WATROUS, SASK. - The last time my mother and I went to Manitou Springs Hotel & Mineral Spa, she floated away. Literally. The water at this European-style spa on the shores of Little Lake Manitou is so buoyant it can be a challenge to stay on the benches lining the pool, and as we soaked, I occasionally had to grab her leg and haul her back.
Little Lake Manitou, just outside the prairie town of Watrous, about 116 kilometres southeast of Saskatoon, is an exceptional Canadian destination. Set in a valley carved out by a long-disappeared glacier and surrounded by wheat fields, the lake is fed by underground springs and has such a high concentration of mineral salts that its specific gravity is 10 per cent higher than regular water, making it possible to float on your back and read the newspaper at the same time.
The lake is also a place of healing. The salts in the water (magnesium, potassium, calcium and oxide of iron) are believed to soothe muscle aches, joint problems and skin conditions, and legend tells of Cree warriors, stricken by smallpox and facing death being miraculously cured after crawling into the lake for relief.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Manitou became a booming health resort. Dance halls rang with big band music, bathing complexes provided upscale conveniences such as heated water and private cabanas, and the first medical clinic was established in 1933.
Left: The spas in Saskatchewan are world class. Right: The quaint town of Watrous is fun to wander.
With the onset of the Depression, however, the resort fell into a decline and languished for decades before finally getting its groove back, boosted by the growing trend towards natural spa therapies and wellness travel.
Adding to the lake’s popularity is the recently updated Manitou Springs Hotel & Mineral Spa. Guests can sample Manitou mud and salt treatments at the on-site Serenity Spa, soak in the heated pools and enjoy the unpretentious prairie atmosphere.
Visitors can also swim in the lake (along with thousands of tiny brine shrimp), stroll along the quiet shoreline or swirl around a rare horsehair-lined dance floor at Danceland, an iconic lakeside dance hall that has been open since 1928.
Saskatchewan’s other major spa destination, Temple Gardens Mineral Spa Resort, also has a dance hall in its past. It was named after the now-defunct Temple Gardens Dance Hall, built in 1921.
A landmark development in the historic city of Moose Jaw, an hour west of Regina, the modern Temple Gardens Resort has 179 rooms, a casino, a full-service spa and an indoor mineral pool complex with a rooftop pool. And just as at Manitou Springs, the curative water is the draw.
Rising from an ancient seabed at a temperature of 45C, the geo-thermal springs that feed the spa were discovered in 1910 when authorities were boring for natural gas.
Above: Floating on a Saskatchewan lake.
It wasn’t until 1996, however, that the resort was built to capitalize on the therapeutic springs that contain a high concentration of Epsom and Glauber’s Salts as well as sodium, calcium, magnesium, boron and bromide, a mineral composition said to hydrate and detoxify as well as ease muscle and joint pain.
Once visitors have soaked up the benefits of the water or perhaps tried some aquatic yoga, they’ll want to get out and explore. Moose Jaw has a fun, vintage feel with a well-preserved architectural heritage, though one of the most intriguing attractions lies underground.
A series of tunnels under the city offers a fascinating glimpse into history — one that is as dark as a subterranean passage. Originally built for utility and heating purposes, the tunnels in the 19th century became home to migrant Chinese workers who had come to Canada in search of a better life.
The Passage to Fortune Tour, led by a costumed guide, illustrates clearly how the immigrants were shunned by society and spent much of their time eating, working and sleeping in cramped, unsanitary quarters that never saw the light of day.
That’s not the only secret Moose Jaw harbours in its underbelly. The Chicago Connection Tunnel Tour highlights the era of Prohibition when rum-runners, said to be linked to the notorious gangster Al Capone, used the tunnels as a hub for their bootlegging operations.
Coincidently, Capone was a big fan of thermal water spas, even building his hot springs hideaway near Palm Springs, and while rumours that he was spotted in Moose Jaw are anecdotal rather than proven, with the advent of Temple Gardens, he’d probably be inclined to visit today.
Manitou Springs Hotel & Spa: 302 Maclachlan Ave., Manitou Beach, SK. Tel: 1-800-667-7672. / Getting there: Little Lake Manitou is 110 km southeast of Saskatoon and 175 km northwest of Regina. / Where to eat: The hotel has an onsite restaurant and across the street is the funky seasonally-opened Village Perk that offers fresh baked goods and light casual fare. Tel: 306-946-3166 / Temple Gardens Mineral Spa Resort: 24 Fairford St E, Moose Jaw, SK. Tel: 1-800-718- 7727. / Getting there: Temple Gardens is 225 km from Saskatoon and 68 km from Regina. / Where to eat: The hotel has an onsite restaurant and inside the Yvette Moore Gallery at 76 Fairford Street West is The Gallery Café, which offers fresh homemade cuisine. Tel: 306-693-7600