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(2019 - Winter Issue)


The Aufguss ritual at Nordik Spa-Nature in Chelsea, Québec, was one of those rare spa experiences that almost defies description.

After meandering through one of the spa’s thermal circuits—sweating in a sauna, gasping in a cold shower, then unwinding in a chair—I heard the soft gong that alerts guests that another Aufguss ceremony was about to begin.

Like medieval pilgrims in flip-flops and white robes, guests came from all points of the sprawling property to congregate on benches arranged along three sides of the Finlandia sauna. A Nordik staffer named Laura explained she would be using snowballs infused with essential oils during the ritual.

The sauna doors closed, pop music began to play and Laura took a large snowball from a wooden bucket and placed it on a bed of hot stones. As the crystals sizzled, she began an energetic dance, snapping a white towel above her head to distribute waves of peppermint scent.

As the 15-minute performance continued, the scent changed to mango, the temperature rose and my eyes drifted closed. At some point, Laura added a second towel and danced even faster. I could barely move, so I had to admire her energy. Suddenly, it was done, and I wasn’t the only one blinking dazedly in the fog.

Nordik says the ritual is rooted in German traditions. My knowledge of European towel-waving ceremonies is limited, so I don’t know how much was tradition and how much was modern Canadian invention, but I can say that it was hypnotically relaxing—a description that could apply to the entire Nordik property. Set among rocky outcrops on a forested ridge overlooking the Ottawa Valley (you can see Parliament Hill on a clear day), it offers restaurants, a beer garden, treatment rooms, hammocks, hot tubs and a dimly lit saltwater floatation pool called Källa that made me feel like an extra in Cocoon.

Nordik is among the best places to unwind in the Outaouais region of West Québec, but it’s far from the only one. The spa is next to Gatineau Park, a 361-square-kilometre wilderness enclave that offers everything from historical sites to backcountry camping. On a day trip, try the 2.5-kilometre hiking trail around Pink Lake. Despite its name, the lake is actually a gorgeous blue-green on sunny days, due to algae.                


In Montebello, about 80 minutes east of Chelsea, Kenauk Nature offers travellers more ways to enjoy the outdoors. On a recent fall day, the only human sounds on the preserve’s Whitefish Lake were the faint splashes of our kayak paddles. Low grey clouds seemed to snag on the tips of the surrounding spruces, and the occasional hoot of a loon echoed across the water. My cell phone screen read “no service.” It felt as though we were light years from any human habitation, but we were within sight of a luxurious cottage and less than half an hour from a grand resort.

Kenauk Nature encompasses 263 square kilometres, including some 60 lakes. In 1929, it became a private wilderness playground for members of the posh Seigniory Club, which evolved into today’s Fairmont Le Château Montebello resort. In 2015, Kenauk’s new owners—who bought the property from Fairmont—began developing additional amenities, such as a 14.6-metre climbing wall, more cottages and a floating sauna.

Fairmont Le Château Montebello still runs some recreational programs in the preserve, such as an off-road Land Rover experience. The enormous log hotel also has extensive sports facilities on its own property, including hiking trails, an indoor pool and a curling rink. After a day of knocking yourself out, you can unwind with a drink beside the lobby’s massive, six-sided stone fireplace. The hotel recently completed a $17.5-million renovation project that freshened the decor while retaining much of the property’s rustic charm.


For those who want a healthy vacation with big-city frills, Montréal is less than two hours east of Montebello.

Get your bearings by hopping on a bike with Spade & Palacio Tours. Company co-founder Danny Pavlopoulos delights in showing visitors corners of the city that visitors seldom see. These include ruelles vertes—back alleys that have been turned into lush gardens tended by neighbours. Pavlopoulos also took our group to a stand called Les Filles Fattoush at the Jean Talon Market, where we picked up an impromptu picnic of Syrian specialties such as hummus, pitas and mtabal (a dip of roasted eggplant, tahini, olive oil and garlic). Spade & Palacio also offers city walking tours throughout the year.

From spring through fall, you can try stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) in the St. Lawrence River with KSF Montréal. I was a bit nervous about the whole idea, due to fear of falling into the chilly waters. However, my worries were misplaced. When we arrived at KSF’s location in suburban LaSalle, we put on rental wetsuits, which kept us all quite warm. And even though I was indeed the first of my group to tumble into the water—while getting onto the board from the dock—I managed to haul myself back aboard with some patient guidance from our instructor.

During our time on the river, everyone in our group pitched into the river at least once. But within an hour, we were so confident on the wide boards that we even tethered to anchors and tried a bit of basic SUP yoga. Despite my worries, I was hooked—it was a marvellous core workout.

To ease any workout-related aches and pains, you could try the thermal circuit at Bota Bota, a spa on a converted ferry/showboat permanently moored in the St. Lawrence River downtown. Bota Bota, which overlooks Moshe Safdie’s landmark Habitat housing complex and the 19th-century buildings of Old Montréal, has an utterly different vibe from rural Nordik. However, it offers the same escape from the ordinary. And isn’t that the goal of any healthy getaway?

Travel Planner

If you plan a trip to the Outaouais region between January 31 and February 17, be sure to check out Winterlude, Ottawa’s unique winter celebration. For more information, visit:

Tourisme Montréal: mtl.org/en

Tourisme Outaouais: tourismeoutaouais.com

Bota Bota: botabota.ca/en

Fairmont Le Château Montebello: fairmont.com/montebello

Kenauk Nature: kenauk.com

Nordik Spa-Nature: lenordik.com/en

Spade & Palacio Tours: spadeandpalacio.com

Winterlude: ottawatourism.ca/events/Winterlude

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