Healthier by nature

Posted by on May 21, 2021 in Articles

Healthier by nature

Wellness sabbaticals are a hot trend. Here’s one way to profit.

By Vivienne O’Keeffe, CIBTAC, AAD, PEA

When he was still running Microsoft, Bill Gates would take a week off twice a year to spend quiet time alone in a small cabin in a forest in the Pacific Northwest. He called it his ’think week.’ Like so many other active, successful people, Gates learned there’s nothing like time away from the tangle of everyday life (or the paralyzing ennui of lockdown) to unwind and recharge.

Since March 2020, we in the business of inspiring people towards healthier and happier lives have been royally thwarted by a nasty pandemic. The need to find ways to deliver wellness in a non-contact, non-Zoom environment has never been greater.

Regular readers know that my articles in this publication have (hopefully) provided useful information to help businesses like yours prosper by deploying smart strategies and staying on top of the trends. This article is a little different because it deals with a project I personally undertook: a wellness retreat by Chesterman Beach near the small town of Tofino, BC. I’m hoping that sharing some of the peaks and valleys I experienced setting up this business might be a source of inspiration to you – if not to build a wellness retreat of your own, then maybe to conjure up other ways to survive the pandemic and ride the wellness wave, which I expect to grow into a tsunami.

The genesis of my project was in August 2018 while I happened to be spending time in Tofino, partly on a mission to find out if there was a way  to share this oceanside abundance of unspoiled nature with future guests. I was in the middle of a meditation session when I was jostled into alertness by the gentle thrumming of tiny wings. I turned my head just in time to see two brightly coloured Anna’s Hummingbirds not 10 feet away feeding on a flower bed. The universe was not only sending me a message, it was giving me a name.

I was also inspired by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’s parable Flight of the Hummingbird, in which a hummingbird becomes a symbol of wisdom and courage by fighting a forest fire alone by carrying small droplets of water. The smallest of actions, done with intent, can lead to great things.

Taking cues from both these sources, Tofino Hummingbird Cottage was born.

In its 2020 annual forecast, the US-based Wellness Institute ranked the wellness sabbatical among the top 10 global trends. Following up on that observation in this year’s report, New York Times columnist Elaine Glusac says “Look for all travel to become wellness travel as manic getaways are replaced by slower, closer and more mindful experiences.”

Another contributor, Veronica Schreibeis Smith of wellness architectural firm Vera Iconica Architecture and Developments, says studies show the connection between built environments and physical health. “Look for spaces designed to make sacred and numinous moments part of our consciousness and wellbeing,” she says.

In other words, with the glaring exception of the pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions, my timing has been pretty good.

Plus, it did take two years of work to build – including surveys, geotechnical assessments, groundwater management (being in a beach area), ground preparation (against liquefaction in this earthquake-prone region), building, development and occupancy permitting, financing, and full construction of a commercial vacation wellness retreat. In July of last year Tofino Hummingbird Cottage finally opened.


Building a wellness retreat

Tofino Hummingbird Cottage is all about tapping into Clayoquot Sound’s unique healing energy. The cottage sits serenely in a coastal marine landscape I designed in collaboration with a local organic master gardener. Protected by cedar trees, long revered for their spiritual significance and as symbols of strength, guests can relax on any of the three decks. The grounds are ideal for meditation or listening to the distant thunder of the waves, the whisper of wind through the cedars, and the sounds of nearby eagles, ospreys and oystercatchers.

The 1,450 sq. ft. interior draws on the soothing palette of nature, from its non-VOC paint to its floors of recycled vinyl and sustainable cork (for warmth and its ability to soften sound). The interior features nature photographs of birds (including hummingbirds) by Island photographer Glenn Bartley, whose book sits on the coffee table, and a naturescape painting by well-known Island artist Linda Heslop. Sonos wireless speakers deliver clear, distortion-free sound. Three decks open onto the forests surroundings and abundant local wildlife.

I always smile when guests remark on the calm, relaxing environment. Could it be because I took the extra measure of embedding crystals including lapis lazuli and smoky quartz into the foundation and interior walls – which combine their soothing, calming, rejuvenating properties with a good old-fashioned Irish blessing?

Of course, a proper wellness vacation starts with a good rest. Among other benefits, proper sleep helps regulate our moods, reboots and sharpens our brains, reduces blood pressure, lowers the risk of heart disease, controls blood sugar, boosts immunity and reduces stress. Good sleep also requires careful light management, so the windows of Hummingbird’s three bedrooms are hung with black-out draperies to allow our body’s Circadian rhythm – 24-hour internal clock – to shut off when required. Dimmable eco-LEDs further control light exposure throughout the cottage, while ultra-comfortable beds with organic pillows and silk-blend hypoallergenic duvets adding the final touch to make the Sandman’s job a snap.

A small desk turns one of the bedrooms into a working office – which may seem like an oxymoron in a wellness retreat, but in 2021 has to be considered essential. “Work has become always-on,” observes the Wellness Institute’s report. “More people aren’t taking their vacation days, and vastly more… are remote/independent workers with no formal vacation time. More people desperately need a profound wellness break, but they need to keep working.”

In other words, guests would be MORE stressed without Internet access – in my case, hard-wired, high-speed Internet and wi-fi.


The Wellness Sabbatical

Because transformation comes from longer rather than shorter wellness experiences, the minimum stay is three nights. Seven to twenty-one days is ideal and what I encourage. I envision guests walking Chesterman beach before starting their workday, participating in Zoom meetings, maybe taking the afternoon to noodle on what’s next in life and work. My best creative ideas typically arise when I take time to get lost in nature, maybe watching humpbacks by Frank Island or hermit crabs in tidal pools darting for cover. Suddenly a concept I was wrestling with for a client becomes clear. The wellness sabbatical is poised to shake up the future of travel by blending work and wellness in creative and practical ways.

The Hummingbird’s living room features a cozy Norwegian Jøtul gas fireplace and sectional sofa and chairs designed for style and comfort. Countertops of quartz caesarstone and a gas stove with convection oven let guests craft their cuisines of choice, a process further facilitated by easy access to fresh seafood, organic vegetables and artisan foods from Tofino’s nearby shops.

To support local businesses I bought all the furniture, appliances and building materials from local merchants. I also became a member of the Wellness Tourism Association for guidance, community and potentially useful business contacts. Fees are a reasonable $250 US a year.

Ignoring the advice of many, one thing I DIDN’T put in the cottage was a hot tub. Inhaling chemical fumes wasn’t part of my vision for communing with nature.


Traditional Wellness services a phone call away

Tofino Hummingbird Cottage doesn’t directly provide wellness therapies. But I have sourced local talent and left their contact information for my visitors. These include massage therapists, yoga and meditation practitioners and a hypnotherapist, all of whom can deliver their services in person.

What kinds of guests have I been getting? With travel lockdowns during the pandemic, virtually all have been local British Columbians. Surfers are particularly attracted to staying right next to a spot named by The Lonely Planet as Canada’s best surfing beach.


Challenges and delights

Government travel advisories and closures have made it tough for Tofino Hummingbird Cottage (and everyone in the tourism industry) to make ends meet. I’ve had to carry the place for up to five months at a time with no guests – and as a startup business, without the support of any government loans or grants. That said, without exception, the guests have been fabulous – friendly, enthusiastic and delightful. Most have been families and, as mentioned (because of the great beach location), surfers. The appreciation and enthusiasm  they have shown has been heartwarming.

Once COVID is history and all the restrictions have been lifted, I fully expect Tofino Hummingbird Cottage to start running in the green, validating the three years of meticulous planning, construction and marketing.

By then, I’ll be ready for a wellness sabbatical of my own.


Published as “Healthier by Nature” in Spa Canada May/June 2021

Vivienne O’Keeffe, CIBTAC, AAD, PEA, is President of Spa Profits Consulting Inc., and an expert in designing successful spa concepts. She is also an international consultant in developing product lines, treatment plans and training programs, a member of ISPA and a recipient of the Spa Industry Association of Canada Outstanding Industry Service Award in 2001, 2005 and 2012. 



  1. Great story, will have to put it on my bucket list. Viv anything you set out to do has been and will be a great success . Your heart is in the right place in the back planning. Good luck, can’t wait sit to visit.

  2. Dear Vivienne,

    This’ is a fabulous accomplishment. I am sincerely honored and want to wish your all the very best.
    I am confident that Tofino Hummingbird Cottage will take off and turn into a fruitful success.
    I wish I could some day be able to enjoy this beautiful place that you have created.

  3. Well done! Bravo!

    • Thank you Thérèse – I am sure Guest will love your treatments as much as I do.

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