by Neilia Sherman
It was with both anticipation and trepidation that I prepared for my visit to Ste. Anne’s, a Haldimand Hills Spa, which is located just over an hour east of Toronto, Ontario. I had never been to a destination spa before and wasn’t sure what to expect.
While I consulted with Rebecca Ryan, a dedicated member of the Ste. Anne’s Haldimand Hills Spa management team, regarding the treatments and classes that I would take, I asked about the possibility of using my computer during my spa stay. After all, I would be writing about my experience. She strongly suggested that I try to unplug during my visit and try to have a true spa experience.
“What about TV?” I asked, embarrassed that all my addictions were becoming apparent.
“There are no televisions in the rooms,” she replied.
Even the treatments sounded alluring and ominous at the same time. To add to my apprehension, I came down with a bad cold the night before my stay at Ste. Anne’s.
One of the popular add-ons offered by Haldimand Hills is known as the “Stress Express” – a train ticket from Toronto to the town of Cobourg followed by a limo ride into the countryside right to the front door of St. Anne’s. A personable woman, who introduced herself as Carol, met me at the station. She identified herself as the General Manager’s Assistant, who was subbing for the regular limo driver.
It was a about a 25 minute drive to the spa, during which we chatted pleasantly. Somehow I got her to admit that there were a couple of TVs available for those who couldn’t go cold turkey when being “unplugged”. But with bad reception and one or two channels, the comfort was mostly psychological. She explained the owner Jim Corcoran strongly believed in providing an experience that focused on wellness and renewal.
We pulled up to a large multi-winged house which is made of entirely of fieldstones. Out back was a large swimming pool located at the bottom of a gently sloping hill scattered with comfortable loungers for guest relaxation. Looking out from this wonderful castle-like structure, I was struck by the lovely view of green fields stretching down to Lake Ontario.
Each room at St. Anne’s has a different name and unique décor and I was assigned to the blue and white canopy room, named after the room’s central feature, a queen sized canopy bed that was so high off the ground that I needed a step stool to get into it. There was also a fully equipped bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub.
St. Anne’s doesn’t have a formal reception desk; instead every guest is given a personal tour by a member of the caring staff, as they arrive. I say “caring” because as soon it became apparent that I had a bad cold, all kind of helpful suggestions were made. The dining room manager, Laurie, presented me with her special concoction of apple cider vinegar, honey and lemon. Later that night, owner Jim suggested that the unique eucalyptus steam room might help me (and it did).
It didn’t take long for me to become very fond of the special, personalized treatment that I received as a guest of St. Anne’s. The wonderful staff seems to be genuinely concerned with the guests in a way that goes far beyond a job description and I can see that careful selection of a dedicated team is one of the major reasons for the success of this unique destination spa.
At dinner, I was seated in a small alcove with several other solo spa goers. We had our own tables, but it wasn’t long before we were engaged in conversation about why we were visiting.
Wendy Czarny, a guest who stayed for a whole week, told me that she made full use of the facilities by attending at least four of the free fitness classes daily, which in combination with the healthy low-fat diet and spa treatments, provided her with a personally rejuvenating getaway.
I discovered that people come to St. Anne’s for many different reasons. One couple, whom I met while swimming in the unique grotto area consisting of a hot tub, a cold plunge pool and a lap pool with rapids, looked like they came for a romantic getaway. Indeed, I was surprised by how many men are walking around in bathrobes, along with their female companions. Two young women told me that they are good friends who were visiting for one night, as they always wanted to sample the spa experience.
St. Anne’s promotes a relaxed atmosphere, where guests are free to lounge around in the white velour bathrobes that are provided for their use by the spa. I saw people wearing the robes out at the pool, in between treatments, and even during meals.
Speaking of meals, I noticed that the portions were smaller and less dressed than what I’m used to, yet I didn’t feel deprived. By eating more slowly and savouring every bite, I was easily satisfied with less. The spa desserts were quite tasty despite having less sugar and fat than normal.
My schedule included two fitness classes during my 24 hours at St. Anne’s, which took place in their new fitness facility, known as the Maison Sante. The first was a stretch class that seemed to be more relaxation than stretch — several participants were asleep by the end of the guided meditation. The next day I climbed into the outdoor pool for a surprisingly vigorous aquafit class that involved a lot of weight training, as well as an aerobic workout.
After lunch on the day of my arrival, I got ready for my first spa treatment, the Aqua Polish. I hadn’t had more than a facial and manicure prior to this experience and I had no idea what it would involve. Reading the description more carefully, I noticed that the treatment would begin with hydromassage, using a Scotch Hose, which sounded pretty intimidating to me.
Luckily, Brenda, my spa therapist, couldn’t have been more understanding. She explained that it was my choice whether or not to be nude for the hose part, though obviously it would be more beneficial to my circulation to go without clothes. She also told me to let her know if the pressure was too high or the temperature too hot. Relaxed by her openness, I choose to shed my bathing suit and was fine with it.
The pressure of the warm water hitting places that normally don’t get a water massage felt great. The next part of the treatment involved exfoliation with special scented scrubs and I was thrilled with how soft my skin felt afterward. Finally, I lay on my stomach for a Vichy shower.
The next day I had a Lymphatic Drainage treatment, with Heather, a very amiable woman who chatted pleasantly to me throughout. Interestingly, I found that this treatment, which involved very gentle pressure around the head and neck, actually released a lot of the congestion that I was feeling.
After lunch, I transferred over to the Hillcrest, St. Anne’s sister spa, located 25 minutes away in the town of Port Hope. There, I encountered a totally different type of atmosphere. The Hillcrest is smaller and much quieter. The focus is on the treatments and the creation of a peaceful and relaxing atmosphere. It is housed in a mansion and run by an innkeeper, the warm and charming, Margarete, who tells all the guests that she will be your mother while you’re there.
Upon arrival, I was invited to partake in the lovely afternoon tea that was spread out in the living room. Fitness classes aren’t offered at the Hillcrest but there is an outdoor pool, as well as a small exercise room and both indoor and outdoor hot tubs. Although I loved my cheerful yellow room, with its private balcony and fireplace, I found myself missing the activity of the St. Anne’s.
On the plus side, I was able to walk to Port Hope’s downtown area and engage in a bit of shopping, whereas St. Anne’s is much more isolated. Guests at Hillcrest seem to value their privacy and usually spend their time alone or with a companion. The beauty of having two totally different spas is that guests can choose where to stay at based on their particular needs and preferences.
The other major difference between the two sister spas is that while St. Anne’s uses only Aveda products, the Hillcrest has switched over to a wonderful line known as Dr. Hauschka skin care products, which are made from organically grown ingredients of the highest calibre. Since I was scheduled for a facial and a manicure/pedicure, I had ample opportunity to sample these products and I was quite impressed with their quality. I’m in good company, since various celebrities including Madonna, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts use Dr. Hauschka.
Although Haldimand Hills Spa has an excellent reputation, the owner and staff are not content to rest on their laurels. Expansion is again in the works as the demand outpaces the availability of rooms. Rebecca Ryan, who started at St. Anne’s as a massage therapist and has played a major role in its evolution from a B&B to the renowned spa that it is today, has now taken on the position of Director of Strategic Development.
“Our long term plans are focused on developing this parcel of land so that, (one day), it will be home to 4 other destination spas in addition to Ste. Anne’s”, Rebecca explains.
“Each one of these future destination spas will be self contained …they will also have a unique theme. St. Anne’s represents a Canadian spa experience while the others will be based on different cultural themes such as Thai, Asian, Indian, etc. All the spas within the village will share common infrastructures. … Our goal is to create an internationally recognized spa village in Canada,” she adds.
My first reaction to this news is amazement at how innovative and forward thinking the concept is. My next thought is: I can’t wait to try it out.
I must be learning how to ‘unplug’.
If you go:
Ste. Anne’s Haldimand Hills Spa offers different combinations of accommodations and spa services to fit your budget and time constraints. They range from a Day Spa Package that includes the Stress Express to a five night package. For more information contact Ste. Anne’s Halidimand Hills Spa Village at: 1-888-346-6772 or visit www.haldimandhills.com
Haldimand Hills Spa Village is around an hour’s drive from Toronto or Kingston.
Spa signature Treatments Include: Moor Mud Wraps and Baths and Swedish, Thai, Lomi Lomi and Aroma Stone massages.
Copyright 2003, 2009 by Neilia Sherman. All Rights Reserved. Photos courtesy of Haldimand Hills Spa Village.