Coastal Trek Lodge, Vancouver Island, Canada: Where the wild things are

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Coastal Trek Lodge, Vancouver Island, Canada: Where the wild things are

Halfway up the long, ever-climbing road where the numbers on the letterboxes are in the many thousands we see small flecks of white on the side of the road. Damn, but it is getting cold up here in the clouds, so I pump up the car heater and turn on the wipers to clear away the tiny drifts of snow.

Finally we arrive at number 8100 on the exotically named Forbidden Plateau Road and pull the car down the driveway.

The Maori guy in the Ngapuhi t-shirt and jandals comes down the muddy path, his hand extended, his face beaming a welcome. On either side of the soggy tyre tracks are drifts of snow, some almost a metre deep against the side of the garage, others brushed into the shadows around the base of the pine trees.

This could be the centre of the North Island and Shayne Stuchbery -- formerly of Whangarei and seemingly impervious to the cold -- could be working the land.

But this is Vancouver Island, Canada and behind Stuchbery is a $2 million project of the kind he never even dreamed about when he was labouring around New Zealand.

This is the newly opened Coastal Trek Lodge, a 12-room fitness centre-cum-health retreat complete with its own kitchen and restaurant, outdoor spa and a large lounge dominated by a massive fireplace made of river stones

This luxury lodge, 670 metres up in the mountains overlooking Georgia Strait, is where wealthy Canadians and Americans are going to come, Stuchbery hopes, when their doctors tell them it is time to lose weight or they'll fall over and probably not get up again.

His Canadian father-in-law Jim McLeod got that message a couple of years ago, says Stuchbery as he cooks thick slices of halibut in his spacious home just down from the lodge.

Jim and his wife Susan tried to find a place where Jim could get fit and shape up, but other than one place all he was offered were health spas. He needed to get into better physical condition, not relax to massage tapes and flop into a heated pool.

So Jim identified a niche in the high-end health-lodge market and with Susan, son-in-law Shayne and his daughter Andrea as on-site managers, plus Andrea’s brother and his wife as partners, they raised loans and went ahead with this ambitious project in a place of breathtaking beauty -- and bears.

"Oh yeah, there are bears here, for sure," says Stuchbery. "Just the other day we heard this noise and a baby bear had climbed up a tree beside our deck and got stuck. It was making a helluva racket, and of course where there's a baby bear …

"You have to watch the kids round here," he says, gazing across the tree-line.

Because of bears, right?
"Yeah. And cougars."

People don’t just drop by and see Shayne and Andrea Stuchbery, their two young children and dog Barlow in their beautiful wooden home shaded by tall pines. We certainly didn't.

In the days before my wife Megan and I left for a few weeks driving around the Pacific Northwest region of the United States I mentioned on a weblog site that I would be in Victoria on Vancouver Island to see some friends.

Stuchbery, who keeps in touch with home through that site (www.publicaddress.net) and the on-line Herald, sent an e-mail inviting us up if we were in the area.

"if we don't see you then have a great time in the pacific northwest! Lots of rain but bloody beautiful," he signed off cheerily.

But they were only three hours north of Victoria he said, so why not?

What he didn't tell us was that the final 45 minutes of that drive was up an unsealed road which climbed relentlessly higher and higher into the mountains and to somewhere close to the roof of the world.

When we finally reached their place there was a view which seemed take in most of Canada and half of heaven. A golden eagle circled above us, a hummingbird hovered within a few centimetres of my face on the other side of the window, and the air was so clean I could feel years of bad things in my lungs being exhaled in every breath.

We stood in awe of the view, speechless.

"Not bad, eh?" he said with admirable understatement.

The back boundary of the property, through which they will take clients on six-hour escorted hikes, is Strathcona Provincial Park, the oldest provincial park in British Columbia.

But the name Coastal Trek when it is clearly some distance from the coast?

"Anything 100 miles from the coast they call coastal round here, mate."

So over lunch of gently seared halibut with Andrea's fresh salad of couscous, mango, corn, onion and coriander, plus a bottle of excellent local wine, we have to ask: what brought a self-confessed odd-jobber from Kiwiland all the way to this remote place in Canada?

Love is the answer.

Shayne met Andrea McLeod from the coastal town of Sechelt on mainland Canada in New Zealand in 2000. She had come to New Zealand previously as an exchange student and it was her friend in New Zealand who was getting married.

"So she’d come over for it and I was the best man, the only unattached guy there, you know how that is."

Stuchbery admits to a varied career in New Zealand: sawmilling, on construction crews, running his own hay contracting firm, and when he met Andrea he was at Lincoln University doing a sociology degree. Not doing it well, he later admits.

He moved to Sechelt in early 2001 and worked in his prospective father-in-law’s refrigeration business.

The idea of Coastal Trek Lodge came in 2002. They found the property with almost astonishing ease, and the 15 acres -- already cleared of pine and with little regrowth -- cost only NZ$110,000.

He acts as both on-site manager and general tradesman, his dad Colin was up for the three months prior to the "soft opening" in July 2005 helping out, and he’s had a few Kiwi mates come over to work on it also.

   They have appointed a manager and a staff of eight, with Andrea doing breakfasts and lunches, and overseeing dinners.

   "She’s done plenty of kitchen work, from running her own cafe to preparing meals for guys in logging camps."

   The emphasis is on fresh, organic food, plenty of seasonal fruit and vegetables, and sensible -- which for most clients will mean smaller -- servings.

The six day health and fitness programme will cost clients around $NZ4000.

"Basically it’s for doctors and lawyers and people who are stressed and need to lose weight. They need to get out of where they are and focus on it with someone who knows about it."

The one who knows is Sharon Best, head guide and director of the fitness programme. She was the one Jim initially consulted about his own health, now she has been seduced away from her own fitness centre and as director at the famed Ainsworth Hot Springs in British Columbia to bring her skills to Coastal Trek.

From October to July when they could be snowed in they will use the building for live-in conferences. But they have snowmobiles for transport, and a van to pick up customers from the airport at Comox down on the flatland below.

"Yeah, it’s all go mate," says Stuchbery as we shake hands and leave, driving back down to the highway with our ears popping from the altitude.

It's an ambitious project and they are aware of the financial risk. Not that you probably think about it too often when you can look across the valley and coastline to the snow-capped peaks of mainland Canada in the distance.

But they were on target for their opening date and now they are gearing up an advertising campaign to get the moneyed, overweight and unfit up there in the crisp forest.

Stuchbery is loving every minute of it: he laughs about people in nearby Comox thinking he's a bum because he wears jandals to town; says the Canadians rave about the surfing on the west coast of Vancouver Island "but it's shit compared with home, mate"; and admits that the last time he was back in New Zealand he didn’t quite feel like he fitted in the same way. Home is now somewhere else.

The other day I got an e-mail from Shayne of the Ngati Stuchberys way up on the roof of western Canada where the wild things are.

"hey graham," he wrote, "about those bears mate . . . andrea and i had us a bloody huge one that clawed bloody great marks down our basement walls the other night . . . i opened the front door to find out that our mellow good natured Barlow was actually a psychotic murderous bear chasing machine . . . Barlow nipped the big fella's ass all the way down the front section . . .
That's four in the morning on the mountain for you . . ."

For more details on Coastal Trek Lodge see www.coastaltrekresort.com

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