Heat is on

A Floating Sauna Hides in the Vancouver Island Wilderness

The unusual retreat near Tofino redefines getting away from it all.

By Allison Williams January 17, 2023

Tofino Resort and Marina’s floating sauna has a giant picture window looking out at the sound.

I’m Alone in a remote Canadian wilderness, stranded on a floating platform the size of six compact parking spaces. It could be the start of a gritty survival story but for what else is on the dock: a firepit, some reading hammocks, three paddleboards, and a boxy wood-fired sauna whose picture window takes in the Vancouver Island vista. Less Jack London, more White Lotus.

The floating sauna belongs to Tofino Resort and Marina, a modest hotel that’s found sneaky ways to slip luxury into an otherwise unfancy scene. On this isolated dock, I’ll steam and sloth and noodle around the cold Canadian waters; on the way home we’ll catch wild crab that a chef will blanch into dinner. 

Find Tofino on the Canadian map by tracing the ocean side of Vancouver Island, the one scalloped by inlets and sounds. The two-lane highway that crosses from the populated coast near Victoria (and the ferry from the mainland) crawls over a mountain pass, a road interrupted by construction and weather so often that Tofino can be cut off for hours at a time. An island on an island. 

Without shopping malls or fast food, much less a single Tim Hortons, Tofino tethers its identity to nature. It’s bound to the wave breaks that have made it a world-renowned cold-water surf spot, to a coastline teeming with crab for dinner and whales for watching.

Luxury snuck out here in the 1990s when the Wickaninnish Inn debuted on one of Tofino’s rugged beaches, part of the Relais and Chateaux group that includes Canlis and the French Laundry. Constantly scoring spots on international best-of lists, the Wick opens to the rocky ocean beach with cedar-trimmed rooms. During pandemic closures the oceanfront restaurant gained a new wine cellar dug into the coastal rock and a restaurant bar made of a slab of Carmanah stone that warms with radiant heat.

Then in 2014, a Wickaninnish chef moved downtown to open Wolf in the Fog, a second-story restaurant that dishes clams in dan dan broth and ’nduja made from tuna. At its bar, rye whiskey is infused with the coast’s signature cedar. Suddenly, Tofino wasn’t such a shaggy surf town anymore.

Tofino Resort and Marina embraced that wild-meets-whimsy when it was reworked from a waterfront motel into a sleek boutique property in 2017. The owners built an adventure center with freediving, whale watching, and hot springs tour offerings. And now, its new crown jewel, the floating sauna. 

Such a setup is unknown on the West Coast but a familiar sight in Norway and Sweden; it makes sense in this liminal mountain-to-sea space that echoes Scandinavia’s fjords. The hotel worked with the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation to find a spot for the dock and donates a small percentage of proceeds to tribal projects.

Only one group can visit the sauna at a time, and my guide on the 40-minute trip is First Nations member Howie Tom. As a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht, Howie knows every pocket of Clayoquot Sound, where it feathers into Vancouver Island with a dizzying network of fingers and coves. He tells me he hasn’t been off Vancouver Island since 1998 and truthfully doesn’t even like to drive as far as the highway junction where the road bends toward the rest of civilization.

We go deeper into Clayoquot, the surface speckled with the buoys marking crab pots, around headlands and through tight passages. Soon we’re in a cove long past any other building or sign of human life, to the sauna platform where Howie lights the wood fire, hands me a walkie-talkie, and departs. He’ll motor far out of sight and watch a movie on his phone for the four hours I’m allotted on this manmade island ($1,000 Canadian for up to four guests). He tells me I’m the first to be left here solo.

Clayoquot Sound reaches its fingers into the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Stranded on the dock, it’s wilderness in every direction. The glassy surface of Clayoquot Sound, the steep rocky banks that rise above the waterline, the black surf scoter ducks that dive for prey. No engines hum, no airplanes cut the sky. One could stand on the summit of Mount Rainier and not be this alone.

With long cedar benches and a wood-fired stove, the sauna itself can be calibrated to anything from a pleasantly warm sitting room to a sweat machine. The outdoor hammocks and firepit leave space for a cool refresh, with paddleboards and kayaks stacked at the ready. 

I clutch the walkie-talkie Howie left me like a security blanket. It’s impossible to lock oneself in or out of the sauna—I think—but I know that should I shout in distress, it’s unlikely anyone would hear.

Island cabin maker Aux Box captured the clean lines of Nordic design for the sauna, their first, and the entire dock is a manmade relaxation machine. But somehow even the state-of-the-art structure is dwarfed by that wilderness.

The Tla-o-qui-aht kept these lands from timber harvest in 1984 by building blockades against logging companies. But as he captains me to and from my wooden island, Howie can still point out which parts are old-growth swaths of western hemlock and sky-high cedar, and where second growth has replaced old clear-cuts. He slows to point out three swans drifting among the darker seabirds, then points to the soon-to-close fish farms that will remove pens of Atlantic salmon (and their invasive impact) from these waters. Where I see simple wilderness, Howie sees a living organism pulsing with injury and regrowth.

We pull crab traps on the way back to the hotel, where the chef at 1909 Kitchen and Bar at the marina’s edge will turn the day’s bounty into dinner. A simple enough menu—catch it, cook it, eat it—that required the restaurant to finagle special permits to dish recreationally obtained foods from the commercial kitchen. 

On the drive home to Seattle, the highway twists through the peaks that make up the spine of Vancouver Island. It occurs to me that on the previous day I traveled so far inland in Clayoquot Sound that here, in the car, I’m closer to that floating sauna than I was in the Tofino hotel. 

If I could bushwhack through the forest below me, I’d reach the salt water mixed with snowmelt, the same water I bobbed above. It’s disconcerting, geographically, but delightful, too. Vancouver Island coils its wilderness into a knot, the ocean twisted into the mountains, wrapped in forest. With the strange construction of a remote floating sauna, a Swedish fad slowly trickling across the globe, Canada managed to package that mélange into a day trip.

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