This Floating Sauna Is the Ultimate Nature Escape

Forget green spaces, blue spaces are the latest wilderness-meets-wellness retreats.

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The first thing you notice about Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve in southern British Columbia might be the ancient, towering 150-foot evergreens and the verdant, sloping valleys between them. Perhaps you spot eagles soaring overhead or hear the sea lapping against the constellation of small islands that punctuate the water. But what sticks with you long after you depart is the quiet. This nature preserve is an integral part of the 100-million-year-old Emerald Edge rainforest, offers a dazzling range of biodiversity, and is home to three First Nations peoples. It is tranquility made tangible in wind, woods, and water.

It’s the perfect place for a floating sauna—one that works with and respects the surrounding nature. After just looking around, it’s easy to understand why Tofino Resort + Marina—which encourages a “ruggedly refined” approach to travel—chose Clayoquot Sound as the new home of their wilderness-meets-wellness West Coast Sauna Experience. The floating sauna joins an array of other therapeutic outdoor programming—including rainforest walks, harborside yoga, and freediving classes—and provides guests with an opportunity to unplug, relax, and reconnect with nature and each other.

Beyond offering activities in keeping with the adventurous character of the area, Tofino Resort + Marina is actively working with local indigenous groups, such as the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, whose territory includes Clayoquot Sound. The resort acquired permission from the tribe for the siting of the floating sauna and its associated activities, to respect both the natural environment and the people who have lived off it for centuries.

the floating spa from above
Tofino Resort + Marina

Guests are also part of the solution: 1% of each bill goes to the Tribal Parks Alliance, and another 1% to the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust’s watershed projects. The goal is to foster continued connection to place for indigenous communities, while introducing travelers to the extraordinary beauty and spirit of the place.

The West Coast Sauna Experience takes place over the course of about four hours. It begins with a 25-minute boat ride through the sound, where you might catch a glimpse of sea lions and otters at play or black bears foraging along the shore. The sauna, hand-built by local artisans with yellow cedar, is stationed on the Tofino Inlet, a protected corner of Clayoquot Sound, atop a floating dock that’s tethered to the land.

The experience team fires up the sauna’s wood-burning heater, while you change into your swimsuit and jump or swing off the dock for a cold plunge in the Pacific Ocean. Then it’s time for a warm-up, as you recline in the sauna with views of spectacular scenery through the floor-to-ceiling glass window.

A woman enjoying the floating spa
Tofino Resort + Marina

Going from cold to hot, and perhaps back again, “primes the parasympathetic system, balancing the effects of going into and out of the fight-or-flight response,” says Dr. Mindy Pelz, a functional health expert. “When you go from one extreme to the next, you create cellular adaptation, which makes the cells stronger. It’s brilliant for anybody who’s trying to slow down the aging process or repair the nervous system.”

Heating the body’s core temperature to the point of sweating has long been part of a wide variety of ancient healing therapies. Sauna as we recognize it today—a small, enclosed room with either moist or dry heat—was invented by the Finns about 2,000 years ago. Lee Braun, CEO and founder of Perspire Sauna Studio, says the benefits of sauna are myriad and include increased circulation, improvement in the skin and sleep, enhanced muscular and joint flexibility, and deep relaxation. “It’s moving your body from a stress state to a relaxed state,” he says. “That’s the start of all the benefits of sauna.”

As for the theory that sauna can “detoxify” the body? Some scientists say there’s little truth to the claim, because the body processes toxins through the liver and kidneys, not through the skin. Pelz disagrees, saying, “The skin is meant to remove toxins, just like it’s bringing in toxins from so many beauty products. Sweat is a carrier molecule. It’s how you’re going to get those toxins out.”

The exterior of Tofino Resort + Marina
Tofino Resort + Marina

Being on the ocean might have even more benefits for the human mind, which has an innate response to the restorative effects of water. Green spaces have gotten plenty of attention for their ability to bring mind and body into balance, but blue spaces—areas located by the ocean, lakes, rivers, streams, and waterfalls—have even greater potential to promote healing. Researchers have found that people who visit the waterfront twice per week are happier and experience better overall physical and mental health.

The rhythmic motion of the water is soothing, explains Pelz, and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. The heat of the sauna and being out in nature are also parasympathetic-activating activities, so you’re effectively “stacking” a trio of healing therapies.

Tofino Resort + Marina

Besides hopping in and out of the sauna, you can paddleboard or kayak around the inlet, or sway in the floating dock’s built-in hammocks. Surf or get certified in freediving at the Adventure Centre or gather around the firepit for lunch—either your own or the add-on picnic option made by Tofino Resort + Marina’s 1909 Kitchen. For an extra $49 per person, you can continue your experience on land through the cook-your-catch option: fresh-caught crab and prawns, courtesy of your boat crew, which will later be transformed into dinner at the restaurant.

The resort itself is within walking distance to a small, bohemian downtown with independent shops and restaurants. Just over a mile away to the west, Tonquin Park has a scenic forest trail that opens up onto a sandy beach with views for miles. About the same distance to the east, the Naa’Waya’Sum Gardens include manicured and wild plantings, wooded trails, and places to see Nuu-chah-nulth art and traditions. Or suit up for excellent hiking at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, about three hours by car or half hour by plane.

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Robin Catalano is a contributor for Thrillist.