Spas: Road to wellness

Last summer, my 78-year-old mother and I agreed to take a road trip through the Rocky Mountains. But I was worried: I love to hike but get antsy in a car; Mom loves the open road but mostly gets around by walker and wheelchair. What are two differently-abled travellers to do?

I suggested a compromise: a trip through the Coastal Mountains and into the interior Cariboos with short stays at two of British Columbia’s renowned ranch health spas. Mom would get the hit of mountain adventure she craved while I would get a meditative respite from traffic and city life.

The five-hour drive northeast from Vancouver to our first stop – Echo Valley Ranch and Spa – is nearly adventure enough. The Fraser River Valley near Clinton was once gold rush territory and is still very much ranch country and wilderness.

After turning off the Cariboo Highway, we face a 50-kilometre drive over twisting gravel roads. Echo Valley’s brochure promised a four-and-a-half star luxury resort, but I have visions of Mom’s wheelchair traversing a cow pasture to get to the outhouse. What am I getting us into?

When we finally turn into the resort, my heart bursts wide open with relief andxhilaration. But you need a bit of background here to understand what I’m feeling. My mother was struck with polio when she was 25. I’ve only ever known her walking with a cane; as a child, I was her legs to run errands and enjoy walks in the forest. I duly reported back with sights I had seen, but I’ve always imagined being able to show Mom a place like this, the sort of stunning vista you usually only encounter on hikes into remote wilderness.

Dreams coming to life
Imagine a high mountain valley – a river running through it, forested slope on one side, emerald-green hill where some 40 horses graze on the other – all giving way in the distance to a snow-covered mountain peak and sunset. Even the resort is ethereal.

Think beautiful mountain woods and log cabin construction meets eastern design and artwork. The spectacular main lodge with its wraparound deck and the stunning Baan Thai spa with its rooftop deck are both oriented to take in the splendorous view, as is our room, with massive picture windows.

Still, I am concerned about keeping Mom entertained – just because her legs have slowed down doesn’t mean she has. She can easily navigate the main floor and decks of the lodge, but the paths leading to the spas and fitness centre are gravel. Happily, with my healthy legs and Mom’s go-for-it attitude, we get along just fine.

Out on the road and back at the ranch
During the day, while I take guided horseback riding and hiking trips into this remote and rugged backcountry, Mom enjoys her own slate of activities. She swims in the indoor pool, takes dips in the outdoor hot tub. Using her wheelchair as a walker, she hikes to the meadow to watch the resident bird expert train falcons.

The next day, she goes bird watching on a four-by-four excursion. In addition to several bird species, she sees a bear, mule deer and another spectacular vista: a remote section of the Fraser River that was awash with gold in the 1850s. Here, semi-desert limestone peaks plunge hundreds of metres down into the river canyon.

Ah, and then there is the ranch’s ultimate physical experience. Echo Valley has both a western-style spa and North America’s first authentic Baan Thai spa, each with more than 25 treatments on the menu. Mom chooses a 90-minute Western therapeutic massage that she pronounces amazing. I have my first Thai massage, one of the oldest and most revered healing arts. It lasts two-and-a-half hours and transports me to a sublime state of relaxation.

Evenings, we join the other guests (26 maximum) and eat together ranch-style at large dining room tables in the main lodge. It makes for an intimate and friendly gathering with singles and couples mixing easily, sharing stories about the day’s activities and adventures.

After three days, we are reluctant to leave, but the Hills Health Ranch, just an hour north on the Cariboo Highway, beckons. Housing the Canadian Wellness Centre and Spa, with a plethora of weight-loss and wellness programs, The Hills is akin to vacationing at a luxury gym.

In addition to guided hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking outings on the 20,000-acre spread, there are fitness classes scheduled virtually every hour throughout the day.

I don’t know if it is the pure mountain air or a little mother-daughter competition, but we both go on a fitness bender here. I take a personal fitness assessment, which confirms that my cardio is pretty good but I could lose 10 pounds and work on agility. Mom meets with a nutritional consultant, who confirms that her eating habits are impeccable.

It’s off to a Pilates and weight-training class for me. Mom takes aquabics classes in the indoor pool and meets with a personal trainer who gives her exercises she can do at home, either sitting in a chair or with a fitness ball. We both get massages (Mom opts for hers in our room as the spa is up a steep flight of stairs) and anti-aging facials.

Stories are on the menu
After heading our separate ways during the day, we’re eager to meet up at meals. Here, we sit at a table for two in The Hills’ cosy dining room, which allows us to indulge in one of our favourite pastimes: sharing stories of people we met during the day. Oh, and of course, eating. The Hills offers a spa menu of reduced calories, but we both opt for the ranch menu, which is excellent and still healthy.

After dinner, we take in the sunset at The Hills’ 1871 Lounge, which has a café on one level, a bar on another and wraparound decks on both. We sip B.C. ice wines while the ranch’s horses graze alongside the deck.

Our last night at The Hills says everything about how I feel about the trip. A horse-drawn wagon ride and singalong is on the agenda. Since the barn is too difficult to get to by wheelchair, a Hills van picks us up at our room and delivers us there.

Once on the wagon, Mom’s face glows. I know the ride is bringing back memories of growing up on a farm. When we reach the teepee and campfire, the rest of us uptight urbanites quaff spiked punch to loosen up for what we fear will be a hokey singalong. But Mom sings loudest and makes up hilarious and racy new lines to old standards. Before long, she has everyone laughing and singing. On the moonlit ride home, I am aglow because I know Mom has had a great time — and I’ve enjoyed myself even more.

Echo Valley Ranch and Spa:
The Hills Health Ranch:

Photo copyright Echo Valley Ranch and Spa.