Montreal is overtaking its French flavour, with a growing number of spa resorts in the North

Inside a sauna on a ferry boat turned spa, we sweated in silence and stared out of a wide picture window framing the Montreal skyline. Moored on the St. Lawrence River, the floating spa, Bota Bota, is filled with heated pools, saunas, and steam rooms – one of a growing number of Nordic resorts in Canada.

Amid rising travel costs and ongoing concerns about the coronavirus, I canceled a trip to Europe this year, opting for a cheaper destination closer to home on my first international trip during the pandemic. As Canada’s second largest city, Montreal offers a French flavor at a fraction of the price of Paris, and an equally vibrant city to explore.

A bonus for sauna lovers is the growing number of Scandinavian spas – part of a broader and thriving wellness industry where locals and visitors alike look for relatively affordable ways to unwind and unwind.

said Genevieve Emmond, owner of Bota Bota and vice president of the Quebec Spas Association. “We’re kind of used to this sauna experience, and the Quebec industry has really made it an experience of its own.”

On a cold, rainy spring break, I traveled to Montreal with my mom before the city’s tourist season peaked. Before we arrived, Quebec was the last province to lift mandates for masks in indoor public spaces, although Canada still requires masks on planes and at airports. After long delays, sitting on the tarmac for over an hour in Toronto, we arrived in Montreal.

Atop La Grande Roue de Montréal, Canada’s tallest Ferris wheel, we were struck by the view of the city, river, and Mont-Royal, the city’s prominent hilltop. On a tour bus, a guide discussed the tension between English and French speakers and new legislation limiting access to English-language public services. While Quebec is home to primarily French speakers, Montreal is largely bilingual, although we regret not knowing any French as people greeted us with tongues.

The language was immaterial within Scandinave Spa, the first spa we visited along the cobbled streets of Montreal’s Old Port. Like Bota Bota, Scandinave Spa does not allow talking – or phones and cameras. If you forget the rule, Scandinavians walk around wearing T-shirts that say “Silence” On the back to remind offenders.

Some people might associate a day at the spa with getting a pedicure, or they envision the sauna as a cramped, windowless room in the gym. Ditch these misconceptions: Scandinavian’s vast Finnish sauna was a work of art, with floor-to-ceiling wood paneling backlit in white.

For $55 each, we had unlimited “hydrotherapy” time. We alternate through rituals of hot and cold cycles, stepping into the sauna, eucalyptus steam room, or heated pool before cooling off in a cold shower or plunging into a cold plunge pool for a shocking few seconds.

“I’ve never done anything with such self-indulgence,” my mother said when we left after three hours, completely relieved.

Climbing now

A weekend at the spa was a treat especially for us frugal travellers. We decided to forgo our usual busy itinerary and hectic sightseeing for a more thoughtful vacation. After admiring the panoramic views atop Mont-Royal, exploring the Biosphère (a geodesic dome with an environmental museum) and gorging on crepes while musicians play jazz under the flowering trees at Jardin Nelson Restaurant, we set out to Bota Bota.

We walked down a ramp to the boat, which was built in the 1950s as a car ferry before becoming a floating theater. Now, the 40,000-square-foot boat has steam rooms, heated pools on the roofs, and more than 600 hatches showcasing the blue waters that flow through the harbor. The spa also has four saunas, each with huge windows overlooking the city and port. One sauna emits lavender incense, the other citrus in the heat of 185 degrees.

We alternated between the hot and cold cycle revitalization cycle, which are touted for their health benefits, including muscle relaxation. You can even jump into the St. Lawrence River if you dare (I didn’t).

“We have the right climate. You wouldn’t have the same experience if you had bota bota in Miami,” said Emond, adding that although Montreal is an island, it’s hard for locals to get to the port, so the spa brings people closer to the water .

A three-hour “toilet” costs us $55 on weekdays, although the price goes up on weekends and during high season. Emond said locals make up the bulk of the 180,000 visitors a year, along with tourists from elsewhere in Canada, France and the United States.

Only talking is allowed in the spacious garden area with swimming pool, steam room and sauna, which opened in 2015 next to the boat. Bota Bota banned phones and photo shoots in 2019 to promote their separation, even if it means limiting free publicity and social media hype.

“If I was there to relax, if the person behind me was taking pictures or making TikTok videos or whatever, that would be annoying to me,” Emond said. “We kind of force people to take time for themselves. Most people really appreciate it.”

So far, we’ve been pros at lounging around in silence and stillness. I soaked in the huge hot tub, and watched gray clouds roll over the horizon. A couple next to me closed their eyes while another woman was reading a book, the sound of swirling shower water only filling the air.

if you go

Bota Bota: Stop Water Circuit $54 – $66. daily from 9 am to 10 pm; It is located in the Old Port of Montreal (botabota.ca).

Scandinav Spa: daily from 10 am to 9 pm; In Old Montreal Port (scandinave.com).

To get to Montreal: Delta Air Lines and Air Canada fly direct from Minneapolis to Montreal; A recent search found prices starting at $330.

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