Retreat into nature the Canadian way

By Josephine Matyas

Allow me to boast about life here, north of the 49th parallel. If there’s one thing that defines Canada, it’s our wealth of unspoiled settings and wild spaces – connecting with the outdoors is Mother Nature’s tonic for whatever ails you.

Happily, there’s an entire spectrum of ways to follow a path to wellness through nature. For some it’s detoxing from the distractions of a busy life and “powering down” expectations and demands. For others it could be a menu of pure indulgence to rebuild inner strength and find that place of calm and happiness.

There may be dozens of different ways to find wellness and hundreds of different programs in every corner of this country. We’ve found two that are a short distance from the frenetic pace of the big city. One will speak to your inner kid and the other will soothe your adult needs. Bottom line: you can’t go wrong; Mother Nature to the rescue. 

Play like a kid

Girls Gone Camping is proof positive that you are never too old for summer camp.

“The motto of the getaway weekend is fun, fitness and friendship. It’s like going back to being a kid again,” says Trista Lockwood. Trista is the creative spark behind an adult September weekend camp, bringing women together to relax, disconnect from life’s stresses and focus on taking time to nurture their own wellness. “It’s all about women supporting women.”

Now in its fifth year, Girls Gone Camping fills with almost 250 women of all ages. Some have signed up for the first time and are on their own; others are there to reconnect with friendships made. Many are from the Oakville and Burlington area but some have come from as far away as the Maritimes, England and Australia.

Certified as a personal fitness trainer and massage therapist, Trista founded Girls Gone Camping because she saw that most retreat programs were focused solely on fitness. She wanted to incorporate the element of fun and a high level of personal choice in what leads to wellness and relaxation for each participant.

As she explains, “Some come to party and some come for healing, everyone is different.”

At the core of Trista’s program philosophy is the need to “disconnect to reconnect. Life is so busy and we are so focused on our technology. Put away the social media, put away the carpooling and everything you have to do. Then choose activities – from ziplining to canoeing, kayaking, archery, yoga, Pilates, zumba, pound fitness (based on drumming) or SUP yoga. We do cocktails and colouring, sessions on health and wellness, meditation classes and meditation hikes where you hike out to the most beautiful point in the park. In the fall, Algonquin Park is so picturesque, with the leaves changing colour and steam rising off the lake in the early morning.”

This slice of pristine Canadian wilderness is a large part of what makes Girls Gone Camping so restful and restorative. The program uses the cabin facilities at Camp Tamakwa, accessible only by boat on South Tea Lake in the southwest corner of Algonquin Park. The founder of Beaver Canoe established the camp, so its Canadian roots run deep.

“It’s amazing to see how the women come together,” says Trista. “It’s like being at summer camp – they sleep in bunk beds in cabins, we have evening bonfires, sunrise yoga on the dock, an evening with a DJ where they dance their hearts out, a huge afternoon water party where I see grown women jumping on the water trampoline and they can’t stop laughing. It is pure joy.”

Indulge like an adult

Sometimes wellness just has to come with room service and five-star surroundings. In the small Quebec village of Montebello – halfway between Ottawa and Montreal on the bank of the Ottawa River – the Fairmont Le Château Montebello manages to blend “rustic” lodge-style ambience with a dash of Canadian history, a large menu of outdoor activities and, of course, the comforts and pampering of an award-winning spa. The main lodge, including guest rooms and foyer with its soaring three-storey lobby, is undergoing a top-to-bottom renovation with new contemporary furnishings and upgraded common areas.

Inspired by the architecture of grand chateaux in the Swiss Alps, the “world’s largest log cabin” was constructed of 10,000 hand-cut giant, red cedar logs. First built as a private retreat on what was once a 17th-century Seigniorial estate, in 1970 the 120-hectare property was converted to an upscale public resort. Politicians, foreign dignitaries and jet-setters have passed through the large front doors, lounged by the lobby’s massive six-sided fireplace and wandered the trails winding along the woods and riverbank.

“The wellness and treatment menu connects naturally with our setting and surroundings,” explains spa director Andrea Guerrero, as I settle in for the Great Canadian Facial.

The nurturing one-hour facial features a deliciously heated treatment bed (my body needed no coaxing to melt into the warmth) and local Quebec products, mainly the B. Kamins clinical line using bio-maple extracted from the province’s maple trees. Andrea described the popular facial as adaptable to the individual skin’s needs using a combination of products and techniques unique to the Château Montebello property.

With just eight treatment rooms and a relaxation area overlooking the peaceful Ottawa River, the spa feels comfortable and not overwhelming. The hope is that guests will find a visit to be relaxing and restorative; indulgence in a very adult way.   

Le Château Montebello is known for its connection to the river and the hardwoods surrounding the giant log “cabin.” I picked up a map of trails winding through the forest and noticed one that led to the small village of Montebello. The main street has small shops featuring products by Quebec artisans as well as several establishments showcasing local food products. Many are incorporated into the menu at the resort, like the mild Tete à Papineau cow’s milk cheese from Fromagerie Montebello, the mussels steamed in Les Brasseurs de Montebello beer and the local maple syrup flavouring the Quebec maple crème brûlée.   

I’d found my Zen spot. An hour of pampering, a walk through the maple grove and a small bag of squeaky white cheese curd. It doesn’t get much more Canadian than that.