Canada and Austria have just produced the perfect spa lovechild and it is called Sparkling Hill Resort.
I'm here, just ahead of the official opening, and I've returned to my room just in time to watch a sudden shower sweep across Coldstream Valley. I race to shut the floor-to-ceiling windows before the coastal weather system starts lashing the glass, but within moments the rain is gone, replaced by a ridiculously perfect rainbow that looks as if a Grade 3 student got out a fresh pack of magic markers and went to town on the sky over Sparkling Hill Resort. As the sun streams back in and the room's subtle crystal components start refracting the light, I realize that there are no happy accidents when you build a $122-million resort funded by Gernot Langes-Swarovski - the patriarch of the Swarovski crystal empire.
Sparkling Hill will become a premier international destination for extended wellness holidays. I will bet money on this, and here's why: I have visited more than 150 spas around the world, have written a book on the subject, and I can tell you that even in its infancy, Sparkling Hill ranks among the very best.
Hans-Peter Mayr, who worked in Austria at a wellness hotel but often vacationed in Western Canada, is the brainchild behind the project. "I was looking in Canada for similar destination spas like we have in Austria, because I wanted to bring good ideas back to Austria to have something new," says Mayr, Sparkling Hill's chief executive officer. "But what I found is that there is nothing in Canada that is similar to what we are doing in Europe. And then the idea was born: Let's bring the European idea to Canada."
That means a more therapeutic approach, he explains.
"I'm not saying that the European concept is better - no, no, no. But it is much more health-orientated and not only focused on pampering."
And then he found his investor: Langes-Swarovski, whom Mayr calls a visionary and the "nicest Austrian person that you could meet." Langes-Swarovski bought in, literally, arranging the financing, buying the land and taking care of the financial details.
Soon after the land purchase in 2003, the footprint for Sparkling Hill was blasted out of a granite rock face on a ridge atop a 72-hectare parcel of land known as Mount Royce, which has sweeping views of the Monashee Mountains and over Lake Okanagan. Because of the hotel's height, it feels as though you've got an aerial view of the valley. And how did they score this peerless vantage point? "This was the first and this will probably be the last time the City of Vernon will allow a building permit like ours," Mayr says. That permit, at $55-million, is the biggest in Vernon's history.
Every room at the resort has a spectacular view. When you call to reserve, you're asked if you would prefer a lake- or mountain-view suite. (Insider's tip: No. 333 is a corner room so you get a dishy slice of both.)
Each of the 152 suites is confidently cozy in white linens, custom-designed Kohler soaker tubs, natural wood finishes and earth tones: Warm yet streamlined in the European manner.
You won't find artwork or crazily patterned carpets, as nature, and the various crystal components scattered throughout the hotel - from the encrusted washroom sign in the restaurant and the one-of-a-kind crystal sculpture in the tea room to the floating crystal handrails in the grand foyer - are all the beauty you need. Swarovski now is so much more than jewellery and figurines.
The real jewel in the crown, however, is the resort's 40,000-square-foot spa.
Tinus Pietersen is the Wellness Manager at Sparkling Hill's KurSpa, and is perhaps the most enthusiastic spa director you will ever meet. (I'm willing to put money on this too.)
"We are not here for one night like a normal hotel," he tells me as we sit down for a quick consultation to arrange my spa schedule. He says they want to teach guests real lifestyle changes. "You want to seriously consider what it means to be alive. We can transform you. This is not an idle promise."
What it amounts to is a whole lot of pampering and relaxation coupled with bouts of alternative healing therapies.
Which brings us to the spa's signature treatment.
"You know what," Pietersen says suddenly, "let's take a break from chatting and let's go take a cold sauna. You'll sign a waiver, we'll take your blood pressure, and then we'll go take a cold sauna."
And with that he runs off to fetch me some gloves, a warming headband and a surgical mask. Yikes!
I knew I wasn't going to get out of doing this. Even before I had arrived at the resort, Mayr had been boasting that among the 100 or so treatments on offer, the cryotherapy cold sauna would be the wellness spa's biggest draw. And rightly so, seeing as total body cold therapy isn't only brand new to North America, but the crazy cold -110 C baseline temperature will tempt curious spa daredevils in droves. Wondering what -110 feels like? Well, it sure as hell doesn't feel like biting into a York Peppermint Pattie. And even the wind chill in the coldest corners of Siberia doesn't cut it. Instead, think outer space. But, as Mayr is fond of joking, "it's a dry cold."
Applying extreme cold to the body can improve mobility and reduce pain associated with diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis as the lower temperature reduces swelling and helps muscles relax. It's really just a modified version of RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation), and European medical studies have proven cryotherapy's effectiveness. Still, medical complaints aren't a requirement to reap the benefits of a spin in the cold sauna, as cryotherapy is believed to have an overall rejuvenating effect for all.
And, Mayr says, everyone who experiences the three minutes of extraordinary cold leaves the sauna smiling. Maybe they're just happy to be alive.
With earrings and bracelets removed and pressure taken, ears and hands covered and surgical mask on, we enter the two anti-chambers of the cold sauna before stepping into the -110 big freeze. Pietersen is in there with me and makes it fun.
"Keep moving, slow motions. Wiggle the fingers and toes," he says as we hop around and walk in circles. Ice crystals form on our eyelashes and my skin starts to turn pink. I'm not going to lie - it's so cold in here I fear my nipples may crack off. But it's also not nearly as painful as walking outside during a cold snap in Ottawa when you're not properly dressed for the weather. This is about the healing power of cold. Two minutes later, I emerge intact - and tremendously alert.
And without a second thought, I do it again the very next day. Because what I learned at Sparkling Hill is that the ludicrous can suddenly become commonplace. It's the type of place where a short hike means bumping into a handful of deer and marmots right outside your window. Where grand gestures - million-dollar crystal installations, five-star dining and epic Canadian landscapes - are simply there to add another layer to your spa vacation.
Mayr got it wrong: It's not a European-style wellness hotel, it's better. It's relaxed and polished and, yes, truly unique. I finally understand what Mayr was going through trying to describe Sparkling Hill over the phone. He said, "Take a look and you will understand."
You really have to see it to believe it.
-110 COLD SAUNA You walk into North America's first and only cryotherapy chamber wearing what you'd wear to the gym, plus the loose cotton gloves, warming head band and surgical mask that they kit you out in. After your blood pressure is taken, you sign a waiver and head into the -110 C sauna for a maximum of three minutes. While in the fully monitored chamber, you keep moving as your skin temperature drops to -5 degrees, said to be optimal for boosting the nervous and circulatory systems. I went in twice. It does sting a little, but the pain is totally manageable. I stayed the duration the second time around, and emerged feeling vibrantly alive. $40 introductory session; or $300 for the full effect of 10 sessions
BEST. FACIAL. EVER. I've had maybe 100 facials in my life: The Sparkling Radiance deluxe facial is the very best. Since I was the spa's first client (it hadn't officially opened yet), I had the Austrian woman who is training the spa's aestheticians. She softly described the various steps and uses of the umpteen Austrian professional-grade skin-care products as she gently massaged them into my skin using hypnotic circular motions with a magical touch. The facial included extractions, masks, foot massage, lymph drainage and even some helpful eyebrow tweezing. 90 minutes; $145
STEAM, SAUNA, SCENTS: CAN I MOVE IN? KurSpa's series of seven therapeutic rooms are a signature experience. Each room is a work of art, from the warm Aqua Meditation room to the herbal sauna with its awesome steam show, to the fragrant Rose Steam Room where heated wall tiles are embedded with flower petals. There's the mystical-looking, eucalyptus-hit Crystal Steam Room, and the Panorama Sauna overlooking Lake Okanagan. Cool down in the Ice Igloo with snow-like ice chips amid chilled white marble tiles that are glazed with Swarovski crystal lacquer. Go from warm to hot, to steamy to icy. And then finish off with one of the kickin' Experience Showers, where you choose from a bevy of nozzles and showerheads, colour and scents, be it eucalyptus, orange or mandarin. (I could live here.) Use of the Aqua Area is also included with your spa stay, including the natural saltwater indoor pool with underwater classical music, the 25-person hot tub, as well as the outdoor infinity pool.
COUPLES, AT THE CAR WASH Of the spa's 48 treatment rooms there are several used exclusively for a set of culturally inspired couples bath and massages, including the hammam, which is what I had. After a quick steam you hop onto a wet massage table, whereupon a hose spews foamy olive oil soap onto you, as if you're in a carwash. Warm water rinse and repeat with more creamy soap, then you're scrubbed down with an exfoliating glove made from goat hair. Mint tea completes this modern twist on an ancient tradition. 60 minutes; $200 for two people
FOUR HANDS ARE BETTER THAN TWO (MASSAGE) Manus is the Latin word for hand, and I think we can all agree that four hands are better than two, especially when it comes to massages. For the Four Manus Massage you have two therapists working on you at once (one takes the upper half and one goes south), as they administer your choice of massage, from sports to lymph drainage to hot stone, which here, will use warm uncut crystals. 25 minutes, $50; 50 minutes, $95; 80 minutes, $140
INDULGE IN YOUR SENSE OF TASTE
As with the rest of the aesthetic of Sparkling Hill, dining is done in the European manner, which is to say there's a full, hot breakfast included in all stays, while evenings beget a languid multicourse affair. Winnipeg-bred chef Ross Derrick helms the 250-seat main restaurant, called PeakFine, where the food is accomplished and delicious. The menu, composed of perfectly calibrated four-course meals, will change every day. My favourites were the delicate house-cured duck breast with cherry bread pudding, braised quail with warm potato soufflé, rosy tenderloin and a chocolate-coated mango parfait for dessert.
Lunch at PeakFine is à la carte, and I highly recommend the starter of thyme gnocchi with green beans, mascarpone and crushed walnuts. Don't bypass the crispy veal schnitzel with braised cabbage and grainy mustard sauce.
Joining chef Derrick in the kitchen is Manual Adamiker, the resort's Viennese pastry chef. He's the one responsible for the signature Austrian-style apple strudel and the dangerous Sacher tortes. (Spa food? Who said anything about spa food?) Lunch starters average $11, mains are $27 and desserts are $11. Set dinner menus are $80 per person without wine.
Barrique and Java is Sparkling Hill's second, more casual restaurant, a café and pastry shop by day and a wine bar dishing out house-made charcuterie, pâtés, terrines, rillettes and international cheese plates by night ($6 per ounce).
Exclusive to the resort, Bodegas Norton wines from Mendoza, Argentina, is Gernot Lange-Swarovski's private label from his own vineyard. Both the house white (2009 Torrontes Lo Tengo) and the red (2009 Malbec Lo Tengo) were almost too drinkable ($8 per glass).
Both restaurants are open to the public.
IF YOU GO
Rooms are $250 a night for mountain view, $20 more for lake view, though most people will book packages, which start at $850 for two people and include two nights in a deluxe suite, hot breakfasts daily, a four-course dinner for two, two $150 gift cards for the spa and unlimited use of KurSpa's steam rooms and saunas, pool and fitness centre.
The resort is a 25-minute drive from the international airport in Kelowna, and the shuttle to Sparkling Hill is free.