Warm Spas of the Okanagan Valley
by Karen Misuraca

As snug as a papoose in a blanket, I lay swathed from neck to toe in heated sheets, breathing in a moist fusion of rosemary, jasmine, sandalwood and eucalyptus--my reward for a day of cross-country skiing on a labyrinth of snowy trails in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley. The bracing-cold, crystalline winter scene outdoors, the exercise and the warm indulgence of the spa would be, I knew, the remedy for my winter blahs.

The Aromatherapy Body Wrap . . . aaaahh . . . was getting through to me.

Next came a shoulder, neck and face oil massage, soothing for my strained muscles and for my face, which was dry and strafed by the frigid air.

Aromatic, moisturizing and detoxifying wraps and a variety of massage treatments are the specialties of the Beyond Wrapture Urban Day Spa and Retreat, in downtown Kelowna, one of several spas in the valley. Known for sunny summers, fruit orchards and vineyards, and water sports on ninety-mile-long Okanagan Lake, the valley is surrounded by wooded mountains that are heavy with snow from about November through March. At four downhill ski resorts, Nordic skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling attract Seattle and Vancouver visitors, and, relaxing spa experiences are part of their winter getaways.

In a bright pink-trimmed and gabled house, the Beyond Wrapture Spa looks like Cleopatra's barge inside. Blue tiles and a trickling waterfall create a mellifluous, Egyptian-themed setting, where Cleo herself, her consort, Marc Antony, and the Pharoah, Ramses II, are depicted in wall paintings. As in ancient Egypt, essential scented oils, seaweeds and salts are used to exfoliate, moisturize and invigorate the skin and the body. In the Volcanic Mud Treatment, warm mud is sensuously applied and wrapped, and is followed by a hot olive oil massage. Popular with couples, the overnight Pharaoh's Retreat involves aromatherapy treatments for two, a bottle of wine; a fruit, vegetable and cheese plate, flickering candles, and breakfast in bed.

When the snow flies, guests at the Grand Okanagan Lakefront Resort and Conference Centre get free transport to a choice of three ski resorts. Upon their return at days' end, the Spa at the Grand welcomes them with exfoliating salt rubs and cozy wraps. The Okanagan Botanical Wrap uses a blend of locally produced, organic lavender, peaches, apples and other natural ingredients to rehydrate the skin. This is followed by a Vichy shower, as warm and effervescent as a rainforest cloudburst. Tuckered skiers slide into rumbling, vaporous hydrotherapy tubs for the bliss of 144 jets moving up and down their bodies.

One of the Spa's signature treatments, a real treat in the wintertime, is called Le Stone Therapy. Smooth basalt stones heated in scented oil, and iced marble stones, are manipulated, alternately, over chakra points on the spine and neck in a two-hour indulgence. Sounds like it might hurt, in fact, I found it a soothing relief for my tired muscles and sore joints.

The spa, the fitness center and indoor and outdoor swimming pools are hot spots year round at the sprawling waterfront resort. The five-star rated Grand Okanagan has a busy marina from which lake tours are launched, from parasailing and floatplane rides to paddlewheeler cruises. The short walk into Kelowna is a pleasant one along the lake and through a wetlands wildlife preserve.

A destination resort opened in 2000, Manteo Resort Waterfront Hotel and Villas recalls a Tuscan village, with vibrant pumpkin, ripe tomato red and olive tones glowing warm against the snowy whites and the dazzling blues of the lake. Clothed in icy raiments, weeping willows shiver on the shoreline, awaiting the arrival of spring, and summer's flotilla of sailboats, motor cruisers and windsurfers.

The Italian theme prevails in the grape-vine-painted private spa studio where Manteo guests retreat for traditional massage and for signature treatments such as the Sea Salt and Loofah Glow, and the Hydrating Facial, designed to nourish and rehydrate winter dryness and sun-damaged skin. Determined to acquire a skier's tan without adding wrinkles, I settled in for a Solar Bronzing Treatment, a sunless tanner applied ever so evenly over my face and neck.

Only at Manteo will you see people, eyes closed, arms and legs hanging down and completely relaxed, having "chair massages". In just fifteen minutes, this quick shoulder, neck and back rub positively revives the weary. My favorite site for a chair massage is on the terrace overlooking the lake; you can also have your massage by the swimming pool, on the private patio of your villa, or on the beach.

On the southeast end of long, meandering Lake Okanagan, in the historic lakeside town of Naramata, the Naramata Heritage Inn and Spa is a romantic retreat, complete with twelve luxurious guest rooms, a restaurant, a wine bar and a spa. Built in 1908, a masterpiece of Arts and Crafts-style architecture, the inn opened in 2001 after a three-year renovation. Original Mission-style furnishings, gleaming oak beams and floors, and vintage photos and artwork create a museum-like, yet comfortable setting. Through the nearly century-old, wavering glass panes, views of the lake and the old maple trees and gardens seem like glimpses of days gone by.

The sound of falling water in the Heritage Spa at the inn helps guests make the slow slide into a state of abandon. The Gentleman's Package is popular, comprising eucalyptus steam bath, sea salt aqua-therapy, a Vichy shower, massage and manicure. Women like the Body Polish treatment, where flower and plant essences are combined to produce baby-smooth skin; and the Eye Zone, which made my crowsfeet just disappear, at least temporarily. After an hour or so in the spa, guests retreat to the fireside, or to the clawfoot tubs in their rooms, their tootsies toasty on the heated tile floors.

Lighting up the night on Fridays with live jazz and blues, the Cobblestone Wine Bar at the Naramata Inn features the largest selection of Okanagan Valley wines available anywhere by the glass. This hot, southern area of the valley produces hearty reds like syrah and merlot, and the fragrant, fruity, white pinot gris. Also made by nearly every one of the more than fifty Okanagan Valley wineries is German-style ice wine, a viscous, lusciously sweet dessert wine served straight from the fridge . The annual Icewine Festival is held in January at Sun Peaks Ski Resort in the upper Okanagan.

Tapas and pizzas from the wood-fired oven are on the menu at the Wine Bar, while locally-grown poultry, free-range meats, fruits and vegetables are roasted for Mediterranean-influenced specialties in the Rock Oven Dining Room.

The inn makes a good base for downhill skiing at Apex Mountain Resort, and for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing on the route of the old Kettle Valley Railway, which is part of the Trans Canada Trail. Skiing right from the slopes to the door of the Chateau Big White lodge at the Big White Ski Resort, skiers take off their boots and slide into soft slippers at the day spa. Japanese soaking tubs and Japanese-style massage are unique attractions here. I signed up for the "Beyond Bliss Soak and Glow Massage", starting with a soak up to my neck in one of the deep, green slate tubs. Infused with aromatic oils and floating with rose petals, the hot, hot water glimmers in candlelight. And, the tubs are big enough for two . . .

Following a half-hour tubbing, I moved on to the "Prayer" room for akasuri, an authentic Japanese body polish administered by a therapist using fine sea salt and special, exfoliating "scrub gloves", followed by a warm shower, a sauna and finally, a yogurt and sesame oil massage by a fireplace.

Among four hotels and numerous condominium complexes in the village of Big White, less than an hour's drive from Kelowna, Chateau Big White is a new, all-suite lodge right at the top of the Village Plaza quad chair. Each of the fifty-five guest suites have gas fireplaces and some have lofts and kitchenettes.

Late November to mid-April, nearly twenty-five feet of snow falls annually on the 7,000-foot summit, and on three hundred acres of powder bowls and a hundred groomed trails for skiers and boarders. An unusual combination of climatic conditions creates hundreds of "snow ghosts", craggy snow towers that are peculiar to Big White and are fun to ski around. Nordic skiers head for groomed, forested logging routes dotted with little warming huts; kids like the tube park and the night skiing area.

The lift-served "Tubetown" and the Mini-Z snowmobile park are venues for kids at Silver Star Mountain Resort near Vernon, which is the second-largest downhill ski resort in British Columbia, where the average snowfall is twenty-three feet and the ski slopes are the first to open each winter season. You can take a horse-drawn carriage ride around the Silver Star Mountain village, where hotels, condominiums, restaurants and shops line up in bright-painted, 1890's Victorian-style wooden buildings. Silver Star is a spa-free zone, at least for now, although numerous hot tubs can be found. Three hot tubs bubble and steam every night on the rooftops of the Silver Star Club Resort, a ski-in-ski-out condominium complex.

To the northwest of the Okanagan near Kamloops, at 3,650 feet in elevation on the Cariboo plateau, "Baan Thai" at the secluded Echo Valley Ranch is one of the most unusual and beautiful spas in British Colombia. The traditional, Thai-style, pagoda-roofed houses and pavilion, all teak and cedar, were designed by an architect to the royal family of Thailand, and the team of therapists is trained in both Western and Thai techniques.

Spring through fall, horseback riding in the foothills of Mount Bowman, downhill hikes into Fraser Canyon, white water rafting, gold panning and fly fishing are among the "dude ranch" activities that most guests enjoy. Come November and through the winter, cross-country skiing, dog-sledding, ice fishing and skating are the top sports, along with downhill skiing and snowboarding. At the end of each day, the heated indoor swimming pool and the hydrotherapy pools are busy places.

A serene, Asian atmosphere prevails at the spa. Thai massage is performed on a mat or on the floor, rather than on a raised table, allowing for the therapist to use his or her body weight to stretch and manipulate muscles and joints, working along the guest's energy lines and pressure points. I find Thai massage a more physically active treatment, and for me, it results in a wonderful release of muscle tension and increased flexibility, just what I need for my favorite winter sport, which is making snow angels.

©Karen Misuraca; all rights reserved.