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Winter's Respite ~ The Grotto Spa at Tigh-Na-Mara, British Columbia

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Flu season can be a dreary time of year in the Pacific Northwest, when dark winter skies drip rain and a bone-chilling fog can descend for days on end. If no tropical vacation brightens your horizon, this is the perfect time to be proactive and “take the waters” at a local spa.

Residents of British Columbia’s Lower Mainland or Washington State are lucky to have the perfect spa destination within easy reach. Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort & Conference Centre, in Parksville, on Vancouver Island, is a routine ferry ride from Vancouver or Seattle (even closer by floatplane). And what a getaway!

Its name, which means “House by the Sea,” hints at the picturesque setting of this resort, renowned for more than four decades as a summer idyll for vacationing families. Now encompassing 22 acres, the resort has been in the same family since 1981.

When we arrive the coast is enshrouded in fog, muffling sounds as if to encourage an inward journey. Graceful arbutus trees with their distinctive rust-colored bark stand out against other evergreens and contribute to the resort’s authentic west coast flavor. The wooden buildings appear equally organic, harmonizing with the serene coastal environment.

The three-story Grotto Spa is located across the coast road from the resort proper, and on a quiet Sunday in late January it can feel like “a world away.” It is surrounded by a dozen or so bungalows named after islands in the Strait of Georgia. Cortes, Valdes, Savary, Saltspring: their names conjure sun-drenched memories as well as the history of the coast. The spacious Thetis will be our refuge for a one-night escape.

My sister and I arrive at midday, which gives us a chance to try out the spa’s signature Grotto Mineral Bath before our scheduled treatments. Friendly female staff introduce us to the facility and guide us to the capacious change room, where we find our every need anticipated and accommodated. We could get used to this.

The mineral pool has a large cascading waterfall that makes it conducive to reflection more than conversation. Suspended in its turquoise waters are imported mineral salts from Hungary that include fluoride, iodine, even lithium, known for its use in psychiatry. “Everyone can use a little lithium,” my sister, the doctor, jokes.

As I slip into the shallow body-temperature water, I feel the buoyant effect of the salts. Floating on my back I can faintly hear the piped-in celestial music and the effect is rhythmic, soothing, amniotic. Shouldn’t every visit to a spa be a kind of rebirth?

Next on our agenda is an elevator trip to the third floor, where, swaddled in cushy terry cloth robes, we appreciate the monstrous driftwood chairs and other west coast touches before being collected for our 90-minute Canadian Body Balancing Treatments.

Exfoliation, I discover, can be as painful as it sounds. A brisk rubdown with sandpaper is what I experience as Debbie sloughs away my “summer skin.” (In fact, the brush she used was surprisingly soft.) In the candlelit treatment room, serenaded by soft tunes, I am glad when she moves on to a sea salt scrub, followed by my favorite part, a slick of warm glacial mud from Bella Coola, another legendary west coast place. All the products in this treatment derive from local sources.

Nurturing and intuitive, Debbie then places warm towels at strategic points and wraps me up tightly first in thin plastic, then in layers of blankets. Warm and still, my body is cocooned, waiting to be reborn. It is my first “wrap” and I find myself becoming a little claustrophobic toward the end. But perhaps it is merely my time to emerge. In the corner shower stall, I rinse off the salt and mud to find my new, silken skin beneath. The treatment concludes with a seaweed body butter massage, after which I am so relaxed I feel I could melt.

Our spirits refreshed, our bodies renewed, we move on to feed our stomachs at the spa’s unique Treetop Tapas dining room, where, still in our robes, we relish a meal that deserves a review in itself. From the grilled pear and Stilton blue cheese salad to the prosciutto-wrapped prawns to the orange crème brule, each dish is a masterpiece of exquisite flavors and artful presentation. This is world-class dining to wow even big-city dwellers.

If social spa’ing is the future, the Grotto Spa at Tigh-Na-Mara has everything in place. But if you’re more apt to avoid the crowds, it can also be a peaceful haven in midwinter.

Grotto Spa, Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort

~ Naomi Pauls, Spas of America. When not spa-ing, Naomi is a professional book editor living in the Pacific Northwest. npauls@editors.ca

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