Hot and Cold: Why Vancouverites Are Obsessed With Saunas and Cold Plunges

Sauna culture has come for Vancouver. Don’t sweat it.

No shade to the Improv Centre, but it looks like things are finally heating up on Granville Island. Or at least that’s the promise of the new Circle Wellness Spa—a high-end thermal spa that opened on the island last fall.

The sign is barely visible next to the black gates. Real luxury is quiet, they say; this is a wayfinding whisper. My husband punches in an access code and the door swings open to reveal an underlit oasis. A wooden walkway and a trickling water soundscape lead us to the reception. Out comes an iPad and Beats headphones, and an orientation video narrated by an ethereal AI voice explains the process that will result in our impending relaxation.

“It’s like an episode of Black Mirror!” I comment to the staff. “In a good way!” (I have only seen one episode of Black Mirror.) She nods. “A lot of people say that.” I feel basic and un-clever. Good thing I’m about to be locked in a room for two hours with nothing to do but reflect on why I need everyone to think I’m funny.

But seriously: the most luxurious part of this very luxurious experience may just be the offline-ness of it all. Though Circle Wellness is incredibly high tech, with automated sound cues and intricate heating and cooling systems humming away behind the scenes in each converted shipping container pod, it’s also an opportunity to get off the grid and back into our bodies. So we turn off our phones and try to turn off our minds, too.

Circle Wellness Spa is lush and beautiful. Photo: Olivia Van Dyke.

Maybe that’s why the spa circuit has taken off in these particularly anxious times. What a modern treat to disconnect (or reconnect, if you’re a social sauna-er) and remember how to breathe.

Circle Wellness is certainly the most artful and intense variation of the thermal spa trend, but it isn’t the only game in town. Scandinave Spa first brought the concept to the West Coast in 2010, enticing the Whistler crowd to finally take off their ski boots and try a traditional Nordic spa experience. It’s not a complex prescription: get really hot, get really cold, relax at a normal temperature, repeat. But it took off as an indulgent destination, the perfect way to tempt your friend who doesn’t snowboard (me) to go up with you for the weekend and help cover the cost of the Airbnb. But over the past few years, this Nordic circuit concept has tumbled down the mountain and into the city. I, for one, couldn’t be happier.

At Circle, we shower up and step into the moodily lit space, its walls lined with slats of warm wood. A brisk December breeze sneaks in through an opening in the ceiling, which frames the night sky. Into a muscle-­melting, handcrafted cedar hot tub we go. As I bob in the decadent, toasty water, my thoughts wander beyond my personal shortcomings and head over to the Math Department of my brain, where I start to tally up just how many circuit spas I’ve been to in the past calendar year. Six. It is six. One of which was just last week. Without really realizing it, I guess I’ve found a new hobby.

Pleasantly pink and steaming, I hobble over to the slick concrete cold plunge pool. It’s only big enough for one, but that’s fine, because my husband is refusing to participate.

“You don’t have to do this,” he reminds me, cooking away smugly in the cedar tub. I step into the shock of cold and involuntarily make what can only be described as Mean Little Grunts. “Literally no one will know or care if you don’t,” he points out; he stretches his lanky limbs luxuriously as my organs wither inside me. But I care! I want to relax and I want to relax right. And in 2024, that means a spa experience that combines discomfort with luxury. You can’t have joy without sorrow, right? I saw Inside Out, I get it. My lips are blue. The stars are twinkling. It’s maybe the most beautiful night of my life.

Circle Wellness Spa
Inside the Circle Wellness Wellpod. Photo: Olivia Van Dyke.

Cold plunge enthusiasts extol the virtues of a brisk dip: increased focus, boosted immunity, decreased inflammation. From Hippocrates’s days to the current Wim Hof era, cold-water swimming has been lauded as a cure-all. But whether you believe in the long-term benefits or not, it’s hard to deny the invigorating properties of an ice bath when you’re neck deep in a feed tub. You are alive! You are awake! You are uncomfortable! You are tougher than your spouse! And then: you’re hauling yourself out of the tub, a dripping-wet hero, electrified by your own grit and the feeling of blood pounding through your limbs at a thrilling pace.

At Circle, a hypnotic AI voice suddenly fills the air, beckoning us through a door at the end of the room to the “WellPod.” We leave our respective bodies of water behind to follow its instructions unquestioningly. Inside, walls of pink salt bricks are lit from behind. The glow flickers along gently in time with music that can only be described as “haunted flutes” (again, in a good way!).

The light fades to black—pitch black—as we sweat and fall out of time. Has it been five minutes or five years? I feel, and there is no other word for it, melty. If I can’t see my legs, are they still there? I stretch out across the sizzling wooden floor and reminisce fondly about the crisp, cool water that once enveloped me and proved I was truly alive.

Saunas and steam rooms are nothing particularly new to the health world, of course (or to the world of spirituality, for that matter). They’re ancient, even, an important part of cultures around the world for centuries on centuries, as you well know if you’ve ever read a history book or been to Art of Sauna and Spa in Burnaby. Ten thousand years ago, there were pit saunas, then sweat lodges and Bronze Age sweat houses. Health claims include increased blood circulation, improved immune function, better sleep and the popular-yet-vague “detoxification.” I can’t prove any of that, but as my Accidental Year of Spas has proved, it certainly increases happiness.

Even as I’m shocked by the hot heat and the icy cold, Nordic spas have turned into my favourite lousy-weather activity. Given their increasing presence across our city, I’m not the only one who’s into a little self-care (or… is this self-flagellation?). It’s an event that’s as inclusive or intimate as you want it to be. Book out the secret spa behind Tality Kombucha (or the not-as-secret sister spa, now open at the Shipyards) and bring along your whole rec soccer team for a little team-building shvitz (and bottomless ’booch). Or catch up with a friend in the cozy cedar cabin sauna at the Willow Stream Spa; dish in the private pod until you’ve both got a proper glow going, and then rotate from ice bath to the tropical-in-comparison rooftop pool. (The poolside bar certainly helps the relaxation experience.)

The Nordic Spa at the Fairmont Pacific Rim
The Nordic Spa at the Fairmont Pacific Rim brings the sauna experience poolside with a soothing cedar-lined pod.
Inside the Nordic Spa pod.

Outdoorsy types can rent the Finnish Sauna to pull right up alongside the ocean—a February dip at Jericho seems downright delightful when the sizzling rocks of the mobile hot room await post plunge. The Good Sauna bounces its own mobile sauna (and propane fire pit and ice troughs) around to different East Van yards every few months. It’s currently parked at Container Brewing, making a post- (or, honestly, mid-) spa beer a must. And now, there’s Circle Wellness Spa on Granville Island (an evolution of the cult-fave secret spa on Industrial Avenue), which brings a definitively sensual, date-night vibe to the whole hot-cold experience—the private circuit spaces are textural, dark, lush and moody.

Tality Wellness Spa
Tality Wellness Spa offers bottomless kombucha to circuit spa guests.
Tality Wellness Spa
Relaxing between cold plunges and sauna sessions at Tality.

Or it would be sensual if I could find my date. It’s still pitch black, and I can only assume he’s still in here. Is he using this personal reflection time to regret not submersing himself in the cold plunge pool? One can only hope. Our breathing gets deeper as we suck in the thick-hot, salt-infused air—presumably getting stronger and becoming better people in the process?—and soon the light returns, pretty as a sunrise. We go back through the door, reborn into crisp, clean air. I perform the unnecessary ritual of dunking myself back in the ice tub. (“Ow ow ow, no no no,” I say; “why why why?” my husband replies, returning to his natural habitat, the cedar tub.) I lie on the heated pebble slab to recover. My muscles are thrumming, recalibrating. A peace overcomes me: a deep-boned, good-and-honest state of rest that leaves no room for anxiety, aches or pains, much less a feeling of digital FOMO. I’ll go get back in that tub in a second. And then into the cold-cold, the hot-hot, and onto the next decadent day-spa experience to do the same, a cycle I’ll be continuing—if my past behaviour is any indication—for the year to come.

Circle Wellness Spa
The new Circle Wellness Spa has come a long way from its humble origins. Founder Paul Hennessey’s first iteration was a lovingly hand-built circuit experience in a funky little workyard on Industrial Avenue. The oasis quickly gained a cult following and was booking out months in advance. The bigger, more polished spa centre on Granville Island can now accommodate dozens of sessions a day—though getting one of these reservations is also highly competitive. Photo: Olivia Van Dyke.
The Good Sauna
The Good Sauna pops up at venues like gyms and breweries.


The Finnish Spa
If you prefer to do your cold plunging in a more natural environment, book the Finnish Sauna to come to you oceanside. The wood-fired sauna on wheels will park  near the beach so you can dash from sea to sweat. The company also sets up a  sauna riverside in Squamish (a collaboration with Cheekye Ranch) for private or “social sauna” community events. Photo: Melissa Martin.

What to Know Before You Go to a Sauna Circuit

TIMING IS  EVERYTHING  Adapt to your own personal comfort levels, but try to hit 10 to 15 minutes in the sauna and a minute in the plunge tub, and then take 10 minutes of rest, whether in lounge chairs, in a temperate tub or fireside.


DUNK YOUR  HEAD IF YOU DARE  At Ritual Nordic Spa  in Victoria, the pros recommend submerging your head if you can,  to elicit an even more dramatic response from the body. Try an “ommm” or little chant to push through the discomfort.

IT’S NOT FOR  EVERYONE  If you’re pregnant or have health concerns, talk to your doctor  before taking the plunge.

SUIT UP  Most of our local  thermal spas aren’t private, so don’t forget to bring your bathing suit. (And, advises Tality Spa’s Peter Chen, “a willingness to suffer.”)

The Finnish Spa
The mobile Finnish Sauna is available to rent for a beach dip. Photo: Melissa Martin.

Where to Find the Best Nordic Spas in Vancouver

Tality Wellness Secret Spa

1481 Dominion St., North Vancouver; 240–125 Victory Ship Way, North Vancouver

A quirky secret spa behind a  kombucha purveyor now has a spin-off location in Lonsdale. $350 for 10 people; $45 for individuals;  1 hour 55 minutes

Circle Wellness

1297 Johnston St,

Shipping containers have been converted into sumptuous personal spas. From $219 for 1 or 2 people; 90-minute or 2-hour sessions available

The Finnish Sauna


The mobile sauna comes to you and your buds at the beach.  Ocean dip, anyone? $275 for up  to 9 people; 1 hour 50 minutes

The Good Sauna

1216 Franklin St.

This pop-up sauna and plunge-tub experience (complete with fire pit!)  runs at various locations— currently, it’s on the patio at  Container Brewing. $450 for up  to 10 people; $45 for individuals;  1 hour 45 minutes

The Nordic Spa at the Fairmont Pacific Rim

1038 Canada Pl.

A new sauna pod and cold tubs sit beside the already lovely pool and jacuzzi at the Pac Rim. Hotel guests, $35 per person for a 90-minute slot; locals, $149 per person for a three-hour experience including access to Willow Stream Spa facilities


Looking for more relaxation inspiration? Our ultimate guide to Vancouver spas is right here.