The water hit me like a thousand needles. It wasn't uncomfortable, just shocking.
Then again, I think that was the whole point. I'd just taken my second dip into the icy Baltic Sea after enjoying 20 minutes inside Loyly, an ecofriendly public sauna in Helsinki, and this time I'd decided that instead of leisurely climbing into the water, I'd jump in, fully embracing the Finnish tradition of swimming in the winter. Oh, and did I mention that the temperature was 1 outside at the time?
Still, it was one of my favorite aspects of my weeklong trip to Finland's capital as part of its #HelsinkiSecret program, sponsored by the Helsinki Tourism Board.
Loyly, which opened in 2016, caters to tourists who want to experience the country's sauna culture.
Finns joke that there are more saunas than people in the country, which isn't quite right — there are actually 3.3 million saunas and 5.4 million people — but it's darn close.
Relaxing in a sauna after an important business transaction is not uncommon as Finns believe the interactions that occur in saunas help foster long-term relationships.
Taking a dip in the ocean in between sessions is also common.
The exterior of Loyly, located on the Baltic Sea. Photo Credit: Pekka Keranen
Traditional saunas are heated by wood, and some might come with a chimney. Large companies often have saunas for employees, and Finland's president and prime minister have their own official saunas.
But as more private apartment buildings have opened saunas, public saunas in urban areas have decreased dramatically. Loyly, which is the term used to describe the steam that comes from throwing water on hot stones in a sauna, is trying to keep the community sauna culture alive.
Loyly also has an on-site restaurant with breathtaking views of the water. The restaurant features an assortment of food, including reindeer meat from the northern part of the country, and beverages.
The Loyly sauna’s restaurant.
Another great thing about Helsinki is the ease of travel to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. My friend and I crossed the Baltic Sea to spend the day in snowy Tallinn. The feel of the city was much different from Helsinki; it felt like we had been transported back in time, but in a good way. By nightfall, we were able to hop back on the boat and return to Helsinki's saunas, reindeer meat and art museums.
Though winter in the Baltic region might not be for everyone, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience that won't be forgotten.
Reservations for the public sauna are recommended and can be booked online at www.LoylyHelsinki.fi. A two-hour booking costs about $20 and includes a towel, a seat cover, soap, shampoo and access to the showers.
Helsinki has a wide range of hotel properties. Here are two of the best luxury hotels in the city:
• Hotel Kamp: Named for Carl Kamp, whose goal was to create a modern hotel in Helsinki, the Hotel Kamp dates back nearly 130 years. The hotel contains 179 rooms, a spa, conference rooms and restaurants. Visit www.hotelkamp.com/en.
• Hotel Haven: Part of the Kamp Collection Hotels like the Hotel Kamp, the Hotel Haven is located in Helsinki's Market Square. With 137 rooms, it was the first property in Finland to become a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Visit www.hotelhaven.fi/en.