I awaken to a sheet of mist blanketing the lakefront outside my window, underscoring an eerie yet magical sense of calm. Within the hour it will disappear, much like the stress I carried as baggage upon my arrival a day earlier. Indeed, as the mist evaporates, clarity sets in as stark as the blue, cloudless sky that takes its place. Just another day at Grail Springs. Situated in Bancroft, in northern Ontario (approximately 3-hour drive from Toronto), Grail Springs is billed as a “complete health and wellness retreat” and it’s not hard to see why.
What do you do when you’re stressed, nearing burnout or already there? It’s so easy to get caught up in the busy-ness of life without taking even a moment to stop. To reflect. To breathe. An increasing number of studies demonstrate that not only does productivity suffer when you’re on the go (go go go!) but that pace can severely impact one’s emotional and mental capacity too. It’s become especially important for those working in the “giving fields” (like a large percentage of SEE Change readers) to dedicate some energy inward. Far from being selfish, we now understand that not giving to ourselves limits how much we can give to others.
Madeleine Marentette understood that win-win equation early on. She’s the founder of Grail Springs, the visionary behind Canada’s holistic sanctuary for mind, body and soul and a bestselling author. An increasing number of people are in crisis, Marentette tells me. Though spiritual crises are particularly on the rise, it’s important to address all manifestations of burnout – physical, mental and emotional too. And lest you think rejuvenation is all about rest, think again. “You have to be ready to commit your time,” she says. Without the work, you won’t move that healing needle forward.
The retreat was borne in 1993 on one hundred acres of breath-taking-and-giving beauty in the heart of Canada’s “Mineral Capital”, replete with forested walking trails, meditation gardens, a teepee used for ceremonies, Rocky Mountain horses (and horse whisperer to boot) and a spring-fed lake. The destination has gone through a few incarnations over the years but Marentette’s vision has remained a powerful one, inspiring each step forward. The multiple-award winning retreat (including TripAdvisor’s 2016 Traveler’s Choice Award and Certificate of Excellence) is the only Canadian Healing Hotel member and only retreat in Canada that focuses on BioEnergy (more on that later).
Grail boasts a 13-room estate, a veritable balance of luxury, comfort—my room had a cozy fireplace, inviting king-size bed and private balcony overlooking the lake and a calming bubbling brook— and intimacy. It offers the small group of guests plenty of opportunity to mingle if they wish but also enough private space for solitary moments. And, with cable TV unavailable (though every night a documentary is aired), reflection and respite is encouraged – along with a cup of specialty detox tea that every room offers plentifully.
For those looking for a greater eco-wellness experience with a focus on unplugging, check out the eco-tabins (a cross between cabin and tent). Introduced in 2010, these ‘glamping’ accommodations are located on the edge of the forest adjacent to a composting toilet.
Whether you’ve arrived for a two-day program or a 21-night journey, whether you’ve signed up for a more traditional rejuvenation or one of the specialized itineraries like the juice cleanse or “spiritual enrichment”, you’ll find it here. Of course, best to leave any preconceived notions at home – whether about food, health, wellness or otherwise.
The spa treatments aren’t focused on manicures or pedicures but on detox and wellness. Your visit usually begins with the Chakra Bio-Energy Assessment, a machine that reads organ health, body aura and chakra activity. Upon identifying your areas that are stronger and weaker, a consultant helps you choose treatments unique to your quest for balance. An assessment is done at the end of your stay to evaluate how well you’ve done.
I also opted for a hot stone massage (yes I lean a bit more toward the traditional) and it was delightful as well as an oxygen facial treatment with vitamin C infusion (an apparent popular choice of Hollywood A-listers). Other non-traditional treatments include reiki, crystal light bed therapy sessions and a colour energy bath.
The food is good, very good. But carnivores, sweet-toothers and wine-lovers be warned: the Alkaline Diet is followed here, with plant-based whole foods, mostly gluten-free and vegetarian, finding their way onto your plates. Food is medicine, affirms Marentette (author of Recipes for Life and Grail Springs Holistic Detox: For Body, Mind & Spirit which offers tips on how to raise your alkaline level and lower your acidic level). “It helps you achieve what you want to achieve,” she says.
Portions are modest (as they are meant to be) and caffeine and alcohol are non-existent. And by non-existent, I mean caffeine is not to be found except in a couple of mildly caffeinated teas. Unless, of course, you beg someone to take you to the coffee shop in town. Not that you should. And not that I did. Cause that would be wrong.
The focus, after all, is on detoxifying your system. Each morning you’re greeted at breakfast with a shot of mud. Yes mud. Deep Moor Mud from Vorarlberg, Austria, to be precise. The good news? It’s relatively tasteless as it’s diluted heavily in water. And apparently it’s been calming and healing the gut for over 2000 years in its country of origin and surrounding regions. So that’s good to know.
Talking about detox, some of Grail Springs’ guests – like *Dan – opted for the liquid cleanse. While the rest of us devoured such meals as gluten-free French toast, Walnut Brownies with Raspberry Coulis and Quinoa Asian Salad, Dan slurped a vanilla chai smoothie at breakfast and two bowls of veggie broth for lunch. But he felt good and was on track with his personal mission (even if he kept giving us the stink eye throughout dinner).
After breakfast, there’s a yoga class, which begins with a powerful morning mantra and ends with a calming and focused meditation. The rest of the day is yours to explore. Enjoy the steam or dry Finnish sauna, the infrared saunas or the outdoor mineral tub and cold plunge. Take a guided or self-directed hike through the trails and find yourself at the Crystal Crop, a good place to meditate (Grail Springs is situated amongst the oldest exposed rock on the planet, rich quartz crystal, meant to have potent powers for equilibrium and wellness).
Or take a meditative walk on the Labyrinth situated next to the Prayer Tree (upon which guests tie ribbons or “prayer flags” inscribed with their wishes), used worldwide as a tool for contemplation and healing. To be sure, you’ll find a strong focus on meditation and mindfulness at Grail. It’s part of Marentette’s vision for holistic self-care. “Meditation is the future,” she says unequivocally.
A long-time-skeptic-turned-convert to the benefits of mindfulness, on my last day at Grail I gave the labyrinth a few ‘turns’. Starting with a question upon which I wanted to meditate, I took a few slow steps from the outer edge of the path to its centre—where you’re meant to contemplate further—and then retraced my steps back out again. I did it again and again, each time finding the meditative process easier, my thoughts less controlled and more attuned to my natural rhythm.
Relaxed, calm and certainly clearer, I took a seat on a nearby bench overlooking the pristine lake and thought of an earlier conversation with Marentette. A student of the laws of nature, she’s a strong believer in its powers. “Nature is one of the greatest healers,” she said.
I’d have to agree.
*real name was changed to protect identity
Elisa Birnbaum is the publisher & editor-in-chief of SEE Change Magazine