This is the time of the year I start to think about what to get my wife for Christmas … yes, I’m a typical guy and I push getting her Christmas present until the last moment. I wanted to get something a little different than the sweater and handbags that normally are my “go to” gift. After some thought I decided to buy her a “spa-cation.” I was jumping on the bandwagon of tourism with a twist - sending your partner away for a health and wellness journey to de-stress from daily life.
Wellness tourism is quickly gaining momentum around the world evident in spas and resorts spread across the planet offering a calmness and serenity.
This form of tourism, focused on promoting health and well-being, is well-needed in a busy holiday season and is a great start to the new year.
So on the little card I’ve written: “Say goodbye to your electronic devices” (at least for a few hours a day), signed it from our two dogs and one cat and myself (I always get lowest billing in our household) and happily crossed that off my ‘things to do this holiday season.’
Of course, my deciding to gift “Miss A” a spa-cation doesn’t come out of the blue - it’s more of an “aha! moment” since the theme of this story revolves around a spa, a seaweed lady and a walk in the forest.
When I met Diane Bernard she was reaching into the back of her small SUV taking out a pair of red and black patterned rubber boots, slipping them on her feet and grabbing a pail to help in her harvest of a local product I’d never given much thought to - seaweed.
When my wife was researching stories in and around Sooke, BC she stumbled upon a brochure in The Stick (one of our favourite coffee houses just down the road from our hotel location at the Prestige Oceanfront Resort ) promoted a local tour hosted by Diane Bernard. After reading about the lady in the brochure, she told me “today we’re going to meet the “Seaweed Lady.” I hadn’t yet sipped my coffee so I wasn’t sure I heard her right and wondered “who would be so cruel to call someone the seaweed lady.” As she explained Diane’s story to me (and the coffee kicked in) I realized the name had not only a reasonable explanation, but was a respected label that Diane herself helped promote. So we’re off to see the “Seaweed Lady.”
In her earlier career Diane Bernard spent a lot of time talking to people about diversifying the local economy. Now she’s the living embodiment of the advice she doled out - she’s gone from the position of a Regional Director and Economic Development Consultant on Vancouver Island - to small business mogul reaching out to markets around the world.
My first encounter with Diane was on Whiffen Spit, a finger of land jutting out into the Sooke Harbour which is a popular spot for tourists to stroll, owners to walk their dogs and Diane to harvest seaweed.
Diane has the look of someone who spends a lot of time outdoors. She looks healthy and happy. She has a constant smile on her face as she walks the pebbled beach, looking out into the strong sun just starting to dip behind the tree line in the west and feels one with nature.
For quite a few years Diane has been harvesting seaweed (in fact she’s a registered harvester which in the past allowed her to sell to chefs in the area) and used this natural, sustainable plant to bring skin care products to market. She’s created Seaflora - Wild Organic Seaweed Skincare, a line of sustainable hand-harvested, certified organic skincare products that are based on the seaweed she harvests from this area of Sooke. An avid educator and promoter of seaweed, she’s been known to tell the press: “I decided to take a wild resource I was comfortable with an value-add it to the highest level possible and kick it into the national and international market. The resource I was quite comfortable with was sitting outside my door.”
I’m always amazed at people who can look at nature around us and build an eco-business that not only employs people, but spreads goodness to the world markets. Diane has done just that. Her business may be in supplying seaweed products to local chefs and producing skin care products and her big, wild, exotic garden may be the Pacific Ocean - but it’s her imagination that has sparked a very successful business out of the small town of Sooke. I also think she should be recognized not only for her business acumen but also for taking what could be a pretty boring subject matter (if you’re not a biologist) - seaweed, and educating us to its story and benefits.
When she’s not leading tours along the coastline between April and September on which you can discover some of the hundreds of varieties that grow in the pristine west coast waters, she’s harvesting a colourful array of seaweed that range in texture from smooth to bobbled. Imbued with a diverse range of minerals, vitamins and iron, seaweed is considered a superfood - something Far East consumers have known for centuries. Supplying chefs were part of her original plan as an end-use customer, but that was years ago … she now focuses on her burgeoning spa product line.
Not that I gave it a lot of thought prior to meeting Diane, but I was under the impression that seaweed is some kind of a plant, floating around the ocean and getting caught up in propellers and my fishing line. However even though it resembles a plant, seaweed is actually a type of complex algae - and that’s about as technical as I’m going to get.
BC is home to about 700 species of seaweed, which grow well by cold, clean, fast-moving waters. Diane’s ‘ocean garden’ ranges from Sooke to the Port Renfrew coast and in high season she hires help to harvest dozens of varieties with her eyes on the horizon and tide tables.
She also gives tours, using the two-hour visit to educate people about the algae’s growing cycle and sustainability while dispelling myths that seaweed is only good to help propagate the garden or that it’s got a stink to it.
Diane has looked at seaweed and seen its beauty and elegance while understanding its multitude of health benefits both in the kitchen and in the spa industry.
In an article written in Canada’s Globe and Mail, they talked about how Diane’s success could very well have been spawned decades ago, beginning at the opposite end of the country. Diane, they write, spent her summers with Iles de la Madeleine relatives who carried pulse in their pockets, chewing it like snuff because tobacco was too expensive. Sea grass insulated homes and stuffed mattresses; fishing boats used seaweed to keep the prized lobsters cold. They go on to tell the story of Diane getting a Master’s Degree in criminology and serving two terms as a school trustee before embracing her new career as the “Seaweed Lady of Sooke.”
I find her passionate about the algae but also proud of the people she’s able to employ and the product she says finds its way out of country, stamped with “Manufactured In Canada” on the label.
As I left her on the beach, seeing her walk into the shallows off Sooke Harbour with the sun going down I had the feeling that Diane’s mind was firing on all cylinders, looking out at the sea and wondering what her next concoction would be. She’s an interesting entrepreneur who has discovered that you can achieve success not by harnessing nature, but by working with it’s natural ebbs and flows.
I’ve just discovered that doing something since I was a kid has been called one of the top wellness trends for 2015 - “forest bathing.”
According to multiple sources found in magazines and on the web, we’re told that we need to recharge our batteries by enjoying nature. Now this isn’t brain surgery to make those claims. I think it’s a given that if you’re feeling stressed out and need to stop for a moment there’s not many things in life better than taking a walk in the woods. Today that act has been given a sexier title called ‘forest bathing’ (and really doesn’t involve a bathtub and/or shower in the forest).
Those in the know say it stems from the traditional practice of shinrin-yoku in Japan, where people spend contemplative time in nature. This past year, forest bathing has been popping up on spa menus where it’s become a top trend for 2015 and appears to continue to be even more popular this coming year.
Every time I travel to Sooke, I try to carve out some time away from everything … take a single camera with one lens … keeping it simple … and go for a walk through the woods. There are some great woods to wander through - my favourite being part of the Coast Trail found just a few kilometres away from the Prestige Oceanfront Resort.
I grab a coffee in the lobby of the hotel, head out for about a 15 minute drive and be wandering the forest by the water before someone in the big city of Toronto or Vancouver has read the Globe and Mail newspaper from the front to the obituary page.
Total silence envelopes me as soon as I hit the canopy and if I want to hear any sounds, I just walk a little closer to the shore line and I can hear the lapping of the waves hitting the rocks down below the short cliffs. I often find myself looking down at the path, making sure I don’t trip and noticing the little things, like fungi, moss hanging from broken tree limbs and the inevitable spider’s web with drops of moisture clinging to intricate strands of silken web. Who would have thought I was trendy … but I guess I am when ‘forest bathing.’
I know from my frequent forays into the forest that it improves my mood, increases my energy level and helps improve my sleep. Plus - and this is important for a photographer - ‘forest bathing’ is known to increase your ability to focus. The benefits of walking through a forest are not unknown to those who frequently partake in this low impact exercise … it can boost your immune system, lower your blood pressure, reduce stress and that’s not all.
Scientists have done studies where exposure to the chemicals and oils emitted by many trees not only smell good, but could cut your cancer risk. There is evidence that essential wood oils called phytoncides, which are natural preservatives and fungicides emitted by many plants, can actually increase natural killer cells in humans, thus enhancing the immune system.
The great thing about this spa trend is you can practice it just about anywhere - I just happen to enjoy the west coast where I constantly stare up at the large trees and wonder who they have witnessed walking under their canopy hundreds of years ago.
Le Sooke Spa, located in the Prestige Oceanfront Resort is a little gem of a spa sitting on the ground level of the resort with a view out toward Sooke Harbour. They offer quite a variety of spa treatments but the one I was interested in was the Seaweed Signature Retreat. The idea for this particular treatment is to remineralize your skin with a Swedish Massage and a Coastal Seaweed Wrap, hit a steam shower, have lunch and then finish with a customized facial - that to me sounded like something that would buy me some “brownie points” on the home front.
As I was photographing in the spa room, I remembered Diane (the Seaweed Lady) telling me that when she made the jump from selling her product to chefs, to selling seaweed to spas, there was a lot of skepticism initially. Diane, who has a little bit of the promoter in her, invited more than forty spa directors to visit her right on the beach where she harvests the seaweed and found a group of gung ho new converts who loved the idea. However, they had a few caveats for Diane before they would buy into her program. “It couldn’t smell fishy … it couldn’t run when applied to a client’s face or body,” they told her. They also wanted to see chunks of seaweed in the products so consumers knew they were getting something fresh from the sea.
Armed with that ‘wish list’ Diane spent 18 months of trial and error coming up with formulas that would keep all the benefits of seaweed (which are rich in vitamins and essential fatty acids) without chemical additives. Needless to say, Diane, being Diane, was successful.
In the magazine Spa Life, writer Ria Holmgren wrote that “whole organic seaweed has proven to be highly therapeutic to the skin. It works as a treatment for eczema, psoriasis, neurodermatitis, rosacea, acne and other disorders. Seaweed is rich in vitamins, minerals - especially calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron and zinc - and trace elements that are ten times richer than those found in plants that grow on land.” “Seaweed,” she goes on to write, “slows the aging process and reduces irritations of the skin.” Who would have thought that something natural floating off Whiffin Spit (and many other parts of the coastline) could be so versatile.
Of course, these facts are totally back of mind for our local realtor, whose eyes are closed as her mind drifts off in solitude while she lays in a warm bath wrapped in seaweed leaves.
As I close the door silently as I take my leave, I can’t help think that “Miss A” is going to love it here.
I’ve photographed with Rush Adventures before, so I stopped by and asked if someone could guide me in a kayak in order for me to capture their next workout. Being totally transparent here, part of my role is to experience the Sooke area and look for things that either locals, or tourists, can do that may be something they haven’t tried yet - and SUP Yoga was an activity I hadn’t photographed, or experienced and I was looking forward to it.
I wanted to try to capture the solitude of this relatively new form of exercise, combining stand up paddling and yoga and the quiet contemplation of the class as they went through their 45 minute workout - all from the comfort of a kayak.
I know from previous encounters with SUP that it’s great for the core and helps build stability. I also knew that from my limited experience I would probably end up in the drink more than once if I attempted what these students and teacher were doing. As I was shooting this sequence of photos one girl flipped off her board, during one headstand maneuver, ending up in the water … I must admit I had a smile on my face when it happened … but gave her kudos for her determination to get back up on the board and continue her yoga session.