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Going Nordic at Station Blü Hydrotherapy Spa in Quebec City

The Kit / May 2013

Guests get the cold (and hot) treatment at Blu

The Ancient Greeks soaked in public baths, Northern Europeans rolled in snow, and modern athletes plunge post-performance, but hydrotherapy—this is, the alternating combo of hot and cold for therapeutic benefits—is invading the Canadian spa scene in the form of outdoor Nordic Spas. But you’re normal if ice baths sound like the opposite of relaxation. I, for one, am terrified.

“It’s cold, but if you follow the instructions, you won’t feel it,” promises Martin Galdu, president of Station Blü, a new Nordic spa nuzzled at the foothills of Quebec City’s Laurentian Mountains. At the elbow of a bubbling brook, surrounded by snow and tall white pines, swimsuit-clad patrons of Station Blü walk along heated stones between the sauna, steam bath, whirl pool and—at a shivery 7˚C—the dreaded cold pool.

My mission, should I choose to accept it: Begin in the 35˚C sauna—which sits 40 people, making it one of the largest in North America—for as long as I can bear. When my pores are open and dripping sweat, I’m ready. Move as quickly as possible and jump—no easing in—into the cold pool, head underwater. “If you just go to your shoulders,” explains Gladu, “those pores are still open so heat will escape. You’re searing yourself closed, like a good steak.”

And, more important, you don’t feel the cold plunge. Promise.

Instead, your body’s trapped heat delivers a strange euphoric feeling, staying sufficiently warm to enjoy the snowy scenery in just a towel. Meanwhile, good things are happening: heat has slowed the internal organs’ activity, encouraging blood vessels to expand, while cold water constricts these blood vessels, pushing blood back into the organs. The result is improved circulation and detoxification. “Your muscles relax, circulation increases, oxygen is carried to all levels of the skin,” says Gladu, who says by my third or fourth visit, my skin will glow.

Studies are rare and few, but some have shown hydrotherapy may help arthritis, fibromyalgia (chronic pain), inflammation and even insomnia. The jury’s still out on beauty claims, though spa enthusiasts claim improved skin elasticity, shrunken pores and aided weight loss. In the physiotherapy community, where full-body cold immersion has long been used in sports, some athletes claim enhanced performance.

“Unfortunately, there’s little scientific evidence to support the notion of improved performance,” says Sandy Rennie, director of Dalhousie University’s School of Physiotherapy. “It does help decrease trauma and control the pain and swelling of soft tissues and joint injuries,” he adds, not unlike plopping an icepack on a sore ankle. Beyond the sporting community, Rennie calls the practice “quite faddish.”

But wrapped in my towel and sipping my antioxidant smoothie, I’m convinced the Nordic spa is here to stay. They’re a good match with Canada—long winters, European influence—and cater perfectly to the bustling ski crowd. They often use greener hydro energies and natural gas. And, perhaps the most relaxing part of an afternoon at Station Blü, is a refreshing lack of distractions. “There are no kids, no cameras, no computers—there aren’t even clocks,” says Gladu. Your only job is to heat up, cool down, relax and start over.