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Family Travel Ink
Parent Getaways:French Immersion: Taking the Sea water Cure in Brittany
They say that sea water is good for you, and its byproduct— seaweed—even better. So after a week-long stay at a thalassotherapy spa on the southern Brittany coast of France, I hoped to be a radiant picture of health. After all, there must be some reason that thousands of French women, and increasingly, French men, flock to the marine institutes set up along their ocean shores. One European friend told me that it was no surprise when her mother disappeared for a week to take her annual cure by the sea. “Expect a more hospital-like approach,” she warned. “It’s a preventative health kind of thing, like going to a clinic.” I pictured a Carry On Gang scenario in white coats and slippers. The good news? The effects from the sea treatments could last up to six months and I would “tackle life with newfound serenity.” One information sheet called for “overstressed, overfatigued, toxin-riddled or sports-addicted urban dwellers.” Yes, all of the above! Sign me up.
After a three-and-a-half-hour train ride from Paris, we arrived at the Thalassa Quiberon spa situated at the very tip of a 14-km peninsula jutting into the sea. Perched on a rocky promontory and subject to 250 days of part sunshine a year, the Institute at Quiberon was the perfect place to mix thalasso (sea) with therapy (treatment). In fact, Thalassa Quiberon was the world’s largest thalassotherapy centre with a full staff of doctors and medical support, a large seawater swimming pool, outside hot tub, treatment rooms with special pressure point tubs, inside exercise pools, a professional beauty centre and a shop selling bathing suits and bathing caps—a good thing as the stretchy Star Trek-like headcoverings were mandatory for all pool treatments.
Unlimited quantities of healthful seawater, sea mud, and a variety of seaweeds (who knew there were dozens of varieties) lay just outside the door. If one tired of getting rid of toxins for an afternoon, there were walks along the nearby nature trails or to the quaint seaside town of Quiberon with its art galleries and shops selling French fishermen sweaters or chocolates. Plus, two four-star hotels on a sweeping stretch of beach, the Sofitel Thalassa and the Sofitel Diététique (no wine or bread allowed with meals so not for me!), offered great views of sea and sky and were linked directly to the Institute. You could travel back and forth in your terrycloth housecoat and slippers, nodding “Bonne Cure” to fellow curists as you passed in the underground hallways, with ease.
I checked into my hotel room which was an oasis of pastel calm. In the bathroom, a single rose in a vase and a range of products flecked with algae or enriched with oats. On the pillow, a caramel candy and a note written in French italic script: “The future belongs to those who rise early, especially in the morning.” Well the morning with its doctor visit and personalized schedule would come. In the meantime, I threw open the balcony door and breathed in the sea air, its healthful ions no doubt propelling my jet-lagged self into a good night’s sleep.
Seawater and seaweed have long been considered to have curative properties. In the Far East, prior to 300 BC, seaweeds were used as herbal medicines. Those who hailed the virtues of seawater included the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. It was Euripedes in the 5th century who advised that “The sea cures men’s maladies.” At the beginning of the 20th century, seawater therapy started to develop in France, especially after French biologist René Quinton discovered that the internal compostion of the human cell was similar to seawater. His friend, Dr. Louis Bagot, opened the first thalassotherapy establishment in Brittany and soon, it was found that seawater immediately pumped from the sea, progressively heated to between 34 and 45 C, and used within 24 hours, greatly aided patients with gout, rheumatism, arthritis or those who had suffered physical trauma from accidents. We now know that seaweed too offers an amazingly rich cocktail of minerals and trace elements— zinc, copper and iodine which activate metabolism; calcium, magnesium and iron (the fundamental components of muscles and bones); potassium, lithium, selenium, fluoride and cobalt—as well as vitamins A to K. So why not take advantage of this natural healing power?
After a breakfast in my room of a soft-boiled egg, muesli with milk, yogurt and tea, all helpfully figured out for me at 330 calories, I met with Dr. Bernardeau who made me walk on my tiptoes, measured my spine, took my blood pressure and weighed me. He signed me up for weight reducing treatments such as the swimming pool exercises and water jet massage—four treatments a day on alternative mornings and afternoons—and urged that I had to drink a lot of water, at least one litre a day to compensate for the salt in the seaweeds. Luckily, I wasn’t assigned what we nicknamed, the “elephant wash,” a kind of hosing down at long range, or the High Seas for Legs Cure to tackle heavy legs.
Between sessions in the large pool equipped with jets and waterfalls, soaks in bubbling heated tubs, massages, and facials in the Marie-José Bobet Beauty Centre, we ate amazing meals: clear soup followed by melon and Parma ham, scallops with rice and sweet potato with banana and Grand Marnier crepes for dessert or an egg in onion sauce, a tiny chicken and veggies capped off with a work of art—artistically arranged yellow and purple pears over mango, orange and grape slices garnished with fresh mint leaves. I joined a weekly session in the kitchen with Chef Patrick Jarno to see how he created such dishes without the calories. “At first, it must please the eyes,” he said as he arranged strips of leek, carrot, mushrooms and squash under a black sea bass. “Then the taste.” He used no butter, cream or oil for cooking, relying instead on broths for steaming or sautéeing. And yes, he used seaweed too. Sprinkling algae flakes on the vegetables, garnishing plates with a spaghetti-like seaweed or adding it to sauces, he warned, “Not too much though. It has a very strong taste and people will complain.” None of our group complained about anything coming from the kitchen. The ultimate cocktail served before dinner? You guessed it—a “tisane de la mer with a base of filtered algae rich in iron and magnesium” designed for its anti-fatiguing properties.
As the days progressed, I became hotter and hotter, flapping my housecoat open to the breezes. “The toxins leaving,” commented the attendants, who alternated between lovely young French women (bring that dictionary) and matronly types with clipboards. One day, a kindly woman smeared me with smelly seaweed mud before wrapping me up in a plastic sheet topped with a white cotton wrap and a lead-like blanket on top. I felt like a fish steaming in smelly brown goo. Nevertheless, I was invigorated upon my release and cold shower. As for the full effects of all this seaweed and seawater? After five days of treatments, my health was perfect for months after my return to Canada. I debated a return trip, maybe even once a year as a preventative cure like my friend’s mother. As one Berlin woman bubbling away in the outside hot tub exclaimed, “If you come here once, you have to come again.” Seawater and seaweeds all included.
At the Sofitel Thalassa Hotel, you can take part in an introductory Discovery Weekend with three treatments on Saturday afternoon, three on Sunday morning, Turkish steam bath, a room with an ocean view, dinner and breakfast. To find out what special packages are currently available, contact Sofitel Reservations 33-1-97-50-48-48 or call the Accor Groupe in Montreal at 514-xx. For information on thalasso centres around France, contact the French Government Tourist Office at 416-593-4723 in Toronto or 514-288-4264 in Montreal. For information on trains from Paris, contact Rail Europe in Mississauga at 905-602-4195. Air France flies daily to Paris from Toronto and Montreal; contact your local travel agent.
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