Black Forest bathing

slider-caracalla-12-slCaracalla Therme (Baden-Baden, Germany)
So good they named it twice, Baden-Baden is one of those lovely historic spa towns that still makes big business from its natural hot springs.
This place is where it all began for the sauna odyssey of the Sauna Boys so we’ve got a soft spot for this small and genteel town (which means that we can be mentioned in the same breath as Dostoyevsky, who also loved the town). We chose it as a long weekend destination for no other reason than it was the cheapest flight out of London! (again, much like Dostoyevsky).
Nestled in a valley at the edge of the Black Forest the town boasts two large sauna/spa complexes (coincidentally Baden-Baden translates to Bath-Bath) that cater for different crowds.
The first is Friedrichsbad – a Victorian monument to the ritual of Roman bathing. This upmarket establishment takes it thermal spring waters seriously.  
The second is Caracalla Therme – a family friendly spa/sauna multiplex on a 4,000 square metre site.
The huge complex is split between the main bathing area downstairs (swimwear) and the saunas upstairs (non swimwear).
The sense of space you get from the ground floor glass domed interior is impressive. It means that, coupled with a spacious outdoor bathing area, there is room for lots of various pools, plus there’s a rock grotto, steam bath, a brine inhalation room and a lazy river. My favourite are the pressure jets that pummel your shoulders into smithereens!    
The main event, however, is upstairs where you can find a large sauna room with a very good aufguss. Let’s just say you should only sit on the top tier if you like the heat you get by opening an oven door. Then there’s 7 or 8 other traditional sauna rooms of varying temperatures, a couple of which are in cabins outside, including my favourite sauna room – EVER! A room with a fire at one end which creates a really hot and dry heat. The room is quite dark, save for the fire, and the only noise is the crackling of logs. Bliss.
There’s also a good number of post sauna facilities including foot baths, a plunge pool, a solarium, cold bucket showers, drinking water and seating areas.
I really like this place. I think mainly because it’s consistently very good in all areas. Our latest visit was in October 2015 and we dragged a mate with us. He couldn’t understand why we were leaving the beer festival in Stuttgart (Wasen) to go to a quaint spa town! But he was completely converted to saunas after going there. I’ve also just read on Trip Advisor about a guy from the UK who’s been there 30 times in 25 years – wow! 
Talking of Trip Advisor – there are a number of comments on there about how busy it gets at certain times. It sounds like something that needs to be addressed if its lessening people’s experience of the place, although I wouldn’t want the owners to move to a system where you’d have to book in advance.
But the popularity of the place clearly shows that Caracalla Therme is onto something – or perhaps just reflects the fact that there isn’t much else to do in Baden-Baden! :).
In short, this is a great establishment that caters for all.
Overall sauna experience:  Cold, Warm, Hot, Top Sauna!
Facilities:  Basic, Standard, Excellent  
Cost:  £££
Summary: This place is worth going out of your way for
Trip Advisor: link

Hottest place in Scotland?

the-scotsman-51721_editAre saunas a winter only sport? I don’t think so as the benefits can be felt throughout the year but they are definitely more alluring when it’s cold!
That’s how I ended up at the spa in The Scotsman Hotel in Edinburgh in February 2015. I didn’t have a strong desire to go to that particular sauna but when I Googled ‘sauna’ and ‘Edinburgh’ it was the only non dodgy sauna that came up! I later read that the police have recently clamped down on Edinburgh’s sex workers and raided many of the city’s ‘saunas’.
Most 5 star hotels have some sort of spa attached to them and some of them make a real feature of them. Not all of them have saunas though, the Hilton on Park Lane, for example, surprisingly doesn’t. Fortunately the Scotsman does make a feature of their spa and it has a sauna.
The spa is housed in the old Scotsman Newspaper’s grand printing press so has a cool industrial feel to the place. And…wait for it….it has Scotland’s first stainless steel swimming pool – oooh!
On site is a smallish but good and clean sauna, steam room, and spa pool. The wraparound ‘Arctic shower’ is an interesting design although it takes a few seconds for the water to come through so it doesn’t quite provide you with that instant shock of cold.
What really makes this place though is the design – a spacious, sleek, and modern area that pays a nod to its heritage. The dim lighting, tranquillity and atmosphere makes this somewhere you can enjoy and relax in for hours.
Like the best of Edinburgh this places meshes the old and the new really well to create somewhere special.
Oh – and apparently the Penthouse suite at the Scotsman Hotel has an in-room sauna – nice touch!
Overall sauna experience: Cold, Warm, Hot, Top Sauna!
Facilities: Basic, Standard, Excellent
Cost:  £££
Summary: a cool venue to warm up and relax in.

A manifesto for London saunas

images-21London has many things in abundance. But one key facility it lacks is authentic sauna experiences. You can count on one hand how many venues offer it. That’s 2 million people for each sauna! It’s a real shame as London living is pretty stressful and a decent sauna can help make it less so.
So we’ve come up with a wish list of actions that we think could improve the sauna landscape in the Capital:
  1. A sauna multiplex! Well this is definitely a pie in the sky dream! The price of rents means that it would be really difficult for anyone to establish a large sauna complex near London and make it viable. Perhaps a bit more realistically it would be good if spas offered more than the bare minimum of one sauna and one steam room. It would be great to have more options in one venue.
  2. Saunas that reflect the area they’re based in. Hotel spas always try to be anything but about the establishment’s history. How many pastiche pan-Asian spas does a city need! Some hotels have amazingly designed spaces but you could be in any hotel in the world. We’d like to see a spa that recreated a Victorian London bathing house, for example.
  3. A reclaim the sauna campaign. For authentic sauna experiences to get a foothold in the capital they need to successfully differentiate themselves from the current market which, almost predominately, serves and targets two markets: 1. gay men looking for fast love and 2. ladies what lunch. The benefits and wholesomeness of European saunas need to be promoted to start changing the  general public’s perceptions of saunas, leading to changes in the industry. This campaign could work alongside some practical actions that spas could make to engage the public with their saunas including…
    • Better promotion of saunas in spas.  It’s actually not that easy to identify what places have a decent sauna from their websites – whether it’s a hotel or spa. This tends to reflect the fact that saunas are seen as a side show to the main event of spa treatments in most places. As such, they aren’t talked about much on websites and there are rarely photos of the actual sauna, resulting in Google not ranking them very high in its search results. This could easily be rectified.
    • No swimwear days. It’s just not as comfortable going for a sauna in your swimmies, but there are only a few, non gay, places in London that cater for people who want a proper sauna. If establishments started off small scale trials to test the market for non-swimwear days I think they’d be surprised at the level of demand. There are loads of north Europeans in the Capital for a start who would be keen. And there are ways to market the no swimwear days so that they attract genuine sauna enthusiasts.
    • A free sauna day. Based on the inaugural Helsinki Sauna Day, spas would open their doors free of charge to raise awareness and improve accessibility of saunas. This would require some coordination but I presume there are leisure industry groups that could help do that. It would also be good business for spas.
A London sauna manifesto in the making? Sure, we’ll go with that.
Any other ideas?

How hot is hot?

As we’re planning on reviewing quite a few saunas we thought it best to come up with a reviewing framework to make sure our judgements are vaguely consistent. So here we go..

Review categories 

  1. Overall sauna experience:   Cold, Warm, Hot, Top Sauna!
  2. Facilities:   Basic, Standard, Excellent
  3. Cost:    £££ (out of three)
1. Overall sauna experience criterion
We’ll judge our total sauna experience based on the following factors:
  • Range of different saunas and facilities
  • Aufguss (sauna shows)
  • Atmosphere
  • Cleanliness
  • Value for money
  • Design
  • Customer service
We’ll arrive at an outcome based on our own experiences.
2. Facilities criterion
  • Basic: a sauna, steam room, shower and changing area.
  • Standard: a sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi, cold bucket/shower, resting area, changing rooms and drinking water.
  • Excellent: all of the standard facilities with additional sauna and steam rooms, foot spa, aufguss (sauna ‘shows’), and plunge pool.

3. Cost structure

£ = £10 or under
££ = £25 or under
£££ = above £25
We’ll also add a relevant link to Trip Advisor if there is one. 

Lost Horizon at Battersea

rsz_losthorizon

The UK’s answer to a Native American Sweat Lodge pitched its yurt in the backyard of the Magic Garden pub in Battersea in March 2016. ‘The Lost Horizon’ is a touring community that create a ‘festival within a festival’ at festivals like Glastonbury but for the first time brought their collective to a different kind of venue.

At the centre is a yurt, heated by coals, that seats about 20 people in a circle. The yurt heats up to provide a gentle sweat that was a lovely reprieve from a chilly March evening. Basic but good facilities are provided in the shape of a changing shed, cold shower drinking water in the yurt and a couple of chairs where massages were available.

But what really makes this sauna such a great experience was the people and vibe. A good balance of ages, races and gender created a convivial community and atmosphere. There was good chat, alongside a bit of chanting and yoga. It was probably the liveliest sauna we’ve been to, and that may not be to purists’ tastes, but I think that just reflected that it was a Saturday night, in a pub garden, in Battersea, so it completely worked. I understand that it’s a bit more mellow at festivals but the vibe is the same.

It was so popular that it was standing room only at some points (making a big difference to the temperature), which also added to the buzz.

I think the popularity really shows that there’s a big demand for authentic (i.e. naked and with a focus on the sauna experience) sauna in the capital. There’s very few options available for those who enjoy saunas as they should be, in the UK generally and London is no exception.

Beyond the sauna the Lost Horizon crew had created their own mini festival feel with a fire, some impromptu music, and cool decor and characters – including the Lost Horizon goblins! In the pub there were also some great bands playing. It really did provide a slice of festival life and it felt like we were a million miles away from the council estate we were surrounded by!

We really hope that the Lost Horizon peeps come back to London soon and ideally set up a residency!

We’re planning on catching up with them again at Glastonbury in June. Can’t wait.

 

Overall sauna experience:   Cold, Warm, Hot, Top Sauna!
Facilities:   Basic, Standard, Excellent
Cost:   £££
Summary: If you can find them then you’re in for a treat.
———————-