Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 22, 2017

© Michael Moore

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Peace be with you

If relaxation is the holy grail, one Bancroft, Ontario spa has uncovered the secret

November is always a great time for a weekend break; it's a way of preparing for the frantic holidays season ahead or extending the laid-back pace of fall. But what if fall was anything but relaxing? By this time last year, my husband and I had squeezed so much into our personal and professional lives that we couldn't imagine how we were going to make it to Christmas without cracking.

We thought about heading off to a country inn for a few days, but soon realized that what we needed was a destination spa: some place that would offer a complete break and support us in finding some balance. Unlike at a country hotel, everything about a destination spa is designed to emphasize wellbeing and relaxation. In addition to a peaceful setting, it offers a schedule of physical activities and lectures, along with healthy food and a wide choice of body treatments.

After considering flying across country to find what we were looking for, we stumbled on the Grail Springs Spa outside of Bancroft, Ontario. Tucked into the Haliburton Highlands, Grail Springs is designed to help wellness neophytes take a deep breath and relax. They've adapted the model of destination spas like Red Mountain or Canyon Ranch in the US with a more accessible, down-to-earth feel.

The hour-and-a-half drive through the pines and Canadian Shield north of Belleville already had us in a completely different frame of mind. By the time we pulled into the driveway at the resort, we felt much farther than just cottage country. In fact, we took one look at the building and wondered where exactly we were.

Grail Springs is whimsically designed to mirror its medieval name, and it has the look of a diminutive castle. We crossed a "drawbridge" over a small stream to reach a stone turret covered in ivy. The arched front door was held by elaborate wrought-iron hinges and flanked by torches.

But the place doesn't go over the top with theme references. The public spaces are simple but have medieval-styled wall sconces and Gothic arched windows. The Great Room, with its soaring ceiling, stone fireplace and huge wrought-iron chandelier, conjures up a cosier version of the large and draughty halls in medieval castles.

After the four-hour drive from Montreal, all we could think of was getting profoundly acquainted with our bed. The suite felt plush but was ultimately understated; call it "medieval zen." There was a balcony with a lovely view of Spurr Lake, a four-poster bed with down comforter, a double chaise lounge and a mini sound system with relaxation CDs (more of which were available at reception).

There were super-soft robes waiting for us, along with reflexology sandals (the soles looked like a bed of rubber nails) to wear to our treatments the next day. We had plenty of time for a leisurely bath in the soaker tub with a collection of Austrian moor mud products, before turning on the gas fireplace and exploring the benefits of a mid-afternoon nap.

Eclectic and Organic
When we regained consciousness, the sun was slanting through trees rifled by wind. We pulled on our polar fleece and wandered around the gardens and down to the lake to take in the fresh fall air. We had only been at Grail Springs a few hours, and already we felt that we were falling in step with a much more peaceful rhythm.

We headed to the intimate dining room and settled in among the eight tables in front of a large stone fireplace. Sitting around us were an eclectic group of guests -- not the lululemon-clad yoga types we expected. There was a laidback couple in their 20s, a well-to-do couple in their 50s, as well as two groups of fortysomething women assembled for an all-girls' getaway.

One group had flown in from the States to celebrate a birthday (Grail Springs has quite a few US guests and offers a shuttle service from Pearson Airport). From their comments, I got the distinct feeling that most of the women on this trip had expected to be sipping cosmopolitans by a pool after getting chocolate body wraps.

Apparently, the friend responsible for the booking had opted for a seven-day "detox" package without consulting them. So they wound up drinking cleansing carrot-ginger elixirs, eating wheat-free organic meals and lounging in Muskoka chairs by the lake. By the time we arrived, five days into their stay, they were having a hoot and switching effortlessly between conversations about Jennifer Aniston's relationship woes to discussing the results of their colonic hydrotherapy.

 

Grail Springs works with a nutritional advisor, San Francisco-based MD Elson Hass, who advocates a balanced PH acid/alkaline approach to healthy eating. The idea is that too many acidifying foods throw our bodies out of whack. This means a greater proportion of alkalinizing foods (which include most vegetables and fruit) are included in the meals as opposed to acidifying ones (most grains and proteins).

While the spa uses this as a guiding principle, the meals are far from bland tofu, hemp and bean sprouts. The focus is on whole grains as well as organic meats and vegetables, all assembled into simple, market-style spa cuisine. Some guests choose packages with a specific health focus, like weight loss or "detoxing" to get a break from refined foods and stimulants like caffeine, sugar or wine. Most spa cuisine tends to limit the use of these ingredients anyway, and Grail Springs is no different.

Trial and Air
After breakfast the next morning, we headed to the studio for the scheduled yoga class. Groups are small, and staff and instructors are knowledgeable and clearly focused on getting beginners up to speed. There is a daily schedule with a rotating roster of activities including fitness classes like pilates, cardio circuit training and guided hikes, ending with lectures in the Great Room after dinner.

If we hadn't been interested in the yoga class that morning, we could have taken a walk in the forested trails on the 40-hectare estate. In summer, the spring-fed lake beckons for swims or boating, and nearby stables offer horseback riding. In winter, there's snow shoeing, cross-country skiing and skating.

After supper that night, we headed to the Great Room for a introductory workshop. We were invited to close our eyes as we were guided through a smorgasbord of meditation techniques. We spent a few minutes focusing on our breath, becoming conscious of our posture and noticing the speed at which our thoughts raced and returned.

We then tried breathing into each of our chakras (the body's energy centres according to Hindu ayurvedic tradition) until our collective voices created a deep thrum as we chanted "Omm." I was surprised by how completely in the moment I felt while sounding out a mantra that is, as it turns out, as powerful as it is clichéd. I opened my eyes and noticed that some people seemed to be feeling goofy and uncertain, others were very focused, while some were just experimenting. And the staff made everyone feel perfectly at ease no matter what they were doing.

Finally we stood up to practise walking meditation -- very slowly un-flexing our feet in each step, feeling our connection with the earth. There were giggles and some wobbling, but after 15 minutes we all had at least an idea of how to go about it and how easily it could be incorporated into a walk around the block.

Well in Hand
We had, of course, booked plenty of massages during our stay -- this is the make-or-break aspect of a great destination spa. Spas screen their massage staff not only for accreditation and the mastery of specific techniques but also for the depth of touch which is the hallmark of an outstanding massage therapist (it can be harder to find than you'd think).

A surprising number of high-end spas not only have mediocre therapists, but their general approach leaves you feeling like you've been a widget on a wellness conveyer belt: get 'em in, get 'em out. And yet when it's properly done, it's remarkable how much of a difference it makes on your mental state when your body has been stretched and kneaded into a state of relaxation.

Despite the emphasis on wellbeing, there is no shortage of decadent treatments -- like a sugar body glow with Brazilian babassu-palm oil, or scrubs and wraps using Austrian moor mud or Canadian Pacific seaweed.

Agog over the menu of services when we had booked, my husband and I had hesitated over the hot stone or aromatherapy massages, but finally opted for some intensive reflexology and deep-tissue massage. The therapists at Grail Springs absolutely hit the mark.

In fact, the whole experience was dreamy. It was particularly lovely to be in a resort small enough that we could feel at ease walking around in a bathrobe and spa slippers. Despite having our room just up the stairs, we took full advantage of the large spa lounge, sinking into the overstuffed sofas with a cup of hot lemon water to slowly emerge from our post-massage haze. We were deeply, deeply relaxed.

By the end of our long weekend, it felt like we had been there a week. The stresses of the previous months seemed far away. But as we packed up the car, a new source of stress hit us. Knowing that this kind of relaxation was available so close to home, when were we going to squeeze in another visit? And how could we take a long weekend anywhere else again?

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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