The Spa as Refuge
A bath in the forest, the contrast between hot and cold, a crackling fire, silence, and the scent of eucalyptus: many kinds of therapy for the body and mind.
Text & photos—Catherine Bernier
In partnership with
We are now well aware of the health benefits of spending time in nature, far from technology. Yet most of us still find it really challenging to disconnect. Even on a hike, we often hold on to our phones so we can document our time “offline.” Isn’t this an obvious paradox?
Very few places forbid smartphones. To find some breathing space, an increasing number of people are turning to hydrotherapy spas—in urban or natural settings. While digital devices are not allowed in such places, there’s more to it: alternating between hot and cold allows the body to relax and inevitably helps the brain to unwind.
The relationship between hot water and health is nothing new. The Romans built the first thermal baths to practise sanitas per aqua (health through water). In Japan, the culture of hot springs, which remains to this day, began in the 8th century with the opening of the first onsens. In the 11th century Finland began a long tradition of Nordic spas, which includes saunas and icy water bathing. One out of every two Finnish homes has its own spa or sauna. In North America, sweating has been an important wellness and spiritual ritual for Indigenous communities for thousands of years.
However, hydrotherapy is much more recent here. Scandinave Spa in Mont-Tremblant is the first establishment in Québec to offer this experience. Founded in 1999 by entrepreneurs Pierre Brisson and Benoît Berthiaume, it quickly became a popular place for tourists and locals to rejuvenate after a day of skiing, hiking, biking, or working.
Silence is golden on the site and so is disconnecting. As Allison Richard, Marketing Director at Scandinave Spa, confirms: “We even sewed the pockets of our bathrobes closed to keep cell phones away and increase the disconnection benefits.” She herself traded her frantic life in Paris for the peacefulness of Mont-Tremblant.
Stress makes us febrile: the brain constantly searches for threats. Sometimes this vigilance is justified, but often, it’s excessive. The notifications on our smartphones are among the micro-alerts that produce unnecessary agitation.
In Buddha’s Brain, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson and neurologist Richard Mendius explain that the more often you are filled with a feeling of serenity, the more your neurons will weave a discreet safety net for you. While it’s difficult to access this state of mind every day, the spa can act as a facilitator and become conducive to contemplation and relaxation.
Marketing Director at Scandinave Spa Mont-Tremblant
Four years ago, Allison Richard and her partner got themselves Canadian work visas without ever having set foot in the country. Originally from Paris, Allison had worked until then for luxury shoe companies — she traded the red carpets of the Festival de Cannes for the snow-carpeted mountains of the Laurentians.
“In Québec, I discovered human warmth and the culture of well-being. The concept of relaxation in nature doesn’t exist in Paris; stress is the norm, and it is reflected in people’s attitudes.”
Living in the mountains has changed her life. She now spends at least an hour each day walking in the forest with her dog, relaxing in the baths, or quietly floating down the river on her paddleboard. She has since found a healthier balance, which she now wishes to share: “I want to let people know about the benefits of hydrotherapy — for the mind as much as the body. There is actually so much material for relevant storytelling here — and I find it deeply inspiring.” For the first time in her career, Allison believes in what she’s selling.
Freestyle skier on the national team
For Philippe Langevin, a young Mont-Tremblant athlete, the spa is part of his training routine. When he was 17, he fell and tore his meniscus during the World Cup in France. The incident didn’t stop him from finishing his race and winning second place. With the help of a physiotherapist and a private trainer, Philippe healed quickly from his injury. “I tried the Scandinave Spa method [hot-cold-relax]. I’ve since been going every week when I’m not out of the country.” Philippe reaps the physical benefits, of course, but above all, hydrotherapy helps him manage and reduce his stress during competitions. Philippe considers himself lucky to experience such a thrilling daily life, but he also learned, very early on, the importance of rest.
“I’m always thinking about skiing, even when I’m asleep. When I’m at the spa, I let my mind go blank, and I practise breathing techniques. This shines through in my performance: I’m more fluid in my movements.”
Founder of CHAD Communications
Joëlle Desrosiers is the head of a communications and marketing agency. She has not taken a moment for herself at the spa since the birth of her youngest son (Hubert just turned one). “I’m lucky to be able to make my own schedule, but that also means that I never really stop.” Like so many entrepreneurs and parents during lockdown, Joëlle had many roles to play at once. “When I come to the spa, I am neither a mother nor an entrepreneur. I’m just me, on my own, and genuinely content.” While she doesn’t generally need much solitude, whenever she treats herself to a spa day, she takes the opportunity to clear her head.
“Silence is such a rare thing in my life that just the noise reduction helps me clarify my thoughts. The spa has the same effect on me as a camping trip.”
In nature or at the spa, Joëlle allows herself to let go of the rigorous pressures she puts on herself. Social media is her area of expertise, so she knows the impacts associated with the standards in the digital world. “Women today are expected not only to show that they are successful at work and in the home, but also to perform self-care and appear calm and relaxed.” Joëlle regards it as a paradox, and this is why she appreciates the strict enforcement of Scandinave Spa’s no cellphone rule. “At the spa, there’s no need to prove to anyone that we’re here to relax!”
The experience of an outdoor bath, a eucalyptus steam bath, or a dip in the river surrounded by autumn leaves can pave the way to a new healthy lifestyle. But Allison Richard also suggests establishing our own ritual at home: a hot shower, followed by 15 seconds of cold water, then meditation for five minutes or more. The brain is malleable and records these positive actions, and benefits are immediate. From the comfort of a spa or the privacy of our bathroom, the important thing is to train ourselves to relax so we can regain a sense of well-being.■
Scandinave Spa Mont-Tremblant is an institution in the wellness tourism industry of Québec. Nestled in the heart of the Laurentian forest, on the shores of the Diable River, it is designed to offer visitors a real proximity to nature at every stage of the experience: hot baths, waterfalls and cold plunge pools, outdoor and indoor relaxation areas, river access, therapeutic massage, dry saunas, and steam baths. The Scandinave Spa group has three other establishments: in Whistler, British Columbia (2010); Montréal, Québec (2009); and Blue Mountain, Ontario (2006).
Freelance writer and photographer Catherine Bernier also holds degrees in Counselling Psychology and teaching meditation. Originally from Sainte-Flavie, Gaspésie, she cultivates a special relationship with the ocean and the vast wilderness.