Freeze frame

Bitter pill: the cryogenic experience.
Bitter pill: the cryogenic experience. 

Lauren Quaintance tries not to scream as she braves the coldest temperature on Earth.

At some point, this no longer seems like a good idea. Is it when the skin on my chest, bare except for the whisper of material that is my bikini top, begins to sting - painfully - in the subzero conditions? Or is it the moment that ice forms on my eyelashes, almost fusing my eyes shut?

Instead of luxuriating in milk and honey, I am in a so-called cold sauna wearing a bikini, surgical mask, gloves and snow boots.

I should be dozing on a massage table, slathered in oil, while music tinkles in the background. After all, I am staying at a $122 million spa retreat set high in the mountains of British Columbia. Owned by Swarovski crystal empire patriarch Gernot Langes-Swarovski, the aptly named Sparkling Hill Resort features more than 3.5 million of the family's crystals; they drip from chandeliers, stud handrails, and twinkle from a crystal "fireplace" in every room. They've even been sewn into the drapes in the penthouses, and you can buy crystal-encrusted ugg boots at the boutique in the foyer.

Owned by Swarovski crystal empire patriarch Gernot Langes-Swarovski, the aptly named Sparkling Hill Resort features more than 3.5 million of the family's crystals.
Owned by Swarovski crystal empire patriarch Gernot Langes-Swarovski, the aptly named Sparkling Hill Resort features more than 3.5 million of the family's crystals. 

The hotel's 3700-square-metre KurSpa has seven aromatherapy saunas and steam rooms, numerous pools and exercise studios, and 48 treatment rooms offering an extraordinary range of treatments, including one inspired by beauty maven Austrian Empress Sissi, in which you soak in a bath of milk and honey.

But instead of luxuriating in milk and honey, I am in a so-called cold sauna wearing a bikini, surgical mask, gloves and snow boots. The temperature inside the sauna is an unearthly minus 110 degrees. (And I say unearthly, because the coldest temperature recorded on Earth was at Vostok Station in Antarctica, where the gauge registered minus 89.2 degrees in July 1983. If anyone was there at the time, I am fairly certain they weren't wearing a bikini.)

After taking our blood pressure, an unnaturally upbeat young kinesiologist - who I note is fully dressed - leads four of us into the first of three chambers, where the temperature is set to a balmy minus 5 degrees.

Preparing for cryotherapy.
Preparing for cryotherapy. 

We spend a few seconds here "acclimatising" before we're led into the next chamber, which is a bone-chilling minus 50 degrees. Finally we push open a heavy door to enter the last chamber (minus 110 degrees), where we spend three minutes marching in circles wrapped in an icy fog while wiggling our hands and toes and suppressing the urge to scream.

Developed in the 1980s by Japanese rheumatologists, cryotherapy (literally meaning cold therapy) is popular in clinics and hospitals in Europe, where it is used to treat patients suffering from chronic degenerative conditions such as arthritis.

When the body is exposed to extremely low temperatures, blood vessels contract and blood rushes to the body's core to warm vital organs. When the temperature returns to normal, capillaries expand dramatically as the blood rushes back to the surface of the body and, as a result, blood cells are said to access injuries much faster than normal. (The Manchester United football team also has its own cryochamber, apparently, to treat players suffering from injuries and muscle fatigue.) The fact that Sparkling Hill had one shipped in from Germany when the resort opened in 2010 betrays its European heritage.

The entrance to the resort.
The entrance to the resort. 

Whereas North Americans - and probably Australians - generally expect to be pampered at a spa, quasi-medical wellness spas are much more common in Europe. The KurSpa has a naturopathic medical clinic, a full detox program and a dedicated Kniepp water therapy pool.

While there are plenty of massages and facials on offer, guests can also choose from a range of intravenous therapies including vitamin injections, chelation therapy to reduce plaque in the arteries, and Chinese herbal medicine. They can take a yoga or Pilates class, work out in a state-of-the-art exercise room, or simply meditate in a Zen-like "Serenity Room" where loungers are positioned to capture views of Lake Okanagan.

In that context, the cold sauna makes more sense, albeit not a great deal, if, like me, you're not injured before the treatment. We are told we will emerge energised and feeling euphoric, since cryotherapy also raises endorphin levels. I do feel euphoric , but I'm fairly certain that is mainly because I am no longer half-naked and locked in a box colder than the coldest place on Earth.

Cascading crystals at Sparkling Hills Resort.
Cascading crystals at Sparkling Hills Resort. Photo: Alamy

Lauren Quaintance travelled courtesy of Air Canada and Sparkling Hill Resort.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Air Canada has a fare to Kelowna for about $1651 low-season return from Sydney including taxes. Fly non-stop daily to Vancouver (about 14hr) and then to Kelowna (45min); Melbourne passengers pay about $200 more and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect. See aircanada.com.

Staying there Rates at Sparkling Hill start from $C302 ($290) for a standard mountain-view room. Includes buffet breakfast, valet parking and access to steam rooms and saunas in the KurSpa. See sparklinghill.com.

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