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Relax, recharge, reflect and re-energise

by Philip Moscovitch

It’s a misty early May day on Magnetic Hill, near Moncton, and I’m outdoors in a bathrobe. I’ve just poured a bucket of cold water over my head, and now I’m heading to a warm, saltwater pool to relax. A dozen or so other people share the same space—sitting in the steam room and sauna, curled up in hammocks, lounging in the pool—and nobody talks or fiddles with their phone. The combination of silence and heavy mist makes me feel like I’m in a bubble, cut off from the rest of the world.

Geneviève Nolet would be happy to hear that. She’s the founder of USVA Spa Nordik, the Nordic spa, where I’m spending the afternoon. Originating in Scandinavia (as the name suggests), Nordic spas encourage visitors to alternate time spent in a sauna or steam room with immersion in cold water, followed by a period of relaxation. Nolet is a spa enthusiast who fell in love with saunas and thermal springs while visiting Iceland with her partner and their children.

Nordic spas started to take off in Quebec in the early 2000s, and Nolet says she realized, “Whenever I travelled to Quebec or Ontario—really, anywhere west of Atlantic Canada—I could enjoy similar experiences. I’d been to several Nordic spas in Quebec, and suddenly I thought, why not do this in Moncton, where we don’t have any?”

In an era when it seems every place that offers pedicures calls itself a spa, Nolet keeps USVA focused on the basics: No mani-pedis, no aesthetics, no nails.

When it comes to food and lifestyle trends, Atlantic Canada tends to lag a few years behind—so it’s no surprise, the Nordic spa trend is relatively new here. “If I’d opened USVA 20 years ago,” she says, “It probably would not have worked at all.”

While Nordic spas may be new to the Maritimes, using heat and water for health benefits has a long and fascinating history. Indigenous people have long practised sweat lodges, and both Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have been home to spas and springs that claim extraordinary healing powers.

Humans have enjoyed bathing in mineral waters and springs for millennia. As far back as the 5th century, Greeks saw hot and cold baths as a way to bring the body into balance. British Museum historian Ralph Jackson writes that Hippocrates recommended thermal baths “for soothing chest and back pains in pneumonia, promoting good respiration, relieving fatigue, relaxing joints, curing headaches, and promoting the secretion of urine.” As the Romans conquered Europe, they would look for mineral and thermal springs to develop, and those seeking cures would both bathe in and drink their water.

Nearly 2,000 years later, Nova Scotians and visitors from Upper Canada, New England, the UK, and even as far away as Hong Kong, sought the same kinds of benefits—by visiting the tiny community of Spa Springs, near Middleton in the Annapolis Valley.

In 1831, William Woodbury, who then owned the property, built the first Spa Springs Hotel. At the Nova Scotia Archives, I pull an oversize hard-bound brown book out of a file box. The book originally belonged to Woodbury, who notes the results of an analysis done in Boston of the water from the spring on his property, and shares testimonials from visitors who have drunk or bathed in it:

N.J. Salmon of Wilmot, July 19, 1831: “Having been long afflicted with a cancer and not being able to find any relief from medical assistance [I] was advised to visit the Wilmot Spring; and to my great satisfaction, in five days after my arrival the illness was entirely healed, and the sores chiefly removed…”

G. Clapper of Fredericton, October 12, 1831: “Mrs. Clapper has returned and I think somewhat benefitted by her trip to the Springs. She feels very grateful… Mrs. Clapper is very desirous to get some of the water: I now send a case of bottles, which you will please fill and pack carefully. I need not say that we shall be anxious to get it as soon as possible.”

After a number of these testimonials, Woodbury explains that he is building a “large and commodious dwelling house” and “a large and convenient Bathing House” for visitors, so they will no longer have to lodge at nearby farmhouses when they come to enjoy the benefits of the waters.

The site of Wilmot Spa Springs in 2019. One would never guess this was once a thriving resort.

Photo Credit: Philip Moscovitch

Woodbury ran the hotel for a number of years, then in the 1880s, a former sea captain named Jacob Hall took it over, updating and expanding it. The building burned down a decade later, and the hotel that replaced it was lost to fire soon after as well. Today, there is no sign of that this was once a thriving holiday resort, visited by dignitaries, including Joe Howe, Bishop Charles Inglis—and even the Prince of Wales, later King George V.

Drive by the site of the former hotel today and you’ll see a clearing and some trees beyond, then a low-slung industrial building housing the Spa Springs Mineral Water Company, which now owns the property. They bottle and sell water from an artesian well—the same source as the springs.

Jenna Reid, the company’s general manager, pulls a bottle of the water from the fridge and hands it to me. It has a sweet yet mineral-like flavour. (The water contains a lot of calcium.) Reid offers to take me down to the spring—employees sometimes come here on their breaks—and we walk down a path and into the woods. There is little to indicate that this was ever more than a quiet spot in a hardwood grove. One of the pools is surrounded by a small wooden fence. Concrete footings are still visible at the site of the former bathhouse, straddling a small creek. They supported a replica of the original building, but it was torn down two years ago.

Reid, who doubles as the plant’s quality control manager, does microbiological testing on water coming out of the spring once a year, and says it’s very clean and perfectly safe to drink.

Joey Wright laments the fact that the history of Spa Springs has been forgotten. He grew up in Middleton, and when he was a child, his family would drive through the community on the way to their cottage in Margaretsville. Now in his 90s, he remembers asking his father “What is this place anyway?” and learning about the healing water and resort. That memory stayed with him, and in 2007, Wright wrote a book called Healing Waters, on the history of the Spa Springs water and hotels.

“It is a shame they’re not more widely known,” Wright tells me, when we meet at his apartment in suburban Halifax. “They had a reputation. I was always interested in some of the old photos showing the lawn tennis grounds. It’s hard to visualize it now… The people in the local area certainly are aware of it, but in passing… They probably pass it by and not explore further.”

Across the Northumberland Strait, PEI is awash in springs. Kyle Knysh, a doctoral student at UPEI who has visited about 80 of them for his research, says “springs are the sources of all the river systems on the Island. Every flowing body of water originates either at a spring or is fed by some groundwater outflowing area.” Unlike the pools at Spa Springs, Knysh says springs on PEI “don’t actually have that much dissolved content.” So they are not rich in minerals.

But some of them still have reputations for healing.

The best known is the spring at the head of the Hillsborough River, between the Abegweit First Nation and Cherry Hill, in eastern PEI. Although the spring is unmarked, it was well-known enough to appear, as “Medical Sp” on an 1880 atlas of the province. Island historian Edward MacDonald says the first written reference to the healing spring is in the 1750s, and that it gained renown for its healing powers in the early 1800s when Father Angus MacEachern is said to have blessed the water “after he bathed his feet one hot day.”

Stories about the water’s healing properties abound. MLA Sidney MacEwen says one of his family’s stories is that his great-grandmother was carried to the spring and walked out. And in a 1995 interview, Ginger McKay, who grew up in the area, says he knows people who ended their alcohol addictions by drinking water from the spring, and tells the story of a young woman who cured her psoriasis with the water.

Because the spring is in the woods, access to it was never easy. In the mid-1990s, McKay bulldozed a road through the woods, and, as a result, MacDonald says, “people could access the spring more readily and it enjoyed a kind of a renaissance in popularity. People were going down to the spring, filling bottles and drinking the water for medicinal reasons.”

Donald Killorn grew up drinking the water. The 37-year-old environmentalist (he runs an environmental NGO focusing on watersheds) is McKay’s grandson. When I mention the story of Father Angus blessing the water, he says, “That’s not the story we want to tell. That’s colonialism. The story is that the Mi’kmaq used this water to heal and shared it with the English when they arrived.”

Asked if he believes in its healing powers, Killorn says, “I think that the water is very healthy…and there is a spiritual component to it. I believe that it’s very, very good water and that if combined with a strong faith it can make people better.” He adds, “My grandfather’s grandfather believed in the water. My grandfather believed in the water, and I believe in the water. It’s part of our mythos.”

A few years before Captain Hall expanded the Spa Springs Hotel, the Lorne (later Acadia) Hotel was built near what was dubbed the “Acadia Spring” on the North Shore of PEI. A 1905 brochure for the hotel touts the “splendid Acadia Spring, whose cold, clear, living waters have the softness and purity of the celebrated Poland Springs… Many visitors claim to have received great benefit from the free use of the splendidly pure waters of this spring, especially in chronic rheumatic and kidney diseases.” But historian Edward MacDonald says he doesn’t recall any particular stories of healing properties attached to the spring. It’s possible PEI may not have developed spas at springs because their waters generally don’t have many dissolved minerals. But more likely, MacDonald says, it’s because of the presence of the ocean.

MacDonald says seaside tourism became popular in the early 1800s, with many claims for the health benefits of salt air: “So in Prince Edward Island which has got lots of seashore, the tourism industry is beginning to evolve during the period when salt air has become trendy. That’s why we go with salt air and sea bathing rather than mineral spas.”

A mid-1990s attempt to bring a new era in luxury spas to the South Shore of Nova Scotia fizzled out spectacularly. A pair of German investors decided Europeans would want to come to the rocky Aspotogan Peninsula and enjoy the amenities of a “sea spa.” They built a 131-foot, five-storey hotel, but ran out of money before it could be completed. The building stood, unfinished for the next 20 years, drawing curious teens, skateboarders who could rocket down its sweeping hallways, and people fascinated by abandoned sites. Finally, it was sold to local developers for a fraction of the construction cost
and demolished.

Maybe the Aspotogan folks were just ahead of their time. As Geneviève Nolet says, if she’d opened USVA 20 years ago, the spa may not have lasted. Today, the wellness trend shows no sign of slowing down. So who knows? Maybe the Maritimes will once more become a destination for those seeking relaxation and healing by taking the waters.  

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