“The water. The minerals make it denser than the Dead Sea and that is the card of attraction. If it were fresh water we would be like any other lake that skips puddles in the prairies,” smiles Eric Upshall, the recently re-elected mayor of Manitou Village. . It swells slightly, “And now we have the right to brag.”
The waters of Manitou, which means ‘god’ in the Cree language, have long been known for their healing powers. Without a life preserver in sight, it is literally impossible to sink. The waters are rumored 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 floating. If you don’t shower when you get out of the lake, the salt will dry out and your skin will look like you’ve been lightly dusted with flour, ready to fry.
Manitou Beach was the center of attention in the 1920s and 1930s. It had everything vacationing audiences dreamed of back then and coincided with places like Banff and Jasper. At the height of his career, he had three dance halls, two indoor pools, shops, hotels, ice cream parlors, and a YWCA. And to balance those pristine images, smugglers and brothels.
In the 1980s, however, the curtains were closing and the beach rivaled the geriatric stepmother: She was still breathing, but was approaching the death rattle. A “beach hut” meant carrying a barn, opening a few more windows, and opening a latrine in the bush. The gravel pit, where teenagers gathered to drink beer, was the most popular destination on the beach.
What infrastructure? The bumpy roads were an obstacle course; the buildings were in various stages of decay. No one was ever on the pebble beach. It was a windswept stage. And you could hear the coughing of the last breath coming from the wings. The three ugly sisters, without budget, apathy and decadence, had a higher turnover. The vultures circled, waiting for the last call to the curtain.
Then, in October 1987, the Chalet Pool caught fire.
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 ashes of the old pool, it took a lot of wand movement for Manitou Springs Resort and Mineral Spa to become a year-round resort. The project started with a collaborative community effort (if you didn’t buy shares, you were not allowed to participate in the coffee line) and a government grant. For the first few years, the dividends were free bathroom vouchers, which most local shareholders didn’t bother to redeem. Dale Hayter, a local business operator with a large block of shares, bought and privatized the operation in 1998 and established it as a family business.
Although it has had its stage entrances, exits, and cast calls over the years, ‘the spa,’ as the locals call it, is holding its own. The salt, remember that it is denser than the Dead Sea, it is corrosive and requires demanding maintenance. Think about what road salt does to cars and multiply that by 25 to calculate the oxidation factor.
Twenty-five years later, the Manitou Springs Resort and Mineral Spa celebrated its anniversary in May 2012. Transformed into the full-time fairy godmother, it now employs 50 people. The hotel complex has 102 rooms. The resort also houses a poolside café, gift shop and massage service. And the view of the lake from Sam’s Steak House makes it a popular place to dine.
The town makes Cinderella
Like Cinderella’s rags to a ball gown, the barns disappeared in a cloud of smoke. And in their places there are no cabins, but houses, some of which are big enough to have a ballroom. The golden slipper was that in 2005 the town passed a law that stipulated that all properties had to be connected to running water and sewerage. Although some of the residents did an ugly sister act and tried to smash their ideas into the shoe, the Cinderella factor persevered. Running water marked the mound of death for the honey cart business, but increased the attractiveness and value of the beach property. In 2005, a reverse osmosis water treatment plant came into operation. Like the transformation of the pumpkin into a stagecoach, the town became luxurious.
Cinderella turned to the girl next door and Manitou Beach has a rather “healthy” air about it. Even predictable. So what kind of people go there? The two main categories are families and seniors. It’s the kind of place you can take your great-aunt Sue on vacation and know there will be no surprises. In fact, it’s so spotlessly clean that you have to struggle to find a lot of trouble to get into. No smugglers, no brothels. Doing it in the back seat of a car while watching a movie at the drive-in is as risky as it sounds.
Mike’s Beach Bar, with regular volleyball games on Thursday nights, is just not a place to pick up. Danceland, which claims to be ‘world famous’ because of the horsehair coils under the wooden floor, attracts people who want to dance polka or square. Those elusive tango types who rub their bodies will have to go elsewhere. And, really, does it get much more “respectable” than leaving money in the honor box if you play a round at Murray’s Disc Golf?
With so many small Canadian venues disappearing from the map, it’s refreshing to know that some can, in fact, undergo a little cosmetic surgery and take their place back on stage. And Cinderella’s transformation into Manitou Beach leads the pack.