The phone in my hotel room rang at about 2 PM and I flailed awake violently, not fully understanding that I was a) in Helsinki or b) supposed to be downstairs about a decade ago. Within minutes, I burst into the lobby Kramer-style, possibly still inebriated, shirt unintentionally inside out, ready to go to a place called Sauna Island.
This was not the scene I had in mind when I had agreed to check out Finnish sauna culture in Helsinki. I envisioned snacking on smoked fish and luxuriously melting in spas—not bracing myself for what would surely be the worst hangover of my life.
I had been warned about the Finns' propensity for heavy drinking (I mean, look at Vappu). That didn't stop me from attempting to match their shot-taking from dusk till dawn, for I am a fool.
The trip began with much less chaos with a visit to Löyly, an architectural gem of a public sauna and restaurant that opened a year ago. It's the kind of modern marvel you'd expect from Scandinavia. Clean lines, Eames-y chairs, chic ceramic ware. Even the wood used to heat the saunas is responsibly sourced.
Most saunas in Finland are tucked into peoples' homes, but there's a new trend of public saunas popping up all over Helsinki. Löyly was the public sauna to kick off the trend, opened by friends Jasper Pääkkönen—one of Finland's most beloved celebrities, an actor currently playing a viking on the History Channel's Vikings—and Antero Vartia, a member of Finnish parliament.
They chose the name of their sauna partly because it's so damn hard for foreigners to pronounce, but also because it's topical. Löyly is the Finnish word for the steam produced from dousing water on a sauna's hot-ass stove. I will surely die before I say that word correctly.
We put on our swimsuits and entered the first smoke sauna. Having sweat happily in situations like these around the world, from jjimjilbangs in Seoul to banyas in Moscow, I was sure I could handle a Finnish version.
File that under: "Things I've Been Very Wrong About."
The temperatures in Finnish saunas are said to hover around 150 to175 degrees Fahrenheit, sometimes rising even higher into the 210-degree range. It wouldn't have surprised me to look down and see my skin literally on fire. While Jasper sat there calmly, my ears were burning, my mind was racing, and I started feeling dizzy. I thought about the Finnish sauna competitor, Timo Kaukonen, whose skin fell off after a particularly long sauna match against a Russian guy—a Russian guy WHO DIED IN THERE.
I was, without a doubt, also dying.
I didn't want to be the first person to cave, but I was the first person to cave. Like the saying goes, "If you can't take the heat, get out of the goddamn sauna."
We migrated out of the pits of hell and headed outside to Löyly's ladder into the Gulf of Finland. I was stoked to cool my steaming head off in the frigid Gulf—how bad could it be?
Very bad. Just a month ago, there was still ice in this water.
Cue the feelings of dying once again. I hadn't realized what a fragile little baby I was until I got to Helsinki, but now I was facing that unfortunate fact while trying not to drown next to the Brad Pitt of Finland. The frigid water yielded sensations of pins in my legs. It was like my bones had turned into glass and were about to shatter.
I emerged from the Gulf like a newborn seal: slick, vulnerable, and desperate for the warmth of my mother. But within moments the shivering misery gave way to rejuvenation. I felt like a million bucks (or 889,956.86 euros).
With each additional round of roasting and freezing, the discomfort of the experience lessened. I could finally appreciate the tranquility of the sauna. It became clear why Finns subject themselves, often daily, to what initially seemed like torture.
The post-sauna high paired wonderfully with bowls full of environmentally-friendly rainbow trout soup and rye bread. Few things have been more comforting in this life than slurping up that creamy, dill-heavy broth.
Antero explained that there was no right amount of time to spend in the sauna. It's about enjoying yourself, so get out when you feel like getting out. I immediately felt better about my own sauna endurance shortcomings.
On the afternoon of my impending hangover of a lifetime, I looked forward to the healing powers of the sauna as we boarded a boat off of Helsinki's Market Square to Sauna Island. Antero poured us some Champagne, then shots of Valhalla, a thick Nordic herbal liqueur. I tried not to think back to the shots of the night before. As the boat churned through the Gulf waves, my stomach churned accordingly.
Jasper pointed out the ferris wheel near Market Square. Most of the Finnair SkyWheel carriages are bright white and blue, with the exception of two dark wooden ones. Those are saunas, because Finland.
By the time we arrived at Vasikkasaari island I felt reinvigorated by the fresh intake of booze. The hair of the dog was definitely helping. I felt insane, but without any pain whatsoever. When would the hangover hit?
Saunasaari was as magical as you'd imagine a place called "Sauna Island" would be. Its 70-year-old owner Rainer Hanhilahti greeted us at the dock and welcomed us to his Finnish Shangri-La. The welcome wagon was complete with a mind-blowingly good salmon snack on rye bread. Rainer pointed out a swan mother curled up in her nest just outside the window.
We changed into our swimsuits and plush robes, then started the cycle of cooking in the smoke sauna, wading into the biting Gulf water, and occasionally bobbing around in a hot tub.
Between the Baltic breeze and the lapping waves, you couldn't hear your own footsteps as you crossed the soft grass from activity to activity. I contemplated hiding on the island, giving up my life in America for good.
Another round of salmon-on-rye later and I realized my hangover hadn't hit. It seemed the high-dose of sauna action plus the continuous bout of drinking had thwarted the usual consequences of 12-plus hours of drinking the night before.
"This place is magical," I heard someone say.
From inside of my robe, I couldn't agree more.
It was only when I returned to my bed that things took a turn for the worse. The Finns have an idiom for the experience. Liskojen yö translates to "the night of the lizards," referring to the feeling you get the night following one of heavy drinking. While your body is dealing with all of the shots you took and sauna beers you gulped 24 hours later, you may have the panicky sensation of having lizards crawling in your bed, not to mention a shitty night's sleep.
I laughed when I heard the expression, but I was not laughing when I tossed anxiously in bed with a cold sweat.