“Oh, I’ve been in spheres for about 20 years now.”
This isn’t something I hear every day. Of course, it’s not every day I check into a spherical room dangling in the lush Vancouver Island forest surrounding Qualicum Beach.
I arrive at Free Spirit Spheres at around 11 p.m., but despite the late hour I'm greeted warmly by Tom Chudleigh, who owns and operates these unique digs with his wife Rosie. When Chudleigh says he’s “in spheres,” he’s not speaking literally. He means he’s been crafting spherical tree-houses big enough to sleep, dine and relax in for more than two decades. While working on a round houseboat in the early 1990s, the trained shipbuilder realized the three-metre-wide orb would be more at home in the treetops. The end result was christened “Eve,” and by 1997 was roped into the forest canopy of nearby Denman Island.
As Eve’s local fame grew, so did demand to snooze in the sphere. So, over the next few years, she was relocated to Chudleigh’s current 10-acre property and joined by three slightly bigger sisters: Eryn, a three-person loft sphere suspended about two storeys above the forest floor; Melody, the newest sphere, with a Murphy bed that enables daytime dining; and Gwynn, the “branch office.” Free Spirit now sees more than 2,000 guests a year, Chudleigh says, and is looking to expand to a larger property where 10 spheres could be connected by suspended walkways, kind of like the Ewok village in Star Wars Episode VI.
As we climb the spiral staircase leading up to Eve, Chudleigh goes over the tree-house rules: Watch your step, watch out for wildlife (especially black bears), and wear a headlamp when walking to the shower hut and mushroom-shaped outhouse at night.
Despite Eve's quirkiness, it doesn’t take long to feel right at home. The efficient interior is reminiscent of a ship’s, with a single bed, a settee, counter space and several wooden cupboards and drawers containing a kettle, coffee press, teapot and the like. There are even built-in speakers that connect to handheld devices, while a small electric heater warms the cosy space. “You can feel the magic here,” Chudleigh says as he bids me goodnight. “You lie in bed and you look up at that round ceiling, and it’s magical.”
Initially, I lie in bed wondering if I’ll get used to the swaying sensation I feel every time I roll over. In this regard, the experience also evokes a small ship, but not quite: There seem to be two types of simultaneous motion, as if I’m sleeping on a ship’s waterbed.
Chudleigh later attributes this distinctive sensation to the concept of “bio-mimicry” he embraced when designing and hoisting the spheres. They use the forest as their foundation, he explains, and mirror the natural robustness of the surrounding eco-system. Each sphere is supported by a web of nine ropes tethered to three trees, yet each rope is strong enough to support more than a tonne of weight, considerably more than that of each sphere and its occupants. But like their foundation, “in a big wind, these things move round,” Chudleigh adds.
The breeze is light during my stay, and eventually the gentle swaying lulls me into a deep, peaceful sleep. I awake at dawn – still being on Ontario time – and gaze out a round window as the sunrise illuminates the verdant forest canopy.
It’s the most wonderful awakening of my life. So wonderful, in fact, that I consider spending 20 years in spheres. Literally.