In search of serenity? Quebec is the perfect destination for a spa journey
Though I've traveled to Canada with the singular purpose of exploring Quebec's spas, my healing journey here will always be defined by a single moment that took place beside a marshy riverbank, far from massage tables and scented saunas. I was standing beside the water, wondering about the names of the beautiful birds floating peacefully on the surface. Nearby, a group of schoolchildren fluttered toward a waiting van, their teacher's voice becoming increasingly high-pitched as five young boys dashed into the surrounding meadow, their laughter carrying on the breeze.
They wheeled in unison, like a flock of birds, swooping back toward the van, but as they did, one boy, just old enough to flirt, broke free. He bent over, rising with his arms full of dandelions, and ran directly toward me. Breathless, he bowed, and thrust forward his lush, lemony bouquet, pushing it into my arms. Still laughing, he said something in French that ended with Mademoiselle, then dashed away, glancing over his shoulder one last time to blow me a kiss. Astonished, I stood watching as the van left, the dandelions spilling over my arms. Did this child know, perhaps on some intuitive level, the healing power of this humble plant, or that his gesture broke my heart and healed it, all at once?
Filled with the thought of dandelions, I begin my spa journey just outside Montreal. The spas on my list are all members of the Spas Relais Sante, a group of properties that have been certified as meeting strict criteria for membership, from quality of services to the training of therapists. In Quebec, the Ministry of Education holds jurisdiction over massage training programs, and being granted inclusion in Spas Relais Sante offers a guarantee of exceptional quality.
Heading northwest from the city, I find the exquisite Zen sanctuary of Ofuro Spa lying just outside the village of Saint-Adolphe d'Howard. Inspired by the traditional bathing spas of Japan, owner Jacques Aubry built this property by hand. Ofuro manages to seduce every one of my senses. After a session in the dry sauna, I negotiate a series of decks and stairs leading to the property's icy river. Maybe I handle cold better than I thought, or maybe it's the beauty of the surroundings, but the water feels good, and I spend about thirty seconds submerged to my neck before heading into the steam bath. Then it's back outside, past the dragon fountain and the peaceful outdoor resting areas, and into a cold plunge located on one of the lower decks. It feels even better than before, and by the time I'm settled comfortably in a deck chair indoors, my entire being is relaxed.
While resting and allowing my temperature and heart rate to return to normal, I discover that the chair is an excellent vantage point for enjoying the multitude of Asian art Aubry has collected. Every detail of Ofuro seems to be a reflection of his commitment to harmony. Later, strolling the grounds past the pagoda where massages are given, and beyond the sauna hut surrounded by lofty trees, I feel as though I'm walking through the manifestation of his imagination. It's an addictive place to be.
The next stop is Spa-sur-le-Lac Club Tremblant, a sprawling, rustic lodge on the shore of Lake Tremblant. The interior's ski lodge ambience has been enhanced by fireplaces and exposed, rough-hewn wooden beams. While the spa is small, the selection of treatments is impressive. I sample the signature Spa-sur-le-lace Exfoliation, a full body scrub with sea salts and oils, followed by a warm rainshower bath.
The resort is located close to Mont Tremblant National Park, and the helpful hotel staff have arranged for me to spend the afternoon canoeing a river with two of the park's naturalists in order to learn about the area's ecosystems. That evening, I enjoy an exquisite meal of duck roasted in honey, paired with a fragrant local wine, then drift to sleep with the sound of wind rustling through the branches of the trees lining the shore of the lake. Morning finds me enjoying panoramic views of the water, and pouring warm maple syrup over my blueberry pancakes, preparing for the drive that will deliver me to the next spa on my route.
Tradition of Healing
Stonehaven Spa is an enchanting surprise. The manor house was formerly a sanitarium where those suffering from tuberculosis came in search of recuperation. Each room is individually decorated, and the original hospital wing is now a luxury spa. The top floor has been converted to an open area featuring a lovely relaxation lounge with enormous windows overlooking the peaceful countryside. One of the product lines featured in the spa is B. Kamins, which contains pure maple syrup. I learn that Canadian chemist Ben Kaminsky, who conducted extensive research into the healing and antioxidant properties of this very Canadian product, developed the line.
After enjoying an Anne Semonin Revitalizing Facial and Moisturizing Body Treatment featuring the famed European product line, I wander outside to the rear of the property, where hydrotherapy pools, an enormous sauna, and an indoor rest area are located. Imaginatively carved wooden lounge chairs surround a natural spring that serves as a cold plunge, and there's a cave housing a Turkish steam bath. I happily spend part of the afternoon seated on one of the stone benches scattered throughout the steamy interior. This puts me in the mood for dinner, and I find the menu offers a wonderful selection of area wines and healthy, regional cuisine. The choices all look amazing, but it comes down to a delicious fish stew, followed by vegetables roasted in maple syrup, a Canadian chardonnay, and apple tart for dessert. Despite the satisfying meal, I feel absolutely weightless by the time I return to my room and burrow between layers of soft, warm blankets.
Today’s drive takes me northeast to Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, to the Centre de Sante Auberge des 21 hotel and spa, which overlooks a fjord. The property is owned and managed by Chef Marcel Bouchard and his son, sommelier Dannik Bouchard. Besides offering an innovative menu of regional selections, the hotel has an extensive—and impressive—wine cellar, and Chef Bouchard offers cooking classes in his enormous demo kitchen. The hotel is close to Saguenay National Park, with opportunities to engage in a variety of outdoor activities, including hiking and wildlife viewing.
Late afternoon finds me unwinding in the intimate spa, located below the main floor on the same level as the cooking theater and wine cellar. Perhaps it’s a subconscious reaction to finding out that Chef Bouchard is the owner, or perhaps it’s my natural affinity for sweets, but I’ve selected the two-hour Chocotherapy treatment. It begins with a full-body exfoliation with cocoa serum and progresses to a complete envelopment in a chocolate cream the exact consistency of pudding. After wrapping me, my therapist stands at my head, massaging my scalp. She leads me to a warm shower, then massages my body with a cocoa-based oil. She completes the treatment with an acupressure foot massage, then escorts me to the relaxation lounge. I’m just about to doze off when she returns and places a small tray by my side. There’s water, tea, and—of course—a piece of dark chocolate.
Not that a piece of chocolate is likely to dampen my appetite. I learn that Chef Bouchard changes the menu often, depending on what local cheeses, seafood, meats, and seasonal produce are available. Tonight, there’s succulent roast chicken with goat cheese, a green salad in a maple vinaigrette, and a delicate sorbet. Perfect.
Over the River
The next morning, still enveloped in the delicious scent of cocoa, I head for Saint-Simeon to board the ferry that will cross the St. Lawrence River to Riviere-du-Loup. The crossing, a distance of fifteen nautical miles, takes about ninety minutes, and every moment is enjoyable. Though the water is a fierce shade of gray, the sky is clear and topaz blue, and the river is dotted with tiny islands that slip in and out of view.
I set out for the town of Montmagny, home to Centre des Migrations, an environmental interpretation center devoted to Canada’s beautiful snow geese. It’s well worth the drive, and after meeting several snow geese and spending time with the center’s naturalist viewing the hauntingly beautiful documentary Light of the Snow Geese (by Quebec poet and writer Pierre Morency), I leave for a hands-on bird watching excursion with Ornitours, an outdoor adventure company specializing in bird watching.
Late that evening, I arrive at Manoir du lac William in the foothills of the Canadian Appalachians. This elegant manor house hotel dates to 1906, and was the first summer home to be built on the lake’s shore. Since 1992, it’s been owned and operated by the Lessard family. Slyvie Lessard directs the spa, and she initiates one of the most perfect therapeutic experiences I’ve ever enjoyed. After a relaxing wrap in one of the spa treatment rooms, Sylvie leads me to a massage pagoda set on the very edge of the lake. I enjoy a deep tissue massage, and when it’s over, I’m escorted to a chair on the shore, wrapped in a blanket, and served a platter of fresh fruits, berries, and hot maple tea. Sitting in the brisk air, sipping the sweet maple tea, I enjoyed an undisturbed half hour watching the light change over the surface of the water.
The final leg of my journey takes me into Canada’s Eastern Townships, where my great-grandmother Marie LaRose once worked as a milliner making ladies’ hats. I don’t know the region well, but find the small towns beautiful.
I stop briefly at Spa Cheribourg in Orford to sample the new Aroma Tonic Treatment. After a chakra-stimulating massage that targets energy points along my spine, I’m exfoliated with a clay mosaic powder, moisturized with essential oils, and left to soak in a deep tub of perfectly hot water. Following a final application of body cream, I head into a small room that’s been tented and decorated to suggest an Arabian fantasy. My therapist helps me into the Energizing Balancing Chair, positioned beneath glowing stars and moons. For the next twenty minutes, I’m gently rocked up, down, backwards, and forwards—a therapy said to massage organs and stimulate the body to release stored fluids and toxins. While I have no scientific proof that this actually occurred, I feel pleasantly energized when the chair finally comes to a standstill.
The feeling stays with me for the remainder of my drive, which leads to Spa Eastman, about an hour-and-a-half southeast of Montreal. A destination spa specializing in weight loss and stress reduction, Spa Eastman is composed of a group of renovated barns, houses, and cottages that have been transformed into tranquil guest rooms and suites. Each morning, guests choose from an extensive list of fitness classes and seminars posted in the lobby. Meals are gourmet organic and low-calorie, free of wheat, chemicals, and sugar. A selection of wines, including organic choices, are available with dinner, and the recently opened Water Bar offers a wide variety of bottled mineral waters.
Upon arrival, guests enjoy a private consultation with the spa’s on-staff naturopath, who helps design a schedule that includes a complete physical, spa treatments, suggestions for fitness activities, and herbal recommendations to detoxify and strengthen any weaknesses in the body’s systems. The doctor suggests I try the spa’s signature water treatment, the Eastman Massage, which turns out to be unlike anything I’ve done before. With just my head above the surface in the heated massage pool, my therapist directs pressurized streams of water at my legs, back, and arms. Once she’s relaxed my muscles, she performs a Watsu-like water massage in which she completely supports my body with hers. It’s utterly hypnotic.
End of the Road
In the morning before I depart for the airport in Montreal, owner Jocelyna Duboc takes me on a meditation hike. For one long stretch, I’m blindfolded, and Duboc leads me along pathways surrounding the spa. At first, I’m uncomfortable, and completely stressed with sorting out details for the trip home—but once I allow my mind to move into a trusting place, the experience is liberating. Suddenly, I’m aware of the birds singing, the feel of the soft grass beneath my feet, and the heady scent of every flower we pass.
The perfumed air acts unexpectedly as a portal, and the memory of the small boy offering me his bouquet of dandelions overwhelms my senses. Jocelyna removes my blindfold and hugs me, and I realize that’s what this journey was always about: healing, and gentleness, and being at one with the world, if only for a single moment at a time.
Spas Relais Sante
Centre de Sante Auberge des 21
Parfum de Mer
Manoir du lac William