Spa


23
Jun 14

Nordik Spa-Nature Aufguss Ritual: ‘Pagan, Wild and Incredibly Thrilling’

spa1For 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. spa3I’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. spa2The 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.

Info:

Ottawa Tourism [Official Site]

. Nordik Spa-Nature [Official Site]


16
May 14

Challenge #5: Float in Canada’s Dead Sea

Because if someone tells you that ‘Canada’s Dead Sea’ is a few hours drive away, well, you just get in a car, right?

manitou_opt-2

I’ve been a little obsessed with Manitou Springs ever since I first read about it, it’s a rarity; there are only three lakes in the world that have this particular chemical composition and the others are in Israel and the Czech Republic, but Manitou Lake is right here in Canada. There are 27 different kinds of mineral salts in the water; it’s particularly high in magnesium and sulphate and what all these naturally-occurring chemicals reportedly does is make the water buoyant and, according to the legend of the Cree First Nations – also rich with healing properties. Of course, winter in Sakatchewan is no time to go for a dip in a lake but thanks to a pool and spa complex you can skip the bitter sub-zero cold and soak up the benefits all year round.

manitou3After an hour or so driving the arrow-straight Yellowhead Highway which neatly cuts across all four western provinces, I turned off towards Watrous and after a few minutes was flooded with a sense of deja vu. I heard a distant rumble on the horizon and slowed down and then I saw it: a freight train which seemed like it was a hundred cars long. I jumped out into the minus 20-something  bone-numbing chill and watched it pass. It was as I listened to the clickety-clack of the rails on the track that I realised I had been here before. Four years ago, crossing Canada on the “Canadian” train from Toronto to Vancouver. I watched the train disappear into the distance and thought about what a different life I led now compared to the girl on that train then.

manitou6When you’re feeling contemplative, the best thing to do is listen to country music, and of course, the prairies had radio stations to suit. I drove along singing songs about cowboys and cheating hearts, no other cars on the road following the train line and my memories. Yes! Here were the huge grain silos that I’d snapped photos of from the window of the train. In the dead of winter, the fields heaped high in snow, it seemed impossible to imagine the fields golden and green again. But the sun was bright and the sky impossibly blue. I pulled over again to watch the powdery snow snake across the road in the wind.

manitou2And I finally got to see my first ‘wild’ creatures as I turned down the narrow road lined with high trees a mile or so away from the lake and the hotel. I slammed on my brakes as dozens of white-tail deer galloped and skipped across the road, leaping gracefully over a fence to the fields beyond. Yes, they were ‘only’ deer but they were so alive and vivid, their hooves clattering across the road, seeing them felt like a rare joy and treat.

But yes, the question I know you want answered: can you really float in the water at Manitou Springs? Is it ‘Canada’s Dead Sea’? Well, yes, you can; it’s somewhat unnerving to lie back, floating easily on your back and then try and sit up, I kept flipping back, as though I was held up by unseen hands. My skin and hair felt gorgeous afterwards and after talking to a few of the many seniors bathing in the pool, it’s a popular spot for easing arthritis and other joint pains. The hotel, like the pool, is fairly utilitarian, but most importantly, spotlessly clean. It’s not an “upmarket spa” or a “boutique hotel” at all, but what you’re here for is to experience the pool and its seemingly restorative waters and really, this is the only show in town to do that.

manitou5I tried a couple of the signature spa treatments, one with therapeutic mud from the lake and another using mineral salts – honestly, I’m not sure I’d recommend them, unless you don’t mind traipsing from your treatment room, naked and covered in mud or salt, wrapped in the bottom sheet from your couch, before taking a brisk walk through the reception before hosing yourself clean in a toilet with a shower. Call me a picky princess, but I’m not a fan of that so until they build a shower IN the treatment room, I’d suggest you stick to treatments which don’t require you leaving the room as the therapists were good but stymied by the lack of decent facilities.

Manitou4The lake was covered with snow when I visited and I trudged outside for a walk to see what it was like. Cars have to be plugged in at the mains in freezing climates like this, you need a block heater or it’s likely that your car simply won’t start. I stomped past a row of plugged-in cars on down to the lake. The snow was deep, I was almost immediately up past my knees and it was hard to walk, but I could imagine this place in the summer; I saw past the bandstand thick with snow and the ice cream stall closed for the season and imagined that same blue sky and bright sun beating down on waving fields of golden corn and prairie flowers instead of reflecting the endless snow.

I travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission, Tourism Saskatoon/Saskatchewan and Manitou Springs Resort Hotel & Spa and but as ever, all my words are 100% own.

·  Manitou Springs [Official Site]

·  Tourism Saskatoon [Official Site]

· Tourism Saskatchewan [Official Site]

 

 


9
Jan 14

Shangri-La Toronto

Rising by Shanghai-based sculptor, Zhang Hua.

Rising by Shanghai-based sculptor, Zhang Hua.

“What’s that?” I asked my cab driver, “It’s gorgeous.” ‘It’ was a silvery sculpture that reached into the sky and bought to mind flight and freedom right there on the pavement in downtown Toronto.

“It’s the Shangri La” said my driver.

“You’re kidding!” I said. “I’m staying there tomorrow.”

I can’t help myself; I get giddy with delight over a fancy hotel. Holly Golightly may have gone weak at the knees over Tiffany, but for me it’s a top class hotel that makes me think:      “…the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there.” The check-in was fast, the service with a real smile and within minutes I was leaving the airy lobby with its Fazioli piano and zipping up to my room. When you notice details like how cool the carpets are (reminiscent of cherry blossom and bamboo leaves) as you trot to your room, then you can bet that your socks will be suitably knocked off when you get inside.

They were.

shangrila2

I know. It’s just carpet. But really – it’s more than that. It’s about the attention to detail and making every small thing beautiful.

I was wondering how Toronto would compare to Vancouver and the TO did not disappoint; a ludicrously huge and comfy bed, a decadent bathroom with a big-enough-for-two soaker tub overlooking the city and a satisfyingly high count of amenities from emery boards and tooth brushes to a mini-loofah and lashings of L’Occitane to raid.

mirajTO

Curl up and relax…

I was there to check out the sister spa to the Miraj in Vancouverthis is a glossier and more sophisticated version of the great little hammam on West 6th – but the principal remained the same -  and the treatment and therapist was just as good – leaving me to relax on satiny cushions admiring my equally silky skin after a heavenly steam, skin-brightening scrub and a final oil application.

Modern fine dining

Modern fine dining

Drinks in the lobby lounge later were a treat – the menus come tucked away in a little compendium of books and champagne buckets stand ready for your bubbles. I’d heard wonderful things about the Bosk restaurant, and after a slew of strictly casual fine dining experiences, it was lovely to feel that here was a restaurant worth dressing up for. Bosk may have an east coast address but it certainly had a west coast feeling with local, organic and sustainable woven through the menu and the seafood treated with loving care. A pleasingly large by-the-glass wine selection makes food pairing a pleasure – my advice? Ask the sommelier to match for you – you won’t be disappointed and you’ll definitely try delicious new things.

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Toronto and stayed as a guest of the Shangri-La– all views are, however 100% my own.

More Info:

The Shangri-La

188 University Ave, Toronto, ON M5H 0A3

Phone:(647) 788-8888

Web:  Shangri-La Toronto


12
Nov 13

24 Hours in Whistler

I’m falling a bit in love with Whistler; every time I go there something new and rather lovely happens and I start to ponder how I can sort out some kind of weekend cottage there; tucked away with a view of those beautiful mountains and within easy reach of all the great bars and restaurants.

This time it was a trip up with two friends who’d come to stay from Brighton. It’s ridiculous how fast you become blasé about breath-taking scenery, I remember the first time that I made the journey from Vancouver to Whistler on the Sea to Sky highway and it reduced me to a state of slack-jawed, tearful nature worship. It was great to see it through fresh eyes again and be reminder that yes; this one of the most gorgeous places on earth.

Breakfast with a perfect view

Breakfast with a perfect view

I usually head to the Galileo cafe on the way up but this time tried somewhere new and definitely off the beaten track. Up in Squamish, Fergie’s cafe was tucked away at the end of a trail that left us wondering if we’d made a wrong turn off the highway. Eagles winged overhead and we could hear the rushing of a river. We found Fergie’s – a small slice of paradise in a woody grove. In the summer they have glamping and white water rafting trips: we sat outside under blazing blue skies and devoured one of the best breakfasts I can remember eating. The bacon was free-range; juicy and crisp and the eggs had the kind of golden yolk that told you the hens got to scratch and peck and run outside and my cheesy-buttery biscuits were carb-heaven on a plate. All that with a view that made me long to give everything up and just live in the woods.

Our home for the night was at the Westin; we had a two bedroom suite right in the heart of town. Whistler hotels seem to have the rather canny knack of being the exact opposite of inner-city hotels; flooded with light and space they feel like a home from home (if you’re lucky enough to live in a home that boasts a fireplace and a balcony that looks out over a mesmerising mountain range, that is). There is a small kitchenette so you can whip up a late-night snack or breakfast, in short, plenty of room to lounge and chat.

Fall in Whistler

Fall in Whistler

We headed to the village and I left them to shop while I curled up in the October sunshine in a cheerful yellow-painted Adirondack chair overlooking one of the squares and I watched the scarlet and russet leaves fall. Vancouver had been wreathed in dense fog for days and I knew the rain season would soon be here: it felt like the most precious gift of all to lie in the sunshine just a few hours away from home.

I’m a huge fan of the Scandinave spa just outside of Whistler and was excited to take my friends there for a treat. I’d never visited after dusk and the usually meditative atmosphere that comes from being able to unwind amongst stunning nature took on a magical shape at night with those mountains and trees cloaked in velvety darkness. I lay back in one of the hot pools and watched the stars twinkle through the drifts of steam. I’ve finally mastered the art of just ducking under the icy plunge pools without shrieking and learned to love the feeling of being so cold your skin pulses and tingles… then slowly warming up again as you lie curled up on a beanbag or wrapped in a towel in a solarium.

Meditative magic at night

Meditative magic at night

I’d got great plans for a night at my favourite Whistler restaurant, the Bearfoot – a session in the Belvedere Vodka Ice Room perhaps or a lesson in Champagne sabering in the basement? But we were all sleepy and just a bit too relaxed, so headed back to the hotel. I dreamed of mountains and woke to a sunrise which had turned the peaks an blushing apricot-pink. That ‘Whistler effect’ of leaving you feeling quite changed within just a short time had happened again: just 24 hours left us feeling like we’d had a few days holiday. In the months ahead through the rain and the snow and biting cold, I’ll close my eyes and think of that yellow chair and that blue, blue sky and of those wonderful eggs eaten outdoors, my appetite sharpened by the soaring peaks and the sunshine on my face. 

 I was hosted by Westin Whistler and the Scandinave Spa – but as ever – my words are 100% my own. 

Thanks also to B.C. Ford who loaned us a C-Max Energi hybrid for the trip. I’d never driven a hybrid before, it was pleasingly quiet and I genuinely loved it. I’m lucky to live by one of the charging stations and it felt ridiculously cool to just plug my car in to charge. Best of all? A trip to Whistler and back only came to just under $40 in gas. Impressive. 


19
Jul 13

Toronto Spa Adventures: The Ritz-Carlton

I’m not at all surprised that the Ritz-Carlton spa in Toronto bagged the No 1 spot on Travel and Leisure’s 2013 World’s Best awards. I visited recently and lay on a lounger wrapped in a waffle cotton robe in the rare spa sunlight (why are they always usually hidden in a basement) on the 5th floor. The light streamed through the windows and caught the floating jellyfish-like lights hanging from the high ceiling. I wriggled my toes with happiness, sipped a little citrus water and felt a mild ripple of annoyance that I couldn’t have spent more time here. I had to race out after my facial so no time to swim or bubble away in the Jacuzzi, but no matter, I decided to make the most of my time in this lovely light room and waited for my therapist to collect me.

MY BLEND spa lounge

MY BLEND spa lounge

I was booked in to try a MY BLEND facial, a new range from Clarins, I was excited to try it because the first spa treatment I ever had was a Clarins facial. I remember being so excited about the whole unfamiliar experience. Now, some hundred or so facials later I thought back to the rather tatty little treatment room in a sports complex ‘spa’ in Seven Sisters London and felt that yes, a facial at the Ritz was definitely a step in the right direction.

I floated off with my therapist through the sunny room towards the softly-lit treatment room, I made to get on the couch and then had a rather nasty shock as I was ushered towards a computer. I had not read the spa menu. Turns out the new facial’s “ultra-personalized experience begins with a thorough, 20-minute skin analysis by your skin coach using state-of-the-art diagnostic imaging technology.” So instead of seamlessly going from calm spa waiting room to super-chilled spa treatment room I now was expected to tap in 20-minutes worth of typing on a screen.

The salt water pool

The salt water pool

There’s no way I’m going to sound like anything but a grumpy old curmudgeon when I talk about this, so I’m just going to come out and say it. I don’t think computer screens have any place whatsoever in a treatment room in a spa. None at all. My happy calm spa-bubble popped. You couldn’t skip any of the pointless ‘what’s your email’ type questions and the screen was slow to respond. Losing my cool rapidly I was jabbing the screen now, grumbling to the therapist and starting to remember that tatty Seven Sisters spa as an oasis of relaxation in comparison to my luxe computer cubicle.

I asked the therapist if anyone liked this part and her answer surprised me. Older women loved it, they adored tapping their info in and having their skin photographed. Also younger clients thought it was great fun too. Exhausted 30 and 40 somethings like me though? Not so much. The machine analyses your skin and prescribes a bespoke facial treatment for you, blended in the room by adding “optimum concentrations of peptide complexes, vitamins and plant extracts to increase your skin’s natural defense potential, strengthen its regenerating capacity and protect it from premature damage.” All of which, to be honest – a good therapist could diagnose and prescribe by looking at my skin under a light. There was one bright spark though; your face gets photographed and the machine said that my skin was that of a late 20-something (I’m 43!) so I did end the process with a smile on my (surprisingly youthful) face.

A bit of a step up from the Seven Sisters sports centre.

A bit of a step up from the Seven Sisters sports centre.

Computer turned off, everything now improved dramatically. My therapist was great, I love the facial massage techniques that Clarins have, the plant-based products and well…  everything. My skin felt gorgeous afterwards, I could fool myself that it was almost as good as that 21 year old who skipped out of her first facial thinking I WANT TO DO THAT A LOT MORE.

So, this is a plea to Clarins MY BLEND: put the machine outside the treatment room, don’t spoil that hallowed spa space with day-to-day work paraphernalia. Out of all the places in the world I never want to see a computer, I think a spa treatment room is number one. Please just concentrate on your great therapists and treatments. With love, a fan.

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Toronto and stayed as a guest of the Ritz Carlton – all views are, however 100% my own. 

For more info:

Ritz Carlton.

Address: 181 Wellington St W, Toronto, ON M5V 3G7

Phone: (416) 585-2500


1
Jul 13

Toronto: Four Seasons hotel and spa

Stunning high ceiling lobby

Stunning high ceiling lobby

The first thing I did when I arrived at the Four Seasons in Toronto was get lost. Later, I did it again in the spa and – just for good measure  – I got lost on the way to my room. Usually this would have me fizzing with rage but to be honest – it’s so ridiculously pretty that I almost didn’t mind at all. I asked about the baffling lack of signage and was told that signs were a-coming – once everyone could agree on fonts and size and so on – that is.

Fingers crossed when you get there, that’s all been sorted. But I have to say – there are many, many worse places to get lost and by being a little lost I did get to find a few things I may have otherwise missed. I admired the stunning floral arrangements – not something that I ever pay too much attention to if I’m honest, but these were magnificent. I looked up at the high, high ceilings and felt their calming influence so when I finally made it to reception I was all smiles.

Adore these cool shades

Adore these cool shades

The restful feeling in the lobby spreads throughout the hotel; I loved the colour palette of creams, a pale jade-y-turquoise, moss green accents and warm peach touches. In my room I spotted that a fabric-like covering had transformed an ordinary bathroom door into something special. I like that kind of detail. I had chance to soak all this up later as when I arrived I had chance to barely hurl my case into my room and gallop back downstairs again as I had a spa appointment scheduled. I almost clapped my hands with glee when I saw the pool; I love to swim and hotel pools tend to be lost in the basement so this light-flooded dream of a pool area made me long to hurl myself in at the deep end. Gorgeous.

The spa was glitteringly clean and bright, I spent 20 minutes warming up my muscles by stretching out in the unexpectedly large steam room in the changing room. Then, I took a quick shower, wrapped myself in my robe and curled up in a comfy chair, waiting for my therapist. I like the idea of the spa massage menu here – all at the same price point for times, you just choose which style and pressure you’d like and if you want 60-minutes or 90-minutes of bliss. I liked the look of the Asian Fusion – which promised to blend techniques from across Asia into one stress-relieving, energy-restoring treatment.

A rare - and lovely - sun-lit hotel pool

A rare – and lovely – sun-lit hotel pool

I’m always so happy when I experience something completely authentic in a Western spa that I’ve previously had in its original setting. I may have been in a spiify hotel spa with soft towels, chilled music and heated massage bed, but the techniques that my therapist used could have been straight from the little hut on the river where I had dazzling Ayurvedic massages in Sri Lanka or the all-Chinese spa that I used to visit in a Paris backstreet where no one spoke a word of French. It was one of those treatments when I felt like rolling around on the floor wailing “More! Please! More!” once it was over, but I managed to control myself and instead thanked her and lay there for a while, feeling like the exhaustion of the brutally early start, the delayed plane, the hours of travel – all of it – had just melted away.

I got a bit lost trying to find my locker and – indeed – the exit, but I was so delightedly chilled that I just enjoyed my confusion and floated back up to my room to watch the city lights sparkle and catch a spot of room service…

I travelled as a guest of Toronto Tourism and the Four Seasons – but as ever – my views are 100% my own. 

Find out more: 

Four Seasons, 60 Yorkville Ave  Toronto, ON M4W 0A4, Canada
Tel: +1 416-964-0411

Toronto Tourism

 


14
Apr 13

Gulf Island Hopping Part 1: Galiano Island

My suitcase wheels crunched over the pebbles as I walked the short distance from the BC ferry dock to the Galiano Island Inn and spa, my first stop on a six-night island-hopping adventure around British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, a chain of islands inbetween the lower mainland and Vancouver Island. Just a 55-minute ferry journey from Vancouver’s Tsawwassen terminal, yet Galiano feels a world away from Vancouver city life.

Welcome....

Welcome….

It’s a small island; sparsely populated (just over 1,200 residents) short and thin (27.5km long and only 6km across at its widest) with a pleasingly quirky feeling and an abundance of natural beauty. While I was there I saw bald eagles circling overhead, spotted seals snoozing in the midday sunshine curled up like kittens in a basket and tiny quicksilver hummingbirds darting between the trees. If I’d waited a few weeks to visit, I could have gone whale watching – from the comfort of my patio – as between April and October resident pods of Orca whales make their way through Active Pass, the narrow strip of water which separates Mayne Island from Galiano island, right in front of the Galiano Inn and Spa.

This is what I meant by 'quirky'. This is apparently a hummingbird. Not a winged teddy-bear.

This is what I meant by ‘quirky’. This is apparently a hummingbird. Not a winged teddy-bear.

My suite at the Inn was bigger than my apartment at home; full kitchen, cosy lounge, the works. I’m always infuriated by hotels who have that ‘towels and wasting water’ card in their bathrooms if they have individual plastic bottles for their toiletries – it feels like the worst kind of tokenism. ‘Hey!” I always mutter when I see that. ‘If you really cared about the environment, you’d use pump dispensers, not zillions of plastic bottles and save the earth that way. Doofus.” Hurrah, then for the Inn as they did just that – filled with gorgeous-smelling locally-made products created just for them from nearby Salt Spring Island. Best of all, my waterfront terrace boasted a whirlpool bath, fireplace and a BBQ  – all of which I put to excellent use on my second night, curled up in a blanket, eating char-grilled prawns and drinking ice-cold wine by a crackling fire. I’m a sucker for any chance to laze in hot water in the outdoors; soaking in that tub, the jets bubbling away as I watched the sunset blush the sky a perfect apricot-pink, is a memory I’ll long cherish.

 

Not the Caribbean, the Gulf Islands... Perfect view from my terrace.

Not the Caribbean, the Gulf Islands… Perfect view from my terrace.

I spent my first day soaking up all the other good things the Inn had to offer; I walked on a cherry blossom-covered path to a warm wooden hut beside a pond to get a massage. I’d had a painful, stiff neck and shoulder for days and my therapist delivered a soothing, muscle-melting treatment that left me gurgling with delight. The rest of the spa is upstairs above the reception in the main building. I had a choco-therapy pedicure there, my feet scrubbed, then moisturised with chocolate-infused products while I sipped on mint-chocolate herb tea, flicking through a copy of Chocolat and scoffing a chocolate truffle.

Cross the blossom-path to the spa pavilion.

Cross the blossom-path to the spa pavilion.

Dinner that night was at the Inn’s restaurant, I started with a perfect espresso Martini, then dived into a rocket-covered, goat cheese-flecked, honey-crusted flatbread, just-right scallops and a juicy local salmon steak with sweet potato mash and a tangy lime-spiked yoghurt dressing. I sat and watched the stars come out and planned a trip back in summer when the pizza oven terrace in the garden re-opens and I could maybe sip cocktails in the summer warmth and see those Orcas cruise past. Tomorrow I’d explore the island in one of the cute smart cars that the Inn has to lend to guests, but tonight I’d just enjoy the relaxed pace of island living…

I stayed as a guest of the Galiano Inn and Spa. My views – as always – are 100% my own.

No need to bring a car - borrow theirs!

No need to bring a car – borrow theirs!

 


8
Apr 13

Feeling at home in Fairmont’s Charlevoix Chateau

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’.

I could not love this more.

I could not love this more.

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.

How I wish I'd had time to laze around under the sunshine here...

How I wish I’d had time to laze around under the sunshine here…

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!

Yes please.

Yes please.

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.

Chef Patrick Turcot

Chef Patrick Turcot


7
Apr 13

All the fun of La Ferme

Looking around, it was hard to believe I wasn’t in in a funky hotel in a major metropolis. Airy spaces, glass and natural materials, clean lines and bold colours screamed ultra-modern design, but cheeky touches like the fabulously decorated life-size cow in the lounge or the farming tools sculpture in reception gave you a clue that Hôtel La Ferme is far from well – anything really – deep in the heart of the Charlevoix region of Quebec in Baie-saint-Paul.

Where urban cool meets painted cow...

Where urban cool meets painted country cow…

The brainchild of Daniel Gauthier, co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, Hôtel La Ferme is the last piece in the puzzle that he’s been building in this beautiful part of the world that’s remained mostly unknown beyond Canada. Ten years ago, he bought Le Massif, a ski mountain, planning to transform it into a world-class four-season destination. The plan to link the area to Quebec City with a luxury private train stopping off at the mountain and then the hotel, offering top-notch accommodation (145 rooms ranging from the nicest dorm rooms I’ve ever seen to stylish doubles) and dining has finally come to fruition and – judging from my experience there – will put the area firmly on the radar of those looking for something new and deliciously cool.

Cool, clean lines - pastoral scenes

Cool, clean lines – pastoral scenes

Arriving by train, it’s worth noting that check-in isn’t available till the afternoon, so plan to have lunch and explore the small village of nearby Baie-saint-Paul or perhaps book a treatment in the spa. Farm touches are everywhere, tipping a nod to the 100-year old farm which used to stand here, from cow-coverlets in the spa and farm pictures in the room to the whole farm-to-table ethos of local dining in Les Labours restaurant and the Cafe du Marche where you can snack on soups, sandwiches and pastries as well as stock up on local terroir products to take home.

Quite wonderful to see the train from the spa pool

Jump in… warm up

Perfect for the ski crowd in winter and the relaxation-seekers in summer, Hôtel La Ferme also has a full-service spa. I’m a big fan of nordic style spa-ing, gently heating your body and then cooling down, but it always seems so much better when you can do it outdoors and lying back in the steamy huge outdoor hot pool at the Spa du Verger, with snow all around was heavenly. I’m getting better at the cold bit and managed not to screech as I plunged head-under in the icicle-covered cold tub. An indoor steam room and sauna add to the experience, along with a restful lounge area where you can sip herbal tea and look out over the garden.

Brilliant witty touches in the farm-friendly treatment rooms

Witty touches in the farm-friendly treatment rooms

I tried a candle massage – a deeply relaxing therapy that used the warm melted wax of a  candle as massage oil. You get to keep the candle afterwards – although they don’t provide an expert-fingered therapist to take away too. I wish I could say I remembered a lot about this treatment, but once I’d settled down from cooing compliments over the cow-cover and milk stool in the room, and relaxed into the sensation of warm wax drizzling over my back, embarrassingly enough, what I remember most is snoring through it – which, I guess is probably one of the highest accolades you could give to a relaxing massage, so let’s skate over that…

The best seats in the house...

The best seats in the house…

I woke from a post-massage snooze hungry and ready to tuck into dinner at Les Labours. I sat at the bar, the best view in the house, to watch the chefs do their thing. I had a four-hour, slow-braised shoulder of lamb, which came with the best lentils I’ve ever tasted. I should have asked how they do them, I never seem to get puy lentils right at home and these were so great, they’d be worth flying to Quebec to eat again.

I took time to explore before leaving in the morning, I watched a family ice skating in what would be the garden in the summertime and chatted with one of the staff about the impressive eco credentials of the hotel – sustainable development, geothermal energy, reusing rainwater and reducing food miles by using local suppliers. “It’s all about respecting the environment” she smiled and it makes sense – if you live somewhere as beautiful as the Charlevoix region, of course you want to protect it.

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Charlevoix and Hôtel la Ferme. As always – my views are 100% my own.

Find out more: Tourism Quebec


20
Mar 13

Discovering the Yukon spas and Takhini hot springs

I didn’t know that walking in the snow made such a crunching sound until I moved to Canada. Like the wrong type of leaves, I guess we always got the wrong type of snow. So, when I left the warmth of my cosy Yukon cabin to explore, I walked the trails happily listening to the unexpected sound of the snow.

Splendid isolation

Splendid isolation

I was staying at the Northern Lights Resort and Spa,  some 20km from Whitehorse. I’d hoped to catch a glimpse of those elusive lights, staying far from the glare of the city; I had an image of waking in the night and seeing them from my bed, actually – my ultimate Northern Lights Fantasy involves seeing them from a hot tub as snowflakes fall on my face. Alas, it wasn’t to be – first because the lights were covered by cloud and second I wasn’t allowed to use the tub after 10pm. I guess that’s what happens when you try and make fantasy reality. It pretty much never works out.

Perfect balcony view

Perfect balcony view

I had fun though, staying out in the wilderness; I loved seeing nothing but snow and forest, hearing the howls of excited sled dogs all riled up with the scent of the Yukon Quest in the air and it was great to sit down with locals and share a meal at the dinner table too; I even learned a new phrase; ‘shack wacky‘ which is the northern version of ‘cabin fever’ – a state bought on by too much winter and not enough daylight, which can apparently only be quelled by hard drinking and much dancing. I like these people.

Spa is an elastic term these days – it can be an all-singing, all-dancing palace of relaxation or it can be as simple as the hot tub, sauna and Swedish-style massage on offer here. A nice soft touch in the harsh wilderness of the Yukon. Or – it can even be an outdoors experience like I had at Takhini Hot Springs, a public pool fed by the natural hot spring. In February when we visited, snow lay all around, steam hung over the water and families were all enjoying the bone-warming heat in the middle of soul-crushingly cold weather. There’s nothing fancy here at all. The changing rooms are basic to say the least. Plastic strips separate the indoors area from the pool, you wade through, batting at the plastic as you go. This is far from a luxe experience, but oh! It was magical.

 

Spa Yukon-style

Spa Yukon-style

The sky was impossibly clear and blue that day, I kept my shoulders under the 40°C water until I felt dizzy with the heat and then went for it… scooted out of the pool, carefully avoiding slipping on the ice and threw myself backwards into a drift of snow. Trying hard not to shriek, I rubbed the snow on my face and arms then scampered back into the water. It felt wonderful; I could feel the blood pumping around my body, my arms and legs felt almost burnt by the hot/cold/hot change and I felt giddy with euphoria. Apparently they have late sessions till 2am in the winter and just like that, my fantasy changed. Forget a Jacuzzi – this was more like it – a huge shared hot spring where you could bob around and watch the magic of the Northern Lights zip across the sky – and if the lights don’t come, well, how often do you get to be in a hot spring surrounded by snow? That’s a real-life fantasy right there.

No. I'm not showing you me rolling in the snow...

No. I’m not showing you me rolling in the snow…

I travelled as a guest of Yukon Tourism and the Northern Lights Resort and Spa - as ever, my views are 100% my own.

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