MONTREAL -- ''You can breathe a little deeper, eh?" asks my French-accented, pixie-haired massage therapist, pressing her index finger deeper into the muscles of my upper right shoulder. I can, of course, and do -- every time she asks me. The only trouble is, being so very conscious of breathing correctly is keeping me, well, overly conscious. And that's keeping me from reaching any state of true relaxation.
Self-consciousness -- my own and others' -- has thus far been a pervasive theme this weekend. In fact, it's the very reason I've come to Montreal during one of the coldest spells this winter: to see if the concept of a hip spa hotel can actually work; to find out if it's possible to see, be seen, and feel genuinely serene all at the same time.
In theory (and at some spa properties, in practice) the notion seems a paradox. After all, aren't spas places where people go to look bad, if only for a little while, so they can look and feel better after they leave? Let's face it: There's nothing particularly cool about sporting a towel on your head or a facial-induced rash in front of the Prada-addicted set in a hotel's common areas.
That is what has always made me chuckle about expensive, design-conscious spa properties like Ian Schrager's The Shore Club Hotel Miami Beach and Sanderson in London, where the label-loving elites go to conspicuously unwind and rejuvenate in front of one another through meditation, body scrubs, toxin-banishing mud masks, and yoga. More and more of these big-name, big-budget oases seem to be opening, and asking their guests to achieve a duality of self-awareness that has always struck me as not just nigh impossible, but frankly phony.
So when I first read about Montreal's Le Saint-Sulpice Hotel, I dusted off my hopes. It operates with the same goal as the aforementioned properties, but at only 108 rooms (all suites), on a notably more humble level. One of the city's newer boutique hotels, it promises posh contemporary design, a hopping bar and restaurant scene, and a complete urban spa and health center. Better still, it's rumored, despite its trendy trappings and clientele, to fall much lower on the pretense and attitude scale than many of its ilk. Was this the happy medium to prove that inner happiness and outer hipness could coexist?
The hotel lobby itself was clue number one. Mixed-media columns, some made of concrete blocks and mosaic tiles, others of grommeted leather, stand surrounded by curled, gold iron accents. Huge glowing chandeliers clustered with conical shades nearly overlap over the sitting area, where dark chocolate leather sofas and French tapestry armchairs flank a cracking fire. Contemporary, sure. But cozy.
The hotel is built into the centuries-old stone walls behind Notre-Dame Basilica in Old Montreal, the city's most striking cathedral (which so moved its Protestant designer, James O'Donnell, that upon its completion he converted to Roman Catholicism). The hotel cleverly incorporates the walls into its own very-this-century design, using the old stone structures as a backdrop for the abstract paintings of local artists.
But once unpacked, it was time to start testing theories. First came a soul-warming sauna in the spa, Centre de Sante Essence, shared with a very polite woman with orange and blonde highlights in her dark red hair. After a shower, I head down for lunch to the property's main dining room, Le Restaurant S, with a head of still-damp hair, wearing terrycloth pants. No one else looks as though they've just come from the spa: Tables are filled mostly with clusters of well-heeled thirtysomethings: a few young families, men in sharp blazers, and women in prim leather and tweed pants. So much for relaxing and letting it all hang out.
But, this being Canada, it isn't surprising that even the most self-satisfied staff here are still affable. After I verify with our waiter that the crab in the green apple salad starter (complete with dashes of red and green caviar) is the real thing, he can't help but deliver it with a friendly faux hauteur, announcing it ''the real crab salad for the lady," with a wink. Though it doesn't bill itself so, the light lunch menu qualifies as what I would consider a down-to-earth spa menu: small portions, plenty of vegetables, with mostly grilled or sauteed chicken and seafood dishes. A simple plate of seared, sweetly browned sea scallops comes with a tumble of just-tender peapods, yellow beets, white asparagus, and endive. Of course, no restaurant of style can resist a flourish or two: in this case, streaks of molasses, chili oil, and olive oil scattering the plate.
Back in the spa's darkly lighted health center (where T-shirts and shorts are offered alongside fluffy robes), I start my workout next to a guy swigging Evian in the middle of his personal training session. Around us, a few women are stretching out and weight-lifting in bright-colored Lycra. Just as I'm starting to get lost in my own head in the process of sweating, the man and one of the women start chatting (in English and French) about everything from her son's birthday party to supper clubs, and I can't help eavesdropping. When they move on to tackle politics, I retire to my suite for a little privacy.
There, I decide to see if I can relax amid such minimalist design. Not that the space is uncomfortable: Soft, caramel-colored leather club chairs are mixed with sharp cone-shaped lighting, streamlined modern fixtures, and high ceilings. Translucent aqua glass accents the bathroom, where I find eco-spa amenities like thalasso body milk and a gigantic tub. (In case I lose touch with the real world after soaking in the tub, a PlayStation beckons on the entertainment center.)
Easing into the steamy water under the room's glowing tubular drop lights, I lie back and try to not to think about anything: not work, not errands, not anything but . . . what I should wear to dinner. If this were a country resort spa, it would be yoga pants -- and no Nuala or Puma numbers, either -- just garden variety, status-free stretch pants. Then suddenly I remember the well-groomed lunch crowd.
An hour later, sipping a martini in the sleek bar's transparent red window panels among a spiffy clientele, I'm glad I reached for a silk wrap dress instead. But climbing up the dramatic curling gold staircase, and passing by the hotel boutique, a furry something catches my eye: a row of moose for sale, stuffed animals right next to the expensive spa robes and beauty products. It's hard to imagine something so kitschy and yet down-to-earth on sale at The Shore Club or Sanderson.
Which may be why Saint-Sulpice comes as close as it does to allowing guests to balance style with serenity: After all, self-consciousness may be the curse of modern man, but when it comes to being cool, Canadians are just more relaxed about it.
The next morning at the spa, I sign up for the one-hour massage. ''Breathe more deeply," the masseuse keeps telling me. Even with the constant instruction, my stress-induced knots melt away, and I'm almost completely unaware of sharing the room with anyone else.
''How do you feel?" asks the therapist.
''Absolutely relaxed," I answer honestly -- right before taking one more deep breath, just to make her happy.
Alexandra Hall is a Boston-based writer.