Obsessed with Finland's sauna culture, a curious American breathes easy in the country's bathhouses

Edina van der Wyck
| Credit: Edina van der Wyck

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.

I quickly learned that few hotels can manage the insurance needed for a fire-heated sauna, but Finns with country houses would be ashamed to use an electric stove. The quintessential Finnish sauna is heated to more than 200 degrees by a wood-burning stove, with granite rocks set on top to hold the warmth. You recline on an aspen bench, looking out a window that frames birch trees and water, and sweating from the heat radiating off the wooden walls. You create hisses of steam by ladling water onto the stones. You lightly beat yourself and your friends with a vihta, a whisk of birch branches, to help the circulation. After 20 minutes, when you feel as if you could burst with aromatic heat, you plunge into an impossibly cold lake, the frigid sea, or a snowbank. With all the heat inside you, you're immunized against the chill for a few seconds. Then you go back inside and start all over again.

Nothing could be more primal, more sensual, than the physiological effects of those drastic temperature shifts, except, perhaps, the holiest of saunas, the smoke sauna. People speak of the smoke sauna, or savusauna, in hushed tones. Within a chimneyless room, black smoke fills the air, then gradually escapes through small vents in the walls. "Left in so long, that smoke-heat slowly, slowly becomes soft, like porridge," says Outi Heiskanen, a famous Finnish artist. "When you come out, you're all black, but you are so clean."

In my travels, I experienced only two smoke saunas. One of them, at Hotel-Spa-Hostel Rauhalahti outside the town of Kuopio, claims to be the biggest in the world. When I entered its vast, dark interior, wrapped in a white sheet, the heat seemed silky, like a caress. Surprisingly, it didn't make me black or sooty.

The other smoke sauna was just outside Helsinki, at the Finnish Sauna Society. I went there one Thursday, a "ladies' day," and watched as women of all ages, shapes, and sizes put their briefcases and cell phones in lockers and disappeared into one of the small chambers worn smooth with age and blackened smoke. I saw contemporary women transformed into a timeless tribe, comfortable in their nudity and their communality. After the sauna, I reclined with the others on the shore rocks, all of us like so many sirens wrapped in towels. Though I'll never see it, I'm sure the scene on the days I'm forbidden to enter the Sauna Society look just like one of D. H. Lawrence's Nordic dreams—men stalking about the way nature made them.

MY FAVORITE MODERN SAUNAS are at two of Helsinki's tried-and-true hotels. The Strand Inter-Continental, on a city embankment, has a top-floor steam room with red-railed terraces where you can drink your mid-sauna beer in the open air, overlooking a glorious landscape of boats and wooded islands. The Scandic Hotel Continental on Toolo Bay, near the Opera House, has a top-floor sauna as well, with one massive wall of glass. As you sweat, you can look out from the inland bay to the heart of the city and its faux-medieval turrets. Instead of the usual dark chamber, it's a window on the world.

And then there's the sauna in the new Hotel Kämp, Helsinki's first luxury hotel. Behind the overly ornate façade of an 1887 hotel of the same name, once the famous drinking spot of the composer Jean Sibelius, the Kämp is now done up in the all-purpose marble-and-mahogany, ritzy men's-club mode. Its top-floor sauna is so lavish, it's almost a perversion: Roman and Turkish motifs overwhelm the room, and gilt lions spit ice cubes from the tiled walls.

To recover from the bourgeois excesses at Hotel Kämp, I walked over the footbridge to the island of Seurasaari, Helsinki's open-air museum of Finland's rural past. Amid sawmills, mansions, and churches rescued from different parts of the country stands the Niemelä Tenant Farm, a collection of old tepees, lean-tos, and cottages made of what looks like piles of unpainted twigs. The oldest structure is the smoke sauna (built in 1844), with a rickety ladder leading up to a crude bathing platform. I could almost see those ancient Finns, wrapped in furs, snowshoeing home through the forest to that sauna.

Now a confirmed sauna addict, I went back to Finland this winter to try a sauna in the bone-chilling cold. This time I headed to the old capital, Turku, a couple of hours by train from Helsinki on the west coast. Ulrika and I had booked the sauna at Turku's castle-like Park Hotel before we knew there was a blizzard coming, but we kept our reservation anyway. That night was the high point of my sauna quest. We trudged through heavy snow to the steam house, then sat sweating, watching through the window as crystalline-blue snowflakes hurtled from the sky. The stove threw an orange glow on our bare skin. And we were so warm.

The Finnish Tourist Board in New York (212/885-9700) is a helpful starting point for either renting a cabin with a sauna or simply getting listings on popular steam baths around Finland. The Finnish Sauna Society in Helsinki (358-9/686-0560) will arrange visits to its facilities for $10.

Haikko Manor 136 Haikontie, Porvoo; 358-19/57601, fax 358-19/576-0399; doubles from $140.

Hotel-Spa-Hostel Rauhalahti 8 Katiskaniementie, Kuopio; 358-17/473-111, fax 358-17/473-470; doubles from $116.

Strand Inter-Continental 4 John Stenbergin Rantatie, Helsinki; 358-9/39351, fax 358-9/393-53255; doubles from $267.

Scandic Hotel Continental 46 Mannerheimintie, Helsinki; 358-9/40551, fax 358-9/405-53255; doubles from $120.

Hotel Kämp 29 Pohjoisesplanadi, Helsinki; 358-9/576-111, fax 358-9/576-1122; doubles from $150.

Seurasaari Open-Air Museum Seurasaari Island, Helsinki; 358-9/484-712; admission $4.

Park Hotel 1 Rauhankatu St.,Turku; 358-2/273-2555, fax 358-2/251-9696; doubles from $94.