Ive always regarded the flat stretch of road north of Vermonts border as a bleak throughway punctuated by the occasional poulet et frites stand the dreary cornfields, complicated silver silos and Ski-doo rentals an obstacle course between me and Montréal.
But for once, this desolate strip was my destination. My brother Erik and I were en route to the Euro-Spa, tucked away in the tiny hamlet of Bedford, Quebec. Erik, a 26-year-old law student, had never visited a spa, yet had developed a somewhat sanctified mental image that all such places were surrounded by cacti. I knew enough about spas never to get my hopes up.
In the mid-1990s, before every other hair salon and motel attached & Spa to its name, spas were unquestioningly regarded as instant sensory Prozac. Because in the beginning they offered rarified, sybaritic delights, no one dared distinguish between the good and the bad just as most people doubt that there can be bad French meals or ugly sunsets. But some spas are definitely better than others. After several disappointing experiences, I developed my own categorization system.
Spabucks spas opened by opportunists cashing in on the phenomenon of the late 1990s. These offer all the typical treatments facials, wraps and massages but lack the creativity and attention to detail that can make the spa experience transcendent. For example, there might be noise in the hall, or the smell of cigarettes on a facialists hands.
SpaStravaganza spas that overload your senses and drain your bank account. Water is delivered before you even know youre thirsty, tag teams of facialists and manicurists work on you simultaneously in aesthetically perfect surroundings. Yet during your moment of sensory bliss, you think about homeless people while wondering if you really need a triple seaweed mask or if a double might do just as well.
Shangri-La-La-La Spas here you walk into the sound of mating water buffalos and Enya symphonies. People discuss inner calm and personal growth in aggressive tones, and you spend the whole time wondering why you feel homicidal.
The final category does not get an annoying name because its spas are not annoying. Its where the best of all spa worlds is melded, a place that doesnt try too hard, doesnt charge too much and doesnt lather on too much gunk. A place that leaves you feeling relaxed, rejuvenated and like you just might look better, walk straighter and have better sex tomorrow.
I expected the Euro-Spa might be one of these last types. Id heard great things about it: Clean! Bright! Wonderful treatments! As we pulled up to the two-building complex, Erik joked, Wheres the cactus? This looks like the AmericInn in Pella, Iowa. It did bear a striking resemblance to a structure built from a do-it-yourself kit available at TrueValue hardware. But I wasnt going to judge a spa from its façade.
Erik and I walked inside to a hushed reception area. I wanted nothing so much as a cup of coffee, figuring that at a European-style spa the order of the day would be loafing around, sweating in a large communal sauna, drinking Badoit mineral water and perhaps sucking on Vitamin C drops in between gasps of second-hand cigarette smoke. But no, there were defense de fumer signs everywhere.
Instead of sipping coffee, we had to dépêchez to our 10 oclock appointments. Erik and I disappeared into separate portals of sensory surrender. My tidy, comfortable treatment room was furnished with a table, bathtub and showers, and all the tools needed for facials, pedicures, body wraps and waxing. The dim lighting, the soft, blanketed table and the flower-patterned wallpaper all emoted relaxation. Not beautiful, but clean and neutral.
I met my savior with a collagen wand, 23-year-old Carolyn, who spoke of relaxation in almost reverent tones. After cleaning my skin and layering on French Biomaris moisturizers and masks, Carolyn used a paintbrush to apply a thick, white, pasty layer of collagen. She struggled with English rather adorably: Now I apply this to your visage.
The springy collagen mask worked its magic for 20 minutes while Carolyn massaged my feet. Please inhalation deeply through your nose and expire for me through your mouth, she instructed.
The facial was followed by a sea salt body peel and body wrap. Carolyn had prepared a mixture of Dead Sea salt, oil, lemon and rosemary, and as she rubbed it onto my skin I felt like a filet of rosemary-salted cod. Then she wrapped me in plastic, as if about to cook me in parchment paper. Did I have a heart condition? Carolyn asked, before leaving me to sweat for 20 minutes inside the plastic wrap. When I finally rinsed off the crusty layer of salt, I realized that my skin was, in fact, not naturally dry and scaly. The new me was soft and glistening, and when I pressed down on my flesh, it bounced back.
After Carolyn finished with me, it was onto the massage wing to see George the fusion masseur. George had 10 years of massage experience and combined shiatsu, Swedish and reflexology in a delicious cocktail of pain relief. I didnt need to tell him where my back hurt. He pinpointed the exact location of my pinched nerves voilá! then fixed them with some direct and, frankly, excruciating but effective shiatsu work.
We had a moment of awkward cultural exchange when he asked the English word for les fesses. Buttocks, I replied, unable to come up with a more delicate-sounding synonym.
After our session, I walked out with realigned vertebrae. Remembering the wisdom of the owner of the legendary Ashram Spa in California, the body is composed of molecules of emotion, I felt that, for the moment, my back reflected a healthy emotional state. George even taught me how to perform auto-acupuncture around the chest in order to alleviate shoulder pain.
I found Erik in the dining room, slightly disoriented and dressed in his street clothes. I was still in my spa whites, so we were ushered into the second, less formal dining room for robed guests. Lunch was an impressive buffet of prepared salads chickpea, carrot, beet, cabbage a selection of hot entrées, a mile-long cheese plate and five gateaux. The Euro-Spa apparently favors the 5000-calorie-per-day diet, as opposed to the tofu and radish deprivation plan.
We compared our treatments Erik had a pedicure and a back care treatment, a kind of facial for the back popular with the boys followed by a massage. Did she wax your back? I asked. No, he replied, sounding disappointed. She masked my back, exfoliated it, that sort of thing, he said nonchalantly, and I realized that Id never before heard my brother use the word exfoliate. I didnt know if it was a positive development.
One wing of the spa remained unexplored, which Erik and I dubbed the Bartons wing in honor of Burlingtons dearly departed Bartons Hot Tub at One Lawson Lane. We had childhood birthday parties in the Jungle and Wave Rooms. I had loved that place, and loved my mom for thinking it was a wholesome venue for an 8-year-olds birthday.
The Bartons wing should be the first order of business during a day at the Euro-Spa, the place to unwind and relax your muscles before being called for a spa service. It has five tubs, a sauna, a steam room, a swimming pool, deck chairs for lounging and reading and a spread of water, fruit and juice. It indulges every sense except the visual: The vast, airplane-hangar surroundings have a pre-fabricated, cookie-cutter sterility, and the effect is more run-down Ramada than ancient Rome.
However, the thrill of soaking in unchlorinated mineral baths far outweighs the downmarket aesthetic. There was a mud-infused bath, with deep-burgundy-to-brown colored water, an herb bath called Melissa to induce sleepiness, a saltwater bath, hot and cold plunge pools and a regular whirlpool bath.
So how did this curious little spa come to be in the southern Quebec hinterland? Fifteen years ago, proprietor Joseph Bihler visited a German spa near Cologne. The Montréal restaurateur was so taken with the experience that he returned home with a new dream: to open his own spa, one of the first in Quebec. Bihlers wife Christine went along with the idea, and they sold their city restaurant, St. Gabriel, bought the land surrounding an old sugar shack, and set about building the Euro-Spa and accompanying 17-room hotel. The place is about to celebrate its eighth anniversary.
It was awful the first three years, just awful, Christine Bihler admitted. No one knew what spas were. But slowly the word of mouth started to spread, and now things look good. In fact, business has picked up since September 11, with a lot of American customers booking long weekends in place of canceled overseas trips.
Erik and I tub-hopped for an hour, reminiscing about Bartons and gossiping about the other guests bathing suits. Finally pruned and spa-saturated, we dressed and cruised toward the border feeling pleasantly glutted and blissfully relaxed.
Should we stop for beer? wondered Erik. We felt no guilt hitting the duty-free shop to stock up on Belgian brews and scotch. After the well-balanced good living of the Euro-Spa, we realized that Brie and booze are just fine in moderation.