Even if you're no fan of cold weather, you can take the immersion cure—literally—in über-wintry Finland, in the fragrant waters of the Naantali Spa Hotel.
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The main pool at Naantali Spa Hotel.
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A walk by the sea.
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Trekking through the forest.
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A peat treatment ready to apply.
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The old Convent Church.
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Naantali’s historic district.
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The altar in the 1483 Convent Church.
Photos by Shinji Yamamoto
In January, when my most dreaded season finally reared its head and unleashed a torrent of snow, ice and wind on the Northeast, we were busy plotting our escape to Naantali Spa Hotel, on the southwest coast of Finland. Maybe, I told myself, as I studied online the spa’s offering of exotic water treatments, the best way to overcome my histrionic distaste for the season was to face it head on and journey to the land of perpetual winter, where they surely know a thing or two about surviving cold and darkness.
The idea of retreating to Naantali in the winter is far from novel. By the 18th century, this small town, the old Swedish capital of Finland, was already a recognized resort. Kings, nobility and heads of state traveled to this town at the edge of the 40,000-island archipelago to bathe in and imbibe the mineral-rich water. The health spring opened in 1732, with its first spa in continual operation for over 100 years. First opened in 1984, Naantali Spa Hotel is Scandinavia’s largest spa and a member of the Royal Spas of Europe, a conglomerate of resorts sharing a legacy as thermal healing centers and high standards for modern treatments and facilities.
International travelers to the spa arrive in Finland by way of Helsinki. We found the capital blanketed in fresh snow, a nice bonus in an urban center where snow cover quickly changes to gray. The bus ride to the train station passed orderly stands of birches and evergreens flocked in white and illuminated by a low, late-morning sun shining weakly behind a low wall of gray clouds. “In winter,” a Finn would later tell me, “the sky sits on your head.”
On the hour-and-a-half train ride to Turku, the city nearest the village of Naantali, snow rose from the tracks, casting a scrim of white over the scene outside. Horses and cows covered in winter blankets dotted snow-covered pastures. The water in creeks was a deep bottle green. Wide expanses of fields ended in gently rising hillocks covered in snow-dusted evergreens that marched toward the horizon. Nestled in among the hills was the occasional house or train station. Wooden and painted in the traditional rusty red or mustard yellow, their architectural details dated to the 18th century and bore evidence of the region’s long ties to Sweden.
After a 20-minute taxi ride from Turku train station, the Naantali Spa Hotel appeared through the swirling snow, a sprawling behemoth perched at the edge of a breathtaking panorama of the archipelago and the frozen Baltic Sea. In addition to the main building housing the majority of the 360 rooms, as well as the pools, treatment facilities, and restaurants, the hotel also includes a Sunborn yacht equipped with guest suites and a gourmet restaurant. Past the lobby, where a colonnade of over-the-top white metal palm trees straight out of Las Vegas and ’70s brass furniture and lighting combined with ’80s marble and that decade’s passion for the color salmon, we found sweeping expanses of glass that brought the outside inside to light-hungry Finns.
Our spacious suite in the main hotel seemed more recently updated than the lobby. As with any Scandinavian interior, honey-colored birch dominated, with cream-colored raw silk wall covering, ash hardwood floor and drapes in tones of honey and soft tangerine adding warmth.
We headed downstairs to book our spa treatments for our three-day stay. A clinical air pervaded the main spa area, a holdover from the hotel’s beginnings as a therapeutic center for war veterans. We checked in at reception, which resembled the intake desk at a doctor’s office. Coming and going were guests wearing the white terrycloth bathrobes found in each room. Whether they walked in running shoes, flip-flops or even, in one instance, a pair of high-heeled pumps, a kind of post-treatment daze set apart the treated from the non-treated. Jet-lagged, we scheduled a couples’ water treatment for early evening, and booked peat and blue clay body treatments for the following day.
In the elaborate pool and sauna complex, we first began to understand how Finns cope with winter: Water, the answer is water. Water in thermal dipping pools, in whirlpools, in saunas and Turkish baths, in indoor and outdoor heated pools, water. The busy scene at the poolside bar resembled that at any Caribbean resort during high season. Bathing suit-clad guests lounged with drinks at tables and in the lounge chairs arranged around the large, curved pool. Swimmers were in the minority. More popular were the poolside Jacuzzi and the giant whirlpool off the main pool in a mosaic-tiled rotunda resembling a Roman bath.
Pools in Finland are kept decidedly cooler than their American counterparts, given their intimate relationship with the sauna. Located off the locker room’s luxurious shower room, the sauna resembled a small amphitheater and could easily accommodate 30. I found it warmer than saunas I had experienced in the States. Observing native users, I learned that I could ease the intense heat by pouring over my head ladlefuls of the cold water provided in the wooden buckets, while regular dousing of the rocks released steam that relieved the dry air. We followed the heat with a dip in the candlelit outdoor pool, where snow softly fell. Our hair quickly froze, and the contrast of the heated water and cold air entering the lungs was euphoria-inducing.
The spa offers a number of special water therapies that are administered in the newest and most Zen of the treatment wings, styled after a Japanese bathhouse. The commingling aromas of fragrant herbs and the gentle swoosh of bubbling water greet guests as they enter. Shoji-style screens of warm wood and frosted glass define the façades of the five treatment rooms, the wall opposite covered in small iridescent blue tiles and accented with white pendant lighting. The space opens onto a glass wall with a view through the pool complex and beyond to the frozen archipelago. Candles in mirrored votives light tables and niches. Gone was the ubiquitous canned music that pervades the hallways, elevators and restaurants of the rest of the hotel; soothing Enya-like New Age music played instead. Estheticians move back and forth bearing treatments in creamy white pitchers or wooden Asian bowls lined in red.
Inside the treatment room a small line of lights in blue, yellow, red and green flashed in rhythm with the music, sending ripples through the spacious tub. Our esthetician enumerated the lights’ benefits: Blue relaxes, yellow stimulates, red heals, green is balancing and provides overall calm. She swirled in a concoction of honey and milk, balsam oil and the Cleopatra oil that gave the bath its name and left us to soak, immersed to our necks, for the next half-hour.
The silky pulsating water smelled of oranges and pine trees. The colored lights flickered and danced in rhythm with the sounds of surf emanating from the tub, and we found ourselves lulled into near sleep.
The next morning, we borrowed Nordic walking sticks from the fitness center and hiked along the seaside to the nearby historic district of Naantali. Like cross-country skiing without the skis, the exercise quickly acclimated us to the below-freezing temperature. We trekked in and out of wooded areas, by the open sea and into the winding streets of Naantali. Along Mannerheiminkatu, the main street in the old town and named for Finland’s most beloved president, are small boutiques and restaurants in 18th- and 19th-century buildings. Kanga & Lamu sells home furnishings and gifts. Litut, on nearby Kaivokatu, spotlights Finnish craft. The old Convent Church dates back to 1483 and Naantali’s beginnings as a convent belonging to the order of St. Brigitta. Among the art treasures inside its stone and brick walls is a rare and important 15th-century Swedish carved wooden triptych.
That afternoon, we awaited our body treatments along with other robed guests in the hallway outside the treatment rooms in the main spa. We were ushered inside a small private dressing room that opened onto the treatment suite. My boyfriend was instructed to shower to dampen his skin before the peat application. The esthetician applied the warmed brown peat enriched with arctic plant extracts in a thin layer before sealing him in plastic and covering him with a Mylar blanket.
Turning her attentions to me, she poured a bucket of the green clay dug from the local lakes onto the treatment table, and then smoothed the hot pudding-like substance over my back. I lay down and she mounded the rest of the clay over me. She wrapped me in plastic and wrapped me again in a giant down comforter. The weight and warmth of the clay created a seductive undertow that pulled me into sleep. After 50 minutes, we showered, removing the clay and peat with soft scrub brushes. Walking the long hallway back to our room, we both felt short, as though we were sinking into the ground. Noticeably smoother, we collapsed into bed and slept for two hours.
That evening before dinner, we found ourselves drawn back downstairs to the water, like lemmings, to repeat the sauna/swim ritual. “First, Finns build the sauna, then we think about the rest of the house,” a sauna mate joked as she lightly tapped her back with birch branches to encourage circulation. I nodded in what was now total understanding, drenched myself with cold water, and gave in to the slow, delicious and distinctly unwintry surge of heat that followed.
If You Go
How to get there: Finland’s national carrier is Finnair, at Finnair.com. Trains for Turku leave Helsinki’s central train station every hour on the hour.
What to do: Detailed information about the Naantali Spa Hotel, its facilities and treatments can be found online at NaantaliSpa.fi. Click on the British flag icon for English.
Where to Stay: In both the main hotel and the Sunborn Yacht Hotel, all rooms include buffet breakfast and unlimited use of the sauna and pool complex, the fitness center and the nightclub. Packages may include a choice of treatments; a two-night package runs around $300-475, depending on variables.
Where to Eat: Naantali Spa Hotel features seven restaurants and cafes to fit every budget and appetite, from the casual Café Roma to the Thai Garden to the gourmet restaurant aboard the Sunborn Yacht.