“The water. The minerals make it denser than the Dead Sea and that is the draw card. If it was fresh water we would be just like any other puddle-jumping lake on the prairies,” smiles Eric Upshall, the recently re-elected mayor of Manitou Village. He puffs up slightly, “And now we have bragging rights.”
The waters of Manitou – which means ‘god’ in the Cree language – have long been known for their healing powers. Without a lifeguard in sight, it is literally impossible to sink. The waters are rumoured to have cured everything from smallpox to acne to liver problems. And it is the only lake in Canada where you can read a book while you float around. If you don’t shower when you come out of the lake, the salt will dry and your skin will look as though you’d been lightly dusted with flour, ready for frying.
Manitou Beach hit the spotlight in the 1920s and 30s. It had everything the then vacationing public dreamed of and it co-stared with places like Banff and Jasper. At the height of its career it counted three dancehalls, two indoor pools, stores, hotels, ice-cream parlours, and a Y.W.C.A. And to balance that pristine images, bootleggers and brothels.
By the 1980s, however, the curtains were closing and the beach rivalled the geriatric stepmother: still breathing, but closing in on the death rattle. A ‘cabin at the beach’ meant hauling in a granary, cutting in a few more windows and slapping together an outhouse in the bush. The gravel pit – where the teenagers clustered to drink beer – was the most popular destination at the beach.
What infrastructure? The pothole littered roads were an obstacle course; buildings were in various stages of rot. Nobody was ever on the pebble stone beach. It was a wind-swept stage. And you could hear the last-breath coughing coming from the wings. The three ugly sisters – no budget, apathy and decay – had top billing. The buzzards were circling, waiting for the final curtain call.
Then, in October 1987, the Chalet Pool burned down.
And the Manitou Springs Resort and Mineral Spa – which alternated between playing the roles of the fairy godmother and the pumpkin over the years – made an entrance.
Built on the cinders of the old pool it took a lot of wand-waving for the Manitou Springs Resort and Mineral Spa to evolve into a year-round complex. The project started with a collaborative community effort – if you didn’t buy shares you weren’t allowed on coffee row – and a government grant. For the first few years the dividends were free swim vouchers, which most of the local shareholders didn’t bother to redeem. Dale Hayter – a local business operator who owned a major block of shares – bought and privatized the operation in 1998 and set it up as a family-run business.
Although it has had its stage entrances, exits and cast calls over the years, ‘the spa’ – as the locals refer to it – is holding its own. The salt – remember it is denser than the Dead Sea – is corrosive and makes for demanding upkeep. Think of what the salt on the highways does to cars and multiply it by 25 to calculate the rust factor.
Twenty-five years on, the Manitou Springs Resort and Mineral Spa celebrated its anniversary in May 2012. Morphed into the full-time fairy godmother, it now employs 50 people. The hotel complex has 102 rooms. The complex also houses a pool-side café, a gift shop, and a massage service. And the view of the lake from Sam’s Steak House makes it a popular dining spot.
The Village Does Cinderella
Like the Cinderella rags to a ball gown, the granaries disappeared in a puff of smoke. And in their places aren’t cabins, but houses, some of which are big enough to have a ballroom. The golden slipper was that in 2005 the village passed a law stipulating that all properties had to be hooked up to running water and sewer. Although some of the residents pulled an ugly sisters act and tried to squish their ideas into the shoe, the Cinderella factor persevered. Running water spelled the death knoll of the honey-wagon business, but it upped the appeal and property value of the beach. In 2005 a reverse osmosis water treatment plant became operational. Like the pumpkin to stagecoach transformation, the village went upmarket.
Cinderella turned out to the girl-next-door and Manitou Beach has a rather “wholesome” air about it. Predictable even. So what sort of people go there? The two main categories are families and seniors. It is the sort of place you can take your great aunt Sue for a holiday and know there won’t be any surprises. In fact, it is so squeaky clean that you have to work at finding much trouble to get into. No bootleggers, no brothels. Pashing it up in the backseat of a car while watching a movie at the drive-in theatre is about as risqué as it gets.
Mike’s Beach Bar – with regular volleyball games out back on Thursday night – just doesn’t cut it as a pick-up spot. Danceland – which claims to be ‘world famous’ because of the coils of horsehair under the hardwood floor – attracts people who want to polka or square dance. Those slinky, bodies-rubbing-together tango types will have to go elsewhere. And, really, does it get much more ‘respectable’ than leaving money in the honour cash box if you do a round at Murray’s Disc Golf?
With so many small Canadian places disappearing from the map it is refreshing to know that some can, in fact, have a bit of cosmetic surgery and resume their place on the stage. And the Cinderella transformation of Manitou Beach leads the pack.