For many of us, the term “Nordic” conjures images of well-padded skiers soaring down snow-covered mountains—not indulging in centuries-old spa traditions. But Nordic spa culture, with roots in wellness rituals first practiced in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden 700 years ago, has evolved into a popular touch point for spas around the world today.
With its founding countries’ proximity to the sea and accompanying archipelago, the heart of Nordic spa-dom lies in bathing routines characterized by the use of indigenous birch, rigorous exfoliation practices and a strategic combination of steam and water in varying temperatures. And spas, especially those located in colder climates, have found ingenious ways to replicate those original experiences, improving upon them through the use of modern-day amenities and luxurious settings. Saunas, steam rooms, solariums, showers, waterfalls, pools and plunges provide clients with a tantalizing array of methods to detox and become invigorated, Nordic-style.
We checked in with four Nordic-inspired spas to learn more about how this beloved tradition is being upheld in today’s modern spa world:
• BALNEA, located one hour south of Montreal in the heart of Eastern Townships, Quebec, Canada, opened 2005
• Grand Hotel Nordic Spa & Fitness, located in Stockholm, Sweden, opened 2009
• Nordik Spa-Nature, located in the village of Chelsea (near Ottawa) in Quebec, Canada, opened 2005 (locations are planned for Winnipeg, Manitoba, in spring 2013 and Whitby, Ontario, in 2014)
• Scandinave day spas and resorts, with four locations in Canada: Whistler, Montreal, Blue Mountain and Mont Tremblant, opened 2010—By Linda Kossoff
The classic Nordic spa ritual is the thermal experience, consisting of exposure to hot, then cold, then a relaxation period. Today’s Nordic spas, especially the North American ones, have taken that foundation and merged it with unconventional twists and luxurious experiences that remain faithful to the spirit of the tradition.
Quebec’s Nordik Spa-Nature, owned by Martin Paquette and Daniel Gingras, has been expanded three times and within its spacious area awaits a veritable Nordic “adventureland” that enables the facility and its staff of 150 to serve about 375 clients per day, all of whom flock to the spa to experience “a new kind of Nordic.”
“We are taking a unique direction by developing experiences inspired by Nordic countries,” explains Marianne Trotier, account executive and representative. “Many of these experiences are nowhere to be found elsewhere in America.”
Against the stunning natural setting of Gatineau National Park, Nordik Spa-Nature guests may enjoy the Nordic bathing experience (no time limit/$45 Canadian) in a variety of ways. The spa’s seven saunas include one Finnish; two steam baths scented with eucalyptus or orange essential oil; a wooded barrel sauna made by a local artisan; a mää (built into the ground) sauna; a tuli (meditation) sauna; and the unique Panaromi (a sauna providing light- and aromatherapy), a concept invented by the spa’s owner. Six outdoor pools include the cold Nordik waterfall, temperate pool, infinity pool, cold plunge and two hot tubs.
With all of these tools at their disposal, Nordik Spa-Nature’s owners like to improvise on their theme. “We recently partnered with German sauna specialists and the European Spas Association to develop some of their concepts here in North America,” reports Trotier. One result of that partnership is the spa’s new floated bath, dubbed kallä (“source” in Finnish). The 1,200-square-foot Epsom salt bath not only provides the sensation of floating effortlessly, but it delivers relief to tense or cramped muscles, swollen or inflamed tissue, and bruised skin.
The spa has also riffed on a German experience called aufguss (“infusion”) with a 12- to 15-minute version performed by a “sauna master” (meister in German). Trotier describes: “In the Finnish sauna, we infuse essential oil mixed with water or ice on the fire stove. The sauna meister distributes the air using repeated towel movements. The scent of the client’s chosen essential oil is distributed in the sauna with the help of the towel while the humidity that the stove is evaporating raises the temperature of the sauna.” For a twist, the spa adds music and lights.
BALNEA spa, also located in Quebec, entices its guests with a myriad of ways to experience the Nordic bathing ritual. Its three saunas, two Jacuzzis, four cedar hot tubs and Turkish bath are lent additional drama via the spa’s memorable thermal waterfalls, a sweat lodge and even a relaxation room that includes an aquarium. (And unusual menu offerings like snowshoeing lessons remind visitors that this isn’t their typical spa experience!)
“Our motto is to offer an immersive, inspiring experience that will take people to another time and place,” says founder Stephanie Emond. “Our clients come here to become healthier—physically, mentally and spiritually.”
Scandinave’s Canadian chain of spas has the art of providing the Nordic experience down pat, with each location offering the required circuit of ritual equipment—and then some. The spas capture the essence of Nordic hydrotherapy through their numerous saunas, steam rooms, thermal and Nordic waterfalls, hot baths, cold plunges, solariums and outdoor fireplace.
Spa wellness experts at the Grand Hotel Nordic Spa & Fitness in Stockholm, Sweden, are crystal-clear about what it means to be Nordic. “What immediately comes to mind is wholesomeness, closeness to nature and a healthy, sustainable lifestyle,” says Anneli Falk, managing director of the spa.
Spanning 1,200 square meters and serving approximately 100 guests per day, The Grand Hotel Nordic Spa & Fitness simulates its geographic surroundings with elements of the Stockholm archipelago that include a sauna, warm pool, the use of slate rock from Grythyttan (source of the oldest slate in Sweden) and the use of Rauk stones that originated during the Ice Age, now sourced in Gotland, Sweden.
The signature Nordic bathing ritual at The Grand is decidedly gentler than those performed in the first Swedish bathhouse back in 1269, says Falk, where “the women who worked there used birch twigs to whip clients.” Now, clients alternate between a warm, pine-infused sauna and a cold pool or bucket shower for as long as they see fit, then relax with a healthy drink in one of the spa’s plush relaxation areas. At the end of their visits, “They emerge every bit as enlivened as our Nordic ancestors did all those years ago,” Falk concludes.
A spa’s natural setting is a key element entrenched in Nordic philosophy. “All along the process of building the spa, it has been very important to the owners that the spa is integrated into nature,” explains Nordik Spa-Nature’s Trotier. “They kept as many trees as possible; the buildings are a combination of wood and rocks; and the lines are simple yet uncluttered. The landscaping is refined with North American plants, trees and wildflowers that change but remain beautiful and natural throughout the seasons.”
Similarly, BALNEA rests majestically upon a mountainside in a breathtaking, 400-acre private nature reserve that includes a pristine lake and 22 kilometers of hiking trails. Scandinave Whistler, one of four Scandinave day spa resorts sprinkled throughout Canada, boasts a 20,000-square-foot outdoor spa spread over three acres of natural land and overlooking the beautiful Whistler landscape. The surroundings of the chain’s other locations are equally resplendent.
Although Nordic spa rituals may at first seem a bit adventurous for the average American client, their results are easy to love: Detoxified skin and muscles, better sleep and a stimulated immune system are some of the benefits espoused by Nordic spas.
Here, Nordik Spa-Nature’s Marianne Trotier spells out the elements of a Nordic spa bath ritual:
1) The body is warmed up with a 10- to 15-minute sauna session to open pores and liberate toxins.
2) There is a quick cool-off with submersion under a Nordic waterfall or in a cold or temperate pool or shower. This restores normal body temperature while rinsing off toxins and tightening pores. Blood circulation is activated and clients experience a rush of adrenaline.
3) The client calms down by resting peacefully for another 10 to 15 minutes in a relaxation area until the body system finds its normal rhythm.
Trotier recommends that for full benefits, clients repeat the sequence several times in a row at their own pace, then “top off the experience by relaxing the muscles in our outdoor hot tub.”
Products that accompany traditional Nordic spa treatments are rich in indigenous bounty from these chillier parts of the globe. Such ingredients include Arctic angelica from the mid and northern parts of Sweden; essential oils from pine, spruce and juniper sourced from Norway; and cranberry, blueberries and sea buckthorn oils from the Arctic Circle. “Our products provide ‘the curative contrast’ between the outdoor chill and indoor warmth,” says The Grand Hotel’s Falk. “The ingredients are sourced from our unique and somewhat rugged Nordic nature.”
“We also source extracts from corn, oats, birch and peat, formed in the Ice Age, from the Arctic Circle,” says Falk. “Together these powerful essential oils, herbs and extracts build an outstanding Nordic defense against the intense times we live in.”
Linda Kossoff is DAYSPA’s executive editor.
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