The big soak: three rewarding, watery wellness experiences in Toronto

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This article is part of a guide to Toronto from FT Globetrotter

Bleary-eyed, beleaguered, dozing at the dinner table or staring wide-eyed into the wee small hours. For me, whether I’m battling jet lag, a hangover or a busy mind, stepping into the soft quiet of a spa or bathhouse, knowing a treatment or warm pool awaits, feels like a deep relieving breath. This isn’t news: after all it was Hippocrates, Greek physician and acclaimed father of Western medicine, who said: “The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and a scented massage every day.” 

Toronto’s offerings in the wellness realm have expanded and evolved in recent years. Where before the choice was limited to high-end hotel spas, over the past decade a string of alternative spots has emerged, drummed up by the city’s young populace of tech entrepreneurs and the health conscious, where you can experience everything from dunking yourself in ice baths to sensory deprivation tanks. The list below shows that there is something for all persuasions in Toronto’s growing wellness scene.

Miraj Hammam Spa, Shangri-La Toronto

188 University Avenue, Toronto, ON M5H 0A3

  • Good for: Expert, detailed treatments

  • Not so good for: Going out immediately afterwards. Whether you’re flushed from the hammam, dewy from a facial or simply too thoroughly relaxed, you’ll want to give yourself a little time to unwind before you re-enter the real world 

  • FYI: Access to the hotel’s health club is included with treatments of 75 minutes and over, or for an additional fee of C$25 

  • Prices: Hammam, C$160 (about £97) on weekdays (C$170 weekends and holidays). Marine Renewal Facial, C$230 weekdays (C$240 weekends and holidays)

  • Website; Directions

The Middle East-inspired decor of Miraj Hammam Spa

A lift ride up to the fifth floor of the Shangri-La hotel, through the ornate doors of the Miraj Hammam Spa, and suddenly the rest of the world fades far behind you. A softly lit, seemingly windowless space enhances the submersion. Middle Eastern influences are woven throughout. A gold-domed reception welcomes guests, replete with tiled flooring, Persian carpets and intricately patterned arches. Pendant lights and silver lanterns hang throughout. Post-treatment mint tea and baklavas are served on ornate little tables in the snug spa lounge.

The spa is renowned for its Hammam & Gommage offering: a revitalising combination of steam (hammam) and deep exfoliation (gommage) to cleanse the skin and clear the mind. The hammam is a centuries-old Middle Eastern treatment, originally based on Roman and Byzantine bathing practices and adopted along the Mediterranean coast in the seventh century. Traditionally, hammams were places for purification before prayer and swapping gossip.

A woman sitting down , leaned back against a tiled wall, in the spa’s hammam
The spa’s hammam

My hammam experience began in the eucalyptus steam chamber, where I was left in the mist for 15 minutes. Pores very much open and dripping in sweat, I was led by my aesthetician Diana into the adjacent treatment room. Here, I stretched out on a Jerusalem Gold marble bench for my full body scrub. Prepare to be skinned like a rabbit (in a good way). The invigorating scrub — a eucalyptus-infused black Moroccan soap applied with an exfoliating mitt — will see that dead skin fall away. I departed supremely supple and soft.

Othership

425 Adelaide Street West, Toronto, ON M5V 3C1

  • Good for: Going it alone or coming with friends. Trying something new and pushing your boundaries, whether physically or mentally 

  • Not so good for: Those searching for traditional treatments. Whether or not you do a session, it’s very much a communal experience 

  • FYI: Don’t have a massive lunch beforehand (yes, speaking from experience here)

  • Prices: Single drop-in session, C$55; intro offer, $99 for two weeks (limit of one session per day). All sessions in the packages can be used for free flow, classes or socials

  • Website; Directions

Othership, a holistic bathhouse, began its life in Robbie Bent’s backyard in 2019. Having grappled with addiction in his early 20s, he subsequently become sober and wanted to create a social experience that wasn’t a restaurant or concert, and wasn’t based around drugs or alcohol. “So five of us started an ice bath in my backyard,” he explains. “If you knew about the gate, you could come in — anyone was welcome — and it soon grew to 100 people.” They ran a session a night: teaching attendees how to use the bath, the science behind it, breathing techniques and meditation in the ice. “We found these super-high-powered and stressed people could turn off their minds and their to-do lists. And we thought, ‘Woah, we’re on to something here.’” The ice bath turned into a converted garage with sauna/bath/tea room and, last January, a space in downtown Toronto.

Profile of a man meditating at Othership spa
Othership’s classes range from meditation . . .

People sitting in the sauna at Othership; two people are waving towels over them
 . . . to more up-tempo offerings © Graydon Herriott (2)

Othership has already gained hundreds of devotees. The experience is rooted in the health benefits of cold-water immersion, with group sessions or a guided free flow (90 minutes to use the space at one’s own pace with the advice of a guide). Classes range from the high-octane (movement, vocalisations, yelling in the sauna) to the downtempo (candlelit, meditation, yin yoga) and therapeutic (couples’ sessions, breathwork). There’s also an evening social until 1am on Friday and Saturday. The 3,000-square-foot space is crafted from cedar wood with low-lighting, and has a tiered seating area with a wood fire. Open year round, the sauna is roomy (50-person capacity) and four stone ice baths (that each fit two) await courageous plungers.

On my visit, we were guided through our free flow, with explanations on how to move through the space, the optimum amount of time to spend sweating it out in the sauna, the ideal length to endure the ice bath (two minutes, but 30 seconds will do). We were told to resist the strong urge to jump out of the bath and straight into the sauna, with its scented ice bombs, but rather allow the body to warm itself naturally by relaxing (read: shivering) in front of the fire.

Four stone ice baths at Othership
Take the plunge: the zero-degree ice baths at Othership © Graydon Herriott

On a frosty Tuesday afternoon, the sauna was occupied by an eclectic mix of bearded types meditating, frazzled tech entrepreneurs, women on solo trips of introspection and friends chatting through the steamy haze. Located in the city’s entertainment district, Othership draws Torontonians and travellers of all stripes. “What makes it so powerful is it’s for bankers and lawyers and journalists — people who might not have a spirituality or yoga practice,” explains Bent. “It’s filling this whole new thing around healthy social wellness as entertainment.” 

“Take three deep breaths,” Shane, my guide intoned. “Keep focusing on your breath while you’re in the bath.” As I took the plunge into the zero Celsius water (accompanied by a mandatory shriek), a soft gong announced the icy countdown had begun. Shane’s steady counting of the seconds did much to enable me to sit the whole two minutes. Shockingly, I went on to do the circuit twice more.

A visit to Othership is an opportunity to challenge and surprise yourself, and to overcome fears, whether of cold water or of shrieking with strangers in a sauna. I left exhilarated and invigorated, my lunchtime slump quite forgotten.

Body Blitz Spa

471 Adelaide Street West, Toronto, ON M5V 1T1 and 497 King Street East, Toronto, ON M5V 1L9

  • Good for: Benefiting from the re-energising effects of water therapy without the usual time commitment 

  • Not so good for: Men or pregnant women (they offer a prenatal massage, though recommend that pregnant women consult their doctors before booking any other treatments)

  • FYI: Come in good time before a treatment (60 to 90 minutes recommended) to soak in the therapeutic waters (included in treatment prices). Weekends are more crowded

  • Prices: Blitz Scrub (body wash, scrub and massage), C$185; water-circuit access, $78 Wednesday to Sunday ($68 on Tuesday). Closed on Monday

  • Website; Directions

Toronto’s female-only Body Blitz Spas (there are two) were founded in 2005 by Laura Polley. Having travelled around the world and dipper her toes into the thermal waters of bathhouses in Germany, Italy and Los Angeles, she decided to bring the healing waters to her home city, and worked on the creation of Body Blitz with her sister Rena. The eclectic cultural inspiration, fitting for a city as multicultural as Toronto, is felt in the Korean-inspired treatments, Japanese-style gender-split bathing and elaborate European water circuit.

The hot Epsom salt pool and (behind it) the Dead Sea salt pool at Body Blitz Spa
The hot Epsom salt pool and (behind it) the Dead Sea salt pool at Body Blitz Spa © Carlos Avalos

The spacious central room features a large Dead Sea salt pool with water jets, cold plunge pool, hot Epsom salt pool and row of loungers. The first step on the circuit is five to 10 minutes in the salt pool to warm the body, quicken the pulse and relax the muscles and mind. This is followed by a eucalyptus steam or infrared sauna, before a quick shower to wash off the toxins, followed by a minute in the cold-plunge pool to slow the heart rate and close the pores, and then five minutes in the hot Epsom Salt pool and another cold plunge. Then you do it all again. And again (or at least as many times as you want in your allocated 90 minutes). Purported health benefits include easing muscle aches and inflammation, eliminating toxins and relieving stress.

A woman lying down with her eyes closed, receiving a head massage at Body Blitz Spa
Body Blitz Spa’s Face + Scalp Renewal . . . 

A woman receiving a body mud treatment at Body Blitz Spa
. . . and its body-mud treatment

When I went on a Friday afternoon, the atmosphere was subdued and peaceful, women chatting in pairs in the pool, a few dozing on the red loungers, others on a solo immersion under one of the waterfalls. Time short, I had a body scrub (the longer and more luxurious body glow is recommended). The name — Blitz Scrub — says it all. I lay on a bed and was hosed down and scrubbed. Warm orange-scented milk was poured over my body, followed by a light-touch massage. In Laura’s words, the therapists’ are trained to ensure you “feel you haven’t been that clean since your mother bathed you”. I can’t say I remember that in huge detail, but I certainly felt soft as a baby.

Unlike Toronto’s more decadent spas, the focus here is on the treatments and communal bathing experience. When Body Blitz opened its doors 18 years ago, the main wellness experiences on offer in Toronto were expensive hotel spas. With the spa, the sisters wanted to bring “health through water to the women of Toronto at a price that was cost-effective”, says Laura. Almost two decades on, women still regularly come to bathe in the therapeutic waters, alone or with friends.

Share your favourite Toronto wellness experience in the comments

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