Feel the heat: the Northern Irish beach that’s embracing Scandinavian sauna culture
20.11.2023 - 12:07
It’s a late-October afternoon at Benone Strand on the Causeway Coast in County Derry, and the low sun is collapsing between wedges of dense cloud. There’s empty beach as far as the eye can see, apart from the odd horse-rider galloping through the shallows. My boyfriend and I are in swim shorts on the hard sand, despite the temperature being in single figures. But we’re not shivering. Not at all. We’ve just boiled our bones in the Finnish-style Hotbox sauna perched at the water’s edge.
We sprint into the sea to cool off and a shriek or two later are back inside to restart the hot-cold cycle, our hearts pumping as we take a seat on the wooden bench. As I ladle water on to the stones for a satisfying sizzle, the sauna’s rectangular window affords a mesmerising framed view of the waves, the horizon and the darkening sky. This juxtaposition is powerful: an instant hit of happiness.
With its thermal-treated six-person interior and subtle lighting, Hotbox is one of the most stylish mobile saunas I’ve experienced – and I’ve road-tested a few researching the rise of sauna culture. For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, authentic sauna is simply where “you pour water on the hot stones, sweat, have a cold plunge, then breathe fresh air before going back in the heat”, says the British Sauna Society’s Finnish founder Mika Meskanen.
While we think of sauna as Scandinavian, there is archaeological evidence of the practice at Stonehenge and Orkney. But until now I hadn’t heard about Irish sweathouses. As we sit with Hotbox owners Anna and Carl Isaksson, they enthuse about the 18th- and 19th-century Irish stone buildings that were an early sauna for rural workers, with hundreds to be found from Leitrim to Cork.
“One of the best preserved is actually here in Northern Ireland – at Tirkane, near Maghera,” says Anna. “Sweathouses were built as stone mounds, always near a body of water, so you could cool down. They were for people who had rheumatism or fevers, with thick walls and a tiny entrance. Inside they’d build a fire, and when the stones got really hot, they’d put it out, scatter rushes on the floor, and throw water in to create steam. You’d crawl in, the door would be closed, and you’d sweat out your toxins before taking a cold plunge.” Carl adds: “Some people think the practice might be older, originally brought here by the Vikings.”
This fascinating backstory added another layer of interest to what became a passion project for Northern Irish architect Anna and former Swedish ski instructor Carl. While he grew up with sauna, she was converted after moving to Sweden to study. “The first time, after jumping in a freezing lake and then going back into the sauna,” she says, “I realised that this lovely tingly-ness