The Healthy Trail

Crack-of-dawn sun salutations and heart-healthy chocolates? They may not be the typical offerings of a luxury resort. But for owner “Big Jim” McLeod they’re just what the doctor ordered.

By Colleen Friesen


t’s somewhere between the fifth and sixth muttered expletive that I’m able to finally heave myself on to the top of the cliff. Looking down, I realize that calling it a cliff might be overstating the geographic truth. In fact, once I’m standing solidly on the top, it’s kind of embarrassing at just how little distance I’ve come. Though I’m sure I wasn’t overreacting.

The good news is that Tracey Hilton from Red Deer, Alberta, is perhaps in worse emotional shape than me. In contrast, she manages to keep the more colorful language to herself, but I think she looks rather pale. And I can’t be entirely sure, but I think she might have whimpered. The guide and the other guests practically scamper up after us, like nimble goat girls. Tracey and I exchange looks.

Trekking through fields and forests along the rugged coast of British Columbia, guests earn the right to relax. Photo by James Scolari.

I am on the first day’s hike with Coastal Trek Health & Fitness Resort near Courtenay, British Columbia. I had pictured strolls on winding woodland trails. In my mind, there were nodding ferns and sightings of Bambi. My imagination had not foreseen this rather gruelling Outward Bound thing. Did I mention the thigh-high bushwhacking that came after lunch? Did I mention lunch was small?

My idea of a spa getaway generally includes sleeping in and lounging about like a Harlequin heroine on a chaise lounge. While eating chocolates.

Waking from that morning’s 6:15 a.m. knock, it is clear to me that the good people at this spa failed to read that part of the handbook. By 6:30 I am lying on a yoga mat with a view from the lodge’s perch on Vancouver Island’s Forbidden Plateau. The ocean way below is covered by a thick fog that has created islands out of the coastal mountains. Slowly, slowly it swirls and dissipates as we continue with our sun salutations, stretching and breathing our way to wakefulness.

Back at the lodge, plush accommodations and panoramic views are a perfect marriage of wild and wildly comfortable.

Soon it is breakfast, and while I am drinking my coffee in the post-and-beam dining room, the entire panorama of BC’s coastline reveals itself. The view reminds me of the float plane ride I’d taken the afternoon before from Vancouver’s harbor. Glued to the little window of the Cessna, I’d watched the wonderland of islands, the fjord-like coast, and the scrim-line of the sea below.

After my pick-up at the Comox dock and a bouncy ride up the gravel road to the Forbidden Plateau, I’d arrived to meet the other guests. Tracey Hilton was one of them. A construction manager, she was there for the full week to learn to relax and with hopes of going home more fit.

Like Ms. Hilton, Coastal Trek was born from a different executive’s need to wind down. Jim McLeod is known as “Big Jim,” and at six-foot-two it’s an understandable moniker. Unfortunately, as the years added up he became more and more tied to his desk, and watched his waist band expand and his blood pressure go up. Soon he was Big Jim for something besides his height.

When he realized it was getting literally to the “do or die” decision stage, he connected with the outdoor specialist and healthy living expert Sharon Best. She designed a program to get him kick-started into a new lifestyle regime of good food and lots of outdoor exercise.

Jim was so inspired he, along with his wife Susan, created Coastal Trek Health and Fitness Resort to help other people have the same chance to change their lives. Coastal Trek opened in 2005 and has helped other wild-eyed and too-wide executives and other stressed out clients escape to a place where the emphasis is on healthy, organic foods, hiking in the forests that surround the lodge, and lots of fresh mountain air.

Photo by James Scolari.

But that was then, and this is now. Now we have done our hike for the day. We stumble out of the Suburban, stiffly bending to dump our boots at the door. Tracey and I agree to a hot tub after dinner. We also agree to forgo the aerobic session. We’re both fairly convinced that we’ve had enough of a workout. Besides, dinner will be ready soon.

They say hunger is the best sauce. But I swear that even if I had laid around on my chaise lounge and eaten the chocolates that a real retreat would have provided, I would have still deemed the meal excellent. The fact that I’d hiked myself senseless only made it better. The salmon was wild and glazed with a miso sauce. The salad was huge, with local goat cheese and a tangy vinaigrette. The new potatoes were cooked to that sweet place of perfection.

Coastal Trek believes in sourcing as much of their food as possible from local, organic farmers. I can testify that I’ve eaten healthy food that ended up tasting, well, healthy, but not necessarily tasty. These people understand that satisfaction comes from eating well and making it taste good. Maybe they think if it tastes good you won’t notice the portion control.

The lodge’s guestrooms boast luxurious beds with views of the Georgia Strait and the British Columbia Coastal Mountain range, perfect for recharging the batteries in preparation for an early morning hike.

And then, oh my. They deliver some handmade good-for-our-hearts dark chocolates. Maybe this healthy lifestyle is going to be alright.

Tracey and I lower our bodies into the hot tub. The moon hangs in the crystalline air. Steam surrounds us in our own little fog.

“You know,” Tracey is speaking quietly. “That lunch was small, but somehow it was exactly the right amount.”

“I know,” I said, “Same with dinner. It was just right. I kept expecting to be hungrier after lunch. Maybe it was the fear factor.”

Tracey grinned back at me through the fog. “Pretty cool we did that, huh?”

“Pretty cool.” I realize I mean it.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s hike.


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