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Spa Splendor

by Sarath Peiris

As I sat at the edge of the fourth-floor rooftop pool, luxuriously immersed up to my chin in hot, salty water and a curtain of steam drifting lazily toward the sub-zero heavens, I truly understood the envy of colleagues in Saskatoon upon hearing that I had a Saturday night reservation at the Temple Gardens Mineral Spa.

An hour-long full body massage at the expert hands of therapist Leah Herrod that preceded my "taking the waters" only added to a sense of utter well-being as the tiny jets in the mineral water pool did their magic. I figured the friend who’d suggested that "you'll be so relaxed, they'll have to carry you to your room on a stretcher and pour you into the heart-shaped hot tub" wasn’t so far off the mark, but for the fact that the in-suite "hot tub" actually turned out to be a two-person Jacuzzi.

Temple's Pool
- courtesy Temple Gardens
Warm mineral waters are a primary feature of the spa

There's something exhilarating about gazing up at a starry Saskatchewan sky, with the ambient temperature hovering somewhere near the minus-15 mark, as the steam rising from the 39-degree mineral water in the pool tries to find a frozen grip on your exposed noggin. Perhaps it's the sheer decadence of being able to thumb your nose at Mother Nature as you comfortably venture outdoors in nothing more than your swimming trunks, without a care about heating bills or global warming.

After all, the water rich in the therapeutic Epsom and Glauber's salts gushes out of a nearby 1.5-kilometre-deep artesian well, naturally heated to 45 degrees, at a rate of 750 litres a minute. For all intents and purposes, this is the same stuff that gives Carlsbad and Bath their fame in Europe and has visitors flocking to Radium Hot Springs in B.C., and to Banff, Alberta.

No wonder Temple Gardens Mineral Spa is usually booked two months ahead for weekend reservations, especially in the winter when the occupancy rate hovers in the 90-per-cent plus range. It has been that way almost from the day it opened five years ago. The 34 flags strung overhead the high-vaulted pool indicate the origins of the hotel's visitors and cover the gamut from Australia, Japan and China to Mexico, Britain and the U.S., in addition to the Maple Leaf and the 13 provinces and territories.

The small outdoor portion of the pool at 10 o'clock on Saturday night is crammed with more than 50 people, mostly young couples for whom the curtain of steam appears to provide the semi-privacy they need to cuddle. The much larger indoor pool, reached via a short connecting channel, contains about 60 or so patrons, many of them seniors, with another 20 or so padding around the pool deck in distinctive white robes that are in keeping with the "temple" aspect of the spa.

What's also striking is the blissful silence of this place, not just at pool side but throughout the hotel, which emphasizes a quiet-at-all-times policy to ensure that its guests are afforded a calm atmosphere needed for complete relaxation. The thing about taking the waters, however, is that there's only so much alternating between 20-minute stints in the pool, short breaks in the steam room, the close-at-hand Sweetwaters Cafe and lounging on deck chairs that one can do before the allure wears off. My wife and I wandered off around 11, deciding that despite the cautionary words from Leah on alcohol consumption after a massage -- it apparently has to do with toxins being released from muscles -- that a visit to Harwood's lounge on the main floor was in order.

The high life: Moose Jaw in the 1920s

Alas, at 11:15 we barely made it in time for last call. Apparently, the drinking establishment named after the former downtown landmark demolished to make way for the spa is very much a part of a much-changed Moose Jaw from the one I remember as a misspent youth toiling at the local newspaper 14 years ago. As one of those white-robed, monk-like seniors at pool side might say: "Closing down at 11? Why, in the good old days. . ."

Sipping my beer, it's easy to recall my reaction when I first heard from some folks down at Moose Jaw's civic engineering department about a notion to tap into geothermal waters they knew existed in the area. Given the dismal economic winds of change blowing across the city at the time, with half the Main Street storefronts sporting lease signs, the idea was to try to resurrect something of the halcyon days of the old Natatorium, which had been fed by a heated underground spring discovered in 1910 while drilling down nearly a kilometre to find oil.

- Tunnels of Moose Jaw
Gangster days.

Back then, when I was an instant expert on everything, I knew for sure that the idea wouldn't work. I was only slightly more excited about a few local folks digging around under some downtown buildings, particularly the owners of the Cornerstone Inn across the thoroughfare from the city's grand old railway station, hoping to find the "tunnels" that were linked in local folklore to Al Capone, rum-running, gambling, prostitution and other nefarious business. Although I was among those who jokingly suggested that if no tunnels were found, it might actually be a good business venture to go ahead and build some to generate tourism, there was no real conviction behind the words.

It only figures that I'm no millionaire.

Today, Moose Jaw has undergone a near miraculous revival, thanks in no small part to the likes of Temple Gardens CEO Deb Thorn and local investors who saw an opportunity in the city's sinking of a million bucks into the geothermal project. When other hoteliers failed to capitalize, they put up their own money five years ago to build a world-class spa (it's rated at a stupendous 4-1/2 stars by Canada Select) with 60 rooms.

The price of accommodations ranges from a relatively modest $95 per night for a standard room with two double beds to $157 for a spa Jacuzzi suite (with mighty comfortable king-size beds) and $232 for a two-room executive Jacuzzi suite. In addition to the 26 Jacuzzi suites, 30 a-la-carte services are offered by 22 therapists at "The Oasis" treatment centre on the upper two levels of the hotel. They range in price from $65 for an aroma therapy soak and massage to $60 for a moor mud anti-stress facial to $11 for a special mask. As with the rooms, many of these services are fully booked a couple of months in advance. So planning well ahead is the key to maximizing the benefits from a spa visit.

Today, nearly bursting at the seams with the demand from stressed out business types, baby boomers who've discovered their mortality in creaky joints and seniors willing to part with cash to pamper themselves, planning has begun for an $8.8-million addition to provide 68 more rooms and a parkade on two levels across the street from the spa, where a parking lot now stands. Talk is that a $6-million community centre and a $10-million casino might also be part of a future development, even though those two projects aren't directly related to Temple Gardens.

Crescent Park sits adjacent to the spa in downtown Moose Jaw

Although the spa remains the undisputed drawing card for visitors to Moose Jaw -- even non-hotel guests can soak to their heart's content in the invigorating pool by acquiring day passes at $10.50 for an adult or $32.50 for a family -- a drive down Main Street shows what has been accomplished by the 35,000 friendly souls in this tiny prairie city who literally have dug deep into their past to lay the foundation for a thriving year-round tourism trade.

The tunnels have indeed been "found" and do a roaring tour trade that capitalizes on Capone's infamy and the poignant story of Chinese immigrants who built a new life in Canada by toiling in near servitude in the city's underground laundry trade. Craft stores, clothing shops, coffee houses and knickknack dens have sprouted where boarded-up windows once stood. The mighty railway station has morphed into what likely is western Canada's grandest liquor store.

I celebrated Moose Jaw's good fortune, and mine, by picking up a nice bottle of Australian Chiraz that's just the right touch needed to enjoy that en-suite Jacuzzi.

Sarath Peiris is a journalist with the StarPhoenix newspaper in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

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