Carmelo, a slender Italian guy, wore nothing but a small loincloth as he danced around the sauna, twirling and whipping a white towel. His wrist gyrations wafted the scent of a snowball infused with lemongrass oil over the 20 of us seated on three tiered wooden benches.
It was funny at first, but after a few minutes, perched on the top bench, I was too hot to giggle. And it really was pleasant to sweat and inhale great lungfuls of humid, citrusy air when outside it was -19 Celsius.
This was the Aufguss ceremony — German for "infusion" — offered four times daily at Thermëa by Nordik Spa-Nature in Winnipeg. Sometimes Carmelo dresses up like a gladiator, and sometimes the performance includes a smoke machine and black lights. But the blue loincloth was probably enough — combined with the intense heat, a human heart can only take so much.
Thermëa is a collection of hot and tepid pools, cold plunges, wet and dry saunas, relaxation areas, and other corporeal delights. While the two year-old spa is popular year round, winter is when Winnipeggers really love to visit. It's magical to sit in a pool of hot water, snowy trees standing on little islands, steam floating over the water so you can barely see three metres ahead. Underwater, coloured lights slowly change in time to the piped-in relaxation music. Sitting there with tendrils of hair freezing around my ears, I almost believe I could live in Winnipeg's harsh climate.
The Thermal Cycle
If you want to get the most health benefits out of your visit, the management recommends doing three thermal cycles. That means hot, cold, then relaxation, times three.
As I've found from my past experiences with hydrotherapy, the hot and relaxation cycles are no problem. The cold is punishing.
Thermëa's cold plunge features a waterfall you can stand under. Yes, a cold waterfall. It's true that when it's -19, at 10 degrees the waterfall is warmer than the air, but that still failed to entice me. I found that spending about 30 seconds in the cold air, wondering whether I should get in the cold water, counted as a cold cycle.
The hot, wet, slippery, eucalyptus-scented sauna was way more enjoyable. Afterwards, I moved on to a group shower room with buckets of house-made lavender and orange Epsom salt scrubs. "This is going to make life here so much better!" said a guy in blue swim trunks exfoliating next to me. A local, he was just discovering the joys of Thermëa. During my stay in Winnipeg I met several locals who'd not yet visited the spa and, like the annoying know-it-all tourist I am, I told them they really, really have to go. Immediately.
If you get hungry in the middle of the thermal cycle, no problem. Thermëa has the Resto on premises, and you can eat dinner in your robe. I happened to be there on Foodie Wednesday, which offers the thermal experience and a four-course meal for $110. The vegan four-course dinner featured a beet appetizer, an arugula salad with strawberry vinaigrette, and a large vegetarian sauté over roasted garlic quinoa, served with confit mushrooms and more arugula. For dessert, they had orange or blackberry sage sorbet. All very good.
Several of my dinner companions — mostly Canadian, one British — ordered the Cornish game hen with lemon thyme compound butter and Manitoba baby potatoes, then spent the main course pondering what, exactly, a Cornish game hen is. Eventually somebody turned to her phone, which was banned in other parts of the spa, and learned through Wikipedia that it's just "a broiler chicken, the most common strain of commercially raised meat chickens." But that only sucked an ounce of glamour from our spa meal.
Hooked on Cold
An attendant politely tells me the spa is closing, so I head towards the locker rooms with my new friend in the blue swim trunks. He is stoked. "I never thought I could be outside in winter here without a hat and a scarf. And look!" He throws out his arms to emphasize he's wearing nearly nothing. I ask him if he took the cold plunge. Twice, he tells me. "When I first got here, I said there's no use for that. But then after that ceremony in the sauna, I got it."
I glance back at the terrifying 10-degree waterfall. Am I missing out on a massive endorphin-releasing adrenaline shot? Am I more of a chicken than the Cornish game hen? But the spa is closing; too late to find out. I'll have to come back and see if I get braver. Maybe in summer.