This article should come with a NC 17 rating. Not because of its graphic content, but because the reader is at risk of being seduced by the mysticism of Thermëa, a land that is only available to those 16 years and older. So, if you are younger than 16, read on with caution.
Russia, Scandinavia, Germany, all kinds of Eastern Eureupean countries, all have long understood the pleasure if not the health benefits of Nordic spas. The wellness component is pretty straight forward; you use a simple thermal cycle to rejuvenate your body and mind. You start with a hot experience (minimum of 10 minutes) that can be triggered by a dry sauna, a steam sauna or a hot tub.
Step two is a little more daunting as you must cause a thermal shock to your body. In other words, you must take yourself from a beautiful, hot place and expose yourself to a dramatically cold one. Because of our setting, this is achieved by simply walking outside (with minimal clothes) and rubbing snow or ice on yourself. There is also the choice of taking the polabër plunge. Step two is quick as it only serves to release adrenaline and get your heart rate up. The final step is relaxation. Since adrenaline is replaced by endorphins, one is conditioned for a deep sensation of relaxation. Respect the cycle, and your mind and body will feel rejuvenated, guaranteed.
Winnipeg is the only prairie city to have a Nordic spa, as of January 15 when Thermëa officially opened its doors. Nestled in the woods by the river and close to a golf course, Thermëa is centrally located and easily accessible. It conveniently transforms our cold into something exotic, into something Nordic and an adjective that can be convincingly combined to Winterpeg. One needs to see it, live it, to get it.
I arrived on one of Winnipeg’s finest days: -25 degrees Celsius, -40 with wind chill, and every radio station on the way warning listeners that weather warnings are in effect today. The walk from my car to the log building had only my eyes exposed and my body tense as it always is when dealing with Winnipeg winter . I was reassured that no one has gotten frost bite as I was handed a hooded bathrobe a pair of flip flops. “But this is Winnipeg!” I kept thinking while I changed into my bathing suit. Standing at the door to outside, OUTSIDE, I began to understand why Nordic spas might be slow to catch on in Canada. Why would anyone choose to spend time outside when it is brutally cold, and to do so with minimal clothing. I grabbed my courage and made a dash for the closest building, finlandia.
Once inside the hot dry sauna, I started to relax. No need to worry about outside. I can just stay here. Early in the afternoon of a Monday, there was just me and Serge, a newly minted Winnipeger originally from Moldova, located between Ukraine and Romania. Serge explained that the barrels of ice by the door can prolong your stay in the sauna; they also add a stimulating sensation on your body. Feeling the need to keep exploring I ventured into vaporo, an aromatic steam sauna. I had the choice between citrus and eucalyptus/menthol. A 10 minute treat that can be combined with a self-exfoliation. With the amount of dry skin we accumulate during winter, you’d be crazy not to! With all the heat and wetness, relaxa provided a needed new space where one could rehydrate with apple cinnamon water and relax.
With the sun setting, I set my sights on gëser, the fully outdoor hot tub. There is something about a prairie sky that is irresistible. And the fact that the hot water mixes with the cold air to create these mist alcoves where arctic winds blow clouds of eucalyptus scented mist that engulf you and then disappear just long enough to reveal pine trees covered in hoarfrost, or a giant elm, or snowy ridges, all to be lost from sight when hit with a new dose of mist. Other senses are activated too. Chinese string instruments and fire crackling nearby create the soundtrack to this surreal experience. All contribute to place you in this exotic Nordic world. A semi smile settled itself on my face. Winter is spectacular, it’s wonderful, it’s the best time of the year! Why does anyone lament this season?
My newfound love of winter was still hard to reconcile with the polabër plunge; a small pool where water is set at 10 degrees Celcius. Too daunting, too much of a shock, with – 25 degree air welcoming you post plunge. What if this is the ultimate experience? I grab my courage, walk down into the pool and walk straight back out the other side. My heart racing, my senses alive, the only thought in my head: I’m alive and it feels real, really real.
A short and confident walk plunges me back in gëser where I meet a young and heavily tattooed man. Our conversation convinces him to try the polabër plunge himself. As he steps out of the hot water, he is transformed; his body is steaming, lights accentuating the evaporating molecules of water framing, but extending, his body, contrasted with the pitch dark night sky, creating a mythical creature that is walking towards an unthinkable act, walking into an ice pond. I love winter; I was told when I first came. It is meant to indulge.
NOTES for first timers: Bring flip flops. Rent the bathrobe. Don’t attach yourself to it; you will be swapping bathrobes with the other attendants. Bring a toque. Allow for two hours, assume four hours, maybe six. Talk to people if they are interested, give them privacy if that’s what they want. It’s obvious who wants which. Bring a date if you want to impress. Or go alone; no need for a partner. Budget for extras like wine and cheese. Go on the coldest day in winter.
All pictures by Samanta Katz