A chilling experience proves revitalizing in Vernon, B.C.

As I stepped into the third room of the three-room chamber, I initially felt as though I was walking into an air-conditioned building in a place like, say, Phoenix, Ariz., on an August afternoon. The rush of cold air against my face felt refreshing at first, but it only took a second or two before my entire body was enveloped in a level of frigidity that I can honestly say I had never felt before. For the next three minutes, I would follow my instructions to walk slowly in a circle in the room, the main compartment of the cold sauna at Sparkling Hill Resort in Vernon, B.C.

Did I mention that the temperature inside was -110 degrees C (-166 Fahrenheit)?

The cold sauna is probably the most well known treatment at Sparkling Hill, the 149-room wellness resort that opened in 2010 in the northern portion of the Okanagan Valley, BC’s premier wine region. But it is far from the only reason to visit the property, which overlooks the lake that gives the valley its name.

The resort is owned by Gernot Langes-Swarovski, patriarch of Austria’s famed Swarovski family, and its décor incorporates 3.5 million Swarovski crystals. These shimmering displays range from the grand, such as the giant chandelier that forms a multi-story waterfall of crystals above the lobby, to the intimate, including a glass-encased display of brightly colored crystals mimicking a fireplace in each room. Floor-to-ceiling windows in every room, and teak and stone furnishings throughout the property keep the setting bright, modern and elegant. It’s a luxurious setting that has, thanks to an exchange rate now favoring the U.S. dollar, become a more affordable vacation option for those of us living south of the Canadian border.

The region’s recreational activities include water sports on the lake and golf in summer, skiing and snowboarding at nearby Silver Star Mountain (about 45 minutes away by car) in winter, and wine tasting throughout the year. But Sparkling Hill’s 40,000-square-foot KurSpa encourages guests to stay on property for the duration of a visit. Resort guests can come and go as they please to use the spa’s steam rooms and hot saunas, indoor and outdoor pools and other soothing amenities, including the Serenity Room, a sparsely furnished lounge where conversation is banned. In the Kneipp Waterway, guests walk along a series of shin-deep pools filled alternately with hot and cold water, designed to stimulate and invigorate nerves and the lymphatic system. A wide variety of massage and body treatments are also available (fees for these vary), and clinical services, including acupuncture, nutrition consultations and detoxification programs, are designed to help guests elevate their wellness regimes.

The spa initially welcomed day visitors when the resort opened, but the use of the facility is now restricted to resort guests only, with one exception: the cold sauna (below).

coldsaunasparklinghill.jpg

A free afternoon during a ski trip to Silver Star in February provided me with an opportunity to experience the treatment for myself.

The resort’s kinesiologist Paul Bradshaw, who administers the cold-sauna treatments, explained that Japanese and German researchers developed cold sauna in the 1980s as a form of cryotherapy for arthritis sufferers. In recent years, professional athletes have turned to immersion from the neck down in sub-freezing tanks cooled by liquid nitrogen to help recover from injuries. KurSpa claims its cold sauna is the only one in North America regulated by oil compressors and offering an enclosed chamber in which a person can walk around.

Three minutes in the coldest of the three rooms, the one set to -110 C, provides the maximum health benefits, Bradshaw told me. In addition to reducing inflammation, the cold temperature draws a person’s blood inward to warm the core, in the process bumping up the blood’s oxygen concentration. After a person’s leaves the chamber and his or her body temperature returns to normal, the distribution of this oxygen-enriched blood away from the core revitalizes the body.

After having my blood pressure tested, filling out a questionnaire and signing a release, I was asked to change into swim trunks and put my shoes and socks back on. I was then given a wool cap, a surgical mask and gloves and led inside the chamber, about 10 feet long and 8 feet tall. The first room was chilled to -10 C (14 degrees F); the second to -50 C (-58 F). As Bradshaw, bundled up for the session, ushered me from the first room to the second, after spending only a few seconds in each, he explained that the primary purpose of the first two rooms was to remove any moisture from my skin and clothes.

One of Bradshaw’s most impressive qualities is his ability to continue talking throughout the entire three minutes a person spends inside the coldest of the rooms. He noted that my natural instincts would make me want to flee from such a cold temperature, and, in between explanations of the treatment and how a person’s body reacts to it, he offered encouraging words on how well I was following the protocol, presumably to keep me from running out in a panic. It worked. Three minutes seemed like an eternity, but I felt energized from the moment I stepped out of the chamber.

Bradshaw says that it usually takes 10 to 20 sessions for the benefits of the resort’s cold sauna treatments ($45 Canadian per session, or $300 for a 10-sesson package) to take effect, but I only had time for one session. This was still enough for me to feel relaxed and energized for the rest of the day, and the minor aches that had built up from a couple of days on the slopes seemed to have subsided. This alone was reason enough for me to start planning my next trip back to the Okanagan Valley.

(Photo courtesy of Sparkling Hill Resort.)

McMenamins connects lodging to community in Bothell

mcmenaminsandersonschoo.jpg

“Back to school” has rarely been as fun as it was in Bothell last week during the pre-opening party for the new McMenamins Anderson School hotel, which officially began welcoming guests two days later, on Oct. 15. The Oregon-based hospitality company welcomed a broad range of community members, including former W.A. Anderson School faculty members, alums and their families, to celebrate the company’s first Seattle-area hotel. Guests exploring the 5-acre property created a festive din as they sampled selections from the five onsite restaurants and bars while admiring the eclectic art and design features adorning the 72-room hotel and related amenities.

McMenamins is known for converting tired historical properties into lively and unpretentious gathering places, and the Anderson School, the company’s ninth hotel and 54th overall location, seems a perfect fit for its playbook. The hotel rooms are set in the former classrooms of the brick, three-story art deco schoolhouse that originally opened in 1931 as Bothell Junior High and was later named for its first principal, Wilbert A. Anderson.

The check-in desk is located across a walkway from the schoolhouse in a corner of the former cafeteria and adjoins Tavern on the Square. The latter, a full-service farm-to-table restaurant, is awash in dark woods complemented by antique-inspired light fixtures and stained glass, including a row of panels designed to show the musical notes from the Grateful Dead song “Scarlet Begonias.” This design motif, sort of like a marriage between Victorian and Psychedelic styles, continues throughout much of the rest of the property, with historic photos complemented by original paintings brightened by a sun splash here or a moonbeam there.

A formerly neglected indoor city pool across a parking lot from the schoolhouse has been transformed into the North Shore Lagoon, a new, South Seas-inspired saltwater pool open to the public and hotel guests. Bamboo-paneled walls adorned with Polynesia art surround the refurbished pool, while a new, glass-enclosed tiki bar overlooking an edge of the pool completes the tropical vibe.

Back on campus, outdoor seating, fire pits and creative lighting encourage hotel guests, restaurant patrons and other visitors to linger in the courtyard (pictured above). Down the way, the old school gymnasium has been converted into a 134-seat movie theater showing first run features. Audience members can order food, beer and other beverages to enjoy at their seats, a so-called “view and brew” experience. A private-event space adjoining the cinema is named for U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, who grew up in Bothell and attended the school. (Murray’s 8th grade yearbook photo is posted alongside that of her twin sister, Margaret, in a hallway outside the event space.)

As is the case with McMenamins’ other properties, the beverage selections include the company’s own brand of wines and beers, with batches of the latter brewed onsite. Plans are said to be underway to add offerings from nearby Woodinville wineries to the mix. While rooms at some McMenamins properties require guests to use shared bathrooms, each room at the Anderson School has its own bathroom, along with a flat-screen TV and Wi-Fi.

The hotel’s proximity to Woodinville’s wine country, about five miles away by car or bike (the latter via the Sammamish River Trail) make it a welcome addition to the Eastside’s lodging offerings. The “come-one, come-all” spirit of its restaurants, pubs, pool and movie theater is bound to make the property a hit with locals, too.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the hotel is its connection to the community. Shortly after McMenamins struck its development deal with the city of Bothell about five years ago, its two in-house historians went into action. The information they obtained from historical records and interviews with former school faculty members and their families, along with others from the community, formed the basis for several paintings of people who shaped the community. Combined with historic photos and placards, these portraits tell the story of Bothell, from its rural beginnings through its emergence into an increasingly sophisticated residential community. Displays in the rooms and common areas reveal interesting details about people such as Don Bagnell, Roger Fisher and Steve Fossen. The former was an assistant Anderson School principle credited for diversifying the faculty’s ethnic makeup during the mid-1960s; the latter two were kids from nearby Kenmore who went on to become founding members of the rock band Heart.

As guests gaze at these and other vignettes, they are likely to be as pleasantly surprised as I was by what you can learn in school these days.

(Photo by Kathleen Nyberg, courtesy of McMenamins)

Heed the call of the Northwest Coast

Westport Winery Sculpture Garden

There’s something about a visit to the coast that rouses the spirit. Some of us are inspired by the seemingly limitless opportunities that the ocean provides for adventure and discovery. Others are moved by the raw power of surf pounding against sand and rock or by the scenic tranquility found at land’s end. I could go on, but I think you get the point: the coast offers myriad qualities that resonate with people in different ways, including ways that are highly personal.

In the interests of providing Journey magazine readers with tips on where to pursue memorable coastal experiences of your own, our magazine’s editorial staff teamed with AAA Washington’s auto-travel experts to create the roundup of “Coastal Treasures” that appears in our July/August print edition. Our premise was simple: We asked our colleagues to tell us about their favorite things to see and do along the Washington-Oregon coast. We combined their recommendations with our personal favorites to create a “treasure map” of great places to stay, eat, explore or play between Cape Flattery and the California state line. After you read the article, we hope you’ll take a few moments to tell us about your own favorite coastal activities, amenities or attractions by email (journey@aaawin.com), so that we can share these additional recommendations on the Reader Response page of this website.

On a personal note, I am looking forward to venturing out to the Oregon coast during my summer vacation in August, and I don’t plan on leaving the Pacific Northwest until October, at the earliest. Why would anyone leave our region in summer or even early fall? However, before I fully set my sights on the weeks ahead, I need to look back for a moment and offer a shout-out to Michelle Wilkerson, the AAA travel agent who booked the flights, hotels and a car-rental for my trip to England and Scotland with my girlfriend, Kate, last April. Michelle found us great rates, and our hotels in London (Saint James Court, A Taj Hotel) and Edinburgh (Apex European Hotel) were clean, comfortable, centrally located and fun.

Kate and I enjoyed a truly memorable vacation, thanks to Michelle, and I’m not the only one with praise for her professionalism and expertise. Michelle also arranged a great vacation to Iceland last March for Lawrence Jacobson, a AAA member residing in Olympia. Mr. Jacobson enjoyed the trip so much that he offered to write about it for us just as soon as he returned. You can read about his experiences in the land of geysers and glaciers in our inaugural Travel Diary. With the launch of this new series, we invite you to submit short articles about your own travel experiences (up to 600 words) for publication on our website. This is a fun way to help fellow travelers pursue the types of memorable experiences that we all seek when we travel. These submissions are also accepted by email (journey@aaawin.com), and I can’t wait to read about your adventures.

Note: I took the photo of Lora Malakoff’s Fleur de Lis (above) during a stroll through the sculpture garden at Westport Winery, just a few miles away from beach, on my own coastal road trip two summers ago.

Behind the wheel, paying attention never goes out of style

When I think about my greatest moments behind the wheel of an automobile, a few experiences stand out. My third favorite memory stems from a collection of moments from high school (in the 80s), when my buddy Mark let me take the wheel of his 1964 Ford Mustang (64-and-a-half, to be precise) a few times. Mark’s father bought the car during the first month that Mustangs rolled off the assembly line and kept it in tip-top shape to pass it along to his son. It was a sweet ride and just one of the reasons why all of Mark’s friends held the highest amount of respect for his dad. My second favorite driving memory dates back to 2006, when I drove a borrowed Ferrari spider from San Francisco to Carmel. I remember turning off the radio about 15 minutes into the drive so that I could listen to the hum from the engine compartment just behind my right shoulder. No CD or radio station could have produced a sweeter sound.

Given the muscular nature of both of the vehicles described above, it might seem odd for me to say that my greatest driving moment took place in a 2008 Subaru Outback-until you consider the circumstances.

Last fall, I took part in ProFormance Racing School’s One Day High Performance Driving Clinic at Pacific Raceways. I went into the session seeking driver-safety tips from school founder Don Kitch Jr, a veteran of the endurance-racing circuit. In the process, I gained a new respect for the fundamentals of driving.

The thought of racing around Pacific Raceways’ meandering track at speeds topping 100 mph sounded like a true adrenaline rush, which it proved to be. But I was surprised by the amount of mental energy that it took to properly negotiate the nine sets of turns that make up the course, not to mention the “street-survival” drills we performed in our morning session.

The experience, which I wrote about for the current issue of Journey magazine, served as a great reminder of why it’s so important to constantly monitor the activity all around you in any driving environment. It also made me realize how so many other people on the road these days seem to take traffic safety for granted. The people who text or talk on their mobile phones while driving are among the worst, but even many who power down seem all too comfortable simply staring just beyond the hood of their cars. Granted, many people are lucky enough to never have a problem taking this approach, but there is a reason why the term “unexpected hazard” exists. When you encounter one, you typically only get a split second or two to react, and knowing your escape route before you have to use it can literally be the difference between life and death.

You don’t have to be a car expert to notice how more and more cars are being equipped with collision-avoidance features, and this is great progress. The overwhelming majority of car crashes are caused by human error, so anything that car makers do to reduce the likelihood of human error makes us all safer. However, I’m concerned that these collision-avoidance features might give some drivers a false sense of security and lull them into thinking that they no longer need to monitor their surroundings for themselves.

When I shared my concern with Kitch, he brought up an interesting point. “I compare some of these new safety features to the spotter I have when I am racing,” he told me. “My spotter never tells me anything that I don’t already know. When he’s saying, ‘Inside, inside, inside,’ or before he says, ‘car closing,’ I already know that there’s a car there, because I’m using my eyes and I’m aware of my surroundings. These new safety features are nice additions, but they should never tell a driver something that he or she doesn’t already know.”

I’m not sure if Kitch’s class is for everybody, but I can tell you this: Taking it has made me more excited about driving than ever before, even if I am still schlepping around in that aging Subaru.

Orcas Island proves well-suited for wellness

As I rounded the corner leading into Eastsound, the sight of the tide rolling up against the U-shaped shoreline of the largest town on Orcas Island was so moving that it compelled me to stop the car and get out to soak in the view. The residual tension from the workweek had already begun to subside when I departed the ferry about 15 minutes earlier, but a sense of relaxed contentment was now washing over me like a wave as I walked across a manicured lawn overlooking the water. It would still be nearly 24 hours before I would learn that I had unwittingly stumbled upon what is believed by some to be one of the Pacific Northwest’s most powerful vortexes, those mysterious spiraling fields of spiritual energy said to possess rejuvenating powers. Until then, I was forced to believe that my growing sense of calm was the product of such terrestrial factors as the island’s stunning natural features and its eclectic arts and artisan-foods scenes.It didn’t take long to adapt to the pace of island time on the slow, scenic drive out to the Doe Bay Café, and not just because the speed limit topped out at 35 mph. Shortly after grabbing a seat in the rustic dining room, part of a 38-acre wellness-oriented resort set on a waterfront bluff, I was welcomed with an amuse-bouche consisting of pureed rhubarb, ginger and fennel-all picked straight from the resort’s garden. This shot of herbal energy was followed by an asparagus vichyssoise that offered tastes of spring freshness by the spoonful. But it was the white cheddar cheese flan, topped by locally caught Dungeness crab and organic greens and a drizzle of citrus gastrique, that really reminded my taste buds what it means to be alive.

The next morning, a trip to the observation tower at the 2,400-foot summit of Mount Constitution in Moran State Park reminded me that I was not the only person to have felt the healing powers of Orcas Island. (The peak is accessible by a hiking trail and a paved road; I cheated and drove up in my car). Robert Moran, a shipbuilding tycoon and former Seattle mayor, described the San Juan Islands as a “delightful place in which to regain health-physical, mental, and spiritual,” and he seemed to have loved Orcas Island most of all. He moved here from Seattle in 1904, after doctors told him that he needed to reduce his stress levels. (Moran later donated land to create the state park that bears his name, and his story is part of the interpretive exhibit found inside the summit’s observation tower.) A few minutes on the deck atop the tower gave me a chance to admire the layout of the islands and other landmarks, with the Olympic Mountains and Mount Rainier peeking through the clouds from afar.

Back in Eastsound, the Saturday farmers market let me soak in more island flavor, literally and otherwise. In between sampling grilled salmon tacos, handmade papusas, island roasted coffee and confections crafted by a local chocolatier, I had a chance to meet Panda, the 3-year-old Pomeranian-Chihuahua mix running for honorary mayor against four other canine candidates in a quirky fundraiser for the Orcas Island Children’s House (voters include a donation for the island’s early learning center with each “ballot”; you can learn about the campaign, which continues through July 6, at oich.org). After perusing the market’s craft stands, I walked over to the Orcas Island Historical Museum. Though I initially intended to only stay for a few minutes, I couldn’t tear myself away from the exhibit of reassembled homes from six of the island’s original homesteads, each containing the implements of daily life from about a century ago.

In separate conversations with locals during subsequent stops in an art gallery, antiques store and a café in the pedestrian-friendly town, I learned about the reputed energy vortex believed to exist on the tiny rock island just offshore from the Outlook Inn, where I happened to be staying for the weekend. The locals who told me about the vortex seemed skeptical about it themselves. I, on the other hand, had become so comforted by feelings that were at once relaxed and energized that the existence of such a mysterious spiritual force didn’t seem far-fetched at all.