So you’ve taken a whirlwind trip to Amsterdam, cruised the Red Light District, got stoned in a few coffee shops, tried to get laid with a leggy blond Dutch chick, drank way too much Heineken, and never, ever want to see another Van Gogh sunflower painting again. What’s next?
A visit to a Dutch spa.
OK, I know you’re thinking “WTF? A spa?” Chill and take the next few minutes to learn a little something new about the world and you’ll be surprised. I’m about to let you in on one of Europe’s best kept secrets…
They’re known by different names in Germany, Netherlands Austria, Switzerland and parts of Belgium. You will see them called Saunas, Spas, Thermen, Therme, Wellness Centers, or Bad (which is German and Dutch for “bath”). Spas have a rich history in Europe. The baths were introduced by the Romans and many major cities were founded around thermal springs (Spa, Belgium; Bath, England; and Baden-
Baden, Germany, are a few). Today most major cities have at least one large spa and many smaller spas, and some of the best are actually away from the major urban centers and are in wellness hotels. With a little looking they’re easy to find. OK… enough with the history lesson, on to the real stuff.
First, two things you must know about many Northern European spas:
1. They’re co-ed, and
2. Nude (well… many are anyway)
So that means you’ll be naked with a lot of other naked people. Now that that’s clear let’s set aside our western prudish attitudes and move on…
You can find a mix of spas in Northern Europe. Some are small saunas for the locals and others are huge complexes that can accommodate hundreds of bathers a day. What they all have in common are one or more dry saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs, pools, cold plunges and relaxation areas designed to relax,induce wellness, and if necessary, detox (which is useful after a weekend in Amsterdam). The Germans think so highly of the health benefits of spas they subsidize the industry so admission price to a German
spa is generally less than in other countries.
Who goes to the sauna? You’ll see just about anyone there, from teenagers to octogenarians. At certain times there seems to be more women than men. The women go in groups of two or three and sometimes you see mothers going with their hot 20-something daughters. Occasionally you might see university students going together. You’ll see couples there as well as singles. And you may see groups of friends of mixed sexes all go together. I’ve gone with friends and I’ve gone alone. It really doesn’t matter. Everyone is there to relax and have a nice time, so no one pays attention to who you are with.
Let’s start with some sauna etiquette: you’ll need (1) a bathrobe, (2) a towel or two, and (3) waterproof bath slippers or shower shoes. You can rent all of these at most spas or bring your own. Most of the complexes are clothing optional. That means clothing is not allowed in the saunas, steam rooms, or pools but you must wear at least a robe or a towel in the restaurant or bar. The rest of the time you can wear as much – or as little – as you want (although people will think you’re strange if you are wearing a swim suit). On my visits I keep a robe with me to use in the restaurant and to stash a water bottle in the pocket. Otherwise I just wrap a towel around me and go.
This is translated from a Dutch spa which explains the sauna etiquette better that I can:
1. Birthday suit is appropriate attire. If you’re incurably shy, you can keep your undies on, but people will wonder why.
Bring at least two towels, one for lying on and wrapping in, and one for drying off afterwards. There’s nothing worse than trying to dry a clean body with a towel soaked in sweat.
2. Always shower before you sauna, and also before you jump in the plunge bath or swimming pool.
4. Don’t stay in the sauna for more than 15 minutes at a time.
5. Dripping sweat on the facilities is frowned upon – always cover the bench or wall with a towel before you sit down.
6. Giggling and pointing at fellow sauna guests is not mature behaviour.
7. Drink plenty of water and/or fruit juice.
8. A typical sauna sequence consists of a warm shower, 15 minutes sauna, cold shower and optional dip in the plunge pool, and a 10-30 minute rest. Don’t overdo it – 3 sequences is usually plenty for one evening.
Another important rule: PDA (Public Displays of Affection) are not allowed, so if you think you’re going to bang a hot Dutch chick in the steam room, guess again. If you try you’ll probably be asked to leave. Most spas are well-managed businesses and they don’t want to jeopardize their image, so the staff is trained to politely tell any guests that are getting a little too frisky to wait until they get home. A good rule is that if you wouldn’t do it in front of your grandmother, then don’t do it at the spa.
OK, so the rules are out of the way. What do you do there? The first thing you need is time, a minimum of two to three hours to properly enjoy the experience, so plan accordingly. This is not a rush-in and rush-out process. It’s best if you can spend the afternoon or evening there because you will get a great night’s sleep afterwards
When you arrive and check in you will be given a locker key or a magnetic wrist band and shown to the changing room. Most changing rooms are co-ed, so don’t be surprised if as you’re dropping your boxers a Dutch woman walks in and starts stripping across from you. This is one situation where your mom was right when she insisted you should always wear clean underwear.
Change out of your street clothes and into your robe. Take a good shower, towel off, then relax by soaking your feet and calves in one of the foot baths for about 10 minutes. This helps to warm the blood and ready you for the sauna. After the foot soak I like to go really hot for my first sauna round, so I usually pick one of the dry saunas at about 85 to 90 degrees Celsius (about 185 to 195 degrees Fahrenheit). Whatever temperature you decide, you should strip off your robe, grab your towel and find a spot in the sauna. Remember to lay your towel so that no skin has contact with the bench.
About 8 to 12 minutes is about all that most people can take at that temperature. After you’ve built up a good sweat it’s time for the cool down. Take a quick shower to rinse off (very important – see etiquette above) then either hop into a cold plunge bath (about 15 to 20 degrees Celsius, or 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit), or take a cold shower. This is essential, because what comes next is the “sauna rush”. I don’t know the blood chemistry involved, but the rapid change in temperature produces a great natural high and your head will be swimming. It will last about 10 to 15 minutes. Find a lounge chair, lay back, close your eyes, and enjoy the ride.
After that take some liquids and try one of the pools, Jacuzzi tubs or steam rooms. After about an hour or so of relaxing do the process over again.
Some spas have special sessions in the dry sauna when they bring in a “Sauna Master” to perform an “infusion” session. These have different names for this such as “aufguss”, ”opgieting”, or “loylyl”, but essentially they mean the same thing. The Sauna Master will pour water and aromatic oils on the sauna stones and mix the steam through the sauna. This brings up the relative humidity in the sauna fairly quickly which makes it feel much hotter. He – or she – will fan the steamed air in blasts with a towel at each of the people. By the time the session is over you’re spent and ready to enjoy the sauna rush. If you don’t understand the language of the of the Sauna Master just follow what everyone else is doing. Or simply ask. Many also speak English and they are happy to explain the process to newbies. These sessions are very popular and the times will be posted in the spa. Queue up early if you want to join.
Where to go? There a number of saunas in and around Amsterdam. Generally the smaller the sauna the cheaper the price. If it is your first visit then I recommend a nice, big sauna. Spa Zuiver is new and modern and is just outside of central Amsterdam and can be reached by tram or bus.
Elysium is near The Hague and Rotterdam and is probably one of the biggest spas in the Netherlands and can accommodate hundreds of bathers. You will probably need a car to get there. It is very popular and can fill up quickly on a nice weekend so plan to go early.
Some spas are attached to hotels, so if you’re staying in the hotel you can go directly from the sauna to your room in your robe and slippers. Thermae Boetfort just outside of Brussels in one of my favorites. It is a converted Flemish castle, and their breakfast is amazing.
a href=”http://www.saunagids.nl” title=”Suana Gids” target=”_blank”>Sauna Gids is a good site that lists most of the major saunas in the Netherlands and Belgium. It is in Dutch but you can translate using Google Translate.
OK… one other detail. Since we’re single dudes let’s talk frankly. You might be thinking “I’m around a bunch of naked women, what happens if I ‘sport wood’?” Well, first of all, the sauna is a non-sexual, non-erotic environment, so there’s not a lot of stimulus for getting aroused. Secondly, once you bake your little willy at 90 degrees Celsius then dunk him in a cold bath he’s going to want to hide and not come out. And third, if it does happen, so what? It’s natural. Just as long as you’re not making a big deal of if no one will notice and it will soon fade away.
Finally, a word of advice: not all saunas are the same. In Germany a “FKK Sauna” is a brothel. And in most countries a ‘Gay Sauna’ is just what it says it is: a gay sauna.
Going to the sauna is a great date. Every woman I have ever brought to the sauna loved it. If it was their first time they would fuss and fidget for about the first three minutes they were nude, but after that they couldn’t get enough of it and wanted to go back again and again. And overall it’s relatively cheap. Admission is usually between €22 and €28 per person for the whole day. Most large spas have a good restaurant and bar so you could spend all day there and only drop about €100 for two, including
meals, which is probably less than you would spend on a big night out in Amsterdam. What’s not to love about that?