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In the darkness and midst smoke, a man with an extended goatee and shaved undercut is leaning elbows on knees.
The heat is intense.
In daylight, actor Jasper Pääkkönen, 35, would be recognizable by most in Helsinki and his fame has reached across the borders too as he portrays the legendary Viking king of Vestfold, Halfdan the Black, in History Channel’s hit drama TV series Vikings. This is a well-earned break from the hectic filming of another season of Vikings in Ireland, where he spends his weekdays.
Someone from his entourage throws water on the rocks of the smoke sauna, built inside concrete and sealed with a steel door for fire safety.
“Jasper, you have done a fine job,” one of his friends says. “This is great.”
Pääkkönen nods his head. Today, Pääkkönen is sitting in the sauna for more than just relaxation. He is one of the founders of this multimillion-euro sauna complex, Löyly (steam created when the water hits the hot rocks), built on the Hernesaari shore in Helsinki, an oasis for the lovers of sauna, sea and sun.
Although, Löyly was quietly opened to the public earlier in the week, this is Pääkkönen’s private sauna-warming party for a handful of friends. It’s Sunday evening in the end of May, and the last public visitors, including my assistant, are gone.
In the end of March last year, Pääkkönen was eager to introduce the project for Finland Today with his partner in business, Green League MP and restaurant entrepreneur Antero Vartia, also 35.
The idea for Löyly sprung from lack and demand. As incredible as it seems in a country of over 2 million saunas, a luxurious one, where Pääkkönen could take his friends and colleagues from abroad and within the country was simply lacking and he said it was a “crying shame.”
Pääkkönen said that they will invest in the project with courage, vision and loan money.
“We don’t come from a lot of money. I’m an actor and Antero owns a restaurant, so there’s been a lot of talk about us having such a large loan,” he said.
A year ago the budget for Löyly was about 5 million euros. In January 2016, the budget was extended to 5,5 million and now while finished the original sum has exceeded by a million euros. The growing expenses are reflected in the men’s unwillingness to compromise on quality.
During the year, the Finnish attitude of “sisu (guts)” has increased the emotional baggage of Pääkkönen and Vartia to the verge of fear. Unslept nights, pounding pulses . . . if something would go wrong, they would not be recover from their debt in this lifetime.
My assistant and I arrived to Löyly in the early evening. Even though I had walked past the construction site during the metamorphosis of larva to butterfly, it was now a sight to behold; the building looks like a wooden spaceship – something Howard Roark from The Fountainhead would build for the modern times!
We walked in the front doors to a restaurant abuzz with chatter and laughter. Vartia said in an interview for The Hollywood Reporter that the inspiration for the restaurant derives from Sunset Plaza’s The Church Key. While the classy restaurant in West Hollywood serves traditional American food, its distant cousin, operated by Royal Ravintolat Oy, offers for example responsibly caught fish (Pääkkönen is a loud voice for responsible fishing) as well as hamburgers.
While too restless to eat, we decided to head straight to the sauna. We received a towel and a key and instructions to leave our shoes in a closet by the door. We entered a classy dark men’s dressing room with a wide mirror on the wall. The key with a rubber key ring opened a deep locker. You couldn’t see to the bottom without a flashlight. A suit, for example, could be hung from the bar.
Löyly contains three saunas: a regular continuously heated sauna, a private one and the smoke sauna. We tried the regular first. Men and women were sitting inside, swimsuits and shorts on, of course.
The löyly was sharp but moist and the scent of new wood of the benches fanned in the air. The sauna is warmed with birch logs for five hours under the keen eye of Seppo Pukkila, a sauna major, representing the old Finnish sauna tradition.
The view from the glass wall opened to the sea between wooden slats, a natural filter of bright light but a costly one. The whole slatted veil, which more or less covers the building, cost about one million euros, which according to Pääkkönen and Vartia with its 4,000 pieces of wood, gives the building its form and spirit.
There were ten people in the sauna, and it would easily fit another ten. A group of men holding beer mugs started a discussion with two young ladies in bikinis.
“Where are you ladies from?” asked one of the men.
“From the north. Just visiting.”
“You have to be careful in the nightlife of Helsinki,” he said. “A man may put a baby in you and you would probably need to move here.”
“It wouldn’t be so bad, considering the sauna . . . ”
“They don’t have saunas in the north?”
“Not like this!” the ladies exclaimed.
Löyly indeed is an exclusive landmark. The wood will turn grey in time and resemble an islet of rock, a view sent in postcards across the globe.
A quick shower in the room of elegant dark concrete. One of the showers featured a wooden tub on top, which would throw water down your neck by the pull of a rope. Filling the tub with cold water makes you feel like a true Viking.
We entered the sunny terrace, the largest in the country: 1,800 square meters, which hosts about 500 seats for customers. My assistant was quick to descend the ladders to the sea. He disappeared below the water and his white body could be seen glimmering through the surface in the bright light of the sun.
“14 degrees, not bad,” he said while climbing up.
The terrace hovers on top of the sea, as if floating in the air – another expensive idea, pushing the limits of permits and standards. Sailboats and cruise ferries sailed in the horizon; the view along the shoreline was stunning! During an autumn storm, one could see and feel the waves hitting between the boarding, as architect Ville Hara and Anu Puustinen have described the idea.
The slats covering the building are made of FSC certified wood, a standard for sustainable forests. Some of the wood has been chopped down by Pääkkönen and Vartia themselves. Ninety percent of the building is made of pine, domestic and Russian.
We took the stairs to the top of the building, “the tower” as it’s called, where the view over Eira opens in the heights from a previously unseen angle. On the other side, one can see the competing party complex, Hernesaaren Ranta, a location of concerts, drinks and exotic food. By turning the back to the sea, one can take a look over the roofs of the surrounding industrial area, where housing for about 6,000 inhabitants will be built in the upcoming years. I watched my assistant hurry down the stairs with a camera swaying around his neck. There were places he needed to be and I took one more look about the area. Indeed, piece by piece, Hernesaari is becoming a lively district of life and culture.
I continued enjoying the saunas and that’s when I met Pääkkönen, whom I had shared drinks with on the first of May, vappu, and he had said that “the sauna project is going well.”
Pääkkönen and his friends exit the sauna to the blanket of gloom at the terrace. Pääkkönen sits down and his eyes lock on the sea. He looks relaxed.
Löyly has been visited by thousands during the opening week. Thousands of hamburgers have been sold and the salmon soup is in high demand. I’ve heard dozens of compliments from visitors sitting in the saunas. A living room for public, the common man’s sauna, is taking shape, just like Pääkkönen and Vartia dreamed.
It looks like the sleepless nights and the risk were all worth it.
Pääkkönen will be just fine in this lifetime.
[divider]The opening hours[/divider]
The restaurant is open
Su – Ke: 9:00 – 22:00
To – La: 9:00 – 02:00
The kitchen is open
Su – Ke: until 21:00
To – La: until 22:00
The public sauna is open
Ma: 13:00 – 22:00
Ti: 16:00 – 22:00
Ke: 13:00 – 22:00
To: 13:00 – 22:00
Pe: 13:00 – 22:00
La:13:00 – 22:00
Su: 13:00 – 22:00
Ke: 07:30 – 09:30
La: 07:30 – 09:30
More info here.