the secret sauna

If you've ever felt like finding a serene spot and melting into the landscape, you might need a trip to this remarkable sauna near Toronto in Canada. Perched at the northwest edge of a low cliff on exclusive Sans Souci Island on Lake Huron near Toronto, the Grotto Sauna is both majestic and humble, but above all soul-stirringly relaxing.

Built as a luxury private sauna, the owners also requested old-world craftsmanship and new-world sustainability.  They contracted cutting-edge design studio PARTISANS, a team of multi-disciplined architects, designers and cultural enthusiasts to create this rustic but indulgent sauna as a ‘transformative experience' for visitors in search of the serene.

The objective was also to 'tell an architectural story of escape and refuge’ including the journey across the lake from the city which visitors must take to enjoy sanctuary.



The cliff and spot where the Grotto Sauna is situated was a challenge for the designers and yet could also be considered the main inspiration. It consists of layers of prehistorical granite that has been pushed up out of the water over millions of years. They needed a design that balanced and didn't try to overpower the view.

Another one of Partisans' main design principles was to craft architectural narratives but to also find a 'counter narrative'- and highlight unexpected beauty. The outward shape of Grotto Sauna is more geometric than nature and the inner lines more smoothly rounded than much of the surrounding landscape. This is kind of juxtaposition intentionally highlights the beauty of the region and lets the visitors surrender to it.



Inside you find a kind of secret cave carved from wood that pays homage to the Northern Ontario landscape. The curves cascade like a kind of undulating panelled terrain over the steps and seating. From almost every position there are skewed porthole windows, some wider, some smaller, each with its unique rounded form and view.

The interior architecture reminds us of ancient panelled boats, whilst the designers cite an Italian grotto as their actual inspiration. Either way, who wouldn't want to sweat it out from within these warm timber walls whilst gazing out over the sweeping views.



As you would expect of a sauna, coals warm the wooden structure within and are part of its tactile and sensual experience. The coals are kept in a curved cedar basin to one side of an oversized window, pause and breath in the views before you ladle on more steam.

The grate in the wooden walls is not just a design but also airs the coals, circulating the warmth uniformly through the long wooden curves of the interior carve.



Like a natural cave, this curved wooden grotto includes unexpected peaks above too. Compared to your traditional sauna, or even a Scandanavian steamhouse, it is flooded with natural light and has an openness that means even though the steamed air seems heavy, the rest of the experience appears bright and open.



This site on San Souci Island is considered one of the best places in Canada to view the sunset as it melts into the syrupy water of one of North America's great lakes. What a spot to meditate and contemplate in your slippers after a long afternoon of warming your bones and steaming your skin!

Constructing Grotto Sauna was no mean feat when you consider the craggy peninsula on an island in a lake and the fact that the environment had to be protected. Partisans used a mixture of software, constructing in Toronto, transporting by boat and a lot of old fashion elbow grease to achieve it. The journey to building in some ways is the same path as visiting it and you can view the transportation and construction of the Sauna in the video below.



You can see more of Partisans work at their website (Photos courtesy the

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