“I’ll show you my view,” says Rina Tjoa, manager of guest services at Halcyon Hot Springs Resort & Spa. “This is my desk. So that’s definitely great.” We are on the top floor of Halcyon Hot Springs overlooking Upper Arrow Lake as it shines on a cloudy summer day, its turquoise and dark blue colour fading into the enormous Monashee Mountains range. Sitting just off Highway 23, Halcyon has entertained guests for the past 19 years on a waterfront property with 12 chalets and cabins, the Kingfisher restaurant, a spa, meditation classes, and more recently, yoga retreats. “We have three pools: one warm pool, a hot springs pool, and cold plunge pool,” explains Tjoa. “And all pools have the same hot springs mineral water.” (There is also a regular swimming pool that is open seasonally.)
Hot springs across the world are enjoyed for their healing properties. The milky Blue Lagoon in Iceland is visited by thousands of tourists every year for its skin rejuvenating sulphur; in Turkey, there is the dreamy Hierapolis-Pamukkale, a thousand-year-old thermal pool dunked into for increased blood circulation thanks to its calcium-rich waters. In British Columbia, Indigenous communities have enjoyed the anti-inflammatory, lymphatic-boosting, simply relaxing benefits of the mineral waters here for thousands of years, and during the second week of July, I find myself in the Kootenays with Tjoa at Halcyon, the first stop on what is considered the Kootenays Hot Springs Circle Route.
Every summer, hot spring junkies and avid swimmers set out on the complete tour—a 1,100-kilometre journey that includes stops at Halcyon, Nakusp, and Ainsworth in the West Kootenays, as well as Fairmont, Lussier, and Radium in the East. For my visit, I focus on the three resorts found in the West Kootenays, while also experiencing the quaintness and history of the old mining towns and charming lakeside villages along the way.
At Halcyon, the major healing ingredient found in the water is lithium. “We call it ancient healing water,” says Tjoa. Halcyon Hot Springs has existed on and off as a commercial enterprise since the late 1800s; it was first opened by a European engineer who referred to the hillside hot pools as halcyon, meaning happy or peaceful, and the name stuck. The lithium here is said to be six times more potent than any other hot spring in North America, and the magnesium and calcium are ideal for boosting immunity, easing spazzing muscles, and helping with anxiety. At one point, the water here was even bottled up and sent back to the British Empire. Today, it is sold on shelves as Neurogenesis Happy Water.
I first step into the 40-degree-Celsius hot pool before taking a plunge into the cold 12-degree bath. Following a Scandinavian-style temperature rotation like the one suggested at Scandinave Spa in Whistler, I and a few other friendly strangers step in and out of the different pools, opening up our pores and ridding our skin of toxins.
Then it’s time to depart from the southern edge of Upper Arrow Lake and travel south along the picturesque water towards Nakusp. I take a slight turn east and drive along a thistly-tree-lined windy road into the Kuskanax Valley of the majestic Selkirk Mountains. Nakusp Hot Springs eventually presents itself: an evergreen, almost camouflaged structure that could be pulled out of a Twilight film. Fuelled by natural mineral springs located further in the forest, the pools here are circulated with 200,000 litres of fresh water every day, and I watch as hikers venture off through the mouth of a trail, no sparkly vampires in sight.
My itinerary then takes me southeast to Kaslo via New Denver, where I admire the pastel-coloured homes and businesses. This town once flourished during the Gold Rush up into the 1950s. After staying overnight at the Kaslo Hotel (and enjoying tacos at Taqueria el Corazon and a crisp brew at the Angry Hen), I embark on the final leg of my hot springs route and head south towards Nelson for Ainsworth. Nestled in the mountainside of Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park and overlooking Kootenay Lake, Ainsworth Hot Springs could be compared to a resort found in the Swiss Alps, with colourful flowers lining its path and glistening water down below.
Across the way from the nook where I settle in to sunbathe is a natural cave, and I can see a queue of people waiting to take the popular walk through it. “It is a natural cave which is pretty neat,” says Ainsworth recruiting and staffing coordinator Jane Linley. “All of the minerals in the caves are actually naturally grown.” Later, I weave in and out of the cave and take a look at the tiles, running my hands along the earth. “We actually have to go and hack the cave out every few years,” Linley explains, “because the stalactites grow so low.”
It’s been a busy few days out here in the Interior, but this trip has allowed me the opportunity to discover remote parts of B.C. and spend a bit of time with their natural wonders. As I depart for Castlegar airport to head home, my hair is still wet from the Ainsworth springs. Even though I only conquered roughly half of the impressive Circle Route, my soggy locks, bronzed skin, and relaxed mind and body are worn like a badge of honour.
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