Before I went to Finland, I considered saunas to be no more than mildly pleasurable aspects of health clubs and hotels. Then a Finnish friend (and sauna addict) took me to Haikko Manor, a modern spa and conference center grouped around a grand Neoclassical manor house a half-hour east of Helsinki on the Gulf of Finland. Haikko has all kinds of baths: a Japanese-style sweat-bath and pool, a modern Finnish steam, a massive conference sauna. But we didn't go to those. Instead, Ulrika insisted on Haikko's most obscure and authentic bathing experience: the rantasauna, or shore sauna.
Late in the evening, under a sky that was still twilight blue—daylight lasts 22 hours during the Finnish summer—we walked through the woods to a plain log cabin with a porch overlooking the sea. Ulrika and I sat in the wood-paneled steam room until our skin was pink, then plunged feet-first into the icy water. Afterward, wrapped in dry towels, we drank cold beer on the porch and gazed out at forested islands. A warm shower washed away the salt, and then we repeated the cycle twice more. As I walked back up the hill in that eerie midnight light, my body seemed to be melting—into the birch trees, the grasses, the bird calls in the transparent air.
THOUGH THE SAUNA DID NOT ORIGINATE in Finland (it's thought that the ancient Scythians invented this bathing technique), it has been an integral part of Finnish culture for thousands of years. Other cultures—Islamic, Native American, Japanese—have kept their sweat-bathing traditions, but most of Europe lost its saunas long ago to church morality and bourgeois plumbing. While building their houses, the settlers who tamed Finland's glacier-gouged landscape lived in makeshift saunas that were little more than holes in the ground (the word sauna is derived from a Lapp term that means "a sleeping hollow made by a grouse in the snow"). To them, saunas were sacred: babies were born in them; the dead were cleansed there.
Modern Finns retain their reverence of the steam bath, making saunas ubiquitous in Finnish life. Most apartment buildings have them, and many apartments have private ones, too, attached to the bathroom. Almost all the vacation cabins on Finland's thousands of lakes have them. No hotel is complete without at least one. An eager new convert after experiencing Haikko's rantasauna, I set out to sample as many varieties as I could. I checked into fancy hotels and humble cabins, wandered city streets and country roads. Friends who'd heard about this American on a quest wanted to show off their saunas. Friends of friends called with sauna lore. Over the course of last summer, I sampled 18 different baths. I have never been cleaner or calmer, and my hair was always wet.