Temple Gardens Spa and Pool at Sunrise

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Exotic Canada: Bathe like a bootlegger in Moose Jaw

From The National Post by Jessica Leigh Johnston, July 30, 2011

Driving to Moose Jaw from the Regina airport, it’s easy to see why locals joke that in Saskatchewan, you can watch your dog run away for three days. I’m not much of a driver, and even I find myself thinking I could have rented a car and handled this long, arrow-straight road.

I’m glad I didn’t, though, because Dane Friese is at the wheel. Friese, a Saskatchewan native, is the owner of the Moose Jaw-based Roaming Buffalo Shuttle company. For $40 a person, he’ll ferry passengers the 45-minute drive from the airport, offering insights along the way. (My favourite: a grand-looking house ordered from an Eaton’s catalogue back in the day. If only.)

Friese is doing good business, as Moose Jaw, the town of 37,000 known for its murals (and for being home of the air-show-loving Snowbirds), has reinvented itself in recent years as a popular tourist destination.

I’ve come here with my beau, Steve, for the weekend to investigate the big draws: the Temple Gardens Mineral spa, a hotel built to feature the town’s geothermal mineral springs, and the Tunnels of Moose Jaw, an attraction that brings the Prairie town’s colourful and seamy history to life through subterranean tours.

When we arrive at the hotel, a large Santa Fe-style building that occupies both sides of the street and includes a casino, we waste no time heading to the main event, the 6,500-square-foot indoor-outdoor geothermal pool.

The water comes out of the ground at 45C, but is kept at a consistent temperature of 37C indoors, and 38C outdoors (you can feel the difference), and the heat is a lovely contrast to the cool evening air in early June. Inside, flags representing visitors’ origin countries hang over the pool.

Much of the tourism is local, from the Prairies (really, who more than a farmer needs a spa weekend?), but guests have come from locales as far-flung as Australia and Zambia to “take the waters,” which are rich in epsom salts and other minerals, and similar to those found in Bath, England.

The waters are credited with health benefits including tension relief and detoxification. Tonight, about 20 people are floating by, lounging poolside or parked in front of a jet, socializing with friends and family.

The fact this place exists is in itself remarkable (the City of Moose Jaw’s slogan is “surprisingly unexpected”). Once a boomtown, Moose Jaw’s economy was severely depressed by the early 1990s. That’s when resident Deb Thorn — who worked for the government trying to help unemployed people find jobs — decided to turn things around by taking advantage of the town’s geothermal spring, discovered in 1910.

Thorn and three others each threw a symbolic $25 in a hat, to kick off an investment push that ended with more than 1,100 Moose Javians (I did not make that up) raising more than $3-million to help start Temple Gardens Mineral Spa, a luxury 69-room hotel so named for a dance hall that used to occupy the site. In 2006, the hotel was sold — with community members getting a significant return on their investment. It has since expanded to include a casino and an additional 110 guest rooms.

As Steve and I lounge in the pool, the chatter next to us is about Moose Jaw’s tunnels. Originally built in the late 1800s so steam engineers would not have to brave the elements to monitor the downtown buildings’ furnaces, the underground network has been partially converted to an attraction that draws tourists and school children alike.

I am particularly looking forward to the Chicago Connection tour, which explores the town’s historic, boozy link to the Prohibition-era U.S. There are two tours offered; the second is called Passage to Fortune and explores a darker period in the region’s history, when Chinese labourers lived and worked in the tunnels during a time of intense racism. The tours feature impressive sets, tour guide actors and animatronic characters. Both are remarkable, but it’s fair to say the Prohibition tour is the fun one.

And fun is what we have in Moose Jaw — in between lightly chlorinated soaks, we lose money in the nickel slots, play pool at a local dive bar, have massages at Temple Gardens’ Sun Tree Spa and eat yummy sandwiches at the beautiful Yvette Moore Gallery.

When we arrive for our Chicago Connection tunnel tour, we are greeted by a woman in a flapper dress, boa and lipstick. In a loud and sassy voice, she introduces herself by her real name (Jessica) and her character’s name (Fanny). Fanny is Al Capone’s Moose Jaw lady, who makes things comfortable for him while he’s in town.

The small tour group is informed that we are bootleggers, here to buy some cheap booze in order to turn a quick profit in the U.S. Fanny gives us the lowdown on Moose Jaw circa 1920. The police chief is on the take, apparently. My wallet is visible at the top of my purse, and I am congratulated on bringing the hush money, which makes me feel strangely proud.

We are shown a short movie about Al Capone’s gang and led through a series of rooms decked out in 1920s decor. In truth, there is no evidence that Al Capone himself visited, but Moose Jaw did earn its nickname Little Chicago by brewing and transporting copious amounts of bootlegged whisky south of the border via the Soo rail line. (It’s fitting that the old train station is now a liquor store.)

At the end of the trip, we get our photos taken old-timey style: the two of us decked out in period costume and toting Tommy guns, a fitting souvenir of our Moose Jaw weekend.