Island Hospitality

By Barry Low

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Entrepreneurs Marty and Sharon Whitehead lead an active lifestyle in their northern Island community – on the water and in the air (on Sharon’s 60th b

Port Hardy’s First Choice Bed and Breakfast is a home away from home for visitors to the north end of Vancouver Island. Owners Marty and Sharon Whitehead, long-time residents of Port Hardy, enjoy introducing their guests to the warm and welcoming hospitality of Vancouver Island’s northern-most community.

“The idea for a bed and breakfast came to us in 2006,” says Marty. “I was in my second year of recovery from my stroke and started looking for employment but without any success. It was discouraging and depressing.”

With experience in a house exchange and hosting visitors from abroad in their home, the couple fell in love with the idea of operating a Bed & Breakfast. Marty and Sharon contacted Bed & Breakfast Canada’s Regional Office beginning the process of approval and securing a business licence to begin operation in 2007.

Next, renovations were in order to turn the downstairs of the couple’s home into suites. As with any renovation, there were frustrating moments, but Marty and Sharon never lost sight of their goal.

“We needed floors and carpets put down but it was often difficult having workers undertake these jobs at scheduled times,” says Marty. “Sharon and her friend did the majority of the painting; I did doors, frames and baseboards with my one good arm. I was forever dropping things or tripping. Once, I lost my balance and fell over backwards, cutting my ear severely enough to require stitches. But, overall, it went well.”

“Our first guests were very nice,” says Marty. “We quickly realized what a wonderful experience this is.” Sharon adds, “We have guests from across Canada, the United States and Europe. There’s always an interest in each other’s culture, hobbies and hometowns.”

However, having a smoothly operating B&B does have its scratchy side.
“I remember the first cancellation we had,” says Sharon. “Marty and I waited up until after midnight. The guests never did show up or telephone. Occasionally, guests became lost and one of us would drive out, find them, and lead them to our B&B.”

Marty says that, at first, he had trouble sleeping. “I did not want to upset guests by forgetting something I said I would do for them, or miss making sure they made their early ferry departures.”

“I believe having gone into this venture has helped me cope with my disabilities, depression and down times,” says Marty. “It gave me a purpose on those days when I felt like, ‘Why bother continuing with life?’ – feeling I was only half of what I used to be.”

Marty recalls a humorous incident on his bicycle when he went to the post office to collect his mail. He lost his balance and fell over onto the post office front lawn. Some people who knew him and his sense of humour ran over to him, picked up his bike and stood it up, leaving Marty lying on the grass.

He also remembers riding his bicycle late one evening in stormy weather.
“We had two guests arriving on the Prince Rupert ferry riding on a tandem bike,” says Marty. “I had lights on my bike and wore bright yellow raingear. It was quite a ferocious night with heavy rain and strong winds. I set out on the highway heading toward the ferry dock. My raingear got tangled in the bike chain and I went for a tumble into the highway ditch.

As I lay there for a minute in the pitch black, no streetlights, pouring rain, I started thinking I might have bitten off more than I could handle. I got back up and continued riding to the dock. I was concerned about our tandem-riding guests, wondering about their physical condition; would I be left behind or hold them up with my slower riding? My worrying was needless; we rode back to the B&B without incident.”
Marty had the only tire shop in Port Hardy for 26 years. The Whiteheads also opened the First Choice Gym in 1998 in Port Hardy, the only facility of its kind in the community.

In February 2004, with the busyness of the tire shop, building a new business, family commitments and the couple’s heavy involvement in community activities, Marty and Sharon felt they needed a holiday.

As Sharon was driving the couple to Vancouver International Airport to board a plane to Hawaii, Marty began feeling dizzy. A tingling in the right side of his face continued into his right arm and down his right side. Sharon recognized the symptoms. Stroke! She took an exit off the highway and drove to St. Paul’s General Hospital.

Twelve days later, a bed became available at Holy Family Hospital, a rehabilitation centre in South Vancouver. Marty had lost most of his motor skills on the right side of his body.

For the next five months, Marty recovered in the rehab centre. He arrived back in Port Hardy in July and continued his therapy. Sharon was the driving force in motivating Marty through his illness and his restoration back to health.

While Marty built up his muscle system, his daughter ran the tire business. When he tried going back to work, he quickly realized he was unable to do what he had been doing prior to his stroke. Marty sold the tire business in June 2005. After successfully operating the First Choice gym from 1998 until 2011, Sharon sold it, and she and Marty both officially retired. Well, almost!

“The satisfaction we receive from providing a service making someone’s holiday more enjoyable is fantastic,” says Marty. “No matter what, life is worth living, doing what we can, and keeping a positive attitude.”



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