Owned and operated by the Haida, Ocean House is arguably one of Canada's best kept secrets, offering unprecedented access to the country's incredible wildlife.
In the far north of Canada’s west coast, 62 miles (99 km) from the mainland, there is a chain of tiny islands almost no one knows. Referred to as the ‘Galapagos of the North’ for its high levels of endemism and the sheer abundance of life that exists here, the Haida Gwaii archipelago rises from the sea like a lost world.
Enormous forests of Sitka Spruce and Cedar, blanketed in thick moss, tower hundreds of feet above the shore; bald eagles fill the sky; there are black bears, porpoises, sea lions, orcas and more than one million nesting sea birds. Home to the indigenous Haida people for at least the last 12,500 years, they’ve been keeping it a secret but, perhaps, not for much longer.
A Sacred Space
A new luxury eco-lodge has just opened on a remote inlet of the island's rugged Pacific coast, accessible only by helicopter or boat and surrounded on all sides by towering fjords, waterfalls and lush mountain forests. It’s like arriving at an ocean fairy tale: a luxury barge, floating in a sheltered bay, surrounded by mist and a golden tideline on all sides.
Owned and operated exclusively by the Haida people themselves, Ocean House, as it’s known, promises to be one of the world’s most unique new luxury wilderness experiences: culture and adventure at the ends of the Earth.
We arrived in the early morning and were welcomed with a hearty brunch of seafood chowder, smoked frittatas and fresh baked muffins, peering through the panoramic windows of the dining room at a bald eagle circling above for its catch. Inside, the design is grounded in Haida culture—the entrance to a traditional long house frames the bar, there are historic photographs of old village sites, masks and dug-out canoes on the walls.
But these are offset throughout with highlights of contemporary elegance, inspired from the natural world: woven linen seats stitched in native patterns, distressed wood flooring the colour of faded cedar, muted hues chosen to match the sea fog blowing past the windows.
For an archipelago known for its remoteness, this is one of its most isolated spots, and you can feel the seclusion all around, like a whisper on the wind.
The lodge houses just 12 double rooms and with so few guests in such a far-flung location we made friends easy: cocktails by the wood-burning fire in the lounge at night; watching deer ghost across the banks of the forest from the open-sided courtyard at dawn; tucked together into surely the most idyllic sauna in the world, a huge picture frame window cut into one side so you can heat up while watching storms brew across the bay.
Living On The Land
Then there’s the food. Set up by celebrated Haida chef Brodie Swanson, with a vision to serve traditional native dishes with creative modern twists, Ocean House’s restaurant might just be the most remote fine dining destination in the world. We had razor clam fitters with black cod and poached eggs for breakfast; dinners of candied salmon, fresh crab and prawns pulled from traps that day.
Everything is sourced from the islands. I took a kayak out to forage in the forest for spruce tips and found them sprinkled over my halibut that night. We ate sweet sea urchin eggs and kelp straight from sea. There’s even a unique cooking class launching this summer: catch fresh salmon with the chef, build a fire on your own deserted beach and learn to smoke it over two cedar poles, the traditional Haida way. Seafood simply doesn’t get any better than that.
Into The Wild
But as tempting as it is to linger, the real magic is outside. We took a boat to Chaatl, an ancient village site, the next day, passing spumes of Humpback whales scratching their back against the rocky shore along the way, and then hiked into the forest until we found it. Standing 40 feet tall, one side withered by salt and storm, the other carved in Grizzly bears, was one of only a handful of original totem poles left on the islands—this one carved more than 100-years ago.
As we took it in, one of our guides, a young singer called Jaylene, began a traditional song of thanks, beating a simple rhythm on her grandmother’s elk-hide drum as she sang. It was like listening to the ocean itself. Her voice ebbed and flowed as the tide; no words, just pure feeling blowing through like a sea breeze on a sail.
The days fell into an easy pattern. After breakfast, we would gear up in our wet weather clothes (provided by the lodge), board the Ocean House cruiser—a simple covered boat with retractable landing gear for easy exits onto the beach—and head off to explore a new bay or cultural site. We saw the remains of old long houses, half consumed by the forest; learned how cedar trees were stripped for weaving and how canoes were hewn directly from felled trees using hot stones and steam to pry them apart.
The forests were spectacular, silent and luminous green with beds so soft it felt as if I was walking on a cloud. “It’s like stepping back in time,” our guide Sascha said. “It regenerates you.” But mostly, I just slowed down. Time moves at the pace of the tides here, the rhythm of the forest: no phones, no lists, nothing to do but watch rainbows play on the mist.
But it may not be for everyone. While the boat is luxurious by local standards the seas can get rough, and the journeys long. The forest walks are easy, but often on uneven ground and may not be suitable for all guests. And you will get wet. This isn’t a holiday you take for the nice weather—you take it to see one of the wildest places on Earth.
One With Nature
But it’s worth it. On my last afternoon, I paddled five miles east to the very end of Peel Inlet, the silent bay where the lodge is moored. A rainstorm had just blown through, the clouds suddenly lifted and one of the most astonishing landscapes I’ve ever seen was revealed: towering mountains on all sides, like an enormous natural amphitheatre, pouring with dozens of waterfalls, veins of pure crystal rushing down from the very tips of the fjord.
In front of me, a Bald Eagle was perched on her nest; behind, a sea lion bobbed playfully up and down and disappearing into the bush, barely discernible from the shadows, was a Haida Gwaii black bear, larger than its North American cousins, with a snout and claws designed for devouring shellfish.
Captain Gold, a renowned Haida elder who has been instrumental in preserving the island’s cultural and environmental legacy, told us on the first day: “There is a power here, if you listen you can feel it.” That’s when it hit me. You don’t come to the Haida Gwaii for what you see and do, as much as for the way it makes you feel. This is one of the most alive places on Earth. That’s its power. It’s the song of the ocean, a call from the ends of the Earth.
Ocean House offers a three-night package, including all meals, activities, internal flights from Vancouver and transfers, but excluding international flights, from CAD$4,410 per person. Find out more at oceanhouse.ca.
Aaron Millar’s latest book, 50 Greatest National Parks of the World, which features the Haida Gwaii, is available now on amazon.com