Ontario: Nurtured by nature

By Gemma Bowes

A stunning new eco-lodge in deepest Ontario combines comfort with a taste of the wilderness. Gemma Bowes checks in.

E'Terra lodge has won environmental accolades for its choice of building materials and support of local industry. Photo / Supplied
E'Terra lodge has won environmental accolades for its choice of building materials and support of local industry. Photo / Supplied

The cough of gravel spray and the fading clatter of the Sounds Like Canada radio station fade as my Dodge car grinds to a halt, giving way to a thick silence broken only by intermittent bird peeps, woodpecker drilling and red squirrel chatter from the pines.

Behind me lie the stressful car-horn jams of Toronto's escape routes and five hours of straight roads, gently rolling hills dotted with strawberry fields, motels, and the totem poles and tepees of First Nation craft stores.

Ahead are the final few hundred metres of Ontario's Bruce Peninsula, and Tobermory, the final town on the narrow pinnacle of land that juts up between Lake Huron - the world's fifth-largest freshwater lake - and the smaller Georgian Bay, classed as a separate lake although their waters merge above the promontory.

In this small forest clearing in the core of a Unesco World Biosphere Reserve, protected for its wildlife, lakes and trees, lies E'Terra, Canada's latest, and maybe best, eco-lodge.

Visually, it's impressive: flower beds, a lilac maze and a dark swimming pool with waterfalls surround the main building; copper, stone, wood and glass form sharp angles; there are bright sandy trails that disappear into the trees and a flash of blue water behind. The feeling of peace is as heavy as the heat, sinking into your bones and slowing the mind so that it fixates on the bird calls and the scent of the trees.

Step through the door and the atmosphere doesn't change. Inside has been designed to feel like outside, with natural materials and colours, lots of plants and sunlight and a huge chunk of Niagara Escarpment rock left as it was found in the middle of the dining room, to be used as a wonderful water feature that provides a trickling, burbling soundtrack.

E'Terra's green credentials are astounding, too, and owner and creator Laurie Adams is justifiably proud - it's been a tough, four-year slog to build an inn that fulfils her aim of "striking the perfect balance between ecology, economics and ethics".

Here, being green goes way beyond a bit of recycling. Sustainable building methods, a reliance on recycled or salvaged materials, reuse of building rubble, rainwater collection for the natural air-conditioning system, solar-heated water, power from local wind turbines, and a saltwater pool that cleverly doubles as the obligatory fire tank that most properties bury underground, are just the half of it.

Since opening a bit over a year ago, E'Terra has reaped many environmental accolades. Supporting the community and sourcing locally have been paramount: 85 per cent of materials come from North America, and Laurie thoroughly researched everything from the water filters to the olive oil, selecting products for their health-giving properties and ethical production.

Some products are imported, but she does attempt to justify them - the Nicaraguan coffee growers receive better rates than under fair trade schemes. To be honest, the Fijian water is an environmental nightmare in terms of carbon emissions, but she argues, its high levels of the mineral silica make it "in health terms, the best option".

Laurie seems on a one-woman mission to improve the health of the whole world and its population. She has been chairwoman and director of the Bruce Peninsula Biosphere Association, has written for the United Nations Environment Programme website and, on a smaller scale, provides her guests with nutritious cuisine.

New chef Darl, who created some fantastic dishes during my stay, has since been mysteriously let go, but the focus will remain on local, organic and wild foods.

The hotel is extremely luxurious, with Jacuzzis in the bedrooms, but certain New Age ideas lie behind some features. Although it's not obvious, invisible forces such as electromagnetic waves, geomagnetic energy, sound frequencies and electrical currents have been controlled to improve guests' health and reduce stress.

Even if you're not an eco-warrior or health nut, E'Terra is a magnificent place to take a holiday. You can hike through natural landscapes that are gobsmackingly beautiful: the unique rock formations that edge the small inland lakes; the thick forest of the national park, home to black bears, rattlesnakes and many bird species; and the paths of the Bruce Trail, an 850km walking route along the Niagara Escarpment from Niagara Falls to Tobermory.

Laurie takes me to the Grotto, a lakeside cave where many swimmers have drowned in the temptingly turquoise underwater tunnel, and to Indian Head Cove, where the rocks could not look more like a brave's face. At the sweeping "Singing Sands" beach of Dorcas Lake, we see tiny yellow Indian paintbrush flowers, lady's-slipper, insect-eating pitcher plants and swallowtail butterflies (the clouds of mosquitoes are less welcome). At one point we spot a turtle laying eggs in the middle of the road.

Wooden walkways interspersed with viewing platforms that are sometimes used for yoga lead from E'Terra to the immense glassy Georgian Bay, which soaks into the sky in a blue blur. It's so vast you can't see the land on the other side, just the five islands of the Fathom Five National Marine Park, around which 22 wrecks lie submerged.

The water is so perfectly clear that when I paddle over them with kayak guide Jason, the wrecks are as visible as if they were displayed in a museum. It's eerie peering through the hatch of a ship's deck into the murky hold below, and slowly drifting past protruding planks that resemble exposed dinosaur spines.

A lot of philosophising lies behind E'Terra: it is all about "healthy futures, healthy lifestyles and educational awareness", and Laurie hopes to open a not-for-profit educational centre in the future.

Although she recognises that guests will fly here, she believes it is the commutes in and out of cities that are a waste of fuel, and that spending time in a beautiful natural landscape and learning about the environment from experience make the journey worthwhile. I really think I agree.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand now flies non-stop Auckland to Vancouver.

Where to stay: E'Terra eco-lodge.

Further information: See ontariotravel.net.

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