Passive Recovery: Tracy’s Spa Weekend Report

Lounge area at Ste. Anne's. Photo credit:
Lounge area at Ste. Anne’s. Photo credit:

Last weekend was the last in the seemingly endless series of things I’ve done to celebrate my 50th birthday.  This time, it was a spa weekend with my friend, Leslie.

Leslie and I met at the bus stop on the first day of kindergarten in 1969. when we were both about to turn five.  Her street ran perpendicular to mine. Through our childhoods, we created a well-worn path going the back way from the side door of my house, through either the McMorrow’s or the Burke’s yards, over the creek, through the woods, and up the hill alongside Leslie’s, across the front yard to her front door.

She’s my longest standing childhood friend and her birthday is in September too. So when we both turned 50 this year, we wanted to do something special.

Enter the spa weekend, an indulgent extravagance of an order that is a bit guilt-inducing, more expensive than a weekend in Manhattan (including flights).

This is a new thing to me, not something I would choose to do everyday or even every year. And special occasions are just the right times for out of the ordinary undertakings.  It was a far cry from the camping in Algonquin Park and at Point Pelee that Leslie and I did with her parents when we were kids.

We chose Ste. Anne’s Spa, a rural estate in Grafton, Ontario converted into an all-inclusive “destination spa.”  We delayed booking, hoping for a deal. No deals to be had, we went for it anyway.

I’ve been nursing a tender foot (plantar fasciitis, which, don’t worry, you’ll hear all about in my next post!), feeling totally stressed out from a combination of the busiest time of year and my fast-approaching moving day when I go to the condo.  Major downsizing.

A weekend of pampering and downtime with an old friend in the midst of all this chaos seemed at once ridiculous (I could have used the weekend to pack!) and welcome.  We sorted out our treatments the week before and the spa sent us each a detailed itinerary of meal times and appointments.

The spa occupies the buildings of what used to be a country estate.  It’s elegant and charming, with ample grounds. The stone buildings are set among trees and gardens. When you enter the reception area, you step into a tranquil space filled with the smells of lavender, bergamot, ylang ylang–essential oils that soothe (not cloy, which I feared).

There’s also a sign on the front door asking people to turn off their cell phones. This caused each of us a brief moment of anxiety, but we pressed on.

We were invited to take a seat on one of the comfy couches in the reception area, where we waited briefly before our orientation tour.  Just before the tour began, we were told that our room was ready early and that when we got back from our tour our bags would be up there already.

The main building is warm and inviting. It’s got three distinct lounges filled with big, cushy couches around coffee tables, games and puzzles, lamps to keep the lighting gentle, fireplaces and area rugs.  The dining area looks out through enormous windows over the grounds. On a clear day, which we didn’t have, you can see Lake Ontario.

There’s an outdoor area called “The Grotto” where they have a hot tub and a swim-against-the-current pool.  When you come in from there you can take some heat in the eucalyptus steam room.  Just down the hall from there is a room with massage chairs in it.  You get the picture.  You can go from one relaxing thing to another all weekend long.

Our room was a comfortable and spacious third floor room called the Mary Josephine.  We’d originally had a room with a fireplace and a two-person hot tub, but we opted out of that and into a room that had wifi.  This was a good choice because I ended up having to read a bunch of files on the weekend and I got the sense that taking your laptop down to the common areas to do some work while others played scrabble wouldn’t have been a welcome thing to do.

We unpacked and changed into our robes. The idea of wandering around these elegant rooms in a robe all weekend was a huge part of the appeal.  I felt a little at loose ends, having gone from hectic to this chill atmosphere.  I paced around the room a bit, and then it was tea time in the main dining room.

Afternoon tea isn’t just tea. You can choose from a sweet plate, a savory plate, or a fruit and cheese plate. I mentioned that I was vegan, and they put together a wonderful selection of crackers with red lentil spread and another really delicious spread and some fruit.  We had just enough time to digest after tea before our first treatments.

Mine was a deep tissue massage by a certified RMT. You wait in one of those fireplace lounges for your practitioner to come and get you. Mike showed up late (my itinerary had evidently changed by 15 minutes, so in from his perspective he was right on time) and led me downstairs to a treatment room. I’ve been feeling ache in the upper back and shoulder area and I have that silly plantar fasciitis, so I asked him to focus on those two areas.

I like the deep tissue massages because it’s only with that kind of pressure that I feel any sort of release in tight muscles. The treatment room was small but soothing. Mike gave me a choice of three different oils–bergamot, ylang ylang, and lavender. I find it hard to pass up lavender. That was the most soothing part of the treatment. It’s not as if the pressure always feels great at the time, but it works. I felt super relaxed by the end of the hour. And Mike told me about a gizmo called a “thera cane” that will enable me to get similar pressure in those areas by myself.

I met Leslie back in our room, where she had just returned from her hot stone massage and was looking pretty relaxed.  We examined our schedule and made a plan to go for a walk the next morning — that was the most active thing we did.

Before we knew it, it was time for dinner.  The mealtimes at Ste. Anne’s just keep on coming. In the end, we felt like it was overkill.  The first room we were seated in was lovely and cozy and quiet. Until a loud group of eight arrived, at which point we asked to move (and they accommodated). The food is excellent and they had good vegan options. At dinner they even had a vegan pineapple upside down cake — real cake!  But both of us ate too much and I felt kind of bloated after dinner.

We went from there to the massage chairs (because we could).  These are powerful chairs like I’ve never seen before. The lower leg massage is so brutal that neither of us could stand it.  We ran through the “relax” program on the full chair and then the “deep tissue.”  After getting sort of roughed up by the massage chairs, we retired to one of the lounges and lazed around, and then went back to the room and lazed around some more. And then slept (kind of — I didn’t have such a great sleep).

The next morning we went for our walk. They have several marked trails through the woods. We chose to follow the black arrows marking a 2.5 km (or so) trail over wood chips. We saw no one else on our walk. It was a cloudy day but not really cold.  It was good to get out and move.

After breakfast, Leslie had to go to the town walk-in clinic because she’d burned her hand a couple of days prior and it wasn’t looking good. I got out my laptop and spent a few hours reading files before my next treatment: the moor mud facial.

I could go into details but I’ll just say that pretty much every treatment at Ste. Anne’s seems to involve lying down. And the facial is no exception.  There were hot towels and two different rounds of facial masques, during which time I got something along the lines of a massage, but it felt rushed and unskilled. I think I’d rather have just had the masque and been left alone. But I guess that’s not the kind of pampering most people want.

Leslie and I got back to the room around the same time — she with her antibiotics and special cream, me with my post facial glow.  And then it was lunch time.  Saturday at lunch must be the busiest time in the spa’s week.  The room was packed, so much so that we couldn’t even get a table in the front room where the windows are.

I honestly can’t remember what we did after lunch. Maybe the hot tub and the eucalyptus steam room?  And then it was treatment time again: Coconut Breeze.

This was basically a full body dry exfoliation with the gloves (also lying down of course), followed by the hottest shower I could bear, followed by a full body massage with coconut oil.  The practitioner who did this had a lovely manner and touch. And I had no idea you could use extra virgin coconut oil for massage and moisturizing.

Then it was tea time.  Again the dining room was packed.  And this time the service was slow.  So slow, in fact, that Leslie had to leave because she’s added a foot rejuvenation treatment and was going to be late if she didn’t.

The verdict:

It was a lot of lazing around, and that’s why I call it passive recovery.  I haven’t been that inactive for a weekend in ages.  I did feel pampered and looked after for the most part. But when you’re paying that kind of money you should feel that way.

But there is also a certain level of discomfort for me when I’m doing things that the people who are “servicing” me probably can’t afford to do. Or when I’m doing things that are extravagant and exclusive. It’s not all that complicated to figure out why. There are clearly more benevolent ways to spend that kind of money, no matter how many times we might want to repeat the “I deserve it” narrative.

So between that and the passivity of it all, I’m not sure I’d rush out and do it again.  But I loved spending time with Leslie. And we did relax. And though I’m not used to doing almost nothing, the whole thing was a welcome rest.

Would I recommend it?  Well, sure. It’s a nice way to spend time with friends or even with your partner.  They recommend “unplugging,” which neither Leslie nor I did completely, but is never a bad idea. I did feel pretty relaxed on the three and a half hour drive home.

Would I do it again? Perhaps, though I think I would go for a more active package with fewer treatments and more activities. They have yoga retreats there, for example. And they have a fitness centre, which I didn’t check out, and beautiful deserted rural roads for running, but I was trying to take a weekend off of running to rest my aching right foot.

The morning before we left I did try the current pool, hoping to get in a vigorous swim. Unfortunately, the current wasn’t quite strong enough for me and it wasn’t adjustable.  So I ended up doing kicking and sculling and one-arm drills because my normal freestyle took me into the wall.  If I’d stayed at the spa longer I would have sought out the fitness centre and the other pool, which apparently has an adjustable current. In other words, the level of inactivity I indulged in wasn’t required, even though the spa atmosphere lends itself to that sort of thing.

Happy 50th to me and Leslie.

Leslie and Tracy, circa 1973.
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