As our cabin cruiser pulls away from Tofino Resort + Marina, gliding toward the rugged shorelines and mellow inlets of Clayoquot Sound on a crisp day in May, our affable captain, Martin, begins with the backstory.

The wild beauty of this stretch of Vancouver Island is plain to anyone with eyes, but the reason we’re lucky enough to enjoy it today may be less obvious to out-of-towners, drawn here by the promise of prime surfing, whale spotting and winter storm watching.

“Most of Meares Island is covered in old-growth coastal temperate rainforest,” says Martin, as the emerald expanse — larger than Hong Kong Island — looms into closer view, its undulating peaks cocooned by low-slung clouds. Just one of the many islands around Tofino, it’s home to soaring Western red cedars thought to be 1,500 years old.

“Back in the ’90s, the plan was to log all the islands around here very extensively,” explains Martin. “But the First Nations stood up and said, basically, this is our ancestral garden and we’d like to keep it that way.”

By the summer of 1993, the ensuing “War in the Woods” — Indigenous-led protests against clear cutting in Clayoquot Sound — culminated in a series of blockades so big, they constituted one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in Canadian history, catching the attention of the world.

The protests marked a turning point in Tofino, the gateway to Clayoquot Sound. Today, what was once a small, remote logging town is still small and remote — there’s only one road in — but it’s now a frequently booked-up tourist destination, swelling with waves of travellers in summer. Visitors (around 600,000 a year, pre-pandemic) easily outnumber permanent residents (about 2,000); they flock for the chilled-out boho vibe, postcard-perfect beaches and ancient trees.

Still, Clayoquot Sound remains largely undeveloped, and in 2000, it was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, a title that recognizes the site as a sort of living laboratory for sustainable development.

Spanning nearly 350,000 hectares of land and ocean — all within the traditional territories of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations — the region ranges from untouched forested valleys to marine habitats, where you might glimpse shy sea lions, black bears foraging for fish on rocky coasts at low tide, or whales putting on a splashy show.

Today, our 25-minute boat ride whisks us to Clayoquot Sound’s latest diversion for off-the-gridders, an experience as unusual as these surroundings: a Finnish-style, wood-fired cedar sauna, incongruously set on a floating dock, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. But more precisely: anchored in a secluded inlet, overlooking a mound aptly dubbed Woman Island.

Wing on the dock of Tofino Resort + Marina’s floating sauna. (Photo: Andrew Young)

Launched in early 2022 by Tofino Resort + Marina (with the approval of the Indigenous community), the new floating sauna is pitched as the ultimate in wellness-meets-wilderness escapism. The secret haven can be reserved as a private half-day trip for two, or a handful of friends (from $1,000 for four), and will welcome guests year-round, even during storm watching season.

It’s an invitation to do as little as you please, beyond the reach of Wi-Fi and reality, with nothing but nature in sight. After ferrying us there and stoking the sauna’s Harvia GreenFlame burner, our captain retreats to a nook nearby but beyond view, leaving us with a picnic lunch of soup, fruit salad and focaccia sandwiches from 1909 Kitchen.

Glassed from floor to ceiling on one side, the Aux Box-made dry sauna provides all the distractions, or attractions, one might need: a panorama of green from time immemorial, reflected in serene waters winking with the sun. I can’t imagine trading this dreamscape for timber.

Nordic sauna traditionalists dedicated to the classic hot/cold ritual can plunge right into the inlet, then loaf on Muskoka chairs around the outdoor firepit, or take one of the beginner-friendly Cascadia boards out for a paddle.

Feeling sufficiently oven-baked, I opt to cosy up on a hammock strung across the hollow of the dock, where I drift into an irresistible, drowsy lull. It’s like a meditation without effort, my brain and everything else quiet, save for the subtle, faraway trill of birds.

There’s a reason for the restorative feeling that washes over me, according to Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, author of the neuroscience-packed bestseller, “Blue Mind.” The marine biologist believes that being in, on, under or even just near water makes people calmer, happier and healthier.

It’s a balm for the chronically overstimulated modern brain, wired on screens and caffeine. In his book, Nichols cites the work of psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, who theorized that when we’re in a setting that demands “directed attention” — basically, anytime we need to focus on a task — our brain gets fatigued.

That’s no real surprise, but the Kaplans also believed that certain environments allow the brain to recharge: safe places outside our everyday habitats, with “soft fascinations” (oh, hear that faint birdsong?) requiring only “involuntary attention.” In a word: nature.

And water offers the ideal mix of novelty and familiarity. “Envisage yourself being by the water: the sounds, the sights, the smells, all changing moment to moment yet essentially staying the same,” writes Nichols. “It’s regularity without monotony — the perfect recipe to trigger restful involuntary attention.”

Water as happiness and healing: It sounds so simple, but still feels like a revelation as I hop back on the boat all too soon. One can only assume that Tofino’s famously laid-back locals — and surfers, and whale watchers, and storm seekers — figured this out long ago.

If you go

How to get there: To road trip from the mainland, take BC Ferries from Horseshoe Bay (West Vancouver) to Departure Bay (Nanaimo); from there, anticipate at least a three-hour drive to Tofino. Alternatively, seasonal routes on Harbour Air fly to Tofino harbour from downtown Vancouver and from Victoria harbour.

Where to stay: Set on a rocky outcrop by Chesterman Beach, “the Wick” (Wickaninnish Inn) is the area’s long-time luxury spot. A 10-minute walk from the village centre, Tofino Resort + Marina, complete with its own on-site adventure centre, suits those wanting access to a slate of outdoor activities practically at their doorstep.

Where to dine: For tempura ling cod tacos and other light bites, the OG Tacofino — the food truck that spun off a restaurant empire — is still here; expect long lineups. For a beachfront table with grab-the-camera sunset views, snag a dinner reservation at the Great Room at Long Beach Lodge Resort.

What else to do: Stroll Tofino’s village core, which is compact but dotted with artisan shops and galleries. Shop by the Factory, a boutique full of lovely trinkets and handcrafted home goods that doubles as the working studio of jeweller Lisa Fletcher and photographer Kyler Vos.

Wing Sze Tang travelled as a guest of Destination BC, Tourism Tofino and Tofino Resort + Marina, which did not review or approve this article.

Originally published in the June 11, 2022 issue of the Toronto Star.

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