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Creative Destinations: An Old Boat Becomes a Floating Spa in Montreal

Among the cobblestones and quays of Old Montreal, a floating spa arrives to brighten up the dark days of winter.

Creative Destinations: An Old Boat Becomes a Floating Spa in Montreal

It may be that only especially adventurous sorts consider heading to Montreal for fun at this time of year. But if that's you, then the just-opened Bota Bota spa, inside a former ferryboat docked permanently on the St. Lawrence, will go a long way toward making the trip worthwhile.

Bota Bota's owned by two sisters, Geneviève and Natalie Emond, whose family already owns another spa outside of the city. The overhaul of the boat, a 170-foot holdover from the 1950s, was done by the creative agency and architectural firm Sid Lee. The goal was to capitalize on the boat's enviable surroundings while also making the spa itself more sleek and relaxing than its industrial shell would suggest.

It was a massive project — more than it seems at first glance. Little more than the hull remains of what the five-level, 170-foot craft once was. That goes for the nearly 700 windows and portholes, which were installed to both evoke the elegance of ocean liners and open up the 21 treatment rooms, saunas, and the rest of the interior to the views outside. Scandinavian-style woods are paired with blacks and gun-metal gray steels that further remind of this spa's more utilitarian past.

A spa is just the latest role this old boat has played — and it might not even be the most unusual. It was a ferryboat for about a decade, but for Expo '67, Montreal's epoch-making world's fair, the boat became a floating "boat-theater" that seated more than 500 people and also had bars, restaurants, and housing for the actors. L'Escale, as it was then called, was used for summer theater for nearly 30 years. (Incidentally, another Expo '67 survivor, Moshe Safdie's iconic Habitat 67 apartment complex, stands just across the river from Bota Bota's new home. You can see it in the shot below.)

As for where to stay and what to do between treatments: Although Old Montreal has several good boutique hotels, the staff at Bota Bota singled out Hotel Gault, a cheerful property with 30 rooms that's inside a Beaux-Arts building a 10-minute walk from the docks.

When it comes to restaurants, another Old Town neighbor, Le LocaL, lives up to its name, with a Gallic-inflected menu of updated bistro classics, such as flank steak, escargot, and (this being Montreal) poutine.

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(Photos: 1, Hotel Gault; 2, Mathieu Labelle; the remainder courtesy Sid Lee)