Tag: health tourism

Story of the week: the best saunas in Helsinki, Finland


* I’m really delving back in the archives this week. I read a story on the BBC News Magazine this week about sauna culture in Finland. It reminded me of this, one of my very first freelance stories as a cub freelance writer. I’m reproducing it here in full – and, yes, the intro does now make me cringe.

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Geri Halliwell recently revealed her new beauty regime involves taking a hot shower followed by plunging into an ice-cold bath.

This may sound like another new age fad for the erstwhile Spice Girl turned yoga guru. For your average Fin, however, the custom of taking a sauna then rolling naked in the snow has a 2000-year heritage as a means to promote physical and mental well being.

Indeed, for sauna mad Fins – a country of 5m inhabitants and 2m saunas – sauna is a whole way of life deeply entrenched in the national psyche.

Historically, babies have been born and dead bodies laid out for last rites in the sauna.

Even today, most families have a private sauna at home regardless of the size of their flat (over 100,000 private saunas in Helsinki alone) and the first thing the Finnish UN troops do when posted overseas is to build a sauna. Even if they’re in the middle of the desert.

However, tourists, who are used to electric saunas at UK gyms, fail to appreciate that there is a whole world of sauna reserved for the connoisseur – much like fine wine or art.

Indeed, the world of sauna is run according to a strict hierarchy with the communal-garden electric sauna relegated to lowly amateur status and the aspen wood-fired sauna, whereby the pile of sauna stones is heated slowly and thoroughly by burning logs, considered the Holy Grail amongst the sauna cognoscenti.

After the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, when Finland’s success was attributed to the sauna they imported from home, the word about sauna spread. It’s now popular across the globe but the Fins still know how to enjoy it best.

There’s an old Finnish saying:

“A woman looks at her best one hour after the sauna.”

So, if sauna really is the best natural cosmetic to keep the body and mind healthy, throw away the products, potions and herbal remedies and check out these sauna hotspots around Helsinki.

Sauna Seura

Based just outside of Helsinki in the suburb of Espoo, Sauna Seura is run by the Finnish Sauna Society, which campaigns fervently to preserve what they describe as the ‘pure values of sauna’.

As such, their members and guests only three smoke saunas and two wood-burning saunas are the king and queen of the local sauna scene. Most Fins dream of bathing in an authentic steam (loyly in Finnish) sauna at a rural summer cottage, then swim naked in an adjoining lake.

Sauna Seura recreates that romantic idyll in the capital, even down to building a plunge ice-hole and providing sauna whisks of leafy birch twigs (vasta). When used to vigorously thrash oneself, these cleanse, disinfect and smooth the skin.

There are separate days for men and women and a masseur on stand-by and. Beware: given its pure sauna ethos, swimming costumes are strictly forbidden.

Take bus number 20 from Erottaja (from Helsinki’s central Esplanade Park) – the journey takes approximately 15 minutes. Pre-booking is required on 00 358 9 6860 5622.


Kotiharjun public sauna

Family run and shamelessly traditional, the wood-fired Kotiharjun sauna (one of very few left in central Helsinki) regularly wins sauna of the month awards and was recently named Helsinki’s best public sauna.

Although India is regarded as the original home of the steam bath, the Fins made it their own establishing the optimum temperature of 85-90°C and countering the dry heat by throwing water on heated stones to push humidity towards 100%.

Kotiharjun upholds this tradition vehemently making its twin saunas (one for ladies, one for men) half furnace, half sauna.

Apart from its traditional rustic charm, it is also legendary for Pirkko, the resident never-blushing washer woman who spends her working day scrubbing burly naked men with an industrial-sized loofa after they have savoured the connoisseur sauna experience.

Harjutorinkatu 1, 00 358 9 753 1535.


Yrjönkadun uimahalli swimming hall

This labyrinthine Art Deco building, dating from 1928, looks like something out of a bacchanalian Roman orgy. Split across three floors are three wood-burning saunas and two steam saunas as well as 25-metre and 12-metre swimming pools.

Yrjönkadun was recently renovated to include high-tech gym equipment while retaining the original mosaic-dappled features. The ornate nature of the surroundings inspires a silent reverence and visitors are expected to adhere to strict sauna rules.

Noise in the sauna, it is believed, will drive away the sauna spirit hence, even for the 6.30am intake of young executives heading for a pre-work swim, sauna peace forbids them to use their Nokia mobiles in the building.

They can, however, pop into a cabin for a quick snooze after their sauna alarm call.

Yrjonkatu 21b, 00 358 9 3108 7401.


Café Tin Tin Tango

Taking a sauna has traditionally been something to make an evening of. Hence, the owners of this cosy café bar and bakery hit upon the idea of combining a night out with a night in the sauna.

Customers book the sauna out back by the hour and gather groups of friends together to drink beer and sweat it out. It’s the ultimate Finnish boys’ night out.

There are even washing machines if you fancy doing your laundry at the same time and regular local art exhibitions.

Töölöntorinkatu 7, 00 358 9 2709 0972.



Sauna is all about warming-up and then cooling down.

The funky underground Saunabar expands on this maxim, encouraging revellers to warm-up in the saunas then chill out in the alcoves to tunes by top local DJs and live bands.

After work, it fills with young Fins playing pool and sinking designer beers before stripping off and basting like Christmas turkeys in the two saunas for hire.

However, despite their contemporary spin on sauna culture, Saunabar is strictly traditional in its segregation of sauna seekers – two the saunas are not mixed.

Eerikinkatu 27, 00 358 9 586 5550.


* This story first appeared in The Guardian in 2002. Liked this? Try also Last Tango in Finland [pictured above].

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Story of the week: A quick dip in Slovakia for National Spa Week


* This week is National Spa Week – apparently. Well, I like a spa as much as the next man and this story is about one of my favourite, albeit few, spa experiences. No new spa commissions on the horizon but I’m open to offers. Meanwhile, follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS for more stories from the archive. 

The water nymphs are the first thing to catch my eye.

As I sit in a leather office chair on a bright morning in Slovakia, I find my eye drawn to a striking painting of frolicking nymphs on the wall.

At that moment Czech-born but Luton based Jan Telensky, the founder and Chief Executive of AquaCity, bursts in, gripping my hand in a crushing vice and following my eyeline.

“That’s by a Czech artist, Tylek. It’s worth £350,000,” says the fast-talking Telensky, his canary-yellow shirt positively straining with the enthusiasm of his girth. “I have,” adds Eastern Europe’s answer to Sir Alan Sugar, “a whole set of them.”

You’re hired

Exiled from the former Czechoslovakia to the UK in 1969, where he started working on the Vauxhall assembly line at Luton, Telensky returned east to build a business empire after the Velvet Revolution signaled the end of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia in November 1989.

Today he runs a portfolio of businesses from computers to leisure valued at over £400m. But I’m here to soak up his flagship project – the greenest leisure spa in Europe. AquaCity recently won the award for the World’s Leading Green Resort at the World Travel Awards, beating off competition from the likes of Angsana Resort & Spa, Maldives, and Morgan’s Rock Hacienda & Ecolodge, Nicaragua.

The AquaCity Resort, located at the foot of Slovakia’s snow-capped High Tatras Mountains, a four-hour train ride from the capital, Bratislava, and close to the southern Polish border, is leading the charge for green tourism via carbon off-setting.

AquaCity saves more carbon emissions in a single day than the total carbon gas emissions generated by an entire plane load of visitors flying from London Stansted to the low-key Poprad-Tatry airport, a ten-minute transfer to the resort.

The resort plans to be generating zero emissions within a year and shares its wealth of natural resources with the 55,000 residents of the nearby, industrial town of Poprad, offering cheap power to many of the homes and industries, and as a major source of employment in the community.

The sprawling resort, comprising a labyrinthine array of water park, spa, two hotels and conference centre, all connected by glass lifts and airy corridors, lives up to its bone-fide green credentials in its use of alternative energy sources to fossil fuels.

Geothermal spring water, drilled from a vast subterranean lake and harnessed by heat exchangers, powered by solar power and wind turbines, heats the resort’s hotels, spa and water park, and supplies up to 80 per cent of the total electricity.

By avoiding fossil fuels, the resort saves 27,000 kg (27 tonnes) of carbon emissions per day, the equivalent amount per day of the total C02 absorbed by 33 mature trees during their entire lifetime, according to Carbon Footprint Ltd.

Hotel tour

Checking in, AquaCity doesn’t feel like a tree-hugging green retreat.

It’s light, airy and modern, a theme that continues in my simple but comfortable three-star room and in the glass-fronted restaurant with its buffet meals, tasty draft beers and commanding vistas across the High Tatras.

Overall it looks like a modern chain hotel – not flash, but clean, well run and very family friendly, similar to a hot springs resort in Iceland or a water park in Germany.

“The biggest issue over the next ten years will be the cost of water and energy. Here I have both for free – and in abundance,” explains Telensky, who has so far invested £40m of his personal fortune in the resort since the 2005 opening. He adds:

“I’m not a chemist, I knew nothing about hotels and I wasn’t an expert on the environment.”

“In business you need instinct and experience. Eight years ago I simply realised that green was the way forward.”

With an Olympic pool and water park, comprising a series of in- and outdoor dipping pools, plus a floating bar area with draft beers and semi-submerged bat stools, and a health spa, the resort currently attracts 1.2m visitors per year.

The majority come from Central Europe but there’s also a growing influx of Brits, thanks to direct flights from Stansted by Bratislava- based airline SkyEurope.

The latest addition is Relax, a solar-powered swimming pool complex, whereby the pools are filled with geothermal-heated water. As I slip under the warm, magnesium- and calcium-enriched waters on a Sunday afternoon, Relax is filled with mainly Eastern European families, most of them blond, toned and babbling in a language beyond all comprehension.

They’re splashing about, lounging against the massage jets or simply bobbing up and down in time to the laser show, projected onto a 9m high wall of water, probably moaning about a flabby, china-white Brit doing the doggy paddle among them.

Over in the Vital World spa, I skip from the Celtic sauna (herbal) to the ice room (chilly) and then head over to the massage room for 30 minutes of gentle pummelling by a man with a thick accent and broad hands. I emerge feeling free of stress knots for a mere £10.

Most of all, I also feel smugly guilt free that my weekend break in an otherwise little-known corner of Europe is not harming the environment, but actually offsetting the carbon emissions from the flight to get here.

Future plans

Looking to the future, Telensky’s expansion plans continues apace. The latest wheeze is to add an organic farm, located 4km from the resort, to yield produce for use in the restaurants and harness the methane produced from the livestock to generate power.

“Once this project makes me a billionaire, I’ll sell my expertise to show others how to do it,” says Telensky, crushing my hand once more and leaving me, vaguely breathless, under the bashful gaze of the water nymphs.

“AquaCity could make Slovakia the number one green destination in the world.”

Indeed. But nothing is perfect and there is still one source of pollution on site: noise. The local FM radio station — also owned by Telensky — is piped throughout all the public areas with its heady mix of Brian Adams, Queen and dodgy, local Europop.

Slovakia may be leading a green tourism revolution but you still can’t escape the Vengaboys.

* This story first appeared in the Daily Express in 2007. Liked this? Try also Slovakia in the footsteps of HRH.

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