It’s not often that you stumble across “living sculptures” on a walk through the deep woods of the Cariboo wilderness of central British Columbia.
So coming face to face with a “water being” carved into the base of a giant Douglas fir is enough to give one pause. Exactly what is this water being and what in the world is it doing here in the wilderness?
“I carve faces into the trees next to the springs here on the ranch as a way of making the intangible into something more tangible,” says master aboriginal carver Michael Blackstock. “There certainly is magic afoot here on this property, only it’s invisible. I can visualize it, so the sculptures and carvings I create on the ranch are a way to bring it alive.”
In the 2013 awards released by TripAdvisor, small family-run Echo Valley Ranch and Spa was named as the Number One Small Hotel in all of Canada, rating higher than many prestigious boutique hotels in big cities. How can a remote property a long 6-hour drive from Vancouver gain such recognition? The answer, evidently, is word of mouth about the ranch’s “invisible luxury,” a new term in the hospitality industry but never more apparent than here in this gorgeous valley.
Since guests started writing reviews about the ranch on TripAdvisor in 2012, about 300 comments have been voluntarily posted. An astonishing 99 percent of these reviews are rated either excellent or very good. So, what’s so special about this remote ranch snugly tucked in a valley underneath the spectacular Marble Mountains?
“All the comments in our guest book refer to the same thing,” says ranch Operations Manager Alan Pineo. “They all use the word ‘magic’ or some version of it. What that means is pretty hard to describe. Obviously there is something special happening here. It’s hard to put your finger on, but everybody feels it and comments on it.”
The majestic pine log lodges and cottages carefully placed in strategic positions around the ranch according to Asian feng shui principles may contribute to the 5-star rating, as may the service of the always smiling and gracious Thai staff. Is the fact that this is the only Thai/Western guest ranch in the world explain the magic? Is it the architecture, the quality of the furnishings or chef Jason Folk’s “100-metre diet” culinary creations?
Owner Norm Dove, whose wife is Thai and whose wranglers and staff hail from all around the world, thinks not.
“It could be the geographic location of the ranch,” says Dove modestly. “We are located at the exact confluence of four different geographic biomes. This valley is much like the red rock town of Sedona, Arizona, where so many people talk about specific energy vortexes they can feel and identify. Most certainly there is a very tangible spirit alive in this valley, which we recognized before we bought the property.”
Indeed, Echo Valley Ranch was never meant as a tourism destination. Dove, a very successful and now retired engineer, originally bought the wilderness property as his own home. He added more buildings as time went by, like the spectacular Baan Thai Pavilion designed by the personal architect to the King of Thailand. Intended as a conference centre, in the early mornings one finds ranch guests relaxing here in various Thai yoga poses. Relaxation and serenity, obviously, are keys to the ranch’s success.
Spa treatments range from traditional Thai to European massages. There is a hot tub and sauna, fitness centre with indoor pool, gentle horses, a family of border collies that act as hiking guides, and all the usual 5-star amenities. The view is to die for, but none of these amenities explain the rapturous response that guests write in their reviews.
“I think that this new expression they call ‘invisible luxury’ has more to do with authenticity than anything else,” says Norm, basking in the late afternoon sun cascading over the Chilcotin Mountains. “We don’t try to be something we’re not. This is our home, and people are welcome to share it.”
This may be the only 5-star resort in the country with no TVs, no telephones, no computers and no cellphone connection in any rooms, all part of what might be termed a “digital detox” vacation. (A satellite feed is available for those that insist on checking their email.)
One room that guests request is located in the Lookout Lodge. Here in Room 12 you can see more of Michael Blackstock’s tangible explanations of Echo Valley’s invisible magic adorning the walls. Handcrafted from exotic hardwoods, embedded with copper and diamonds, rest four masks that professional forester and carver Blackstock created to bring to life the magical spirit he claims envelopes the entire ranch.
One is a water being, another a warrior, there is an ancient chieftain and Lynx Woman. Blackstock captured their images on a digital camera pointed at the walls where the paint dried in peculiar patterns. He downloaded the photos to his computer, traced their outlines and hand crafted the resulting images into wood and metal, where they are now directly placed over the “invisible beings” that many people have claimed to see.
“There is an underground river flowing down from the Marble Mountains high above, which are a karst topography comprised of porous limestone,” says Blackstock, holding up the mask of the Water Being, “and it runs right underneath here. Natural springs bubble up all around the valley. First Nations people would have revered this land for that quality, because they believed that water had a spirit all it’s own. I think these beings have chosen to come back here to this room. It is their ancestral home.”
In the spring months, reports Dove, single and double rainbows fill the sky above the valley and touch down all around the ranch. Just an optical illusion scientists would say, unless you believe in magic.
If you go;
Echo Valley Ranch is located two kilometres outside the hamlet of Jesmond (population three) or a 45-minute drive west of the village of Clinton. The ranch maintains an airstrip for small planes. The Rocky Mountaineer stops in Kamloops, a 2-hour drive away where guests can be picked up by EVR staff. Room rates start from $299. Log on to Echo Valley Ranch for more information.