Why Bancroft is a gem of a place


Grail Springs is a luxury wellness retreat in central Ontario that helps guests reconnect with body, soul and the most important aspects of life.

Story by Nancy Wigston Senior Writer

BANCROFT, ONTARIO — Rockhounds and nature lovers are often after the same thing: Rare finds. In Bancroft, a small community in Ontario’s Highlands that is 190 kilometres northwest of Kingston, there are two unique experiences that each group will be happy to have stumbled upon.

First, the annual Rockhound Gemboree, which is celebrating its 50th year this weekend. The yearly gathering is held in this town that proudly calls itself “Canada’s Mineral Capital.” Considering the richness and expansiveness of the Canadian Shield, that’s no idle boast. On the southern end of the rugged shield, Bancroft possesses a proud mining heritage and the Gemboree brings history to life as thousands of gem and mineral lovers — “rockhounds” — pour into town, overwhelming the population of 3,880.

A hundred-odd fossil, mineral, gem, and lapidary dealers, as well as prospectors, science geeks, and gentle traders in Tibetan brass bowls, fill the community centre and curling club. For many folks, however, the joy comes from seeking their own treasures in freshly turned, mineral-rich earth, where they can find aquamarine, feldspar, mica, garnet, tourmaline, amazonite, opal, and beryl. Garden claws and geologists’ hammers are the recommended tools; shoes must be covered, safety glasses worn.

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In a school parking lot one August morning, geologist/prospector Chris Fouts waxed poetic about Bancroft’s mining booms (1880s-20s and 1940-60s). In the glory days of the Roaring Twenties, beryl crystals were “stacked like cordwood” beside the railway station — now home to Bancroft’s delightful Mineral Museum. Ultimately, the mines proved too small to remain profitable and were closed. Still, Bancroft marble graces Canada’s Parliament buildings, and, somewhat further back in time, these hills stood as high as the Himalayas do today.

After safety warnings — “The edges of broken quartz are sharper than scalpels,” we were told — we ventured out, convoy style, to a beryl pit site 45 minutes away, where parents were reminded to watch their kids. But those kids turned out to be experts, too. A 12-year-old showed us some “blue stuff” he discovered. “Hmm, turquoise,” opined a senior rockhound.

A charming jewelry designer displayed her finds: smoky quartz and blue amazonite. Meanwhile, a Dutch tourist caused a stir with her discovery: a stunning purple fluorite crystal, suspended in black mica. Returning to the coolness of the forest, we heard a boy — he looked about eight — observe, “Dad, did you know that six per cent of the earth’s crust is made of iron?”

Our next stop was a rose quartz mine, a translucent realm of rose, pink, and pearl. Not surprisingly, quartz attracts a steady stream of psychics. “Sometimes the rock pushes people back like the wind,” a worker at the quarry mine informed us. Algonquians of the First Nations group from Golden Lake, a 90-minute drive away, collect rose quartz for traditional healing pouches; shamans as far away as Newfoundland use it in age-old ceremonies.

Scrambling up to a mattress-sized slab of quartz, we sat, yoga-style, absorbing the rock’s stress-relieving “good energy.” Laughing, we gazed out at green trees and blue skies, suspended between heaven and earth.

You’ll Feel Holy at Grail Springs Spa

It is a fitting experience to prepare you for Grail Springs. The minute we parked our car at this renowned wellness and spa retreat, we left the everyday world behind. It was hard to imagine we were in cottage country, a short drive to Algonquin Provincial Park. This 13-room luxury inn — with two forest eco-cabins open from May to October — features rooms that are simply breathtaking, with Belgian and French tapestries, fireplaces, balconies, unspoiled lake views.

On 100 acres, the retreat overlooks a private spring-fed lake that makes for the most delicious swimming. Grail Springs, in short, resembled no cottage or B&B I’d ever seen. A seemingly endless variety of spa treatments, yoga, NIA (non-impact aerobics), and meditation classes are offered, along with three daily meals designed to detox the body and calm the mind. Two-night, all-inclusive packages start at $540, depending on the season.

Founder Madeleine Marentette, the creative genius behind this wellness and education facility, unearthed a treasure of her own in chef Tomoko Kominami, who prepares vegetarian and gluten-free meals, based on Marentette’s wellness philosophy. Trust me — it all tastes great — right down to the chocolate brownies for dessert.

After beginning the day with an outdoors morning mantra, a group- stretch in all four directions, we wandered the grounds and gardens, explored the labyrinth, thinking seriously about an hour’s ride on horseback, guided by Richard Capener, a genuine horse whisperer.

Instead we opted for a hike in the woods, following groomed trails to a crystal outcropping, with resident artist John Parson showing the way. Then it was back to Chalice Lake for another refreshing swim. The main balcony was perfect for just lazing around and getting to know some of the other guests. No pressure at all — besides, another healthy, spirit-lifting meal would be ready soon.


More About the 50th Annual Rockhound Gemboree

Dates: August 1-4, 2013
Location: North Hastings Community Centre (103 Newkirk Boulevard) and Bancroft Curling Club (63 Newkirk Boulevard)
Cost: $8 per adult, $7 per students (ages 6-17), children under 6 admitted free each day. Multi-day passes cost $15 (two days) and $30 (four days).
Attractions: Among the activities attendees can enjoy are jewelry-making, gold-panning, mineral identification, rock climbing — and what else? — live rock ‘n roll.
Hours: August 1-3, 10 am-6 pm; August 4, 10 am-5 pm
For mine site visits: Contact 1-888-443-9999 or visit Some Bancroft area sites are open from “snow’s gone until snow’s back,” and can be visited by appointment.

More About Grail Springs

Location: 2004 Bay Lake Rd, Bancroft, ON (see map below)
Room Rates: Package prices vary depending on the amenities and activities chosen. The Two-Day Body Cleanse package — which includes meals, elixirs, snacks, core cellular detox, yoga sessions, mud wrap, and steam therapy — costs between $675-$800 (depending on room size) per person until September 30, 2013. There are several other packages available, including for one for a 21-night stay. Visit the property’s Packages webpage for details.
Contact: Telephone, 1-877-553-5772 (toll free); email,
Features: Grail Springs offers programs and events all year, including guest appearances by geomancer Alan Reed (October 6-11, 2013), who praises Grail Spring’s location on a massive outcropping of pink crystal, as “a magical piece of land.”
More about Ontario’s Highlands: or telephone 1-855-629-6486 (toll free).
Note: Top photo courtesy of Grail Springs


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