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 d├ęcor 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).

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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.)