I’m a committed sauna sceptic. Or at least I used to be. Too hot. Too intimate. Too much. They are popping up everywhere lately, though, have you noticed, the way burrito restaurants were suddenly all over the place for a while. Then it was doughnut shops. And those bubble and boba tea places where the youngs congregate drinking lurid-looking lychee and passion fruit drinks. Saunas are having a bit of boba moment.
I’ve a friend who has been on some sizzling hot evening dates in a sauna in a Dublin industrial estate. There are saunas in random farmers’ fields. And at festivals. Mobile saunas are traversing the country, pitching up in scenic spots. There’s been a beachside sauna in Greystones for a good while, naturally. I’ve never seen the attraction myself – even more so now that I’m a perimenopausal woman who basically sweats and turns beetroot red unexpectedly for free. No payment or advance booking or nudity (full or partial) required.
But sometimes the things that make you go “ew”, such as sitting with not many or even no clothes on with other people in an unbearably hot wooden room, get foisted upon you. Several years ago I had a heady, hectic, intense karaoke session with a woman, originally from Wales, a friend of my sister. She saw my name on the programme for the Write by the Sea literary festival in Kilmore Quay, Co Wexford, where she has a holiday home, and asked my sister to ask me if I’d like to meet up while I was down there. My friend, Dublin- and Rosslare-based but by way of Connemara, and I ended up staying in her beautiful thatched home by the sea. My new Welsh friend told me she’d booked a sauna experience for the following morning. “Don’t forget your togs,” she texted before explaining the context: “I am not a modern European woman.”
A fecking sauna experience? I was making the excuses in my head already. The weather would be too bad, hopefully, or ‘oh no, sorry, new Welsh friend, your gorgeous Labrador ate my swimsuit’.
I forgot all about the sauna plans over a memorable dinner under the thatch. There were bottles of exceptional Chablis from the fridge courtesy of yet another Welsh-born woman. There were crab claws the size of fists from Meyler’s in Wexford town and fish pie and a stunning cheesecake topped with garden-fresh blackcurrants. With all the Chablis and the excitement over the Ireland v South Africa match in Kehoe’s pub across the road, I forgot all about the impending sauna experience. In Kehoe’s I spent more time observing two very excited men watching the match than I did watching the actual match. Their hands banging the bar counter. The small jigs. The celebratory jives. “It’s more important than religion,” one of them told me, eyes wild. (Ireland won, in case you hadn’t heard.)
The weather was delightfully filthy in the Quay the next morning. Wind whipping around the thatched roofs, sideways rain making the sea and the sky blend into one amorphous grey splodge. I thought for sure my new Welsh friend would call off the sauna. Not a bit of it.
So that’s how two Welsh women, a Connemara woman and a Dublin woman walked into a sauna in Kilmore Quay. There’s a punchline in there somewhere. The Saltee Sauna is a wood-fired hot box with a view. We sat sweltering on the wooden benches gazing out of the south-facing picture window to the tiny beach. As the other women chatted and I braced myself to hate every moment, something strange and (no laughing at the back) spiritual happened. I went into myself. In on myself. The heat seemed to block everything else out. I stared down at my sweat-doused knees and swiftly went somewhere else. Somewhere pleasant and womb-like. It reminded me of my silent retreat days, before children. It reminded me of things more important than religion. It reminded me of a time when I was more in touch with my inner world. With my body. A welcome and satisfying memory.
The heat from the wood-fired sauna was soothing rather than oppressive but when we could bear it no more we went outside in our swimmers to cool down. The rain in sheets, the wind raging, the relief of being momentarily out of the heat removing the self-consciousness of standing on your tod in your togs in public in a storm. Back into the sauna again, roasting, chatting, sweating. Back out to cool down. And back in. And then it was time to pick our way down the sandy path to the sea like deranged Scandinavians. And straight in to the sea then, the water like silk as we bobbed about, the heat of the sauna still coursing through our bones, the rain falling on us, the wind making waves.
This sauna sceptic had been well and truly converted but, not being a modern European woman either, will still keep her togs on. For now. On the train back home from Write by the Sea I was still feeling the glow. I took out my phone to look up the benefits of saunas and of sweating as therapy. It was just as I imagined. No punchline in sight. Just an experience in a hot box that is good for the heart. Good for the soul.