Last updated November 15, 2022
Sweating, soaking and cold plunging—an authentic Finnish spa experience in Canada at Vettä Nordic Spa.
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Drops of sweat form on my forehead as tiny rivers of sweat sweep across my back and shoulders. Let the sauna and health rejuvenating process begin.
I’m sitting in the Sisu wood burning sauna at the adults-only Vettä Nordic Spa in Horseshoe Valley, a popular ski and nature area just 90-minutes north of Toronto, Ontario. When Vettä (which means water in English) opened earlier this year, I was only too happy to have a seat on the Finnish wood bench and enjoy a good sweat followed by an invigorating cold plunge. After all, sauna is the Finnish way of life.
Finnish Spa Experience
There are more than two million saunas in Finland for a population of just over 5.5 million. The Finnish sauna tradition (sauna is a Finnish word) dates back thousands of years. There were originally “ground pit saunas” which evolved into smoke saunas (the preferred sauna in the countryside) then wood stoves and electric saunas of modern times.
Over the centuries the sauna became the place to eat, relax, share conversations and even where women gave birth (when the sauna wasn’t heated). The Finnish sauna was so ingrained into the culture that it was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2020.
A Family Tradition
Vettä embraces the Finnish culture and tradition throughout the 26-acre property with 5.5 acres currently in use. Owner Eric Harkonen, a mining engineer, was born to Finnish parents who moved to Canada and grew up with a daily sauna session while living in northern Ontario.
Later on with his wife Donna, who now acts as Vettä’s Guest Services Manager, he constructed a mini Nordic spa in his backyard. Inspired by this, Harkonen began the process in 2019 of building a state-of-the-art Finnish spa experience in Canada which is open to the public.
Vettä’s Finnish touches extend to the property’s design by Finnish-born architect Ian Malcolm of ISM incorporating a sleek minimalist Scandinavian design with Horseshoe Valley’s natural elements.
The towering maple and pine trees surrounding Vettä act as a protective and scenic blanket. Canada’s maple trees harmoniously blend with wood imported from Finland for the spa’s saunas and siding. Large landscape paintings by a Finnish artist accent the main building’s towering 55-foot high cathedral ceilings.
Owner Eric Harkonen’s purpose for opening Vettä is simple, “Reconnect with yourself.” He wanted to duplicate the Finnish spa experience in Canada for others the ways he would relax, reconnect and regenerate.
Finnish Your Food
I follow his advice and start with a visit to Savu, their bistro style restaurant which has an outdoor patio and direct access to the spa area. There are Finnish-inspired dishes such as pannukakku (baked pancake). I ordered makkara, a tasty sausage on a bun with Finnish mustard, tomato jam and pickled red onions. Local craft beers, wines, juices, coffee, teas and waters are offered to quench the thirst.
Koivu restaurant also offers diners full farm-to-table Finnish- and Canadian-inspired dishes with a patio overlooking the spa complex and surrounding valley.
Appetite sated, I head down to the change room, shower and begin the Finnish-style process: sauna sweat, cold plunge and relax. I change up the routine with stops at the two steam rooms, one citrus and the other eucalyptus, the hot stone room, the warm thermal pools and then a relaxing swing on the hammocks located throughout the spa complex.
Taking the Plunge
The three thermal pools, four saunas, two cold plunge pools, two relaxation rooms and one hot stone room all have Finnish names. Warm relaxation pools are kept between 77 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. I prefer soaking in the higher degree relaxation pools.
I go to Sisu first, their large wood burning sauna. The temperature in the different saunas can range from 145 degrees Fahrenheit on the low end to almost 200 degrees Fahrenheit. With our cold Canadian winters my motto is, “Bring on the heat.”
Sweating is very therapeutic and in one sauna there were cool water misters from above the top bench that spritzed sauna-goers every couple of minutes.
Unlike in some cultures or spas, the Finnish spa experience encourages conversation between people. Think of it as happy hour without the alcohol. Just have a sip from your water bottle or go out and pour a bucket of cold water over you. Guaranteed to cool you off. Vettä has these strategically placed outside several of their saunas.
Fire & Ice & Chill
Sweat dripping from my skin I retreat to the cold plunge pool where the temperature can be anywhere from a “refreshing” 44 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit. Nothing like a cold dip to jolt your mind and body to attention. I manage to stay in almost a minute before my feet begin to ache from the frigid temperature.
Comfy lounge chairs in the relaxation rooms with floor to ceiling panoramic windows offer scenic forest views making relaxing easy. I let my body’s temperature return to normal as I lie back and enjoy the view.
Wood fire pits with Muskoka chairs offer guests another option to relax outside or as I did on my final cycle just swing effortlessly on the hammocks set up on the grounds. Fortunately no comedic mishaps on video trying to get on or off the hammock. Cell phone use in spa areas is not allowed.
Nordic Spa Benefits
The Finnish spa experience in Canada has many adaptations but they all revolve around the tradition of a long hot session, short cold plunge and long relaxation to boost your immunity and overall well-being.
Kuuma (hot) — in sauna —10-15 minutes (or whatever feels comfortable)
- Dilates your blood vessels
- Reduces blood pressure
- Increases blood flow to skin and muscles
- Eliminates toxins
Kylmä (cold) — cold plunge pool (5 seconds to 1 minute) — or bucket of cold water
- Closes the pores
- Activates the nervous system to improve circulation
- Reduces inflammation and muscle pain
- Increases heart rate
- Reduces lactic acid build-up
- Releases feel-good endorphins (a sense of exhilaration)
Levätä (relax) — use Muskoka chairs, loungers, relaxation rooms and hammocks — 15 minutes or more
- Rebalances the central nervous system
- Stabilizes heart rate
- Supports mental relaxation and clarity
I repeated the cycle three or four times during my visit and wish I had time for more.
The Finnish Way
There are some Finnish sauna traditions you don’t do at Vettä. Here, bathing suits are required unlike in Finnish saunas where no clothing is the norm and you just bring a towel to sit on.
The typical Finn who has a sauna at home doesn’t have a cold plunge pool (though many employ the cold bucket and ladle). During the winter, Finns just roll in the snow! Many Finns also use vihta (birch branch) in the sauna to lightly flagellate their skin. No flogging goes on at Vettä!
The spa does take a page from one of the latest trends in Nordic spas—creating both a quiet zone and a social zone where people can chat at a respectable level. Spa facilities are available in each of these zones at Vettä.
They also offer basic massages (Swedish, deep tissue) and what better way to fully relax after going through a few cycles than a 60-minute massage. There are 12 treatment rooms with two rooms for couples. Cali, my therapist, showed her passion for the profession in my 60-minute invigorating but soothing Swedish massage. The rooms are simply appointed in keeping with the more minimalist Finnish design throughout the facility.
I finish off the day with a salt scrub (they provide a small container of it in each locker) and shower with the supplied body wash, shampoo and crème rinse. Robes are provided but bring your own sandals and water bottle.
Miles Away From Your Every Day
The Horseshoe Valley and Oro-Medonte area are less than 20 minutes from the city of Barrie as well as popular tourist areas and attractions. Down the road from Vettä is Horseshoe Valley Resort which has a range of accommodation and activities in all four seasons from ATVing to skiing.
The Finnish spa experience revolves around sauna peace. Finnish poet Elias Lönnrot wrote about the connection to sauna in his 19th-century oral poem Kalevala:
“Come, dear God, to the steam,
Come, Holy Father, to the sauna heat,
To create health and build peace.”
Vettä is trying to make its contribution to better health and peace right here as the authentic Finnish spa experience in Canada.
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