Finland has so much to offer the adventurous traveller, from skiing, hiking in the snow, or sleeping under night skies to take in the majesty of the Aurora Borealis. But this northern paradise also presents plenty of value for those wanting to take things at a slightly slower pace. Newly-anointed sauna expert Adam Bishop explains.
Superficially, it may seem peculiar that so many people would flock to the frostiness of Finland each year to experience a new way of keeping warm. But that idea is quick to melt away when you learn more about this fascinating country’s thriving sauna industry.
The concept of the sauna was born in Finland and the Finnish people swear by its positive medicinal effects. In fact, the global medical profession has also come to recognise the numerous health benefits of regularly undertaking a sauna, such as a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, and a decreased risk of developing pneumonia.
There are more than three million saunas to enjoy in Finland, with the locals recommending (perhaps with a hint of a chortle) that no sauna experience is complete without a plunge into one of the country’s 188,000 pristine, ice-filled lakes following your pleasurable steam.
And before you ponder whether this is strictly a summer pursuit in Finland, the answer is no — the Finns enjoy a steam coupled with an ice swim all year round. So visitors keen on trying out the traditional way to sauna, be prepared to receive some healthy encouragement from the friendly locals to gild your toasty steam with an activity involving acute cold. The Finnish Lakeland region boasts most of the country’s cottages, saunas and, no surprises, lakes, so this is definitely the area to head to if you are interested in a sauna and swim experience.
However, an important point worth noting is that jumping into a crisp pond is just one of the ways to receive your icy crescendo, with Finnish people also known to drill holes in the ice where there are no lakes in order to take a dip in the frigid waters below. And what do you do in cases where there are no lakes or sheet ice? Simply roll around in the thick snow outside to secure the chilly finale to your sauna medley, naturally.
Visitors should also be aware that there are some important cultural rules to respect when taking their relaxing saunas in Finland. The first is not to expect any fancy aromatic fragrances or relaxing music. The local culture frowns upon these kinds of trimmings and feel that a “real Finnish sauna” should be a quiet and dimly lit affair, with the only culturally accepted smells being fresh birch and natural tar, so perhaps leave your lemon myrtle-scented candles at home for this trip.
While traditional saunas in Finland are enjoyed by the Finns stripped of all their inhibitions, including their clothing, the locals will understand if you are too bashful and wish to wear a bathing suit or a towel. But baring all in a sauna is not merely a literal pursuit, with the often-communal experience viewed as an emotional bonding process, a sacred place where people can be open with each other and not hide their feelings and emotions. Proverbially it is said that more important decisions get made in saunas than in meetings in Finland.
Another key point to remember is that women and men go to saunas separately, but it is permissible for families to enjoy one together. When in a mixed group that is about to go to saunas, it is acceptable to ask people and discuss who should go with who.
While all of these cultural norms might seem a bit like overregulation, you’ll be relieved to know there are no edicts about how often you should throw more water on the stove. Some may like it hotter than others but in this uniquely muggy environment, the preference is with whom-ever wants the next big wave of steam first.
Seeing as the notion of health is heavily entwined with this pastime, it is also important that first-timers drink plenty of water during each session as most will be sweating profusely throughout. For the more experienced campaigners, beer and cider is a popular beverage of choice inside a sauna, with roasted sausage in tin foil directly on the stove another key part of the experience once you are bit more relaxed.
In many ways there is nothing quite as Finnish as a sauna, a warming microcosm comprised of all the best attributes the country has to offer, from its friendly people to its breathtaking (sometimes literally) lakes. And a bit like the Russians’ relationship to Vodka, sauna is viewed as a tremendously social affair, so to be invited to one by a local is a high honour.
So in between amazing hikes in nature, pursuit of the northern lights, and sampling of traditional Finnish cuisine, make sure to squeeze in a Finnish sauna, after all, it would be a difficult challenge to find a better way to let off some steam, right?