Amid the nonstop activity of Montreal's old port, one boat languishes. Instead of loading grain from the huge silo looming overhead or navigating the Saint Lawrence River, its passengers rest on chaise lounges or soak in hot pools. This retired ferry boat sails no more. Now it's a 25,000 square foot floating spa.
The former ferry shuttled passengers between Sorel and Berthier, Que. in the 1950s and '60s. Then it served as a showboat on the Richelieu River. The Emond family bought the boat in 2008 and opened it as a spa — after a huge amount of retrofitting — in 2010. The big draw is the water circuit, but visitors can also book massages, facials and body treatments, or come for yoga and Pilates classes.
The water circuit has two main parts. The quiet zone occupies two decks of the boat. Guests are asked to be silent and let everybody enjoy the relaxation that comes when you take a break from speaking and listening. If you want a more social atmosphere, you can cross the gangplank into the gardens, Bota Bota's large onshore area. Both the quiet zone and the gardens have whirlpools, cold pools, a sauna, steam room, and many spots to chill out.
I arrived feeling depleted after a long day of touring while trying to deal with a stressful situation back home. The quiet zone sounded absolutely perfect. After changing into my swimsuit and leaving my backpack in a locker, I climbed up three decks and eased into a whirlpool overlooking the river. From this vantage point, I could see the opposite shore, with Montreal landmarks like the Habitat 67 condos that look like a Habitrail built out of boxes. Huge grey clouds moved across the wide expanse of Montreal's sky, dropping a few cool raindrops. It's a gorgeous setup. However, I was disappointed in the silent zone. My informal study concluded that about half of humans are constitutionally unable to shut up, even when sitting in front of a sign depicting lips with a finger over them.
The steam room is an intense experience. Blinded by thick eucalyptus fog, it felt like I'd entered some alternate world in a fantasy novel. After a couple of brief visits, I decided the sauna was more my speed. Toasty, but not too hot, and easy to breathe.
The chill-out areas are superb. Some are outside on the deck or in the gardens, some inside where the temperature is warmer and full of spa smells. My favourites were the swing chairs inside the boat, and a cluster of hammocks in a remote section of the garden. For those who'd rather stay grounded, bean bags and chaise lounges abound. The garden has an enclosed area where guests can nap on full-sized plastic mattresses, or climb ladders to single top bunks.
Bota Bota's restaurant offers light fare such as salmon tartar and warm duck confit. The vegetarian sandwich is made with a beetroot patty. Guests don't need to worry about carrying money around. When they come on board, staff give them a bracelet with a locker number that also allows them to charge restaurant purchases.
The spa is popular with locals, but easily accessible to tourists, too. All you need is a swimsuit. Bota Bota supplies you with a towel and robe, and will provide a plastic bag for your wet swimsuit on your way out. As a visitor, it was fun to see the skyline from the river and to pick out local landmarks I'd visited. The staff and signage are bilingual in French and English.
After a long day of walking on the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal and touring museums, my 90 minutes of lazing at Bota Bota was hugely restorative. It took me a half hour to sufficiently dissolve in Bota Bota's waters, to the point where I lost my constant desire to accomplish things, and stopped noticing whether people were talking or not. The hanging chair was especially conducive to zoning out. By the time I'd been there an hour, I was hardly thinking at all. Except for an occasional recurring question: How could I convince Bota Bota to replicate their spa in my hometown?