Canada's Monastere des Augustines, Quebec: The retreat that's not just for nuns

We start the day in silence.

There's early morning meditation to centre the body and soul or the luxury of sleeping in while cocooned in one of the comfiest beds on earth.

This blissful calm continues over breakfast, where the usual chatter of diners and the clatter of plates and cutlery is replaced by nothing, save the peaceful strains of classical music.

My stay at the Monastere des Augustines begins each day just as it would have for the nuns who inhabited this former Quebec City monastery during its more than three centuries of history.

I relish the opportunity to engage in "mindful eating", sampling from the simple but delicious buffet of home-made muesli, fruit, bread, jams and herb omelette along with rich brewed coffee and teas with inviting names like "Serenity" and "Harmony" made from a blend of herbs grown in the monastery gardens.

Those who wish to enjoy a greater sense of tranquillity can check their mobile phones and digital devices at the hotel reception and pick them up when they leave.

While the Augustinian sisters took all their meals in silence, the ritual at this newly opened boutique hotel extends only to the first meal of the day. Lunch and dinner are times for friendly conviviality and a glass of wine or two.

Le Monastere des Augustines, a 65-room hotel and wellness centre, opened in the former 18th-century built convent on August 1 last year.

The date is significant as it marked the day in 1639 when three young nuns arrived in the new colony of Quebec after a long journey from their convent in Dieppe, France. Their immediate mission was to provide medical assistance to the First Nations or indigenous people of the region and the 100-odd European settlers. After decades of living and working in makeshift facilities, a substantial monastery was built on the site within the fortified walls of Quebec City, in 1695.

Unfortunately, it burnt down in 1755 but was quickly rebuilt the following year and it is in this same building that I find myself – however, in a much-enhanced and modernised space following a three-year, $C44 million ($44.8 million) restoration that began in 2012.

Wellness centre, rather than spa, is an apt name for this warm and welcoming place. While there is meditation, yoga and massage on offer, there are no facials, body scrubs or other so-called beauty treatments.

"It's all about inner beauty; rather than outer," the hotel's tourism development manager, Marie-Eve Perron, tells me. "We're all about pleasure and balance", she says, and stresses that words such as "detox" have no place in the monastery's vernacular. Thank heavens, I say.

There is also no "dogma", Marie-Eve emphasises. While the monastery was established by French Catholic nuns, today's hotel welcomes travellers of all creeds or none, offering a cosy place for rest and recreation right on the city's doorstep. I'd like, however, to think that the type of person who stays here seeks a little peace and quiet away from the madding crowd.

In its heyday of the 1950s the convent housed some 200 nuns, who continued their original mission to heal the sick, working as nurses and also pharmacists in the adjacent hospital known as Hotel-Dieu de Quebec.

Today the remaining six sisters, all in their 80s, live in another wing of the complex, which has national heritage listing.

One of the many inspiring facets of this modern wellness centre is its social justice philosophy. As a non-profit organisation, all revenue earned from the hotel and the onsite museum is used for "good works", one of which is providing free or greatly reduced accommodation to caregivers and relatives of those receiving treatment at the hospital.

There's so much to like about this place, from the excellent food to the renowned artwork lining its walls and the general feeling of being enveloped in a safe and calm environment.

Of the 65 hotels rooms, there are 32 contemporary rooms with en suite bathrooms and 33 "authentic" rooms. Naturally I choose the latter; if I'm staying in a former convent then I have to bed down in what was once a nun's "cell".

My cell is at the beginning of a long corridor of rooms, each with an original mid-18th century wooden door (perfect for me at just 157 centimetres tall, but perhaps a bit of a challenge for a tall person), and with original wooden ceiling beams and dormer windows. It's not big, but I'm surprised when I enter to find there's an ante-room with a sink, wardrobe, and desk that leads into another little room just big enough for a single bed with wrought iron frame and oversized bed lamp.

Bed linen and continental quilt are deliciously dreamy and the bed is so comfortable I feel as if I'm being hugged. The wooden wardrobe and desk are original pieces used by the sisters, however the new bed frames were made by local Quebec artisan blacksmiths, while the bed quilts in each room are individually stitched and signed by their creators. Several shared bathrooms are located at the end of each hallway and while it was a full-house during my stay in late June, I never encountered another guest in my corridor nor using any of the three bathrooms near my cell.

Contemporary rooms are brand new with modern en suites and beds, and both styles of accommodation have single, double and twin-bed configurations.

Many guests use the hotel simply as a place to stay near Quebec's beautiful old town centre; others such as the two (filial) sisters I meet at a yoga class spend all day ensconced inside its walls relaxing, reading, having massages and just hanging out and recharging the batteries.

My visit is a fleeting two nights and a day but as the hotel is so well located I have time to wander round Quebec and also visit the monastery museum, which displays 1000 precious artefacts, a mere fraction of the 40,000 items the nuns have collected over the centuries. My favourite is a wooden trunk that the three sisters – Marie Forestier, Marie Guenet and Anne Le Cointre – brought with them from France in 1639, containing all their earthly possessions along with medical equipment.

At night I share a table with Annick and Dominique, my new yoga buddies, for a three-course meal and a class of wine. There's soup for entree, three choices for main course (I choose Arctic char fish), a sumptuous salad smorgasbord and dessert.

In keeping with custom, it's not a late night. I'm happy to head back to my comfy cell and tuck into my ultra-soft bed for a heavenly sleep, helped along by a nightcap of Serenity tea.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

Quebecoriginal.com/en

GETTING THERE

Air Canada flies directly from Sydney/Melbourne to Vancouver, with onward connections to Quebec City (via Montreal). See aircanada.com/Australia

STAYING THERE

Le Monastere des Augustines (Augustinian Monastery) is inside the city walls of Quebec, a short walk to main attractions. Authentic rooms are from $C84 ($85.50) a night per person in a double room; contemporary rooms are from $C104 a night per person in a double room. Rates include breakfast and entrance to the Augustine museum. Various packages are available such as the "Discovery and Balance" at $C155 a night per person in a double room including three meals a day and activities such as meditation, yoga and other relaxation techniques. Massages are extra and start at $C95 for 60 minutes. See monastere.ca

Caroline Gladstone travelled as a guest of Destination Canada and Le Monastere des Augustines.

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