VASKINIEMI, Finland - We sit in an old-fashioned, wood-heated sauna at the Finnish Sauna Society on Lauttasaari Island near Helsinki. Irmeli Nystrom, the Sauna Society's manager and a sauna expert, is initiating us into Finland's sauna culture.
"Other Europeans or Americans, when they get home from work, might have a drink to relax," she says. "Finns head for the sauna."
We are in a wood-paneled sauna big enough for 12 people. Outside, powder-like snow is falling. Inside, the fragrance of birch permeates the air, but it's so hot we can barely inhale its soothing scent. Sweat runs in rivulets down our limbs, making our skin glisten in the dim light.
We're relaxed, lost in our thoughts. The only noise is the occasional hiss of cool water being poured over red-hot stones or the rhythmic slapping of birch whisks on naked backs and limbs. The former ups the temperature and adds steam to the sauna. The latter is a ritual meant to enhance the sauna's beautifying effect on the skin.
Now and again, we push through the sauna's heavy door, sprint across a wide, snow-clad lawn and over a small weather-worn dock that juts into the Baltic Sea. We plunge into the icy waters for an invigorating - albeit brief - swim. We emerge all goose-fleshed, towel off and dash back into the sauna.
We will spend a leisurely afternoon sitting in the sauna, swimming and showering, relaxing in the day room with a good book, gazing at the countryside or snacking on Finnish treats from the cafeteria. It's a ritual most Finns repeat to some extent at least every other day.
Alternating between hot and cold is meant to relax muscles, stimulate circulation and promote mental and physical health. It's a spiritual experience, Irmeli says, or so the Finns believe. It's difficult to disagree.
In Finland, Irmeli says all hotels, many office buildings and factories and most homes have saunas. With 4.9 million saunas for its 1.4 million people, there are more saunas than cars.
"Since ancient times, Finns used saunas to bathe and relax after hard work and to prepare for weddings, religious holidays and other celebrations," Irmeli says. "Primitive saunas were built in covered dugouts. Archaeologists have found them in the oldest Finnish settlements yet discovered."
Even "Kalevala," the 23,000-verse epic that records Finland's folklore, mythology and traditional lifestyle, speaks of sauna: "Come now, God, into sauna, to the warmth, heavenly Father, healthfulness to bring us, and the peace secure to us."
The Finnish Sauna Society was founded in 1937 to foster the heritage of the national bath. It is housed in a charming white, wooden house on the shore of the Baltic Sea. There are four wood-heated saunas and one modern electric sauna. Two of the wood-heated saunas are smoke saunas - or savosaunas - the most traditional type, in which smoke from the wood fire accumulates in the room, creating a distinctive smell and burnishing the walls.
The building has a charming sitting room with large windows overlooking the grounds and the sea. With comfortable wicker armchairs and pine loungers, it's an ideal place to read or daydream after a round of sauna and swim.
For those who don't enjoy the dash-and-dunk routine, the bathroom has showers for cooling off between sweats. If you want pampering, an attendant awaits to scrub you head to toe with a loofah or to give you a mini-massage.
Members and non-members alike make telephone reservations for the sauna a day in advance. It costs $14 a day. Men and women are scheduled on alternate days. If modesty is an issue, you may cloak yourself in towels. --------------------------------------------------------------- MORE INFORMATION
-- For information on Finland - and saunas - contact: Scandinavian National Tourist Offices, 655 Third Ave., New York, NY 10017. Telephone 1-212-949-2333.
-- Helsinki Cards, sold at Helsinki hotels for $17 per 24 hours, give Sauna Society telephone numbers, schedules and directions on how to get there.
The fee covers use of the sauna, public bus transportation and soap and towel use.