Vancouver Island, British Columbia - It's part Middle Earth fantasy and part childhood dream, this treehouse hotel in a rain forest on British Columbia's Vancouver Island.
Its driveway runs a short distance through maples, Western red cedars and Douglas firs to a five-acre tract where there's a gong to summon the keepers of the sanctuary from a nearby house.
And then you see them in the trees: three large wooden globes suspended about 15 feet off the ground and named Eve, and Melody. A fourth, Gwynn, serves as an office.
The hobbit-like enclosures - Free Spirit Spheres - are what J.R.R. Tolkien's magical elvish kingdom in the tree canopy might look like in 21st-century Canada.
It's glamping in Lothlórien, if you will.
We are shown to Eve. At nine feet in diameter, it is the smallest of the orbs. We climb a spiral staircase of wood and ropes wrapped around a tree, then grasp a brass half-moon-shaped handle to open a giant wedge-shaped cedar door.
Each sphere, weighing about a ton, is suspended by three Polysteel ropes tethered to surrounding trees. The ropes are fixed to the sphere at large steel eyehooks, which are secured to the hull. A network of other ropes helps stabilise and support the sphere.
Once we are inside, two 44-inch circular windows provide a view out onto maple branches. As we move about, the globe sways slightly, which is part of the charm.
So is the pit toilet discreetly set on the ground near the base of each sphere, to which one repairs if the need arises during the night hours. Small headlamps are provided for this eventuality.
The sphere's round walls are girded with wooden frames at 20degree intervals. The seams of the vinyl fabric lining the inside are covered with wood strips that meet at the sphere's north and south poles. It gives one the feeling of being inside a giant pumpkin.
“Our design principles are influenced by the principles of oneness and biomimicry more than anything else,” manager Jamie Cowan told me in a telephone interview later. “There's no separation between the ceiling and floor nor sharp edges like there is in linear architecture. It's harmonious from top to bottom. Energy, including sound, behaves differently in a sphere. It's like being in a womb. It's nurturing.”
Although some have likened the spheres to giant eyeballs floating above the forest floor, they are quite private, insulated (with reflective bubble wrap) and equipped with heaters, electricity and WiFi.
Inside each sphere, we find a basket of various breads, granola bars and pastries, along with purified water and the makings for tea and coffee. That provides two breakfasts for each of us.
A short walk away from the spheres is a barbecue and a tiny kitchen, with microwave and sink, where guests can prepare other meals.
There also is a shaded veranda, complete with flower baskets and handmade furniture, on which to picnic. There is a tiny sauna just off the kitchen, and more sumptuous bathrooms are in the bathhouse adjoining it. Thoughtful touches are everywhere, such as lush, hotel-style bathrobes and umbrellas positioned next to the bathrooms. The area can be quite rainy.
The lodging, billed as a “treehouse resort for adults,” as no one under 16 is allowed, is blessedly quiet. There's a nearby pond with blue dragonflies and the occasional bench for those who wish to rest and meditate. Set along the paths are painted stones with sayings including: “The Earth has music for those who listen.”
“Some people have had really profound healing and metaphysical experiences in the spheres,” Cowan said. “They've had interesting dreams, and they've managed to solve problems in their lives. Our guestbooks are littered with experiences described by guests.”
I glance at the two guestbooks in Eve. Sure enough, the comments are rapturous. Nearly everyone had turned on their inner elf to write essays, poems and drawings about their stay.
“I felt at total peace here,” wrote a British visitor, “amongst the trees, with the deer passing, bunnies scurrying around and birds singing us to sleep.”
We do not sleep quite as peacefully, as our bed (40 inches at the widest point), is small for the two of us. There is also a tiny table for eating, small cabinets that store necessities, such as flatware, and board games on an upper ledge.
The next morning, we get to tour Melody, a larger sphere made of fibreglass that has bars of music from Beethoven's Ninth painted on the yellow exterior. It's much roomier inside - a 10½-foot-wide space with five windows - and has a Murphy bed that sleeps two.
The other sphere, Eryn, is the same size as Melody, but made of Sitka spruce and set amid cedar and fir trees. It has a similar layout to that of Eve, but it can fit three people if one of them sleeps in the loft above the counter.
I didn't see any unusual wildlife during our visit, though black bears live on the island. There were a lot of squirrels, whose main occupation was tossing pine cones to the ground.
Near the end of our stay, I met Tom Chudleigh, 64, a builder and master craftsman, originally from Calgary, who began building the spheres back in 1993 on nearby Denman Island in the Salish Sea (the northern extension of Puget Sound).
A friendly host with silvery hair, blue eyes and wire-rimmed glasses, Chudleigh likes to show visitors Luna and Flora, the two spheres under construction. He has a small model - a basketball suspended on three tethers between three wooden planks - to illustrate how he balances and attaches the spheres to the anchor trees.
“I'd dreamed of building a spherical houseboat,” he said, “so I started building Eve to learn how to build a sphere.” He had to cast his own window hinges to fit its shape, so he added some Norse runes and Celtic designs. “I rigged attachment joints to it,” he said. “I put it up in the forest, and I never looked back.”
About a year later, a reporter from an Ottawa newspaper discovered Eve while it was serving as a room at a local bed-and-breakfast. Next came a crew from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Chudleigh began calling his creations Free Spirit Spheres.
“Eve was already a publicity magnet and attracting tons of international media before Eryn came around,” Cowan said. Even now, the most popular dates have wait lists. When I booked Eve in May, there were five openings left through Sept. 1. Eryn and Melody were already fully booked. For every reservation made, I'm told, eight are turned away.
Chudleigh relocated Eve and Eryn - the spheres he had finished at that point - to the current location near the resort town of Qualicum Beach in late 2006 and began expanding Free Spirit into a resort. He also turned a barn on the property into a workshop in which he could build more spheres.
His experiment has been almost too successful, as the current five acres is too small to add any more spheres. In 2017, he hopes to move to a larger piece of land that has good trees, such as cedars, from which to hang the huge orbs.
One complication is finding housekeepers who don't mind clambering up and down stairs and walkways to clean the rooms.
“I'd like room for 20 at least,” he said. “It'd be a colony of spheres in the trees with walkways between them so people don't even need to be on the ground. If I had 10 acres, there'd be enough trees between the spheres so you wouldn't see each other.”
IF YOU GO...
Free Spirit Spheres
420 Horne Lake Rd.,
Qualicum Beach, British Columbia
Three spherical rooms suspended above the ground provide a unique way to camp in the tree canopy in comfort. Rooms start at about $134 (about R1 800) a night. Reservations often fill up six to seven months in advance, so book early.