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Travel Story

What would the Van Normans think?

Tigh-Na-Mara brings Spirulina body wraps and 20,000-year-old mud to Parksville

There used to be a time when salt and seaweed stayed on the beach and algae was to be avoided. Mud was for kids to jump in and peppermint was something you ate after a curry and before an interview.

It's not like that in the East Vancouver Island seaside town of Parksville, at least not since the Grotto Spa opened earlier this year at Tigh-Na-Mara resort.

Amid the pastel shades and sprawling ferns inside, a small army of uniformed beauticians, estheticians and massage therapists apply combinations of the above, and a multitude of other oils, herbs and wildflowers, in a bewildering array of treatments. Like most of Tigh-Na-Mara's repeat customers, our family returns each year because of the resort and the town's endearing familiarity. In other words, nothing changes. Rathtrevor Beach is a safe, sandy wonderland for children, the mini golf in Parksville would challenge Tiger Woods and there are almost as many playgrounds as there are seniors with poodles.

The Grotto was something new to check out. For a relative rookie spa-goer, the Grotto Spa Signature Massage appeared to be the most straightforward, which is why I chose it: a warm eucalyptus foot soak combined with a one-hour Swedish and pressure point massage applied with a special blend of essential oils. It sounded great, as long as it didn't tickle.

Inspired by the latest Charlie's Angels movie, my wife picked the Spirulina body wrap, said to aid slimming and therefore conducive to frolicking Cameron Diaz-like across Rathtrevor Beach.

Our choices made, we headed to the Grotto's mineral pool, an oasis of ferns, rocks and waterfalls surrounded by sunbeds and recliners. If we'd known it was this beautiful we'd have arrived for our treatments earlier.

After barely enough time to pretend we were Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins in the Blue Lagoon, we re-robed and ambled upstairs to a waiting room full of wicker and taupe. Moments later, a massage therapist called Greg was scrubbing my feet in a eucalyptus bath with medicinal mineral salts from Sarvar Springs in Hungary. Not only do the 90-degree springs produce abrasive salts but the 20,000-year-old mud at the bottom of the lake is said to detoxify skin. Who went to the bottom of a 90-degree lake to check that out, I thought to myself as Greg sprayed me with Neroli water – kind of a sweet-smelling spritzer for the face.

And what would the Van Normans make of all this? About 50 years ago, the Van Normans, a honeymooning couple from Scotland, visited Parksville and fell in love with the place. They bought waterfront property, built a cabin and called it Tigh-Na-Mara, Gaelic for "House by the Sea". Today, their cabin is long gone. In its place are about 60 log homes and beachfront condos in among the Douglas firs and arbutus trees, along with a restaurant, conference centre and indoor swimming pool separate from the Grottos. I began thinking that the Van Normans, like me, might have enjoyed Greg's assertive pressure point massage, but the Spirulina body wrap – well, that might have been a stretch.

Live Spirulina algae harvested from pure salt lakes in Southern California is pasted to the body, where it is said to impart essential vitamins, minerals and protein to nourish and revitalize the willing victim. Wrapped in seaweed in the next room, my wife told Adam she felt like a giant piece of sushi. She thinks he'd heard that line before.

The massage over, Greg advised me to drink plenty of water and relax. With a few minutes left on the babysitter's clock, I took his advice on both counts and retired to the empty mineral pool. Empty but for my wife, who'd had exactly the same idea.

• The Grotto Spa features a hair salon and offers a wide range of body treatments, massage treatments, facials, waxing, manicures and pedicures. For more information about the spa or the resort, call 1-800-663-7373 or visit

• Parksville is 30 minutes north of Nanaimo, accessible by regular B.C. Ferries sailings from Horseshoe Bay or Tsawwassen. Call 1888 BC FERRY (reservations 1-888-724-5223) or visit