06 FEB 2018: Old Man Winter and I have had an adversarial relationship. I usually try and escape its wrath by travelling south where sandy beaches, palm trees and umbrella adorned drinks are served. But now, my partner Sarah and I are driving the wintry roads 90 minutes east of Toronto to Ste. Anne's Spa in Grafton, Ontario. No palm trees here just a thick blanket of snow covering the Northumberland hillside. Could I still get the sun and relaxation fix I sought desperately sought?  

Despite a lack of warm sun rays shining down on my body there was at least a welcome substitute - the sunny disposition of Ste. Anne's staff. Ste. Anne's has been one of Canada's crown jewels in the spa industry and has won numerous Canadian and international spa awards over the years. It began however more humbly as a loosely run B&B in 1985.

A SPA IS BORN

Owner Jim Corcoran, previously a school trustee and sales rep for a computer company, took over the reins in 1990. Throughout the years it's been a family affair with parents, sisters, brothers and other relatives involved in all areas of this sprawling 400 acre destination resort and spa. The original 1858 stone house structure has evolved into a 15-room main inn with two wings and seven spa cottages down the road each with their own distinct decor and ambiance.

Entrepreneurial spirit and hard work can supersede experience. Corcoran had no experience with running an inn or a spa but in 1990 felt it was his calling. In fact, he had a total of one massage in his life before offering spa services for guests. Corcoran explained when he began running Ste. Anne's there was "no grand vision" - he was just trying to survive. Financially it was a struggle at first but as the 1990s wore on there was a paradigm shift with people desiring a healthier lifestyle and a place to escape urban life stresses. A spa retreat was the perfect tonic.

Ste. Anne's offers a serene countryside setting, relaxed atmosphere, healthy menu, comprehensive spa menu and extensive programming. What it doesn't offer is a pretentious attitude. As Corcoran puts it, he wants the atmosphere to "feel like home."

This includes the dress code. A comfy white robe supplied by Ste. Anne's is the clothing of choice both day and night. No need to impress here. This isn't a Christian Dior fashion runway.

COUNTRY CHILLIN'

I've visited hundreds of spas around the world and the" just chill and be yourself" attitude is why I keep returning to Ste. Anne's. Who cares if after an oil laden head massage that my messy hair looks like Rod Stewart's hair on acid.

There have been significant changes since my last trip to Ste. Anne's three years ago. The dining room is divided into two larger spaces providing more space, more light and more views. Lounges have been relocated and they have added the most advanced massage chairs to their Quiet Room. Looking for a place of tranquility to meditate or pray for the winning lottery ticket? Along one of the walking trails you'll find the Poustinia, a two-pew, six-person sanctuary with stained glass and a church bell. Despite servicing more than 30,000 guests each year, Ste. Anne's still retains an intimate inn-like atmosphere best experienced during the week rather than the busier weekends.

One of my favourite areas of Ste. Anne's is the stone grotto built in 1998 located adjacent to the Main Inn. Sitting outside at night gazing up at the stars, snowflakes falling on my face, relaxing with my sweetheart in the cozy hot tub - country bliss never felt so good. This is one time Old Man Winter and I get along just fine.

A COUNTRY HARVEST

Ste. Anne's dining philosophy differs from many other spas. "We believe deprivation only discourages." I couldn't agree more. It's all about healthy, sensory pleasing dishes that appeal to discerning palates.

Dinner menus include a range of dishes like rack of lamb, duck and risotto, short ribs, gnocchi with caponata, chicken coq au vin and trout roulade. Gluten-free, vegan, dairy-free menu offerings are all available. Dessert lovers won't be disappointed either with everything from strawberry shortcake and butter tarts to homemade ice cream. Herbs, vegetables, fruits and proteins come from the gardens and nearby farms.

Ste. Anne's Bakery, located less than 2 km from the main inn, opened up a few years ago and sells gluten-free baked goods, local meats and its famous granola. Sarah and I made a pit stop - or should I say butter tart stop. Ste. Anne's Bakery is on the Kawarthas Northumberland Butter Tart tour. I can see why. The bakery's butter tarts easily pass my flakey, gooey and sweetness taste test.

ALL WRAPPED UP

Deciding what treatment to experience is the most stressful part of visiting Ste. Anne's. With more than 35 treatments to choose from including garden harvest massages, lymphatic drainage, aqua polishes to standard facials, mani-pedis, it can be overwhelming. I chose the 90-minute Contouring Mud Stone Wrap. Alicia, my ebullient therapist, offers me a choice of oils to use for my body treatment - lemongrass gets the nod.

The double dose of her soothing soft hands and warmed basalt stones massaging seamlessly across my body erases any images in my mind of the -20 Celsius wintry weather outside. Following the massage my body is coated with a mud masque consisting of wintergreen, camphor and red pepper.

Alicia wraps me up like a baby after birth cocooned in the warm comfort of thermal linens. She then proceeds to give me a gentle but penetrating scalp and face massage further releasing tension in my apple cheeks. She finishes off the treatment with some TLC to my toes and feet.

My partner Sarah, a reflexology virgin, relinquishes her two feet to Darlene, Ste. Anne's legendary foot healer. Before Sarah says a word, Darlene gives a diagnosis on what could be ailing her (besides me at times!) just by examining her feet. After an intense yet relaxing 60 minute session - so much so she drifts off to sleep. Sarah's mind and body are so relaxed with her nocturnal clock slowly dissolving into a state of slumber I wonder if our romance plans slated later that evening are off.

The romantic setting is enhanced with spacious and well appointed rooms. At Ste. Anne's each room or cottage has its own decor and style from country inn to contemporary. Some I admit are a little too feminine for my taste. On this visit however we stay in the Main Inn's new wing and the Ann Elizabeth room. This superior room named after the owner's oldest sister is more contemporary especially the well equipped bathroom with a two-person Jacuzzi tub and separate shower. A gas stove fireplace, four poster bed, French balcony overlooking the Grotto, hillside and Lake Ontario in the distance, is ideal for comfort, tranquility and yes, romantic adventures too!

Ste. Anne's continues to evolve and expand services for its day spa and overnight guests but one thing will always remain the same and the title of the Eagles song says it best. Ste. Anne's is a "Peaceful Easy Feeling."

For more info: www.steannes.com

 

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Chris Ryall

An industry insider with strong, outspoken opinions that readers enjoy, whether they agree, or take issue with his point of view.

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