I live in Toronto and my little sister Naomi lives in deepest Cornwall, England. We see each other every couple of years and – thanks to late motherhood of one (me) and early motherhood of three (she) – we’ve been pretty distracted for the past 15 years. Hiding at her kitchen table to talk while we multitask dinner prep, or chatting in the car on our way somewhere, have sufficed all this time. We’re close, despite geography.
But when Naomi (nicknamed Nomes), announced she was coming for a solo 5 day whirlwind visit to see me in Toronto, I knew that yet more kitchen table chat and tired post-kid-bedtime chats weren’t going to meet all our female bonding needs. A girlfriend getaway was required.
Our ‘Must-Have’ List for the Perfect Spa Getaway
This over-night getaway was a first for us, and we needed the right backdrop. We needed a rural location. We needed lots of hot water and steam (preferably outdoor). Lovely food, fireplaces and new age music optional but desirable. We definitely needed bathrobes.
Cue a destination that’s almost mythical to many Torontonians: Ste. Anne’s Spa. (I’d been before, but that visit I’d been in search of something very different – a chance to spend some alone time to recover from a very recent loss. Up at the spa, I’d found comfy sofas on which to rest, read and think, and walking trails to wander as I breathed clean, calming air. Dining alone had felt strange, and I’d hidden behind the newspaper at mealtimes in the busy dining room, filled with gregarious North Toronto girlfriends, laughing it up in their robes.)
This time around my sister and I were both (quite literally) all over the sofa idea – but instead of self-time, it was sister catch-up time we were after. Perhaps we’d even rival the girlfriends in the dining room!
Ste. Anne’s is located just close enough to Toronto that going up for the day is actually feasible. There are plenty of packages that cater to a day visit, and consider the train or limo option which would me far more relaxing than driving both ways in one day.
Nomes and I wanted the luxury of an overnight stay. How else were we going to achieve that just-sisters time we’d spent all our adult lives waiting for? When I called to book, I was delighted to hear that the spa is not licensed for alcohol, but that guests may bring their own.
Cue delightful 20-minutes in our local wine store, perusing the racks for a special white to put on ice as soon as we arrived.
Then cue easy 2-hour drive, relaxing music as our soundtrack, along the 401 highway to the signposted turn-off to Ste. Anne’s.
The hotel is a sprawling affair, with numerous outlying spa “cottages”, centred on a Victorian stone farmhouse. There’s also a newly-built gym facility a bike ride away (bike loan is free). The charming, modest old home is barely discernible amongst various renovations and additions (one has ramparts!), all in the same field stone as the original structure. The overall effect, as we entered from the car park, was zen-meets-rural-chic-meets-medieval castle.
Our Secret Room at Ste. Anne’s Spa and Resort
Of all the amenities at Ste. Annes, we both agreed that the bedrooms are most exceptional. Ours was the “Wicker Room”. Although it was in the heart of the hotel, just above the dining room, with its sloped ceilings and pretty wicker furnishings it felt tucked away – almost secret! It was, as are all the rooms, vast, and equipped with an open fireplace, firelogs and a very generous sitting area; basically, a suite. I was amazed to see that our room is designated “standard” on the website, with many others described as “superior”, “deluxe” or “suite” (I took a peek at a couple of other rooms, and they confirmed my hunch that when you stay at Ste Anne’s, a showstopper of a room comes with the territory.)
Spa Packages at Ste. Anne
Ste. Annes’ “thing” is the all-inclusive package. You can’t just book a room there: day or overnight visits always include meals, snacks and at least one spa treatment. We had chosen an hour-long massage each and ours were scheduled at the less-than-ideal time of 9.00 am. I’m a Swedish massage hound and have experienced everything from transcendent muscle-melt under the hands of a seasoned expert, to a limp and tedious back-rub to overloud synthesized Pachelbel’s “Canon” (eventually leading to back acne). The massage at Ste. Anne’s was closer to the former than the latter: the guy was talented, although over-chatty (I had to eventually just stop responding, to cue him to stop talking). Nomes didn’t have this problem, and pronounced her massage “perfect”.
The nice thing about a 9.00 am massage? Plenty of time afterwards to bask in the afterglow with herbal tea and a vast array of newspapers and magazines – as though gazing at snow lightly falling on the lawn wasn’t pastime enough.
If you’re wondering “what to do” at the spa, I can assure you that between breakfast, lunch, teatime snack, dinner, your treatment and, say, some outdoor hot-tub time or a gentle hike, you will be thoroughly, contentedly engaged. After a half-hour hike through the sweeping lawns and woods – which seemed under-used to us, with nary a soul in sight – it was time for yet another lavish and tasty, yet healthy, meal and then a snatched sauna in the newly-build sauna/hot tub/locker room area in the spa’s basement. (I can happily report that the sauna was properly hot, unlike so many North American saunas which err on the side of such extreme caution that they are barely therapeutic).
All rosy, albeit unhappy to have to don proper footwear again, it was time to check out and hit the highway home.
I’ve always believed that “treat time”, in special surroundings away from the everyday, is as much about the anticipation and the recollection as the time actually spent there. Our Ste. Anne’s sister-time confirms it: emailing back and forth to decide on our treatments; packing our nicest loungewear; the drive up through wintry woods to the spa together…these moments were integral.
Of all my prized memories from the stay, this one returns most often to cheer me through a hard moment: Nomes and me by the fire in our room, in our robes of course, with the daylight dimming outside and all the time in the world to talk. We talk about Nomes’ husband’s recent month-long pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain (his version of the spa perhaps?); we talk about aging, and children, and money, and our bodies, and our friendships. And then it’s time to slip downstairs for a supper overlooking the Ste. Anne’s lawns and glimmering Lake Ontario beyond. Just sisters, in the middle of nowhere, spa-d into bliss.
Abigail Pugh a journalist, copywriter and editor, originally from London, UK and based in Toronto. She’s had a scary-wide vocabulary since the age of 5.
As a journalist and blogger, Abigail has written travel, style and culture stories for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, NOW Weekly, EYE Weekly, HGTV.com and thebabyscoop.com.
As copywriter, she’s written print and digital brand communication for the telecommunications, banking, insurance, automotive and food retail sectors, and also for local education authorities and government.
She adores travel: near and far, luxurious and roughing it.