– Story by Susan Lundy
Charles McDiarmid loves to tell a good story, and he’s relishing this one.
As the managing director and co-owner of the Wickaninnish Inn, he is recalling his quest back in the ‘80s to build a prestigious Relais & Châteaux hotel on an outcropping of rocks owned by his family in Tofino.
He tells the story with the same exuberance and charm exhibited while showing me around me around his beautifully appointed inn — an exquisite destination hotel and restaurant on the edge of Vancouver Island’s wild west coast.
In British Columbia we are blessed to have five Relais & Châteaux properties, and I set out this summer to experience two of them. And while the Wickaninnish and the Wedgewood may seem polar opposite in experience — one built in remote Tofino and the other sumptuously revealed in a grand downtown Vancouver building — they meet in their expression of the Relais & Châteaux’s “five Cs” of charm, courtesy, character, cuisine and calm.
Founded in France in 1954, Relais & Châteaux represents the highest benchmark in hotel accommodations and fine dining, and includes a worldwide group of more than 540 privately owned hotels and restaurants. Each must pass an anonymous review process every two years in order to maintain the designation. The concept grew from the vacationing traditions of upper-class French society, who travelled to a variety of “relais” (lodges) and “châteaux” (castles) which, while different in architecture, scenery and cuisine, presented consistently high standards.
Years ago, when Charles was learning the ins and outs of the hotel industry working at the Four Seasons, most hotels were structured to serve the business traveller. However, over the years Charles heard a consistent theme: visiting businessmen would say, “When my wife and I want to get away, we go to a Relais & Châteaux.”
Charles began exploring these boutique hotels, noting they were all small, family-owned and highly regarded.
“That became my goal,” says Charles, whose family dreamed of constructing a hotel on their land that hugs Tofino’s Chesterman Beach. “In my mind, that’s what we wanted to be… that was the pinnacle.”
The goal to build a Relais & Châteaux hotel in Tofino began to take shape, but before Charles could set planning in motion, he wanted design standards for the prestigious association.
“I wondered things like — do we need to install a bidet in every bathroom?”
So he started making phone calls, and over the next two years, tried to obtain a set of Relais & Châteaux standards by calling myriad people in cities all over the world, leaving messages, sometimes phoning in the middle of the night to accommodate differing time zones. Charles finally got his answer from a heavily-accented woman in France … and he laughed for two days afterwards.
“How do you become a Relais & Châteaux hotel?” he asked.
“Well, monsieur — either you are or you’re not.”
Today the standards for Relais & Châteaux are a little more exacting, says Charles, adding, “I’ve gone out and looked at others and discovered each is eclectic … Each property is its own unique experience.”
He says: “It strikes a chord these days. Travellers want to feel that a place respects its location. It’s an experience of the destination — not an imposing of it.”
Charles, who wanted to “dance on the table” when the Wickaninnish received its designation soon after opening 1996, adds, “To me it is the pinnacle of my dream to be welcomed into the family of Relais & Châteaux.”
|Wickaninnish In interior|
As I stood at the window of my room at the Wickaninnish, looking out over the length of sand and pounding surf that is Chesterman Beach, I thought, “Speaking of pinnacles — this is my dream vacation.” True to its honouring of the “destination,” the Wickaninnish is a celebration of West Coast art and culture. Every single detail — from the exquisite yellow cedar table in the brand new wine cellar and tasting room to the remote-controlled curtain above the bathtub in my room — speaks to extraordinary thoughtfulness and sumptuous luxury.
Cuisine at The Pointe Restaurant is nothing short of miraculous, with the same care and attention to detail going into every dish, served in a spectacular, ocean-edged, art-infused room with floor-to-ceiling windows. This is the wild West Coast at its very finest.
In a seemingly different experience, the Wedgewood unfolds as a luxurious oasis in the heart of downtown Vancouver. Greeted at the entrance by sharply dressed valets, visitors step off of Hornby Street and enter a lavish-yet-cosy, chandelier-lit lobby that oozes with rich colours and provides a stark contrast between inside and out.
Everything from the golden-hued antiques and stately furniture to the artwork on the walls in our expansive king suite and the fine china (Wedgewood Fine Bone China!) in the stunning Bacchus restaurant gently evokes a sense of “grand English manor.”
|Wedgewood Vancouver entrance|
The Wedgewood Hotel & Spa has been a member of Relais & Châteaux since 2008, and general manager Glenn Eleiter says the designation “ensures our clients will experience something wonderful when they walk through our doors. It is confidence-inspiring for guests and staff alike.”
Indeed, as my husband and I sat on the private balcony of our suite, sipping glasses of rosé and enjoying the sights and soothing sounds of a park and water feature below, the experience is definitely wonderful. While the Wedgewood easily expresses all of the Relais & Châteaux five Cs, we were almost speechless at the level of service (courtesy) provided by the staff. Every need was met, often before we knew we needed it.
Glenn concurs. Of the five Cs, he says, “They are all important and it is difficult to place one ahead of another, but we receive accolades from our clients for our warm, authentic welcome and the attentiveness that we provide at every encounter, so ‘courtesy’ is one of our strengths.”
He adds, “But, I [also have to mention] the cuisine in Bacchus that our Executive Chef Montgomery Lau prepares with his culinary team … we are a culinary-forward hotel with Bacchus being at the very heart of the property.”
Our two meals at Bacchus — dinner and breakfast — were simply spectacular.
The restaurant/lounge at Bacchus is rich and romantic with antique furniture, warm, dark cherry wood and Murano crystal fixtures. A large painting of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine and revelry, presides over the lounge.
The night we dined there, the large, street-facing windows were open to the warm night air and a pianist gently set a backdrop of familiar tunes. We supped on a range of delicately presented seafood, sampling poached steelhead salmon, halibut, pan-roasted scallops and lobster linguine, and sipped sparkling rosé and later a Châteaux La Gorce from the restaurant’s superb Bordeaux selection.
And like the Wickaninnish, the Wedgewood is family owned and operated, with the daughter of founder Eleni Skalbania — Elpie Marinakis Jackson — currently the co-owner and managing director.
Eleni Skalbania founded the Wedgewood in 1984, when she purchased and re-worked an old apartment hotel, transforming it into its current glory.
“We strike the perfect balance between world-class amenities and product with sincere and caring people providing personal service at the highest of levels,” says Glenn.
Indeed, my experience sampling just two of BC’s Relais & Châteaux hotels has me fired up to check out the others.