Inside a sauna on a ferry boat turned spa, we sweated in silence and gazed out a broad picture window framing the Montreal skyline. The floating spa, Bota Bota, is docked on the St. Lawrence River, replete with hot pools, saunas and steam rooms — one of a growing number of Nordic spas in Canada.
Amid rising travel costs and lingering COVID-19 concerns, I nixed a trip to Europe this year, opting for a cheaper destination closer to home for my first international trip during the pandemic. As Canada's second largest city, Montreal provides French flavor at a fraction of the price of Paris, and an equally vibrant city to explore.
A bonus for sauna enthusiasts is the growing number of Scandinavian spas — part of a broader, thriving wellness industry as locals and visitors alike seek out relatively affordable ways to relax and unplug.
"People need it. That was true before the pandemic and that's even more true now. Everywhere, I think, people need to take a step back and breathe," said Geneviève Emond, owner of Bota Bota and vice president of the Quebec Association of Spas. "We kind of embraced that sauna experience, and the Quebec industry really made it its own."
On a cool, rainy spring weekend, I trekked to Montreal with my mom ahead of the city's peak tourism season. Before we arrived, Quebec was the last province to lift mask mandates in indoor public spaces, though Canada still requires masks on planes and at airports. After long delays, sitting on the airport tarmac for more than an hour in Toronto, we arrived in Montreal.
Atop La Grande Roue de Montréal, the tallest Ferris wheel in Canada, we marveled at the view of the city, the river and Mont Royal, the city's prominent hilltop. On a tour bus, a guide discussed tension between English and French speakers and new legislation limiting access to public services in English. While Quebec is home to primarily French speakers, Montreal is largely bilingual, though we regretted not knowing any French as people greeted us in the tongue.
Language was immaterial inside Scandinave Spa, the first spa we visited along the cobblestone streets of the Old Port of Montreal. Like Bota Bota, Scandinave Spa doesn't allow talking — or phones and cameras. If you forget the rule, Scandinave employees wander around, wearing shirts that say "SILENCE" on the back, to remind violators.
Some people may associate a spa day with getting a pedicure, or envision a sauna as a cramped, windowless room in a gym. Abandon those misconceptions: Scandinave's expansive Finnish sauna was a work of art, with floor-to-ceiling wood panels backlit in white.
For about U.S. $55 each, we had unlimited time for the "hydrotherapy." We rotated through a ritual of hot-cold cycles, stepping into the sauna, eucalyptus steam room or hot pool before cooling off in a cold shower or submerging in a cold plunge tub for a few shocking seconds.
"I've never done something so self-indulgent," my mom said as we left three hours later, fully relaxed.
The spa weekend was a special treat for us frugal travelers. We decided to forgo the usual jam-packed itinerary and frenzied sightseeing for a more mindful vacation. After taking in panoramic views atop Mont Royal, exploring the Biosphère (a geodesic dome with an environmental museum) and devouring crêpes as musicians played jazz under flowering trees at the restaurant Jardin Nelson, we embarked for Bota Bota.
We walked a ramp onto the boat, which was built in the 1950s as a car ferry before becoming a floating theater. Now, the 40,000-square-foot boat has steam rooms, hot baths on the decks and more than 600 portholes showcasing the blue water that ripples across the harbor. The spa also has four saunas, each with massive windows overlooking the city and port. One sauna emitted lavender incense, another citrus in the 185-degree heat.
We alternated between the reinvigorating hot and cold cycle, which is touted for its health benefits, including relaxing muscles. You can even jump into the St. Lawrence River if you dare (I did not).
"We have the right climate. You wouldn't have the same experience if you had a Bota Bota in Miami," Emond said, adding that even though Montreal is an island, it's hard for locals to access the port, so the spa brings people closer to the water.
The three-hour "water circuit" cost us U.S. $55 on a weekday, though the price goes up on weekends and during peak season. Locals are the bulk of the 180,000 visitors per year, Emond said, along with tourists from elsewhere in Canada, France and the U.S.
Talking is allowed only in a sweeping garden area with swimming pool, steam room and sauna that opened in 2015 next to the boat. Bota Bota banned phones and taking photos in 2019 to promote unplugging, even if it meant curtailing the free publicity and buzz of social media.
"If I'm there to relax, if the person behind me is taking pictures or making TikTok videos or whatnot, it's going to be disturbing for me," Emond said. "We're kind of forcing people into taking a moment for themselves. And most people really appreciate it."
By now, we were pros at lounging in silence and stillness. Soaking in the massive hot tub, I watched as gray clouds rolled over the skyline. A couple next to me closed their eyes while another woman read a book, with only the sound of the bath's swirling water filling the air.
If you go
Bota Bota: Layover water circuit for U.S. $54-$66. 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily; located in the Old Port of Montreal (botabota.ca).
Scandinave Spa: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily; in the Old Port of Montreal (scandinave.com).
Getting to Montreal: Delta and Air Canada fly direct from Minneapolis to Montreal; a recent search found fares from $330.