Travel

Need to Warm Your Soul? Try Jumping In Subzero Water

Finnish sauna culture balances high heat and icy cold.

Photo courtesy of Löyly
Photo courtesy of Löyly
Photo courtesy of Löyly

If you’d told me upon arrival that I’d be plunging into the frigid Baltic Sea before leaving Helsinki, I would have laughed in your face. It was February, when the average temperature in the Finnish capital hovers around 30 degrees (-20 in the north in Lapland). Naturally, submerging myself in the ice-packed ocean wasn’t high on my agenda. 

But a winter swim in Finland-a country that relishes outdoor winter activities-isn’t a crazy act of daredevilry. In fact, it’s common: these icy water immersions go hand-in-hand with a visit to a sauna, a ritual baked into Finnish culture. 

Unlike in the U.S., saunas here aren’t reserved for post-workout recovery or indulgent spa treatments. The sauna is a daily experience. Considering the country is caked in snow for four months of the year, it makes perfect sense. 

Lana Kray/Shutterstock
Lana Kray/Shutterstock
Lana Kray/Shutterstock

The hot wooden rooms-present in most Finninsh homes- are considered sacred spaces. Historically, they’ve been the sites of important meetings and even births (they’re extremely sanitary). But even beyond private homes, communal saunas are littered across the country. They aren’t a luxury, they’re a way of life. 

Which is why I found myself thinking about them as I walked the streets of Helsinki one February day, so cold I considered ducking into a hair salon just to feel the warmth of a hair dryer on my neck. When I sheltered in a coffee shop, the barista looked at me curiously: “You should really come back in the summer.” 

But there’s something magical about Helsinki in February, even despite the subzero temperatures and empty streets. Winter is such a distinctive season in Finland. Seeing the giant fishing boats parked in shards of ice, smelling the wafts of cardamom rolls escaping bakeries, and climbing into a sauna and defrosting amongst locals is all so quintessentially Finnish. 

Going to Finland and not having a sauna and swim is like not having a pizza slice in New York. Which is why, a week later, I found myself removing my bath robe so I could (willingly) plunge into the Baltic on a cold night. 

Photo courtesy of Löyly
Photo courtesy of Löyly
Photo courtesy of Löyly

It all seemed like a good idea inside the sauna at Löyly, a sleek, world-renowned communal sauna house where locals and tourists alike gather on the waterfront.

I’d spent 20 minutes in a traditional steam room. I was ready, sweat dripping onto my towel as fearless Finns ambled out in search of a cold pool of water. But as I stood outside under the night sky wearing nothing but a swimsuit, clutching onto the metal railing and feeling the ice beneath my feet, I quite literally, well… froze. 

The thing is, you cannot freeze. You absolutely have to dive straight in, or you’ll lose your nerve. So I took a deep breath and submerged my body in the 30-degree water. 

I flailed around in the icy water for 30 seconds or so, yelping and trying to catch my breath. And while it was freezing, it was also unbelievably invigorating. By the time I climbed out, I didn’t feel cold anymore, I just felt numb and extremely energized. So much so that I worked up the courage to do it one more time (after another 20 minute sauna, of course). 

That night, I fell into a brilliantly deep sleep.Research has shown that cold-water swimming can be extremely beneficial for the brain and body-it releases stress hormones and helps reduce tension (hence why we put ice on sore muscles). Coupled with a sauna-which is meant to assist blood flow, release toxins and ease stress-it’s no wonder the Finns are addicted to these sweat sessions. 

I too have become somewhat addicted, and will climb into any sauna given half the chance. On a recent trip to Upstate New York, I had a sauna at the Livingston Manor Flyfishing Club, followed by a dip in the freezing river. It wasn’t as cold as a Finnish February, but once again felt invigorated and, I swear, I slept so much better that night. 

When gyms reopen, I will no longer scoff at the sauna. In fact, I’ll finish off my sweat session with a very cold shower.

Mary Holland is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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