Good vibes at ‘beyond beautiful’ location

Vancouver Courier, May 2002

Malibu arts retreat like Esalen North thanks to song, dance and tears

I nearly missed it. The first Arts retreat at the fabled Malibu resort, a place that hasn’t been open to the public since 1954, located roughly 100 kilometres north of Vancouver. Malibu’s rustic cedar log buildings and weathered walkways straddle a rocky peninsula at the narrow mouth of Princess Louisa Inlet, which rises like a finger from the north end of Jervis Inlet. Currently owned by Young Life, who have run it as a Christian summer camp for teenagers since 1954, this was the first time the public has had access to this remote and fabulous spot, originally built as a retreat for Hollywood’s elite.

Here was my chance to catch up to the latest incarnation of the human potential movement first made famous at California’s Esalen. Minus the drugs, the booze and the flakiness of course. This four-day retreat was a serious attempt to offer something unique to people who want nature combined with art/music/bodywork in a package deal. Not as expensive or focused as other arts retreats, this one was a bit like an art camp for grownups. And as they might have said during the ‘sixties, the vibe was good. On the return trip, many people were already signing up for the next retreat, scheduled for September 19 to 22. The organizers, Artesia Tours and the Coast Cultural Alliance may have a hit on their hands. The 85 guests were obviously thrilled with what they got—and there were only a few snags.
The first was that I somehow got my instructions muddled, and waited for the bus at the wrong place-not the Waterfront Station, but the Waterfront Hotel. So they went off without me. I went home, fuming. After some panicky phone calls, the unflappable director, Catherine Evans, smoothed everything out. She re-booked me on the bus, I boarded it at the right place the next morning, and went off to Malibu via Ruby Lake Resort. I spent a restful day there, and then the adventure began.

Together with another freelance writer and her companion, we set off at 10am next morning, via water taxi from the tiny harbour at Egmont to motor up Jervis Inlet to arrive at Malibu in time for lunch. These cruises are a regular feature during the summer. Jervis inlet is a favourite haunt of yachters, but today it’s just us. The water is calm, except where the famous Skookumchuck rapids churn, there’s a slight breeze and off we go. Nobody had prepared me for the wonders of Jervis inlet—the snow capped Mt. Churchill carving into the blue sky, the eagles riding the updrafts over 800 metre granite cliffs, the black bears scrabbling in the underbrush, the mottled seals sunning themselves on little islands. And every now and then, giant purple starfish.

When we arrive at Malibu, we’ve grown accustomed to the majestic scenery, but this location is beyond beautiful—it is almost unreal in its natural perfection. The only “Hollywood” touch is the pool, blasted out of the rocks and surrounded by inviting lounges. Everywhere one looks, there are smooth, grey rock outcroppings with moss and grass finding a foothold in tiny crevasses. Weathered silver grey, the original boardwalks climb all over the rocks, connecting romantic looking cottages with totem poles in front and the more recent large dormitories built by Young Life. I wish I could just get rid of those blocky buildings, and see the original Malibu as it once was. We are warmly greeted by Ms Evans, a tall, slim woman with long dark hair, dark eyes and a friendly, easy going manner. She’s been producing tours and retreats all over the world for the last 15 years, which may explain why she appears calm as the rocks on which Malibu is nestled. Because we’re late, we each get one of the dormitories, all to ourselves. As befits something built for summer campers, they are not luxurious, but okay. But it doesn’t matter-it’s off to the huge dining room overlooking both inlets, ringed by snow-capped peaks.

The tables are set with potted pansies, tablecloths, jugs of refreshing lemonade and water, and the menu is Mexican-a delicious array of fillings for the pile of soft fajitas. We dig in; the fresh air makes for a ravenous appetite. A mike is passed around, and people talk about their experience at Malibu. “It’s just wonderful here” seems to be the key message. There’s a prize for the person who came farthest to get to Malibu; it goes to Pat McMahon, a psychologist from Chicago. She and her sister Mary McMahon, an administrator at the University of Washington in Seattle, decided that this would be perfect for their annual get together. “I just loved it here, the scenery is wonderful and the staff so helpful,” says Mary. She took the writing workshop with Jan deGrass, and she even gets up the following night, at a farewell concert, to read a paragraph about a rock she found on a hike early that day. But she’s also had plenty of time to sit and do nothing, she says—there’s no pressure.

The ten instructors, a diverse and somewhat eccentric lot, are all from the Sunshine Coast, and they are exhausted at the end of the retreat. Sylvain Brochu, the dynamic dance and Yoga instructor says he hasn’t slept properly the last two nights and his mane of wild locks looks almost tame. The fiery, bird-like Pauline Le Bel, singer playwright, and force of nature, has lost her voice-she is just whispering at the end of her last class. It is one of two classes I attended that Sunday morning. After getting up at an ungodly 6.30am, I climb up to the Tillicum building to do some Rosen Method movement. It turns out to be a gentle, dance – like discipline whose motto is to ‘let the movement happen, don’t force it’. The instructor glows; she is pregnant and leads a group of eight women through a program that calmed my screaming joints, cleared my head and left me ravenous.

After breakfast and the coffee fix, I return to this wonderful space for Le Bel’s singing class. And find myself in tears. Le Bel had asked us all to ‘improvise a lullaby’, and this being Mother’s Day, I sing to my recently deceased mother, tears streaming down my face. Le Bel puts me in the centre, and has the group sing a lullaby to me while they dance around me in a circle. Before long, the lullaby gets kind of cheeky, and then they start to laugh, and pretty soon I join them and we all dance around, giggling. All the while, someone was in the corner, videotaping. The strange thing is, I don’t mind. I feel happy. And what more can one ask of a retreat?

Getting there: Take the Langdale Ferry from Horseshoe Bay, drive north on the Sunshine Coast Highway through Gibsons, Sechelt and to Madeira Park and Egmont. Get on water taxi ($99 per person for a round trip to the tip of Princess Louisa Inlet). Stop off at Malibu; the staff will let you look around if they are not too busy. Return to Egmont and have dinner at the fabulous restaurant at Ruby Lake Resort, which serves excellent Italian food. Stay overnight at one of their cabins, or the brand new B&B.

Call: Laura at 1-604-883-2269, email:
Or if you want to sign up for the next Malibu Arts retreat, contact Catherine Evans at Artesia Tours 1-800-690-7887
Web site:

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