The Grand River, located about an hour outside of Toronto in southwestern Ontario, isn’t known as a famous tourist destination, but it should be, because in large part to the quality of two unique destinations in the region.
In business since 2004, Brantford’s Grand Wellness Centre has gone through a few expansions and is now located in a rustic and thoughtfully restored textile factory. The facility offers a variety of in-house spa services that you may expect from this kind of establishment — Swedish and deep-tissue massage treatments and other body work, aesthetic services, along with a spacious yoga studio. There is also an infrared sauna to help release toxins, as well as a starry-ceilinged salt cave, where you can breathe in the cleanest air imaginable while lying on zero-gravity chairs.
But Grand Wellness’s signature services are its beer-based treatments. I sampled the Beer Soak option: a giant bathtub filled with sudsy water, barley and beer. Set atop the cedar tub was a pint of Ramblin’ Road, a local craft brew to sip while you bathe. There is also the signature “Healing Ale-ments Salt Scrub”, a mineral salt scrub that combines hops, barley and honey, intended to provide a hydrating and energizing treatment for the skin. While fun all year round these treatments may be particularly suitable for those celebrating International Beer Day on August 2 with a fervour.
The centre is a welcoming environment. Staff members warmly greet guests, who are comprised of both tourists and local community members. (The cleverly titled Yin and Tonic Friday evening yoga classes end with a social get-together where attendees can unwind afterward with a glass of wine or pint of beer.)
And where to rest your head after a blissful day at the spa? Paris is always a good idea. Paris, Ontario, that is, and more specifically, the Arlington Hotel located in this charming town about 20 minutes from Brantford.
Having opened in 2016, the Arlington is a stylish boutique hotel housed in a building originally built in 1851. Designed by a group of fine arts, theatre and film majors, each room is inspired by and pays homage to some of the greatest authors, intellectuals and cultural figures of our time. A list of some of these themed-rooms includes, in no particular order: the J.R.R. Tolkien room (a gorgeous, floor-to-ceiling mural depicting Middle Earth); Sigmund Freud room (if you are in the mood for analysis before or perhaps during your sleep); Lewis Carroll Room (an Alice-in-Wonderland extravaganza); the Hunter S. Thompson room (psychedelic, bold-coloured super-graphics that perfectly encapsulate 1960’s counterculture); Leonard Cohen Room (a Boho chic room that features photos of the great Canadian performer, a record player and his albums); Jane Austen Room (all prim and proper); and the Maya Angelou Room (her inspired poetry is placed above the bed’s headboard). There is also the Stanley Kubrick, Clockwork Orange-inspired room, the Monty Python room, and my personal favourite, the Oscar Wilde Room, which is as decadent and opulent as the writer’s own appetite for life. Along with furniture and fixtures to inspire a thousand conversations, the rooms are clean and well-appointed with large bathrooms and a flat-screen TV. The latter may prove a nice respite if you start to feel overwhelmed by this high culture: there is always the W Network or the local sports channel to turn to.
The Arlington Hotel is a labour of love beyond the guestrooms, though. There is a terrific, Hemingway-approved library bar and an old-style watering hole in the cellar called the Public House. The property’s Edit Restaurant is where diners can sit either indoors or outdoors in warmer months on the patio and indulge in inventive dishes from the blackboard menu made with locally sourced ingredients. And across the street, the hotel proprietors own the Dominion Telegraph Event Centre, a waterfront venue to host weddings and live musicians (Steven Page from Barenaked Ladies and Kathleen Edwards have played there). Fun fact: the first-ever telephone call was placed in this building. Another reason to put Paris, Ontario on the map.
Outside the hotel and across the street, the town has a number of must-see landmarks. The Paris Bohemian Gallery is a small hub that showcases local artists including emerging talent. Stillwaters’ Plate and Pour is a great place for casual dining and its second-floor patio offers a scenic view of the Grand River. Down the street and over a foothill bridge is Lion’s Park, where there is a lovely hiking trail, an outdoor amphitheatre and a children’s playground. Back on Mechanic Street is Paris Surf, a Venice Beach-style clothing, coffee shop and pizza joint owned by Canadian clothing entrepreneur Chip Foster (of Chip and Pepper fame). On weekends, the Paris Wincey Mills market showcases a wide variety of local artisan crafts including vintage wear and jewelry, apothecary goods and a small record retailer, as well as farmer’s market produce, cheese and fresh bread.
By the end of this visit, this Torontonian left Brantford feeling both inspired and, quite frankly, a little guilty. The thought of visiting this region never crossed my mind until I stumbled upon a couple of cute pictures of Grand Wellness and the Arlington on Instagram. But after experiencing them firsthand, I realize that while Toronto deserves international acclaim for its arts and culture scene, it is not all this part of Ontario has to offer. We should be equally proud of the extraordinary cultural gems located in the rural areas of the province.