Salt Spring Sketches: A Gypsy Creates Her Own Bliss by the Sea

She confesses to an addiction to adventure.  She acknowledges that she often doesn’t appreciate the consequences of her spontaneous decisions.  And she is currently off on another escapade—this time sailing via California to Mexico for six months. She’s leased her house for 18 months and has no idea where she’ll live when she gets back from Mexico.  But she’s confident that things will fall into place – “somehow, they always do.”

Suzanne Ambers, counsellor, massage therapist, spa consultant, and self-described gypsy, is always up for something different, particularly if it involves travel to new places.  And the sea.

Suzanne Ambers

“Every day unfolds differently,” she says. “”I’ve lived out of a suitcase all over the world. I raised two sons in a float home and I was plunked down by the universe on Salt Spring, somewhere I never imagined I would live.”

Open to opportunity, some would say. But for Suzanne, it’s more like heeding your heart, or maybe listening to the psychic friend who tells you that “you won’t grow anymore if you don’t pursue your interests elsewhere.”

Suzanne’s desire to grow and roam the universe began in Alert Bay on Cormorant Island – a remote chunk of rock and trees on the northern edge of Vancouver Island’s inside passage.  Alert Bay’s population of just over 1,000 clusters on the sheltered southern side of the island, in the middle of a wild, ocean-lashed, wind-swept and incredibly beautiful place.  About half the population are Namgis, a First Nations band within the Kwakwaka’wakw nation, and the village boasts the tallest totem pole in the world and is home to the killer whale. A renowned place to visit in summer for eco-tourism and First Nations art, it is also a very demanding place to live year round.

When Suzanne decided on post-secondary education, she chose a place completely opposite to Alert Bay – London, Ontario – far from the ocean and the mountains, where the natural form of the countryside had been subdued into tidy-looking, prosperous farms.  She finished at the University of Western Ontario and returned to her birthplace, to counsel and teach street kids, many of them victims of abuse, in an alternative class in the local school.

She married into the Kwakiutl band, another tribe within the Kwakwaka’wakw nation. “I learned the language (Kwak’wala), attended potlatches and immersed myself in the history and strong culture of the nation,” she explains. In taking her husband’s name, Ambers, she became associated with a sad part of that history – up until the 1950s, her husband’s family name had been Umbus, before Indian agents changed First Nation names to be more like white names.

Suzanne and son Chris

When she left Alert Bay for a second time, she didn’t travel so far and she didn’t leave the sea.  She ended up in Victoria, raising two sons on her own– Chris and Kelly Thody – on a float home.  Unsurprisingly, both her sons chose careers related to the ocean, and Suzanne first came to Salt Spring to visit Chris who was teaching sailing here.

The island proved to be something of a surprise. “Salt Spring seemed so gentrified compared to the life and death issues that are faced daily in Alert Bay. Life there was always on the edge,” she notes, “while here, it seemed almost like a fairy tale and so blissful.”

So blissful, in fact, she decided that living full time on the island would prove ‘boring.”  But as she explored while her son was at work, she came across Vesuvius and was struck by both its beauty and the warmth of the people she met there. And then she spotted a house she couldn’t resist.

“I fell in love with it and rented it immediately,” she says, still amazed at her impulsivity. “After, I asked myself what I’d done, because I already owned a home in Victoria.”  But, as she was beginning to realize, often things just take care of themselves – a very few days after she’d committed to Salt Spring, a man turned up completely unexpectedly and asked to rent her float house.

After 20 years in education, Suzanne decided to pursue a different career. She enrolled in an evening massage course and began filling her days with practical training.  She became so passionate about what she was learning that she put in many overtime hours and completed the course in record time.

But there was more to learn.  After she gave her very first massage in her newly established home business, the client asked how much she should pay.  Suzanne had no idea what to charge and besides, bartering was then common on the island. “I wasn’t sure how to barter, but knew I needed to live and eat. So I suggested we work out some trade that would benefit each of us.” The client was not impressed.  “She wagged her finger, pointed out that I had given her an excellent treatment and insisted I deserved payment.”

“You aren’t acknowledging your worth and if you don’t do that you will go out of business,” Suzanne recalls her saying.  “I earned $55 for that first massage but the lesson I learned was the equivalent of four years of university. I finally had worth.”

Suzanne’s business began to prosper, and she was asked to run a bed and breakfast atop Mount Belcher. Over the next six years, her meditation and massage retreats became increasingly popular.  Ahead of her time, she envisioned a hospital spa at a Bullock Lake resort, “This would have been a first, cutting edge, a unique healing spa,” she says, “but the lodge burned down.”

Despite this setback, other avenues started to open up.  Her passion for massage had broadened to other areas. She undertook advanced training in esthetics and began teaching for Aveda. Her list of certifications began to grow: cranial sacral therapy, reflexology, herbology, Thai massage, stone therapy and visceral massage.  She also studied water therapies and became a Reiki Master.

As her expertise grew, she started making training trips, which indulged her taste for international travel and adventure.  “I travelled solo around the world while living out of a suitcase,” she explains. “Every trip, every class I taught were adventures. I visited New Zealand, Asia, and South America.  A trip to Fiji was particularly exciting, because I crewed on a boat. I am a gypsy at heart.  I always want to visit new places and learn new things.”

Harking back to her Alert Bay roots, much of her enthusiasm is inspired by ancient therapies.  It was her belief in the curing powers of water and spa medicine that led her to private spa consultation.  Work with BBA Designs, a Vancouver firm specializing in luxury residential interiors and spa design soon followed. Designing and naming the world-class Ancient Cedars sanctuary at Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino was an early project, followed by the Susurrus Spa at Poets Cove on Pender Island.

Suzanne and Art

Throughout her adventures Suzanne’s passion for the water has never diminished. She strolled waters’ edges wherever she went, and back on Salt Spring, she bought a boat.  She joined the sailing club and races on Sundays.  And, for the next six months she and her partner of five years – Art Munekke – will explore Mexico by boat – another spontaneous decision.

“One night we discussed the idea and the next day we began making plans,” she exclaims. “ I jumped to this adventure as I typically do, often neglecting to consider the consequences. The thrill of something new always wins out.”

She’s counting on things continuing to fall into place whenever she returns. “I am fortunate to have people in my life who tolerate my lifestyle,” she emphasizes.  “I love my work and my clients are dedicated. They will be on Salt Spring when I come back.”

And when she does, she will rejoin the Vesuvius walking group on their one-hour uphill hikes. She will continue sailing, relaxing at yoga, swimming, watching the sunset and will search for another new challenge.

Suzanne, at 65, is more interested in “beginning to give back” than retirement.  She stresses the need to be compassionate to those in need, and adds, “If you’ve been there, you’re more apt to help.”  Her aspirations focus on volunteering at a hospital and working with children confined to bed or in casts.

Where will this adventure be? “Salt Spring or maybe Mexico,” she says. “My life is unfolding beautifully, but the next stage is unknown.”

Pat Preston is a former journalist, journalism instructor and public affairs executive. She has worked and lived in several cities in Canada and the United States. She and her husband, John Tylee, moved to Salt Spring in April 2011. She is currently a freelance writer, a Board member of the Salt Spring Arts Council and an advisory committee member of the Salt Spring Forum. Contact Pat with your story ideas at



Avatar of Pat Preston

By Pat Preston

I am a recent transplant from Vancouver. Prior to coming to Salt Spring, I had many lives: journalist, freelance writer, communications executive, journalism instructor, volunteer and advocate for women's issues. I love Salt Spring--its people, its beauty, its cultural activities and the opportunity it provides for stimulating and provocative discussion. Currently I serve on the Board of the Salt Spring Arts Council and am writing about the lives behind the faces of Salt Springers you see every day.

November 13, 2011 7:05 PM