Spa retreat at the Briars

As my husband, son, and I all check in at the front desk of the Briars resort, nestled by Lake Simcoe’s south shore at Jackson’s Point, we are welcomed like family — distant cousins, to be sure, but family nonetheless. It’s only an hour and 10 minutes since we pulled out of our driveway at the east end of Toronto, but already it seems like a world away from the stresses and strains of daily life.

The Briars began its life as a working farm. The Regency manor house that forms the core of the inn was built by British Navy Captain William Bourchier, who named it the Briars. In the 1870s Dr. Frank Sibbald purchased the property and indeed the Sibbald family continues to own the property today. Both the Manor House and the Peacock House (built by Frank Sibbald, and the only building of its type in Ontario) are protected under Ontario’s Heritage Conservation Easement Program.

In addition to the two historic buildings, the Inn offers visitors a full spa, indoor pool, whirlpool and sauna, exercise equipment, excellent recreational programming, and in warmer seasons, a championship Scottish woodlands golf course. Our room this year, located in one of the two wings added around the Manor House, overlooks the lawn and the lake itself, which adds to the sense of serenity and retreat. We enjoy rooms at the inn, where we are never further than a short walk from the whirlpool and dining areas, but cottages are also available for those looking for a further sense of retreat.

The art of doing nothing

If I had to summarize the Briars in winter in only one word I think I would choose tranquil. The Sibbald family and their staff, which ranges from 80 to over 100 in the summer, have the innkeeper’s gift of making each corner, from the games room at the bottom of the inn to the Tower room at the top of the recently built Tower — which affords beautiful views of the shore and lake — feel like one’s own family estate.

The staff is attentive and helpful without being stuffy, and while there are many activities available even in the dreary days of March — snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and plain old walking in the woods, as well as classes like yoga and drawing — the Briars also seems built to encourage less strenuous forms of relaxation, like sitting by the fire in a comfortable armchair and browsing through a magazine or writing a letter.

If the homey pursuits are just a little bit too mundane for your tastes, however, there’s always the spa. From the moment I exchange my shoes for slippers I feel like I’ve passed through a portal into a downtown luxury spa. The services available are definitely world-class: massages, including a couples’ massage, hydrotherapy, Reiki, chakra balancing, and aromatherapy as well as pedicures and manicures are all available. Registered Massage Therapists perform most of the massages, so check with your insurance company before you book — some services may be covered.

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It really is about the food

And the sense of a world-class experience extends to the dining room as well. Three meals are included as a part of the inn package, and visitors won’t want to miss a one. Daily specials highlight seasonal offerings while the menu offers a range of options for carnivores to vegan diners. I particularly like that healthy choices are available at each meal, alongside sinfully rich pastas and marbled roasts. We only have four nights of dining this year which seems a shame, but I can’t help ordering the mushroom risotto with duck comfit twice as it is prepared to perfection. Our server recommends the chocolate banana bread pudding and I find it irresistible as well.

Because it is March Break, there is also a special children’s buffet (as well as daily children’s activities), which makes family dining a breeze — something to keep in mind if you’re looking for a spot for a holiday with extended family.

But couples looking for a romantic retreat don’t need to worry that their meals will be interrupted: with several dining spaces available our capable hostess is able to group families with children in the lovely exposed-brick area nearer the lounge, leaving the expansive and more formal dining area overlooking the back lawn available for quiet adult groups and romantic tables for two.

The pool provides a place to burn off a few of those mealtime indulgences: the deck and water are both warm, and the whirlpool deliciously relaxing, but both look out through a greenhouse-like glass wall onto the grounds, which gives the illusion of bathing in the midst of a winter landscape. In the summer, an outdoor pool is also available.

Jackson’s Point itself is a charming lakeside town. My husband and I have particularly enjoyed walking or driving along the streets that wind by the lake, admiring the diverse homes and winterized cottages that make up the area. In the summer the Red Barn also provides summer theatre. Sibbald Point Provincial Park contains long sandy beaches as well as Eildon Hall, a 19th century home which serves as a museum. St. George’s Anglican Church is another historic site worth visiting, located just next to the park.

After our five day visit, it may only be the same hour and ten minutes back to Toronto, but I wish it were further so as to savour the peace and luxury just that little bit longer. Ah well, there’s always next year.

For more information: www.briars.ca

Photo: © The Briars Resort & Spa

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