Maybe the W stands for ‘wow’, because that was certainly my reaction when I walked into my suite at the W Hotel Montreal. I’m not much given to hotel hyperbole but sometimes you open a door and all you can do is whoop with delight. Spread elegantly across two stories with a swooping view across Victoria Square, if you’re visiting the city for a special occasion –or if you want to feel thoroughly special yourself– then book this right now. Continue reading →
In wintertime Scandinavian-style spas make a virtue of the pay off between a little ‘pain’ and a lot of pleasure. Stepping carefully in flip flops dressed in a woolen ‘toque’ hat, and a towelling robe, across an icy path as a blizzard of snowflakes pelt you from every angle, it’s hard to not look longingly back at the warmly-lit indoors and wonder what on earth you are doing… and whether perhaps, instead of stripping down to your swimming costume in the sub-zero night, you might actually be better served putting a few more layers on and wrapping yourself around a velvety cup of rum-spiked hot chocolate instead.
And then you kick your sandals off, shiver as you take off the robe and step into the steamy water and everything makes sense. I defy anyone to go from the bitter cold into an invitingly hot pool and not loudly sigh ‘Ahhhhhh!’ as they do so. The blissful relief! As the steamy hot water bubbled around I wriggled my now-unfrozen toes with glee and admired my surroundings. Quebec’s OFURO spa is in Morin Heights, I drove there along quiet roads which seemed plucked from christmas card scenes, all snowy churches and towering spires. Continue reading →
I think I may have just found my new favourite spa. And, wonder of wonders, it has a hotel attached too, so should your heart desire (and your wallet allow) you could never, ever leave. After twenty minutes in the spa and hotel Le Finlandais that’s pretty much all I was planning so consider yourself warned, this spa and hotel have impressive powers.
Hyperbole aside, what makes this great? It is, as ever, the attention to detail which elevates it from ‘wow’ to ‘ZOMYGOD!’ Firstly it’s overcoming the issue of location; it’s true that the spa and hotel are located on a singularly unlovely strip of highway some 30 minutes drive from Montreal, and, to make things worse, the hotel and spa are on opposite sides of the road. I snorted to myself when I saw this and rolled my eyes, but a toasty-warm shuttle service from door to door, that I never waited more than 30 seconds for, soon squashed any negative thoughts. Continue reading →
I looked up over my breakfast and pondered the stuffed lynx staring glassy-eyed into the distance as I spooned up my yoghurt. I thoughtfully licked my spoon and turned my head a little and spotted a stuffed owl. The clink of china and babble of slow morning conversation mixed with a CD of rhythmic chants and tribal songs of the Huron Wendat people. Welcome to breakfast time at the Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations. Just 15 minutes drive from Quebec City, the Wendake reserve houses a museum and longhouse which has bought the culture of the Huron Wendat nation into an accessible tourist destination with a first class hotel and restaurant. Continue reading →
I guess I’d imagined that ice fishing would be like one of the cartoons that I’d seen when I was a kid. I had some Hanna-Barbera eskimo in my mind, a guy in a parka sawing a hole through the ice, baiting his hook and lowering the line. But this, if you’ll excuse the pun, was a different kettle of fish altogether.
The Atikamekw way of ice fishing means that you don’t drill one hole, you drill eight. “If you have just one hole you’ll only have enough for yourself,” explained Daveen, my Atikamekw guide. “We use nets so we have enough for us all.” Once you’ve made your eight holes you thread a line through them and pull a net along it under the water. The plan is that you come back the next day to collect enough fish for everyone. I could see the logic but we’d been at it for almost three hours now and the sun was sinking like a hot buttered penny into the horizon, robbing us of light. Continue reading →
I wasn’t expecting to see her when I walked into the tiny church, but there she was, in pride of place on the wall, just above photos of the new pope and the old one.
Who is that? I asked my guide.
It’s Saint Kateri, she told me. The world’s only First Nations saint.
Truth be told I’d not wanted to bother with the church at all on my tour around the reserve at Wendake. I was here to find out about the Huron-Wendat, to soak up their culture at the Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations, and so no, a catholic church was definitely not on my Must See list. But oftentimes when you’re with a guide you try to be polite, so, I’d walked in from the cold, kicked the snow from my boots at the door and looked around in a disinterested kind of way before double-taking at the altar. A glowing, gorgeous native girl, her long brown hair in braids, holding a crucifix. Not what you’d expect at all.
“I’ve lived here my whole life.” says Isabel as she shows me how to carefully thread the tiny beads on to the wire needle. “You’ve never lived anywhere else?” “Never. I love it here. My front door, I’ve never locked it. Ever. I know everyone and everyone knows me. My mum is my neighbour. I see my dad every day. Any time I’m not working and I want to talk to someone, I just go outside.” I try and pick the beads onto the wire, I’m not deft as Isabel, my little beads flick off, ricocheting across the table. I apologise and she giggles. Isabel tells me about her sister who’s currently living in British Columbia for a short while on a work contract, her face changes as she talks of how much she misses her. “She’ll be back. I know, she’ll be back.” Continue reading →
“Do you like to live so far away from everyone?”
“Yes. It’s nice to to be with the nature here, the city is too busy.”
I don’t think I’ve ever known what it meant to travel somewhere truly isolated before. Spending time in Manawan, a First Nations reserve for the Atikamekw (pronounced ah-tick-a-mick) nation some five hours away from Montreal pushed my limits like no other trip has done. You can only get to Manawan via a gravel path from the small town of Saint-Michel-des-Saints, or in winter by speeding over the frozen lakes on a snowmobile.
There is no road. There is no transit. You are alone. Continue reading →
For a spa-fiend like myself, the joy of discovering a new ‘spa toy’ is a rare and wonderful thing; so you can imagine what a bundle of glee I was at Gatineau’s Nordik Spa-Nature when I found not just one but three things I’d never experienced before. Nordik Spa-Nature is the largest spa in North America, boasting 7 outdoor baths, 8 saunas and an infinity pool set across three separate areas of beautifully landscaped gardens surrounded by soaring trees. I visited on a Friday afternoon in winter and even though the spa was busy with groups of girlfriends and blissed-out couples, it never felt crowded. So! New spa toys: the first thing I spotted which I’d never seen before were heated hammocks. It was snowing the day I was at the spa and, of course, Nordic-style spa-ing means bouncing between heated pools or saunas then taking icy plunges before relaxing. The hammocks were lined with a Neoprene-like material which seemed to wick away moisture from my wet swimsuit and the heater was phenomenally effective. Climb in, zip up to almost over your head and then wiggle your hips to encourage a spot of swaying and you’re in heaven. To be able to lie all snug and toasty-warm in a hammock in a sopping wet cozzie and not feel cold or wet, while watching snow fall was a truly magical experience. I’d read a little about the Källa treatment before I visited. It’s essentially a huge communal float-tank in what they say is only the second salt-water floating pool in the world. Silence is required on entry; you go downstairs to a low-ceiling blue- lit room with flickering candlelight. You’re told to lie down on a lounger and slip on the headphones, handily positioned by each bed, to listen to instructions. I really enjoyed the sense of mystery and not knowing what to expect. I was told to shower before and afterwards, avoid rubbing my eyes in the pool and to move carefully to avoid splashing others. The water – a 12% blend of Epsom salts heated to 95/96 degrees – gives you an incredible buoyancy. I carefully waded in, lay back in the shallow pool (you can easily sit up) with my ears underwater. Initially thoughts raced through my head and I found it impossible to switch off, but the subtly-insistent effect of the mesmerising music playing from the underwater speakers along with the womb-like warmth of the pool and the muscle-melting effect of floating meant that the next thing I knew, I was waking up. Floating gently in the water so utterly relaxing that I’d actually fallen asleep. The best thing? It was only a $40 add on. The final surprise was the Aufguss sauna ritual, I’d been told when I arrived to listen out for the gong and if I wanted to participate, to make my way immediately to the largest sauna. The ritual is performed four times daily so I timed my departure around the 5p.m. event so that it would be the last thing I did before I left. Spa-goers gathered in the sauna and were told to sit on the lower levels if we didn’t want to experience too intense a level of heat. If we needed to go out, we could go – but not come back. The Aufguss master came in with a basket of snowballs which had been sprinkled with essential oils. He spoke to us briefly in French and English to explain the ritual and then the door closed and music began – extracts from the stirring classic Carmina Burrana. The Aufguss master smashed the snowballs onto the heated sauna stones and then, as the steam rose, he whirled and snapped a towel around to fan us with the instantly-super-hot air. It felt pagan and wild and incredibly thrilling. I went from pleasantly warm to dripping with sweat in a few minutes. The music swooped and fell, the towel dancing around above our heads and the intense heat all combined to create a genuinely new and exciting kind of sauna treatment. At the end we all clapped, the doors were flung open and we cooled down in a cold plunge pool outside. I left feeling fantastic. Thoroughly energised, completely relaxed and so delighted to have discovered these new spa experiences. If you’re visiting Ottawa, just hail a cab to cross province borders into Quebec (just a fifteen minute drive) to check out this brilliantly well-planned gem of a spa in Gatineau Park.
I travelled as a guest of Ottawa Tourism – but as ever – my words are 100% my own.
. Ottawa Tourism [Official Site]
. Nordik Spa-Nature [Official Site]
Out of all the things I imagined that I’d miss about home, one thing I didn’t anticipate missing was old buildings. Vancouver is such a modern city, it celebrated its 125th birthday in 2011. Gleaming high rises are everywhere and but it wasn’t until I arrived at the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu in Quebec’s Charlevoix region and beamed at its stone exterior and gleaming wooden interior that I had a sudden flash of realisation; I like old buildings, they feel comforting and like ‘home’.
Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu certainly ticked all my Heritage Building boxes, just an hour or so drive along the stunning St Lawrence river, it was a world away from the funky modern delights of La Ferme. The original hotel was built in 1899, but burned down in 1928. I can’t imagine what dazzling riches the workers who rebuilt the hotel were offered but it was redesigned as a French Chateau and inaugurated in June 1929. Good work, chaps! I loved the huge fireplaces, the lavish lounge which looked out over the river and the spacious comfortable bedroom which came with the only hotel toiletries I ever ‘steal’ – I’m such a fan of the Fairmont’s rose-scented range.
Although the hotel has a pleasingly old-fashioned vibe, thanks to a multi-million dollar refurbishment, the facilities are bang up to date; well equipped children’s area, gorgeous outdoor hot pools and and all winter fun activities are catered for, you can hire everything from skates to tubes to go sliding. There is an Amerispa on site too which offers some interesting ice-cider treatments – I love the use of local ingredients – even in the spa.
After reading about the magnificent food that made the Charlevoix region so famous, I was excited about dinner; a tasting menu of the region created by Chef Patrick Turcot. The restaurant works with ultra-local producers, sourcing food within a 50KM radius. I ate foie gras from a small farm, served with a brandy snap, honied fruit and a dollop of whipped cream, it came served with a glass of Le Pedneault, a local ice cider. At first taste it was syrupy sweet, but it became pleasingly dry with each forkful of foie and was easily a decadent day of calories in a few bites. I’ve found the flavours of the east coast of Canada to be so much richer and sweeter than those of the west coast. After a few days enjoying the riches of their terroir, I’m always just about ready to crawl back to Vancouver’s seafood and kale – no wonder they stock up on winter sports equipment! This is hearty food to fortify the body and soul through bitter winters – but so delicious!
I spoke with Chef in the morning, before I left, he was full of excitement that his plans to create their very own breakfast sausages with local organic suppliers was finally coming to fruition. He’d be making 20kg of sausage over the next few days and looked like a man who couldn’t wait to start. In the wake of the horsemeat scandals in Europe, it’s genuinely refreshing to spend time with a chef who can tell you the name of each and every one of his suppliers and can point to them on a local map. You could taste the care and dedication in every bite.
I travelled as a guest of Tourism Charlevoix and Le Manoir Richelieu. As always, my views are 100% my own.
Find out more at Tourism Quebec.