Nestled at the foot of a tower in Victoria’s Harris Green neighbourhood, the opening of RITUAL Nordic Spa marks the joyous arrival of Vancouver Island’s first – and long overdue – Finnish-style thermotherapy circuit.
In the bright, Scandinavian-inspired lobby, I check in for my appointment. Following a brief orientation and locker assignment, I’m motioned through a glass door emblazoned with a simple prescription for relaxation: Enter. Exhale. Enjoy.
In the changeroom, another phrase greets bathers: Uimapuvut päällä. Kännykkä mykkä.
Translation: “Suits on. Phones off.”
Changeroom | RITUAL Nordic Spa
Jenn HubbertThe concept
Apart from RITUAL's literal Finnish accents, uninitiated spa-goers may wonder what differentiates a Nordic spa from others. In a word: circuits.
Over the course of 40 or so minutes, Nordic spas thread participants through a hot-cold-rest circuit, raising the body’s temperature through heat (dry or wet) and then abruptly lowering it with cold water before a period of rest. The cycle is repeated two-to-three times, leaving the body reinvigorated. For the mind, it’s an experience I liken to “mouthwash for your mood.”
Once suited up, I enter the spa’s compact common area. Scanning the space, I locate a eucalyptus-infused steam room, a handsome basswood-plank dry sauna, a frigid, nine-degree Celsius plunge pool, a bucket shower, and a room backlit by glowing Himalayan salt blocks and outfitted with a handful of oversize bean bag-style loungers. A helpful attendant named Rachel roams about offering guests tips and towels, and a contactless water fountain affixed to the wall is a visual reminder to keep hydrated.
Steam room | RITUAL Nordic Spa
Sauna | Jenn Hubbert
42" plunge pool | RITUAL Nordic Spa
Himalayan salt lounge | RITUAL Nordic Spa
I start my first circuit in the dry sauna, ladling water atop hot stones which elicits a hiss of steam and immediately raises the temperature. On the wall, I flip a glass timer to let the yellow granules keep track of time. I lay out a towel and edge into a corner on the upper bench. Once ten minutes elapse, the heat is prickly; at the 15-minute mark, I’m comfortably agitated. I leave the sauna and head for the plunge pool. My toes lead the way into the cold shock as I descend a short set of stairs and wade thigh-deep into the placid water. It’s refreshing – until I reach my ribs, which is as deep as I can muster to go. A small digital clock keeps count as a pair of minutes reluctantly trudge by. When I feel properly chilled, I dart out. I slip into the warm hug of a hooded robe and settle onto a beany lounger in the salt room. My muscles are still buzzing from the icy bath but slowly, my mind quietens, giving way to a muted bliss.
The circuit is shared and co-ed. And while speaking aloud is not prohibited, etiquette dictates voices should be reduced to infrequent whispers. For guests who prefer greater privacy or solitude, two bookable sauna suites are tucked toward the back of the spa. The CEDAR Suite boasts a four-person dry sauna and an Instagram-worthy cedar barrel soaking tub backdropped by a mountain mural; BIRCH contains a two-person infrared sauna and a shower.
Private sauna suites | RITUAL Nordic Spa
CEDAR Suite soaking tub | Jenn Hubbert
On my second hot-cold-rest circuit, I fill my lungs with the aroma of eucalyptus in the steam room and then rally some courage to tug on the rope that connects to a wooden bucket filled with cold water. Wrapped up in my robe once again, I exit onto a patio. There are lounger seats and an oversize umbrella to protect against the sun and perhaps offer some privacy from the surrounding cityscape. Marrying novelty and practicality, a snow machine stationed in the corner slowly emits a small drift. There is no instruction manual, but the intent is simply to scoop an unpacked handful and apply to a body part for an isolated cool “without trauma.”
Outdoor patio with snow machine | Jenn Hubbert
A little ways up the walk, there’s a secondary seating area with an outdoor fire pit situated between a pair of cheery yellow lounge chairs. I sit down on one, hugging my legs inside the hoodie robe. The shift of energy in my body is palpable. Thanks to the circuit’s heady thermal afterglow, I watch the flames lick the winter air, mind stilled and absent of any real thoughts.
Bistro bites & brews
Café | Jenn Hubbert
While I wait for my scheduled relaxation massage, I snack on European-inspired bites prepared by the on-site café. There’s a bagel with a generous dole of cream cheese and lox (salmon), splashed with a wedge of lemon, and topped with capers and rings of red onion. Another plate holds locally procured sausage and a German-style pretzel with a side of grainy mustard. I splash it down with sips of tangy, cold pressed hibiscus lemonade. The menu also includes local craft beer for those who want to partake in another ritual: “après-spa.”
A healing touch
At the rear of RITUAL are three private massage rooms, each given a Finnish name: järvi (lake), lumi (snow) and mäki (hill/slope). Järvi is the most generously sized and includes a private infrared sauna.
RITUAL Nordic Spa massage room | Jenn Hubbert
In the room marked lumi, next to a block print curtain panel decorated in a traditional Scandinavian folk pattern, I round out my visit with an indulgent relaxation massage. Arlene, my masseuse, first clears the table of a sheepskin rug and instructs me to lay down. The aroma of peppermint body oil wafts through the room and a divine hour of restorative massage ensues.
RITUAL’s inaugural body massage options include a 60- or 90-minute sport (RMT) or relaxation variation. There's also a signature 60-minute Dry Brush Massage featuring a brisk, full body scrub to exfoliate the skin and boost circulation; it finishes with a moisturizing treatment to rehydrate the skin. Access to the circuit and CBD-infused oils are optional add-ons.
Nordic spas have long been popular in Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland – and more recently in Quebec and Ontario – but western Canada has been noticeably slow on the uptake. Wellness seekers can thank RITUAL Nordic Spa founder and CEO Marci Hotsenpiller for bringing a Scandinavian brand of bathhouse wellness to Vancouver Island.
Though Victoria is Hotsenpiller’s hometown, sauna culture runs deep in her blood.
“My first sauna experience was at age three at my Finnish grandmother’s Muskoka cottage in Ontario,” she says. “I’ve been obsessed with the experience ever since.”
In fact, the cottage was only built once the sauna was erected. To this day, the wood-fired family sauna that inspired RITUAL still stands.
In Hotsenpiller’s teen years, she found herself appreciating thermotherapy for a different reason.
“Growing up in a ski racing family, we spent winters training on the glaciers of Austria and Switzerland with our post-ski recovery taking place in the thermal baths followed by a cold plunge,” she describes. “RITUAL fulfills my dream of bringing all the amazing benefits of the hot sauna, cold plunge and massage under one roof in my hometown of Victoria.”
RITUAL Nordic Spa
Emerging from the cocoon of the lumi room, I amble to the changeroom. On my way, I pass Rachel who is explaining the circuit to a trio of guests who have just arrived. My post-massage shuffle contrasts markedly to their collective, gal pal energy. It prompts me to reflect on the version of myself that checked in, just two hours ago. Every stressor that I had arrived with had long since evaporated. Whether I left it in the sauna or steam room is unclear – and wonderfully unimportant.
When you go
Lobby + café | RITUAL Nordic Spa
RITUAL Nordic Spa currently operates on a reservation-only basis.
The maximum number of guests in the common area circuit is 24, with a maximum duration of two hours.
989 Johnson St, #101
Victoria, BC V8V 0E3
Price: Starting at $59 for mid-week visits; $69 on weekends. Passes and memberships are also available.
Monday – Friday: noon to 9PM; closed Tuesdays
Saturday & Sunday: 9:30 a.m. – 9 p.m.
COVID-19 protocols*: RITUAL follows provincial health orders. Guests must provide proof of vaccination. Masks must be worn in the lobby, change room and when walking to/from massage rooms and private sauna suites. During the hot-cold-rest circuit, guests do not need to wear masks.
*As of publish date on 3/10/2022. Please check ahead.
Staying a while in Victoria?
Get there: Helijet – the fastest and most scenic way to reach Victoria from Vancouver
Disclosure: Canadian Traveller’s visit was hosted by RITUAL Nordic Spa. All opinions belong to the writer. Transportation to Victoria was kindly provided by Helijet.