So, my trooper wife went stiffly in with Trixie, the black and white mare Sherry said needed a lot of love because she was denied it before coming to the Hills. Hiromi was stiff when she got her instructions, but after Sherry left her on her own, she began to work with Trixie. She stomped her foot…and Trixie ignored her. “That’s because she doesn’t believe you,” Sherry shouted. “Do it with authority!” Hiromi stomped her foot again and Trixie began to gallop around her. Then Hiromi made a sudden move towards the horse and Trixie stopped in her tracks, turned, and trotted in the opposite direction. As the horse obeyed Hiromi’s silent commands, Hiromi began to feel comfortable inside the ring. Her shoulders relaxed as Trixie lowered her head and wheezed through her nostrils. “Now drop the whip and walk away,” Sherry said. Hiromi did as told, and Trixie, as if on cue, entered Hiromi’s space from behind. She nudged right up against Hiromi. Ten minutes earlier I would have said this was impossible. But there was Hiromi, her hand under Trixie’s neck, her face pressing against the horse’s. “Do you believe it?” I said, from outside the fence? “I love this horse,” Hiromi said.
That evening we sat on a flatbed truck filled with hay for a horse-pulled ride to an Indian teepee, where we joined a few others drinking warm wine and hot chocolate, singing Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash songs. It was like being back in camp as a teenager. A fitting way to end our stay at this hands-on ranch.
ECHO VALLEY (www.evranch.com)
Norm Dove flew us to his place, about a twenty minute flight. As we approached Echo Valley I could see the lodge, the cabins, the Baan Thai authentic building which housed the Thai spa, built by the same architect who did some of the royal buildings in Thailand. It was an unusual, and definitely an unexpected sight, to see such a beautiful, exotic building on a working ranch in the heart of British Colombia. “When we found this place,” Norm told us, “we didn’t think of it like a hotel. We just wanted to share it with guests. There’s no reception desk, there are no keys to lock any doors. We attract interesting people and that keeps our lives interesting.”
Norm’s wife, Nan, is from Thailand, and they got the idea of bringing the East west when they visited there and started getting massages. They found the best four women in Thailand that treated them and offered them jobs, once the Baan Thai house was built (they brought over all the construction materials from Thailand). Naturally, Hiromi and I looked forward to testing the results!
But before we could change into the proper clothing we met the dogs. All ten of them. Beautiful black and white border collies that mingled with the guests and became a part of the Echo Valley experience. “They’re there if you need them,” Norm said. “They’re all very friendly, and they’ll keep the bears away when you go for long walks. Six of them will always join you, three will stay with you, three will run ahead.” Only Flint Bondurant found them a bit trying, ever since he put up a disc golf course on the property, where guests can throw plastic discs at metal “holes” while scoring for pars, birdies and bogeys. The dogs like to chase the discs, catch them if they can, and drop them in places not where they would have landed. “If you ask them nicely they won’t run after the discs,” Nan tells Flint over dinner. “I’ll bet you $500 you can’t keep those dogs away,” Flint retorts. Nan finds Flint amusing. And I think: where else do the guests eat with the hosts and listen to such dialogue? It makes one feel very familiar very fast.
“Tell me,” I wonder during our first meal, cooked by their Cordon Bleu chef Kim, who wears his chef’s white tower hat even when he’s not in the kitchen, “how many times do you two get massaged?”
Norm looks sheepishly at Nan and says, “Probably three.”
“Three times a week!?” I say. And it begins to become clear. This retreat, this magical oasis with its private landing strip and elaborately built Thai house, is really a self-indulgent extravaganza created by this loving couple for themselves, and shared with people who want to participate in the indulgence. Norm learned to fly a plane so he can get in and out of Echo Valley, then bought a Cessna. His Thai wife liked her country’s spa treatments, so they imported the materials from Thailand and built their own spa. Nan loved animals, so they got some border collies and kept the pups that came out of them. They brought in horses to ride, cows to graze, chickens to lay eggs, and Brian to show off his falcons to fascinated guests. Norm was able to do this because the inventions he patented in his previous job—as an engineer in the paper industry—were sold for $85 million. That gave him the capital to carve out this little fantasy called Echo Valley Ranch, where he and his wife could be the King and Queen of Siam West! And since they enjoyed people, they opened it up for twenty or thirty guests at a time to share in the Good Life.
“I tell people,” Flint tells us, “that if they’ve ever gotten a better massage than the one’s we give here, I’ll give ‘em their money back. Never had to do it yet.”
About the massages. There’s the Traditional Thai massage, where you are pulled and stretched and pressured so that your joints feel lubricated and your body tranquil. The Royal Thai massage, where your masseuse uses only her hand, thumbs and body weight to unblock tension points, and then warm compresses to promote circulation. The Asian Blend massage, which is a pressure point massage. The Luk Pra Kob Herbal Rejuvenation Ritual: fifteen potent herbs are mixed into a muslin sack, heated, and pressed directly onto your skin. The Thai Foot massage, the Asian Fusion massage, the Aromatic massage…in other words, you’ve got a lot to choose from, and if you really want to pamper yourself you can spend $350 and get seven hours worth of massages and facials, which also includes a special Thai dinner (when you break it down by the hour, you see what a bargain this can be!). We did two: the Traditional and the Luk Pra Kob, and judging from these, I’d have to say: do both, and then do all the others. Hell, how many times will you get authentic Thai massages in an authentic Baan Thai house outside of Thailand?