The Best Spa In North America Is Floating Around Montreal


In order to explain the tranquility ship that is Montreal's boat spa Bota Bota Spa Sur l'Eau, I have to offer a glimpse into my personal hell two days after visting. The time is 4:30 AM, and my colleague and I have just poured ourselves into an airport-bound taxi after enjoying a relaxing two hour nap at the tail end of a red wine and pasta dinner plus subsequent drinks and dancing. I'm writing this right now on my iPhone notes app because the only thing I can do to take my mind off vomiting is to imagine the serene experience I was enjoying days earlier. Bota Bota is a fantastic way to reinvigorate your body: Electing to go out the night before a 7 AM flight to New York is a fantastic way to destroy it.

36 hours prior to falling asleep in an immigration queue, my work wife and I were arriving aboard Bota Bota in Montreal's Old Port as a soft drizzle descended on the city. This, I've been told, is the second best condition to bathe in a bunch of outdoor pools: The #1 most best would be in the freezing cold, and the absolute worst would be on a nice, hot summer day. "Do you want to be in a hot tub when it's hot out?" rhetorically asked Nancy, one of Glossier's Montreal-based developers. She's right—that sounds very unpleasant. "When it's freezing, the contrast between the cold and hot water feels amazing." Nancy also recommended the deep tissue massage, a menu item that was suspiciously absent from my list of comped media spa services. That list comprised one option: the Nordic Water Circuit. (I loved it and am grateful.)

The Nordic water circuit is a prescribed series of experiences that rapidly alter your body temperature and repeatedly jolt your circulatory system. You start with a steam for 15 minutes, plunge your body into a tank of icy cold water for 15 seconds, and then relax for 15 hours in one of the spa's many hot tubs or hammock chairs. This is all for the sake of relaxation, which is perhaps my favorite part: Unlike almost every single spa on the planet, there are no dubious health or wellness claims attached to the Nordic circuit. The point is not to cleanse your body of unwanted substances or reach a higher plane of being. It is, simply, to chill out.

The building itself is exquisite. The Bota was born in the early '50s as a ferry, then was reborn as a theatre boat in 1967, then was re-reborn as the most breathtaking collection of small pools in all of North America in 2010. Aboard the boat, plus in the adjacent garden, encountering a new and exciting body of water is as easy as stumbling upon a Starbucks in New York City. Everywhere you turn, a new place to bathe. Dunking your body in the froid tank is sensational, and following up with a 20 minute hot tub soak will turn you into a puddle of serotonin. On dry land, there are one million ways to relax your body—padded bunks, hanging chaises, and a full-service bistro with wine and small plates. Bota Bota, above all else, is a floating torture chamber designed to relax you into oblivion. It is superbly effective at doing so.

If you are not a native French speaker, the signage is delightful (Zone de Silence!) and confusing (when you're looking for the sauna but wander into the 'bain de vapour'). Bota Bota has regular saunas alongside nearly identical lightless enclosures, except one contains steam and the other is pumped full of searing eucalyptus essential oil. If you don't frequent waterborne spas, you might think this is a regular sauna, and in the spirit of the Nords, you might attempt to stay for the full 15 minutes suggested by the Bota Bota website.

Oh my God, don't!!! I made this mistake. You will burn from inside out. After one minute, a eucalyptus steam feels like a clarifying treatment for your respiratory system. After 15 minutes, however, there will be nothing left of you. Bain de vaporized. Thank you for visiting Bota Bota.

The spa attracts around 100,000 visitors annually, 80,000 of whom miraculously showed up on the same day as me. Despite the two volume settings mandated by Bota Bota's staff—"silence" and "quiet conversation"—a light, jovial murmur pervaded the atmosphere. The other, less-publicized spa experience Bota Bota offers is perhaps the greatest gift of all, a soujourn to the intellectual bathhouses of antiquity: providing a safe and elegant space for tourists in Quebec to practice their conversational French. Where else can you broaden your linguistic horizons while also in a hot tub? Popular phrases to try include "C'est ma serviette," (That's my towel), "Est-ce que je peux boire là?" (Can I drink in here?), "Ce n'est pas votre serviette," (That's not your towel), and "Bonjour, j'adore le Bota Bota!" (Hello, I love the Bota Bota!) I used that last one on the checkout attendant—she smiled kindly and asked how things were going in America.

—Brennan Kilbane

Photos via Bota Bota Spa Sur l'Eau.

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