hear a soft splash behind me and turn just in time to see a harbour seal dive beneath the pier. It surfaces a few metres away and sizes me up with bright black eyes. To the south, the snow-capped peaks of the Olympic Mountains loom like a mirage above a wreath of cloud, seemingly much closer than they actually are.

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When you’re in the thick of motherhood and career-building, “self-care” can often feel like just another box to tick — one that can be indefinitely deferred in favour of more important obligations.

The famous waterfall at Mystic Beach on southwestern Vancouver Island, accessed via a short hike on the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail.
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In the stillness I realize that the past two years have felt like running on a treadmill that’s slightly too fast. Pregnancy, postpartum, the wild ride of baby’s first year, finding childcare, returning to work: COVID has added an extra layer of difficulty to these rites of passage and isolated new parents from their “village” — a concept that for many western families was already notional at best. Reminders to practice self-care are everywhere, particularly if, like me, you turned to social media to build some semblance of a virtual village. But when you’re in the thick of motherhood and career-building, “self-care” can often feel like just another box to tick — one that can be indefinitely deferred in favour of more important obligations.

This, then, feels like the height of luxury: to fill my eyes with a beautiful scene for as long as the daylight lasts, and know that the most complicated decision I need to make tonight is what to eat for dinner at the resort’s West Coast Grill. Once again, I sleep through the night.

The mental clutter recedes even further into the background as I round the island. I lose cell service a few kilometres outside Sooke. It’s just me, the 4Runner, and as many trails as I can explore before dark. I walk through the fog to the tip of Whiffin Spit. I check out Sheringham Point Lighthouse. I hike the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail down to Mystic Beach, stopping every few metres at first to take wide-angle photos of the towering cedars. As the trail becomes steeper and muddier, I stash my camera in my backpack and focus on putting one foot in front of the other, careful not to trip on the tangled roots. It’s hard work in this unfamiliar body, but it feels good. Close to the beach, I pass a family on their way back up — dad and coltish pre-teen son stomping effortlessly up the stairs, mom bringing up the rear, red-faced and breathing hard. “This is the pace I go at now,” she calls out. I relate.

In Port Renfrew, I hike to Botanical Beach for low tide. It’s dusk, and cloudy; the anemones in the tide pools are still curled in on themselves. Each pool is a little world unto itself, and for the hundredth time I think Marcus would love this, not with regret, but with excitement for all the amazing things we’ll discover together as he grows.

I check my steps for the day: 16 kilometres, a post-pandemic personal best. I subside into the private oceanfront hot tub at my Wild Renfrew cottage, filled with the satisfaction of a challenge met.

Morning views in Port Renfrew.
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Evening over Saanich Inlet, as seen from Moon Water Lodge in Malahat.
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A golden morning in Port Renfrew.
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In the morning, the trees are dripping gold as I make my way out of Port Renfrew towards Lake Cowichan. I pull over whenever inspiration strikes to take pictures, not for Instagram but for the sheer pleasure of creating. On the stereo, the Rankin Family sings “There’s nothing like an ocean / catch your breath with every wave come crashing in …”

By the time I reach the eastern side of the island, I’ve fully embraced self-indulgence. At Bridgemans Bistro in Mill Bay, I order an absurdly large plate of nachos and a 12-ounce glass of B.C. chardonnay. I climb the hive-like Malahat Skywalk and take the 20-metre spiral slide back down, laughing while the supervisor gives me a “scream assist.” In my room at Moon Water Lodge, I order takeout pizza from the Malahat Chalet next door, run a hot bath, pour in the package of eucalyptus bath salts I brought from home specifically for this purpose, and soak until the sky over Saanich Inlet fades to dark blue and the first winking stars appear.

On my final day in Langford, I’m walking back to the 4Runner after exploring the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail when I happen to look up at the peak of Mount Wells above me and see the tiny figures of a woman and a dog wending their way to the rocky summit. I have to go up there, I think. A second mental voice immediately expresses doubt: That’s a hard hike. You’re incredibly out of shape. You’re going to break an ankle.

“I have to do it,” I say out loud. And I do. I zigzag up steep inclines hemmed in by outcrops covered in thick moss. I haul myself over boulders and up onto the bare rock face I could see from 300 metres below. I have to stop to catch my breath every five minutes but I make it to the summit, and as I look down at Victoria and the blue strip of the Juan de Fuca Strait beyond, I think about my son and how in a strange way, I did this trip for both of us: so I could see myself as a whole person again, and so that someday, he will too.

The view from the summit of Mount Wells in Langford.
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Jason meets me at the airport in Ottawa and together we drive to pick up Marcus from daycare. I’m half-expecting a tearful scene when Marcus sees me again, but as Jason straps him into his car seat, Marcus says brightly, “Mama’s here! Hi mama!”

“Hi, sweetheart,” I reply with a smile.

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