The sauna is an integral part of daily life in Finland. It’s much more than just a place to sit, sweat and relax; it’s woven into the social fabric, a place where families and friends gather for a chat or the latest gossip. There’s an average of one sauna per household in Finland! I’ve been told that the sauna even functions as a place where informal business meetings are held and decisions are made. As soon as I heard that, images of Nokia executives discussing the latest mobile trends in the sauna quickly sprung to my mind. Fact is, the Finns love their saunas.
The sauna gondola in Ylläs
On my recent trip to Ylläs (map) in Lapland (northern Finland), I had the opportunity to experience a variety of saunas, from the traditional wood-fired type to the modern electric-powered cabins. However, there was one sauna that was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced: the sauna gondola!
Located in the ski resort village of Ylläs in Finnish Lapland (150km north of the Arctic Circle), the sauna gondola is operated by Sport Resort Ylläs and runs on the 2km-long ski lift that brings skiers from the base station to the top of Ylläs, about 800m above sea level. I would’ve loved to see the puzzled expressions on the faces of Doppelmayr’s engineers (the world’s leading ropeway engineering company) when they were commissioned to build a ski-lift in Ylläs and include a custom-built sauna gondola. That’s right, a sauna cabin on a ski-lift! I’m quite sure the engineers doubted the mental state of their Finnish client upon hearing this requirement. However, the engineers rose to the challenge and built the gondola in accordance with the specifications of the Finns, the one and only sauna gondola in the world!
Experiencing the sauna gondola
The ride on the sauna gondola starts at the top of Ylläs when the ski-lift shuts down for skiers in the evening. I was transported to the top in the VIP gondola which comes equipped with a television screen and a small bar, another quirky touch.
Once at the top, I was led to the changing room which has an adjacent sauna, a shower area and an outdoor jacuzzi. I changed, had a shower, then grabbed a drink from the well-stocked refrigerator and hopped into the sauna. I was warm and ready for the sauna gondola after ten minutes. With nothing more than a towel draped around my waist, I was led outside to the ski-lift station in sub-zero temperatures (it was minus 12 degrees Celsius or 10 degrees Fahrenheit). I hardly felt the chill. The sauna gondola awaited us, with the temperature inside hovering at around 80 degrees Celsius (170 degrees Fahrenheit). The two sets of doors were closed and off we went. I don’t have any photos or a video of the experience – it would’ve been crazy to take my camera with me into the boiling sauna! – but this promotional photo sourced from Ylläs should give you an idea.
The gondola glided silently over the snow-covered slopes of Ylläs, the lights of Ylläs village illuminating the lower slopes. In the distance, I could see mile after mile of forests, interspersed with frozen lakes and small communities. Ylläs looked simply magical in the soft glow of the Arctic twilight.
As the sauna gondola is only operated after skiing hours, we had the entire ski-lift to ourselves. It was so serene. I sipped on my cold drink, took in the views and engaged in an animated conversation with my guides. We took turns heating up the sauna and we talked about the sauna culture in Finland. They told me that if it became too hot in the cabin, a little window could be opened, but there was no need for it. The intense heat relaxed my body and when I felt too hot, I simply took a big sip of my cold drink. It was hard though to tear my attention away from the stunning scenery outside. When we reached the base station 13 minutes later, the doors opened and we hopped outside onto the platform. During the day, this platform is packed with skiers queuing for the ski-lift but now, it was silent and we walked around the platform in the snow, barefoot and dressed in nothing but our towels!
We hopped back into the gondola for the ride back up the fell. Back at the top, we disembarked from the gondola and headed for the outdoor jacuzzi. As I sat there, I couldn’t help but think how perfect it would be if the northern lights came out to dance for us. Alas, it was too cloudy that evening. After our soak in the jacuzzi, we made our way back to the sauna gondola for another unforgettable round-trip.
Riding the sauna gondola sounded quirky at first. However, when I saw this little engineering marvel and experienced two round trips in it, I realised that this was a truly unique way to enjoy a sauna, a lovely conversation and the stunning views of the Laplandic fells. If I had another chance, I’d do it again in a flash!
The sauna gondola package costs EUR 1,350 but split amongst up to twelve people, it’s certainly affordable. The package includes use of the sauna facilities (and jacuzzi) and round-trips in the sauna gondola for two hours.
Getting there: the closest airport to Ylläs is in Kittila, about a 45-minute drive away. There are scheduled flights from Helsinki as well as a variety of chartered services from various points in Europe.