You can now retreat in a working monastery…
The moment I cross the threshold, I feel the stress ebb out of me. Sunshine spills in through vast windows casting puddles of light on the polished wood floor. Above, slick, glass walkways blend effortlessly with ancient stone walls.
A pair of women in yoga pants drift down a corridor. All is calm and quiet – fitting, given that this is a place that has been dedicated to silence, introspection and healing for more than 400 years.
I am in Le Monastère des Augustines, a holistic hotel in the heart of Canada’s French-speaking Québec City.
Originally founded in 1639 by a group of nurses and pharmacists sent from France to restore the bodies and souls of the French colonists, it is still a working monastery, but became a not-for-profit wellness hotel in 2015 following an extensive refurbishment.
The result is a perfect union of the building’s rich heritage and contemporary architecture. Today the hotel offers guests experiential accommodation (you can sleep in a former nun’s cell), a museum brimming with artefacts, a healthy-eating restaurant and a wellness programme, including restorative yoga, morning meditation and retreats focusing on everything from sleep to intuitive dance.
There’s even a boutique shop onsite selling yoga mats, an exclusive range of herbal teas blended by the sisters and more.
Before arriving for my one-night stay, I explore another part of the province, the Laurentians.
An hour’s drive north of Montréal and under four hours from Québec City, it is home to rolling mountains, meandering rivers and tranquil lakes.
I take in the autumnal colours of Mont Tremblant – an outstanding skiing area in winter with plenty of hiking trails for summer – from high up, via zip wire and ‘via ferrata’, where you scale mountains using a series of fixed ladders, cables and bridges. It’s a thrilling way to experience the beauty of the landscape.
Back at Le Monastère des Augustines, I check in and wander the quiet, low-lit corridor to my room, which has a window overlooking Old Québec with its Citadel and cobbled streets. Of the 65 rooms, 33 are former ‘cells’, simply furnished with a single bed, hand-embroidered quilts and basins.
Sustainability is evident. There are no plastic water bottles in rooms and the Oneka shampoos are organic, locally produced and not tested on animals. My room still has the rack once used by the resident sister to hang up her habit.
The days begin quietly, literally, with ‘silent breakfast’ – a tribute to the sisters who would have eaten all their meals in silence. The restaurant decor is like the food: clean and simple.
Accompanied only by the sound of classical music, guests tuck into a delicious and healthy array of fresh berries, local honey, lovely crusty bread and miniature egg frittatas. The absence of speech is a good way to start the day – a moment to yourself, to focus and bring direction.
Not all meals are eaten in silence. Lunch and dinner are more convivial, with beer and wine on the menu. The hotel prides itself on offering nutritious, varied meals based on the principles of mindful eating with plenty of raw and vegetarian dishes to boot.
And there’s a good foundation behind the restaurant’s concept – Imane Lahlou, director of holistic health experience is a naturopath with a PhD in Food Science and Technology.
Her idea of dinner is a light, buffet-style meal aimed at improving digestion. And it’s some of the tastiest ‘healthy’ food I’ve ever eaten. I serve myself salads of roasted veg and tofu, fish with lemon and cranberry, rosemary and sage tempeh, delicious mushroom and truffle mousse, plus an ingenious apple and rocket soup. I try it all and leave feeling satisfied but not overly full.
NUN THE WISER
On a walk, I spot one of the sisters waiting for a lift (some of the present-day sisters live on the premises, in a separate wing).
Dressed in a traditional white habit, she smiles at me, before reaching into her pocket and pulling out her phone.
The scene seems to embody the mix of tradition and modernity so evident here.
‘The Augustinian sisters have always been forward-thinking women,’ the hotel’s tourism development manager, Marie-Eve Perron, tells me on a tour of the museum. It houses a selection of 40,000 precious artefacts collected by the sisters over the years.
My favourite object is a surgical kit once used to extract musket bullets from wounded soldiers during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759 – the sisters were extremely proficient nurses.
CREATURES OF HABIT
The decision to convert the monastery into a hotel came, Marie-Eve explains, from the sisters themselves, whose numbers are now at an all-time low of just 12, with an average age of 83.
‘They knew that if they did not act, they would not survive,’ she says. ‘They see it as an accomplishment that their values – and the importance they place on healing both body and soul – will continue into the future through this hotel.’
I try out some soul healing of my own with a restorative yoga class, which takes place beside a beautiful stone fireplace in a room that was once a tea salon for the sisters to receive guests. I’m in excellent hands.
My instructor, Marjolaine, has been teaching yoga for more than a decade and guides me through a series of poses in her soft, lilting voice. ‘Honour yourself and this place of healing,’ she breathes. ‘Let your breathing massage your heart space.’
Using a bolster and cushion, we sink into light twists, gentle backbends and forward folds, holding each position for a few minutes. It’s slower than the Vinyasa flow I’m used to, but the relaxed pace mellows my mind. When I come out of Savasana as the session ends, I actually feel as though I’m floating.
Like my whole stay, it feels nothing short of heavenly. I may not have reached complete inner peace, but at least I’m on my way.
GET THEE TO A MONASTERY – OTHER DIVINE RETREATS
Monastero Santa Rosa, Italy
Overlooking the Bay of Salerno on the Amalfi Coast, this 17th-century monastery has been lovingly converted into a hotel. Pièce de résistance is its cavernous spa. Four nights B&B is from £1,750pp, based on two sharing, including return flights from UK and private transfers.
Castilla Termal Monasterio de Valbuena, Spain
This sumptuous spa resort is set inside one of the best preserved Cistercian monasteries of the 12th century. The hotel’s decor fuses original features with contemporary style. SpaBreaks offers a three-night therapeutic experience from £320pp, including B&B, aromatherapy massage and unlimited access to the thermal pool.
Belmond Hotel Monasterio, Peru
Originally built in 1592, this hotel is 11,000ft above sea level in Peru’s ancient capital, Cusco. It opened as a hotel in 1995 and today the property is set around a pretty courtyard with an ancient cedar tree, and has two good restaurants and a lobby bar. Rooms start at £216 per night.