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Oasis in the city

Take the plunge at Vancouver’s Fairmont Pacific Rim’s new Nordic spa experience

Nordic countries have been doing it for 2,000 years. Amid long, dark winters, saunas and cold-water plunging are communal activities that have proven to lower seasonal depression, help muscle and joint pain relief and give an overall boost to full-body rejuvenation. Canadians, who share an affinity with the Nordic climate, are finally embracing this wellness trend. But what’s taken us so long?

It may be because a sauna followed by ice bathing or rolling in the snow (yes, that’s a real thing) start early and are considered family activities in the Nordic countries, and so they become part of life at a young age.

I’m ready to give it a try at Fairmont Pacific Rim’s new outdoor Nordic spa experience. It’s 8 degrees Celsius outside and drizzling, and I feel like I’m dressed for an expedition to the Arctic: bathing suit and spa robe under a provided parka with a hood, and holding an umbrella. I’m slightly embarrassed as the weather hasn’t deterred many diehards from frolicking in the hotel’s outdoor heated pool and hot tub. I decide to make a dash for the sauna.

Ah, the cedar-scented air is delightful, and I’ve even stripped down to my bathing suit!

Designed and built by Squamish company Nootka Saunas (see related story), the sauna resembles a gigantic cedar-plank barrel: think hobbit house with a higher ceiling. By pushing a button, it heats up electrically—something I’ve never experienced before in a sauna. The heat is much drier than that produced by more traditional wood-fired saunas, which use igneous or volcanic rocks and water from a bucket to increase the steam and humidity.

After about 10 minutes in the sauna, I gather my courage and decide to take the invigorating cold plunge.

This is one situation in which double-dipping is de rigueur. I watch a husband and wife who jump and completely submerge into two deep acrylic and fiberglass tubs filled with cold water and then head back into the sauna—twice. Looks simple enough.

Yikes! Full disclosure: I dipped up to my knees instead of plunging. The circulating water temperature is about 10 to 15 degrees Celsius and I jumped out in 20 seconds. Oh, why didn’t I keep my parka on? Deciding to reward myself for bravery, I make a beeline for the loungers to order bone broth and a warm truffle grilled cheese sandwich, the ideal comfort foods from the menu designed by Fairmont Pacific Rim’s executive chef, Damon Campbell.

“Norway, with a population of five million, has something like three million saunas, many inside their homes,” says Fairmont Pacific Rim spa director Kim Carmichael. “Although we’re nowhere near that in Canada, it’s starting to become far more prevalent and trendier in North America as people discover the health benefits of a Nordic spa.”

She adds, “We’ve really been inspired by the Nordic countries making the experience inviting.”

(Unlike the Nordic countries, however, The Nordic Spa at the Fairmont Pacific Rim is limited to those aged 13 and over.)

When the self-guided Nordic spa experience outdoors on the hotel’s sixth floor was designed, the hot tub and heated pool already existed. So, by adding the sauna and cold plunge tubs a circuit of restorative activities has been created.

“It’s recommended to start with the sauna for about 15 minutes, and then step into the full cold plunge for anywhere from a minute to three minutes or longer if you can handle it. Then alternate between the heated pool and hot tub and then start the whole circuit again,” Kim explains.

Open from 8 am to 9:30 pm daily, guests can relax on sofa loungers under a canopy of oversized patio umbrellas, sip on green tea or hot chocolate and warm up alongside heaters and fire pits, surrounded by harbour and mountain views.

In addition to The Nordic Spa experience, one-hour yoga classes are offered poolside twice a week. There is also access to the holistic Willow Stream Spa amenities, including a mineral bath, steam rooms and hydrotherapy showers, among other treatments. All are open to the public as well as hotel guests. Prices and upgrades vary, and reservations are required.

“I think overall, people are looking to experience how to live better and longer. I like to think of Fairmont Pacific Rim’s Nordic Spa as an oasis in the city to do just that,” Kim says.