Head to the Kootenays for the ultimate staycation this season

If the seemingly never-ending 'frightmare' of lost luggage, cancelled flights and yet another COVID wave on the all-too-close horizon has you re-thinking getting on a plane, may I suggest a thoroughly chilled break in the Kootenays as a truly relaxing alternative?

Lightly visited and truly jaw-clangingly gorgeous, the Kootenays is likely one of my favourite places in B.C. to visit. Sure, I know what you’re going to say: ‘but Nikki, everywhere in B.C. is spectacular,’ but trust me, the Kootenays is special: the mountains seem higher, the lakes more lovely, the trees an especially lush shade of green, the roadsides sprigged with lupins in floral pinks and purples, and they are blessed with an abundance of natural hot springs. So, what are you waiting for? Head for the open road, and some serious relaxation time.

1. Halcyon Hot Springs

Halcyon Hot SpringsHalcyon Hot SpringsA little way along the winding road from Nakusp, which hugs Upper Arrow Lake in the shadow of the soaring snow-topped-even-in-summer Monashee Mountains, you’ll find the Halcyon Hot Springs Resort. Recent renovations have served Halcyon well, boasting two spotlessly clean natural hot spring pools (37° and 40°) a cold plunge (14°), plus a seasonally open mineral swimming pool and kids’ splash pool. This spot has everything you could want for a relaxing retreat: spectacular views, superb accommodation, excellent food on-site and endless peace and quiet.

Eat: The on-site Kingfisher Restaurant does a terrific line in easy lunches (the focaccia pizza special was superb), delicious dinners and a very cool B.C.-centric wine list. Exhausted by so much relaxation, I took tuna tartare and a superb burrata dish to go, and enjoyed them on the deck of my cabin, wreathed by trees and overlooked by an inquisitive squirrel. If the citrus-infused olive oil cake is on the menu, order it... and refuse to share. 

Kingfisher restaurantKingfisher restaurantSleep: I whooped with delight when I explored my little cabin a minute’s walk away from the springs: spacious and bright with a huge comfy bed and fireplace, wooden ceiling, and the most unexpected treat: a truly luxurious bathroom complete with underfloor heating and a fancy Japanese-style bidet toilet. Heaven. Ask my Fitbit: I’ve never slept better. 

Spa: Treasured by local First Nations for hundreds of years as a source of healing, the hot springs here are rich in sodium, magnesium, calcium, strontium, and lithiumwhich has well-recorded antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as being used to treat and prevent a wide range of neurological issues from depression and anxiety to ALS and chronic pain. Soak up the benefits listening to the chirp of birdsong and the gentle chimes of spa music as you breath in the scent of rambling lilacs and roses and spot paddleboarders slowly skimming across the shining lake. Go from warm pool, to hot, to cold, before relaxing on a lounger for 20 minutes and then doing it all over again. Book a massage at their day spa, andfor the ultimate in unwindingadd on CBD oil to treat pain, inflammation or anxiety. I loved my treatment here with Liette, who left my aching shoulders and neck feeling loose and pain-free.

2. Nakusp Hot Springs

Nakusp Hot SpringsNakusp Hot SpringsA 15-minute drive from Nakusp along a bumpy backroad, past a roaring river, this spot is perfect if you’re looking for a budget, family-friendly hot springs vacay option. No mod cons here, but if you want hot springs with a side of soft touches (showers, bathrooms, a cafeteria), plus 15 kilometres of trails through the old growth cedar of the Nuskanax Valley (which also offers great snowshoeing and sledding through winter) then Nakusp Hot Springs perfectly fits the bill. 

Eat: I’d hugely recommend lunch in Nakusp, or even BYO. On-site, there’s a limited menu of snacks and coffee. In town, head to Hoss and Jill’s Bistro for piled-high plates and super-friendly service; the smoked meat sandwich is especially good. Skip the burgers but grab a shake from The Hut Drive In (they have a bewildering array of flavours! I loved the black cherry and noisily slurped it down on a walk along the gorgeous waterfront). Infuriatingly, Bella Soriah was closed when I visited, but a quick glance at the menu and patio had my 'good restaurant spidey-senses' tingling: preserved tuna belly, Manchego and Serrano arancini? Yes please! While you’re in town, browse the eclectic bookstores, thrift shop and stop in at Jennifer’s Chocolates for a treat.

Sleep: There are a few A-frame cabins on-site which offer clean and functional basics, and the summer campsite is popular and just a few minutes’ away from the springs. 

Spa: Packed with minerals including calcium, copper, silica and magnesium, there are two pools here at 36° and 38°. Community-owned, the water is incredibly clean, and it cycles through fresh every 30 minutes for the hot pool and two hours for the larger warm pool. Pro tip: buy a pool noodle from the supermarket in town to best enjoy these back-to-basic hot springs and float like a local.

3. Ainsworth Hot Springs

Ainsworth Hot SpringsAinsworth Hot SpringsBack once again under the stewardship of the Yaqan Nukiy in Lower Kootenay Band of Creston, Ainsworth Hot Springs is perched above Kootenay Lake overlooking the soft-sloping, green-sprigged Purcell mountain range. On-site, there’s a large warm pool and smaller hot and cold plunge pools. Staffing shortages are biting hard here and the spa is currently closed on Monday and Tuesdays. The ferry at Balfour is a few minutes away and well worth a trip to enjoy the longest (35 minutes) free ferry in the world which shuttles passengers once an hour to Kootenay Bay. Grab some excellent coffee and a creamy flaky butterhorn from the Old World Bakery at the terminal to enjoy on the wildly scenic trip. 

Eat: I was not expecting to have one of the better meals I’ve had this year at the restaurant of a spa! Wow. Combining Indigenous ingredients with French technique, I was blown away by the Ktunaxa Grill. If the Salt Spring Island mussels (which come sizzling on a cast iron skillet, spangled with wild boar sausage) are on the menu, make sure you have them. They come with a side of the most perfect fluffy Bannock which is exactly what you need to mop up the divine wine, lemon and butter sauce. Don’t miss the steelhead trout either, which comes with a sumac-spiked warm potato salad on a glossy bed of cedar-dill sauce. 

Ktunaxa Grill.Ktunaxa GrillSleep: From the murals on the exterior walkways to the cushions on the beds, I love the elements of Indigenous art, design and textiles threaded through the resort. Linens are crisp and white, the showers are powerful, and the views over the lake are gorgeous. Stay in the main building or the newly constructed annex just a few steps away from the springs. 

Spa: Rich in the same healing minerals as Halcyon, the main pool is heated to 35°, there is also a terrific little mineral cave you can explore, wading through 42° hot water as you go, before braving the chill of the cold plunge. On-site, visit the Spirit Water spa treatment room and indulge in a unique full body medicinal plant wrap with talented practitioner Sage. This amazing treatment uses plush wraps, which are steeped in healing plants harvested in the local area such as tansy, comfrey and bear berry. After you’ve been cocooned within the steaming wrap and blanketed to keep the heat in, give in to pure pleasure with a full body massage.

4. Nelson

HumeHotel nelson credit Adrian WagnerPhoto credit: Adrian WagnerSure, Nelson doesn’t have hot springs, but likely it’ll be a stop-off point in your Kootenays trip and it’s also one of the loveliest spots in Canada. I dare you to spend more than an hour here, wandering its heritage building-stuffed lanes and back alleys, and not immediately start plotting how you could move here and open a self-indulgently niche store, like cupcakes for cats or a bar that only serves cocktails starting with an ‘N’. A playground for mountain bikers, hikers and paddlers, there’s also plenty of yoga studios, along with a cool culinary scene and pretty much no chain stores to be seen. 

Eat: Ace coffee roaster Oso Negro is based here, so that’s obviously the first stop, duly caffeinated hit up one of the town’s shady patios. Try the Black Cauldron, with its witchy apothecary vibe, creative charcuterie boards and herb- and flower-infused cocktails, hit up Red Light Ramen Bar for happy hour dumplings, an eclectic mostly low-intervention wine list and excellent cocktails, or try Marzano for crispy fried squid and Italian-influenced spritzes in the sun. 

Red Light Ramen BarRed Light Ramen BarSleep: Upgrade yourself and stay in one of the suites at the historic Hume Hotel in the heart of the action, the Juliet suite boasts a soaker tub, a vast comfy bed, and bird's eye view over the turreted law courts, river and mountains. The hotel is more than 100 years old and offers up a wealth of fun from live music, a patio with a food truck andcrucially for this relaxing tripan in-house spa. 

Spa: The Hume’s in-house Aura Spa and Salon has a full raft of treatments from reflexology pedicures and body wraps to facials and massages. After almost a week of deep relaxation, it was time to kick up a gear, so I tried a eucalyptus energizing massage that left me positively bristling with enthusiasm, ready for the long drive home and feeling wonderfully wide-awake and loose-limbed with scents of ginger, mint and eucalyptus wafting fragrantly from my skin. 100 percent recommended.