Soak up the views and sweat it out all year round as couple bring touch of Scandinavia to Benone
Situated on Benone Beach on the North Coast, you’d be forgiven for thinking the mobile trailer parked up on the sand is another trendy food truck or a coffee start-up born out of lockdown.
But this is a different kind of lockdown project, created by Northern Irish and Swedish couple Anna and Carl Isaksson. Their cosy wooden trailer is ‘HotBox’ – a traditional Finnish wood-burning sauna with a panoramic view of the sea.
A few seaside saunas have recently sprung up in other parts of the UK and the south of Ireland, but this is the first beach sauna to reach Northern Ireland’s shores.
Given our blustery weather conditions and the current rage for cold water swimming, it comes as no surprise that the new business venture is sparking much interest.
Having a dip in the sea or walking along the windswept beach followed by sweating it out in the sauna while taking in the dramatic views of the Causeway Coast seems like an ideal way to enjoy the beach during these cold months.
One-half of the married duo, Limavady woman Anna, is a keen open water swimmer. “At the beginning we didn’t have that many cold water swimmers and it was definitely just people wanting to come do something that was a different experience, something that was a bit out of the ordinary,” says Anna.
“But now we have found that there are people that are part of sea swimming groups around the coast and they’ll come to us as part of a special treat and have their dip over in Benone instead of wherever else they would go.”
Originally from Sweden, her husband Carl explains that many of their clientele are also regular sauna users or people wanting to “have a nice relaxing experience at the beach”.
“We have a window in the sauna so you can just sit and look out at the waves as they come in and just see the sea. And you’re just on the beach so I think that’s a big part of the experience.” he says.
“The sauna really goes hand-in-hand with the cold plunge,” explains Anna.
“It’s not really the same experience if you don’t have the hot alongside the cold. I think our sauna, when you’re sitting in it you’re looking out at the waves, looking out at the sea and you’re feeling so hot and all you want to do is go jump in the sea and when you’re in the sea you’re thinking, ‘Oh, I want to get back in the sauna,’ so it’s that really nice juxtaposition.”
Plunging from extreme hot temperatures to icy cold waters in the outdoors and repeating several times is a regular custom in Scandinavian countries, and in particular Finland, where Anna and Carl’s design for HotBox comes from.
“Where Carl’s family live (in Sweden), they live out on an island, and on these islands they tend to have community saunas that are built on each of the islands. Then they’ll have male night or female night or mixed night and you just go and pay (for a session). And they’re always built on the rocks so you can jump from the sauna into the sea and then come back in, so it’s the same idea as ours,” reveals Anna.
“We’ve had a few Scandinavian people coming to us and they’ve just been so excited, and they’re like, ‘This is so nice and it’s a proper sauna,’ like what they would see back home.
“I think the important thing is our sauna was built by people who specialise in Finnish saunas and Finland has really high standards about exactly how a sauna should be designed, how the ventilation should be working, how the stove should be and that you get a certain type of steam coming from the blocks.”
The benefits of this hardy pursuit for both body and mind have been well documented, with evidence suggesting that the sea sauna experience can help improve cardiovascular health, chronic pain, respiratory disease and mental health.
A recent study by the University of Eastern Finland even suggested that regular, long-term sauna users were less likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
“When people come to use it they realise what an amazing experience it is. You feel relaxed and refreshed, and you feel really good after it, so you have a little bit of a buzz. Your body releases endorphins and you do feel like you’re having a little bit of a high after,” says Anna.
While this outdoor sauna and cold plunge experience is firmly rooted in Scandinavian culture, Carl says “most cultures around the world have had some sort of sweat bathing.”
The couple tell me that they recently discovered that Ireland has an interesting and little-known tradition of early saunas dating back as far as the 18th and 19th centuries. Remnants of these sweat houses still exist in rural areas today and they are said to have been used for medicinal purposes back then to cure fevers and pains.
Carl explains: “They had these little mounds that they dug holes into and had a fire in there, usually for rural workers. It would have been a pretty horrific experience I think.
“It would have been administrated by doctors if you had a fever or something, you would go in there and sweat it out.”
“It’s really interesting with the Irish sweat houses,” adds Anna.
“That’s something that we learnt about since starting this project — you can actually go and visit these sites around Ireland. There’s one close to us in Maghera and it’s one of the best preserved ones in all of Ireland. And you can go and see the actual mound in the side of a little hill.”
“It has a river running next to it so I would assume that they would have jumped into that afterwards to cool off,” says Carl.
It was spare time brought on by the pandemic that prompted the couple to turn their enthusiasm for the sauna experience into a business. The pair met in Switzerland around five years ago where Carl was working as a ski instructor and Anna was travelling after completing an architecture degree.
After a brief move to Sweden, the couple stayed in Scotland for about two years running a pizza restaurant before settling in Anna’s hometown of Limavady.
“We’re a nomadic pair,” laughs Anna. “We’ve been living all over and doing lots of different things.
“We just decided it was time to come home and try something new and then all of this happened, we’re set to stay here for a while.”
Just before Covid hit, Anna fell pregnant with their son Sixten, and with neither of them working during lockdown, it seemed like the perfect time to take on this new venture which they juggle with their role as new parents.
For now, the couple are delighted with their business set up in Benone — one of Ireland’s longest beaches — and with a dramatic backdrop including views of Magilligan Point in the east, Mussenden Temple in the west, and Donegal just across the water.
“We realised that not only is this perfect because we can drive onto the beach and there’s a coffee shop, surf school and the caravan park,” adds Anna.
“But also it’s just a really stunning location, and on the off-peak season it’s a quiet beach, so for our clients, they are getting a really luxury thing because they’re not sitting on a packed beach and don’t have too many passers-by.”
“We’ve realised that we have accidentally landed on the perfect location.”