Lounging under the stars in the percolating effervescence of a huge, heated thermal pool, we are protected from the elements by walls of natural rocks and boulders at Spa Eastman. There is wind and frost in the air, and a few hardy snowflakes blow about in the rising steam. At the crest of the embankment, a massive bonfire warms us and sends woodsy fragrance our way.
Magnificent. If only for this, it was worth the drive on the long and winding road that brought us here from Montreal.
The next morning at breakfast, I have an exciting revelation. It comes in the simple form of poached eggs with spinach and brioche-style kamut bread, softly cloaked in luscious hollandaise sauce. The surprise is in the purity of organic eggs and homegrown spinach, gluten-free bread and dairy-free hollandaise. The taste? Fantastic. I can hardly wait for tomorrow morning to have the same, or maybe a buckwheat crepe with fruit, molasses and cream of soy with almonds.
Inspired, I am ready for a short hike on a woodsy trail, to breathe deeply and clear the lungs of city sludge. I can fill the hours between the highly anticipated meals with the assistance of kinesiologists who evaluate and recommend Pilates classes, cardio-boxing, zumba, essentric workouts, or simply exploring the thermotherapy techniques of contrasting hot and cold baths and the infrared sauna for which Spa Eastman is renowned.
Lunch is a splendid buffet of vegetables, fruits, sprouts and shakes made of delectable – and sometimes surprising – ingredients. An array of oils, dressings, condiments and good-for-you herbs sparkle in their glass bottles. It is not until after dinner when I have the opportunity to speak to the kitchen alchemists. Their signature dinner entrée, duck magret with Sichuan pepper, parsnip purée, confit of shallots, and a salad of sunchoke, brussels sprout and hazelnut is a triumph. There is not a nefarious ingredient on the plate. Striped bass comes partnered with cauliflower and hemp couscous, and two purées – beet and creamy orange peel – and to drizzle to your liking, raw fennel oil. Plus, there is a vegetarian menu that could set a vegan’s heart aflutter.
Award-winning chef Kevin Belisle specialized in organic vegetarian-based meals
at a Michelin-starred restaurant in France before he began collaborating with French-trained chef and nutritherapist, Jean-Marc Enderlin. Their goal: to establish guidelines ensuring that the kitchen offers meals that are hypotoxic—in other words, dishes that have no short or long-term side effects such as heartburn and fatigue. “Our distinctive menus offering meals that are healthful, as well as delicious, is what makes me truly proud,” says Belisle. And we are the lucky beneficiaries of their craft.
Jocelyna Dubuc, proud owner of Spa Eastman, sips her favourite green smoothie and tells me that in 1977, she held her first retreat on this farm near Montreal, which later became the spa. Her pioneering vision drafted a place where life could be enjoyed naturally and mindfully. Today, almost two decades later, the concept of wellness, detox, exercise and nutrition are all parts of mainstream society. Come here with your allergies, rheumatic aches and pains, inflammations, diabetic symptoms and cortisol deficiencies. You might miss them, since you may well go home without them. Wellness happens naturally here.
An impressive history gives way to a brilliant present. It happened after the turmoil of the American Civil War that wealthy Southerners made their way to North Hatley, and built summer mansions on the west side of Lake Massawippi. The most splendid of all, on North Hatley’s prime site was “The Birches” built in 1898 as a summer home by Henry Atkinson, owner of Georgia Power in Atlanta. In 1950, it was converted to an inn, and in 1979, its present owners, Kathryn and Stephen Stafford, purchased the property.
Manoir Hovey, winner of a dozen prestigious hospitality awards, stands alone in its charm and elegance. Oblivious to the seasons, it offers kayaks, canoes, paddleboats, tennis and private beaches in the summer, and snowshoeing trails in winter. All equipment is supplied.
I came to Manoir Hovey on a whim, in the middle of a stringent and successful weight-loss diet. Discipline and a fierce desire to shed 15 pounds allowed me to view the glorious gastronomy served to my tablemates without feeling disenfranchised. Chef Roland Menard (a 30-year veteran at Manoir Hovey, and the winner of top honours at the Quebec Grand Prix de Tourism) and chef Francis Wolf (who trained at New York’s top tables) are both masters of modern Quebec cuisine, enhanced by a 700-label wine list. My dietary requirements were resolved with extreme finesse. They know that first we eat with our eyes, and their presentations of simple dishes allowed me to feel total equality with my gormandizing friends. Sprightly garden salad (sans an oily dressing) seemed freshly plucked from greenhouse trays. My fish entrée was so aromatic with fresh herbs and lemon zest that the lack of butter and cream went unnoticed. My meager ration of a few ounces of fruit was presented in four goblets, each with a different brightly coloured diced fruit. In fact, some dining mates cast envious glances at my dessert.
In winter, the soft white blanket of snow calls for cocooning in my seriously comfortable surroundings, but show me a village with stylish boutiques, art galleries and antique stores, and weather does not hold me back. A few hours later, carrying my precious purchases of antique teacups and saucers, I return to Manoir Hovey. Staff is trained to the tips of their polished shoes, and welcome us back as if we are honoured guests.
Soon, the time for stringent dieting will arise again, and you can be sure I will head for Manoir Hovey.
We did not arrive at Quintessence by water plane, or set down our helicopter on the front lawn, as do the czars, stars and tycoons. We drove up in the late autumn, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, before the families converged from the US, Canada, Brazil, Russia and Mexico. While every room has a lake view (which is a treat in summer), ours is of Mont Tremblant, the world-famous ski resort in the Laurentians.
We would call it extremely up-scale-casual—suitable for those for whom five-star is the norm. The decor is marble, wooden beams and leather, with a colour scheme of cream, white and caramel that thumbs its nose at stains and spills. Each room has a fireplace and the necessities to get the fire started. Spa Sans Sabots suggests an in-room massage, and since we’ve been sitting in a car for several hours, it sounds like a great idea. The masseur has the right attitude, a mix of warmth and professionalism, as he lights the fireplace and sets up his table. The hour passes quickly.
Dinner is set up in the lounge at a substantial wood table with leather armchairs. Quebec chef Jean-Luc de la Bruere has created a menu that is pure modern Quebecoise, and focuses on fresh, local products where possible. His dishes are complex and his seasonings create a hearty depth of flavour that is certainly much appreciated on a cold winter’s night. The kitchen roasts black cod and partners it with puréed shitake mushrooms and truffle potatoes. Quebec lamb gets a luscious crust of pistachio and goat cheese enlivened by spicy Feu Sacre juice. Family dining is taken into consideration with roasted beef loin, potatoes mashed with Mon-Laurier Brie and a juice made with Cabernet Sauvignon.
Quintessance looks after its guests, and the compliment is returned.