Soaking Up Harrison Hot Springs
British Columbia’s Harrison Hot Springs is soaked in tall tales.
THREE GOLD MINERS sat in a canoe, traversing the southern tip of a long, skinny lake in British Columbia. Deep like a Scottish loch, the waters were glacier fed and a bone-chilling cold—or so they thought. When the canoe tipped, the gold rushers found themselves treading unexpectedly toasty waters. They’d discovered Harrison Hot Springs.
Of course, that tale is probably apocryphal, and the miners that swarmed lower British Columbia hardly “discovered” anything: First Nations people had soaked in nature’s hot tub for years. But area legends didn’t quit. Story goes that a timber worker in a 1925 poker game won so much cash off locals that they dragged him to Harrison Hot Springs to bully him into using his winnings to buy and improve the area. Regardless of the hamlet’s true history, since 1886 there have been hotels on the heel of Harrison Lake.
It’s a boomerang-shaped body that starts in the Fraser Valley and bends northwest, reaching halfway to Whistler. The tourist town is a day trip from Vancouver and an easy three hours from Seattle—cross the border in Sumas, but bring the nasal fortitude to endure about 20 miles of manure-soaked farmland outside of Bellingham. There are few reasons to stop between customs and the forested hills of Harrison, with one exception. At Canadian Hazelnut, just a few kilometers short of the hot springs, nuts are harvested from the spidery limbs of 8,000 trees, then baked and flavored—best is the popular citrus—or blended into their own version of Nutella.
The water’s the thing at the town of Harrison Hot Springs, which is why the resort that controls it is practically synonymous with the town itself. The Harrison Hot Springs Resort and Spa has exclusive access to the fabled mineral springs; there turned out to be two, loaded with sodium chloride and sodium sulfate. The 337-bed hotel includes an original 1920s main building and satellites erected in the decades since.
The springs themselves are a quarter mile from the hotel. A cabin made of concrete latticework blocks direct access, to keep passersby from burning themselves on the 150-degree waters, though a runoff pipe to an adjacent pond offers a chance to feel the heat and drink in the sulfur fumes.
Guests choose among the hotel’s three outdoor and two indoor pools, all fed with spring water that has been filtered (so it doesn’t smell like rotten eggs) and cooled to less scalding temperatures. Adults roast in waters that are hot-tub hot, while family and lap pools are pleasantly mild. A spa—the pedicure kind—takes the pampering into human hands.
The redbrick complex anchors the tiny town, and its lobby is busier than any spot for miles. The crowd around the lobby’s copper-clad piano is largely Canadian and American, but there are enough tourists to warrant Japanese, Chinese, and Korean lettering on pool signs. The health benefits sought here may not equal the so-called miracle cures from 1886, when a newspaperman reported “relief from dyspepsia, liver complaints, others from rheumatism, and several from paralysis.” These days no one’s coming for much more than a little stress relief, but that it delivers.
The resort may hold the keys to the hot water, but it isn’t the only game in town. An indoor public pool is fed from the springs, and that light-filled building has the added bonus of a lake view. The newly built Harrison Beach Hotel claims prime real estate on the waterfront esplanade; it’s a splash of modern architecture that shows up the somewhat dated resort. Rooms in the new hotel are large, some with kitchens and fireplaces, and all feature sharp design and buttery-smooth linens.
If the mineral waters are carefully meted out in Harrison Hot Springs, the lake is the opposite, more than big enough to share. The town’s beach slopes so gently that it’s easy to miss the lake’s enormousness—waters plunge to 900 feet in depth by Echo Island two miles out. Jet skis and boats of the paddle and bumper variety can be rented, and a handful of bed-and-breakfasts ferry guests further up the lake for private getaways. Catch-and-release fishermen toy with sturgeon in the nearby Harrison River, where the catch grow as long as 12 feet; bald eagles roost in the thick trees above, oblivious to their border-crossing treason.
As hot and ice glacier cold as the lake is, there must be something in this water that inspires tall tales—stories even hang on the geology. South of town are the crags of Mount Cheam, where the receding snow melts into the shape of an angel most summers; locals claim her presence bodes well for the crops. On the north flank of the lake is Mount Breakenridge, so rocky that in 1989 a visiting federal official became hysterical, fearful that it was about to crumble into the lake and cause a tidal wave. (It almost definitely won’t.)
And the legends endure: A bigfoot enthusiast visited the spot, inspiring the town to hold a Sasquatch hunt in 1957. The land northwest of town co-opted the conceit when it became Sasquatch Provincial Park.
For all the area’s mythology, the single biggest font of magic is back at the blockbuster resort and hot springs. It starts every night at six in the charming environs of the Copper Room, a dining hall stubbornly stuck in another era. Tables surround a wood and glass dance floor, and a live band performs every night in front of an art deco fan motif—picture a cross between the Rainbow Room and a Catskills summer resort circa 1960.
Onstage, the Jones Boys quartet wears matching pinstripe suits while tossing off standards, but it’s not a total time warp—the singers refer to set lists on iPads tethered to their mike stands. The between-song banter is well practiced: “If I had to pick my three favorite songs, this next one…would be number four,” says the lead singer to the opening chords of “Margaritaville.” And as it turns out, Jimmy Buffett makes for a good samba.
One dresses for dinner in a place like this, where tiny lamps illuminate each table and 26 different martinis grace the charmingly dated menu. Couples paint the floor with a rumba here, a box step there; the bandleader congratulates one hoofer for celebrating his 83rd birthday with a foxtrot.
It seems a crime to order anything but the prime rib. And praise be, there’s no messing with the classics here, just a heart-attack-red swath of meat. “It’s a big eight ounces,” my waiter tells me. “So, maybe more like nine.” Yorkshire pudding, a whipped mountain of potatoes, and two pale asparagus spears serve as sides. A woman at the next table takes one look at my well-loaded plate and leans over with an opinion. “You should get your picture taken together.” She means me and my meat.
I’ve eaten alone in a lot of strange and wonderful places, but few have been as purely entertaining as watching the dance floor on a slow Tuesday night at the Harrison. If I had to name my top three such suppers, well, maybe this would be number four.
Harrison Beach Hotel
160 Esplanade Ave, Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia, 604-796-1111; harrisonbeachhotel.ca
Harrison Hot Springs Resort and Spa
100 Esplanade Ave, Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia, 604-796-2244; harrisonresort.com
6682 Highway 7, Agassiz, British Columbia, 604-796-2136
Harrison Hot Springs Public Pool
101 Hot Springs Rd, Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia, 604-796-2244; harrisonresort.com/activities_pools.aspx
Sasquatch Provincial Park
Rockwell Dr, Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia, 604-986-9371;