Vacationers crave experiential, eco-adventures in the great outdoors

travelling through canada, visitors are often drawn to stuffy galleries featuring paintings and sketches by the Group of Seven, and its enigmatic non-member, Tom Thompson. But for an increasing number of adventure seekers, the idea of going to “see” something simply isn’t good enough. Why look at a Thompson painting, when you can paddle out to the very rock he sat on and sketch the landscape that inspired his impressions?

For those who find themselves railing against the idea of another family vacation spent sightseeing, eco- and experiential travel opens doors to new sensations. It’s also a trend hotel companies must adopt if they want to entice these high-energy tourists. Increasingly, properties are offering experiences that aren’t just located in a given destination; they, along with their unique activities, are the destination.

Clay Hunting owns Tatchu Surf Adventures located on Nootka Island off the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, and he’s been providing his guests with an unparalleled ocean experience for the past 10 years. “We run Canada’s only official surf camp, and the only cold-water surf camp in North America,” he says over a crackly line patched through from a satellite phone. Hunting welcomes guests to Tatchu — after they are brought in, often via float plane — that have varying degrees of surf experience, from raw beginners to seasoned veterans. “About 20 per cent of our guests are beginners, and we have access to some perfect beach breaks for them to get comfortable.”

Of course, comfortable, is a relative term. The focus at Tatchu is undoubtedly the surfing, but the accommodations provided are quirky, if not posh. While at the camp, guests are lodged in hand-crafted cedar tree houses overlooking the beach; although one gets the impression that nobody spends much time in them. Further, comfort is not something you’d expect in the frigid waters of the north Pacific, but Hunting says his facility is ideally located. “Here, we spend as much time in the water as we can, which means four to six hours a day for the more serious surfers, and about three hours for beginners. We’re right on what’s called the Kuroshio Current from Japan, and our water temperature is between 58 and 62°F. That’s warmer than the water off the coast of San Francisco.” Either way, Hunting says the amount of time spent in the water is entirely at the guest’s discretion. “If someone get tired, and just wants to sit on the beach, go for a hike, or even don the wetsuits and float down the canyon river, we can do that too.”

Choosing your adventure is a hallmark of the eco-traveller. In fact, John Caston, managing director of Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, has made it his mantra. “We’re located on the edge of Pacific Rim National Park, about 20 miles by water from Tofino,” explains Caston of the property that’s part rustic mining camp, part five-star resort. “Soft adventure is what we call ourselves,” he adds.

Housed in well-equipped tents regularly used by diamond prospectors in Canada’s far north, guests of the upscale resort are introduced to their remote wilderness surroundings and encouraged to experience as much as they possibly can. “In terms of activities, the list is extensive,” says Caston, whose guests ride, fish, surf, shoot and climb their way to vacation bliss, for up to $11,000 per week. “We take people and nudge them past their comfort zone.” The resort’s experiential focus comes largely from Caston’s own vision of the ideal vacation. “Do I want my family to look at the waves and think, ‘wow, that’s scary,’ or do I want them to get in there and learn to surf?”

While most of the top eco-adventure companies provide guests with very tangible experiences, others are more focused on helping guests get in touch with themelves. Todd Lucier’s Northern Edge Algonquin, in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, certainly fits that bill. With a broad range of accommodations, from private cabins to multiple-couple digs and even a bring-your-own-tent option, Lucier says his focus is ensuring that when guests pay $450-$675 per day, meals included, they get all the experiences they can handle.  In fact, his team has been offering unique, soul-enriching experiences — like the Tom Thompson painting excursion — for 16 years.

What started as a 100 per cent solar-powered, off-the-grid eco-tourism experiment, has since morphed into a distinctive blend of canoe trip meets yoga retreat, with more than a dash of environmental stewardship thrown in. “When we started we offered a lot of what we do today, like canoe trips and wildlife excursions, but we felt we had to develop our travel experiences.” For Lucier, this meant advertising in the right places. “We started looking to attract people who were into making healthy lifestyle choices,” he says. “The kinds of people who responded, like yoga instructors for example, had stayed with us and raved about the experience.” As a result, the property (which accommodates up to 30 guests) hosts a number of yoga-inspired retreats for those looking for a relaxing, environmentally responsible holiday. “Our program attracts people with an affinity for what we’re trying to do,” he says.

Some larger hotel chains have also jumped on the eco-tourism bandwagon. By way of example, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts recently announced an extension of its partnership with German automaker BMW to include a complimentary hotel bicycle service featuring BMW Cruise Bikes. Beginning in Spring 2009, Fairmont hotels across Canada introduced these state-of-the-art bikes as the newest benefit for guests, granting active and adventurous travellers the opportunity to explore vibrant cities and stunning landscapes at their leisure.

Canadian hospitality stalwart Four Seasons has also embraced the idea, particularly at its picturesque Whistler location. Guests to the Rockies retreat can hike marked trails through alpine meadows, travel through deep old growth coastal hemlock-cedar forests, canoe and kayak adventures, guided fishing trips to catch trout, or even head out to climb the glaciers atop Whistler mountain.

Whether your guest’s preference is bending into an upward-facing dog position out over a sunrise-speckled lake in Algonquin, riding the perfect morning reef-break off the shores of a remote B.C. island, or anything in between, there are experiential tourism opportunities for hoteliers to leverage. You just have to find the ones near you.

“In a recession, we have to battle like hell to keep our rates, so you have to find ways to add value,” says Lucier. “No matter where you are, there are local experiences waiting to be had, and partnerships that can be established in your community.” Even travellers staying in a city or as a part of large corporate groups are going to be looking for more doing than seeing. “If you’re delivering an experience, it becomes a differentiator. If you have to say ‘sorry, we don’t do that’, then you’re just crazy.”  

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