27 May 2024 World leisure: news, training & property
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Spa Business
2021 issue 4

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Leisure Management - True North

First person

True North

Andrew Gibson headed to Larvik in Norway to experience the world of wellness that is Farris Bad

The hotel’s striking design allows for mutiple views of the sea from many angles photo: Andrew Gibson
Larvik, on the south coast, is home to Norway’s only natural mineral spring photo: Farris Bad
Bath with a view: The Larvik Suite offers an outstanding outlook over the bay photo: Farris Bad
Guests can take in the sea views from the balcony beds in the main pool area photo: Farris Bad
Farris Bad Hotel was built in 2009, on the shore of the Skagerrak Sea photo: Farris Bad
Lasse Eriksen has spent a decade researching sauna rituals photo: Farris Bad
Taking a plunge in the cold sea after a hot sauna is an energising Farris Bad ritual photo: Farris Bad
The presence of 50 pieces of art make Farris Bad a living gallery, with works by Anthony Gormley photo: Anthony Gormley by Farris Bad
The presence of 50 pieces of art make Farris Bad a living gallery, with works Nicolaus Widerberd among those on display photo: Nicolaus Widerberd
Guests are advised study and evaluate the works while taking ‘art breaks’ photo: Farris Bad

If you want to try something different, exhilarating, profoundly moving and at the same time, totally relaxing, then fly to Oslo and make the 90-minute journey to Larvik in the south of Norway to spend some time at Farris Bad. That is, if you can get a room. At the time of writing, the hotel is fully booked and has no weekend vacancies for months ahead.

With its unique architectural design, Farris Bad reaches out to sea, bridging over the sand to delicately dip a toe into the ocean. This ingenious building provides public access to the beach while enabling hotel guests to step straight into the sea from the spa, via a suspended staircase.

My most memorable Farris Bad experience, by far, was running out from the event sauna, steaming hot, with fellow bathers, all heading to the beach and out into the sea, at midnight, on a winter night, howling at the full moon.

Sauna rituals
Lasse Eriksen, development manager, has spent a decade researching the traditions of sauna bathing in Scandinavia, Russia and the Baltic States and so it’s the sauna rituals that set Farris Bad apart.

The largest sauna is the event bastu, where you bathe with regulars who wear nothing but knitted hats to keep their heads cool. Aromas and chanting, accompanied by live music and steam, filled one of our sauna sessions that took us through a number of changes from hot to cold leaving us feeling truly invigorated and elated.

The magic formula
What make this hotel on the south-facing coast of Norway such a success? Is it the proximity to Oslo and a good local market? Or the fact that Larvik is one of a few cities in Norway that has a sea-facing horizon? Or that it has great rooms and an expansive spa, offering every bathing option?

For someone who’s been in the spa and wellness industry for 35 years, it takes a lot for me to recommend you go out of your way to try a new wellness experience but Farris Bad will not disappoint. I spent two days fully immersed in discovering the story and trying the experiences that are the heart of the hotel and I’d attest that it’s the people and their passion for reviving the Nordic bathing traditions that are most memorable.

During our stay, a full programme of activities was on offer, including between three and five guided sessions of Aufguss and at least two sessions of scrubs per day. These are led by Lasse and his sauna masters with great knowledge and a deep passion for the preservation and presentation of Nordic sauna rituals. During our time, the minimum number of people in any of these was in the double figures and at times the classes maxed out at between 20 and 50 people, depending on the service. We also had the privilege of going backstage, where the scrubs were prepared from locally-picked herbs and amber, each portioned out for guests to apply in the steam.

Larvik’s long history of spa
Larvik, which is known as the hometown of Thor Heyerdahl, is on the southern coast of Norway where Farris Lake exits into Larvik Fjord and Skagerrak Sea. It’s also the home of Norway’s only natural mineral water spring – Farriskilden.

The city of Larvik was also a 19th-century spa community and home of Larvik Bath. The Norwegian royal family – King Haakon VII and Queen Maud – vacationed at Larvik Bad in 1906. 

Farris Bad Hotel was built in 2009 on the shoreline of the old industrial area by industrialists – Stein-Erik Hagen and Mille-Marie Treschow – a couple who wanted to give back to the town. Although the ownership has passed on and the management today is through Nordic Hotels group, the husband-and-wife team have left their legacy – and art – throughout the hotel.

The four-story design allows light to penetrate through the various sections of the hotel which gives multiple views of the sea from many angles. The interior is modern, minimalist, and peppered with poetry and artwork.

Throughout the hotel, and the town of Larvik, is poetry that connects the reader to nature and provides words of wisdom. The art undoubtedly plays an important part in the overall experience for each guest, and I would like to see more information relating to the artists and meaning behind the eclectic mix of works.

Our journey at Farris Bad
The hotel has an unassuming entrance and it was not immediately obvious where to park the car. The signage could be improved to help direct guests to the entrance and parking. On entering, your eyes are immediately drawn to the view of the beach courtyard and hotel rooms sitting above the beach and sea.

The hotel lobby always seemed busy, with a constant flow of check-ins and check-outs, plus a healthy mix of local spa business. We were one of several arrivals, but each was efficiently dealt with, and our wait was not long. Our booking and spa treatments were confirmed and an explanation of the procedures for bathing were given. The hotel gifts a swimsuit to all guests, while slippers and robes for the spa are provided for use during the stay and towels and peshtemal are collected each time a visit is made to the baths.

All guests are expected to take showers before entering the baths and in true Scandinavian style, these showers are taken in an undressed state in the changing rooms.

Since the start of the pandemic, the hotel has been closed for just two periods, totalling five months. Since it reopened it’s been busy and the average length of stay has increased to three days.

Precautions are in place throughout, with cleansing agents everywhere, but there is no mandatory masking requirement. There were no spacing requirements due to COVID-19 in the restaurant or the spa during our visit.

The rooms
We were honoured to stay in the Larvik suite, on the corner of the building, with outstanding views of the bay. The bathroom entices you to relax in the bath and observe the wind ruffling the surface of the bay as the natural waters of Farris lake rush into the sea. The rate for this suite is NOK5900, ($700, €610, £515) for two for B&B with a standard room starting at NOK 2539 ($297, €257, £217). The hotel has 176 rooms, of which eight are suites. The website is optimised to promote spa treatments and extras to help maximise revenue per guest.

All rooms have a balcony with seating. Ours had sheepskins and blankets provided to keep us warm while we sat looking at the horizon. The room was spacious, the bathroom floor heated and the room serviced very well and with information in English and Norwegian on the TV. It was also very nice to be able to turn the lights on and off without taking a course in modern electronics.

We received a written itinerary of our activities and recommendations to join in some of the bathing events that we hadn’t considered.

Once we’d relaxed, we changed into our swimsuits that fitted well and felt comfortable. After donning our spa robes (different from the room robes) and spa slippers we made our way to the spa. It could have felt awkward passing reception with so many guests dressed in their civvies, but since a good number of guests were similarly robed and making their way to and from the spa, no one seemed concerned.

The baths
To access the baths, guests return to the lobby to collect their towels and peshtemals before entering through the male and female changing rooms. At busy times this gets a little congested, but once into the 2,500sq m spa the feeling of space and relaxation begins. Although the process and protocols were explained at check-in, a leaflet explaining these practices would have been nice to read in your room before going to the baths.

Upon entering you find yourself on a balcony overlooking the main pool. From here you can see the different levels, offering bathing both indoors and outdoors. On a ledge a few steps down, you find loungers where you can relax in-between your baths while taking in the views of the ocean. This is also where you sign up for the sauna experiences that are offered throughout the day.

There are 19 different water features of varying temperatures, including several saunas of different sizes and temperatures, each offering a different view. The coolest offers relaxing footage of underwater diving on a TV screen, while one of the hotter ones offers panoramic sea views and the direct access by a staircase straight into the sea. There are steamrooms, foot baths and Kneipp pools. The relaxation areas are dotted between the baths, allowing you to meander through the facilities taking your time.

There are whirlpools indoors and outdoors and I particularly enjoyed sitting in the warm bath enjoying the cool air by the beach. It’s in the contrast between hot and cold that you find the most profound experience. There’s a cold plunge pool for the brave and beautifully tiled showers by the ice fountain, clearly marked cold and hot, allowing you to alternate from one to the next.

Warm Farris spring water fills the pool in the spring water cave – a dark space, offering intense relaxation and a quiet refuge from the pulse of the world.

Leaflets invite guests to take three different journeys around the various water facilities. These are the ‘signature’, ‘relaxing’ and ‘detox’ experiences. Each journey gives you a route through the water facilities with an explanation of what to expect. The leaflets are in Norwegian, because their guests are predominantly local, but leaflets will be printed in English once the international demand picks up. It’s worth noting that everyone in the hotel seems to speak English and that events are conducted in English.

The facilities were originally built by the Austrian company Thermarium but the show piece additional sauna was purposely designed by Lasse Eriksen, B&S Finnland Sauna and Rob Keijzer, using the best Norwegian wood available.

I think everyone is likely to have their favourite bathing experience and with plenty of places to relax there is never a feeling of being rushed or overcrowded, despite full occupancy of the hotel. Our favourite was the sauna hanging above the sea with a window to the south. We had dry weather and great views during our time but were told that during storms the water crashes against the window of the sauna. There are 30 steel steps down to the sea to allow the opportunity to mix hot and cold.

Bastu (sauna) rituals
With regular Aufguss sessions offered through the day and evening we took two 15-minute sessions by two different sauna masters. These were held in a large event sauna with room for the sauna master to walk around the heater, controlling the heat and steam by applying aroma-infused ice balls and water to the heater and by skillfully fanning the bathers with a towel to ensure the hottest air flowed over them. These shorter events are a great way to familiarise yourself and prepare for lengthier sessions.

We also took part in a full sauna event which started at 10.00pm and lasted well beyond midnight, during which we gathered with 37 bathers to enjoy the ritual of cleansing, healing, and gratitude.

About the ritual
As we entered the sauna we were welcomed by the sauna master who sprinkled us with water using branches of local birch. The sauna was lit with coloured lights and the floor was cooled so that there was no frantic running across the room. We lay on our towels to respect the hygiene for our fellow bathers.

The first session of around 25 minutes allowed us to be in the heat while listening to the history and value of Nordic bathing as we inhaled lavender and chamomile scented steam. The sauna master applied large ice balls infused with essential oils onto the central heater and then wafted the hot steam with a large hand-held fan towards the end of the session. After some breathing exercises we slowly sat up.
The sauna doors opened and we walked down the 30 stairs and across the beach to dip into the 10°C ocean, immersing our heads, followed by floating for 10 seconds – for those strong enough to endure the contrast between hot and cold.

During the second session, the sauna master began a drum rhythm to which we slowly engaged in joik, a Norwegian form of chanting. The session once again finished with sweating, as scent-infused steam was skillfully applied via the Aufguss process, followed by a run to the sea to cool off before the final session of gratitude.

Having taken our positions the third time, I noticed a few of the top benchers had moved down a layer or two (some were lying on the floor). In this 25-minute session the sauna master played a guitar and we joiked to a different rhythm and chant that put us in a deep state of relaxation both physically and mentally.

There’s no way you can think of anything else when you’re bathing in a hot room resounding with the unified melody of 37 people joiking. It is profoundly mesmerising.

The session concluded with a full steam exposure of Siberian oak-scented ice and plenty of water applied to the hand-selected hot Larvik granite stones. But that was not the end, because after heat comes the cold and so we made the final trip to the sea, with full immersion and almost everyone taking the 10 second float before howling at the moon to let our spirits go free.

Those of you that have tried this bathing ritual understand that this is a deeply moving experience that rejuvenates the mental spirit. To those of you that are curious or dismissive, it’s an experience you want to try and there is no place better than Farris Bad.

The treatments
On the ground floor you find the entrance to the more traditional spa with treatment rooms for massage, scrubs, a beautiful hammam, seaweed baths and beauty-oriented facials and nails services.

My wife tried a seaweed bath while I took a slightly more generic hot stones treatment. The seaweed bath is something we’re familiar with, as our summer house is at the site of one of Sweden’s oldest bath houses where seaweed baths have been taken for over 100 years. The seaweed for Farris Bad is supplied by Voya and is dried and packed in Ireland and reconstituted in the bath.

The seaweed bath was prepared in a purpose-built bathing room. It was hot and the aromas of the seaweed were strong. This was a private experience where all the components of the treatment were beautifully presented for the bather to enjoy – starting with the scrub, in a bowl to be taken into the shower and ending with the lotion for your skin after the bath. There was a spread of fruit, snacks and a glass of ice-cold lemon water followed at the end by a lovely cup of tea. What a truly relaxing experience it is, to sit in a hot tub covered in plants from the sea.

The hot stones treatment was exactly as I expected and the therapist, despite limited English, was courteous, professional, and skilled in her job. The escort to the room, the protocols, the draping and the technique were excellent and in line with my expectations for a high-quality spa.

We also took the duo hammam which was a pleasant feature and worth doing for couples. The Farris Bad hammam is spacious for two. To the side of the washing area is also a small steamroom for two people. The bathing ritual followed the traditional hammam process of hot steam to relax and soften the skin, a heated slab to scrub, lather and rinse the body and plenty of water to wash away your troubles.

We left fully cleansed and totally impressed by the service and the quality of the hammam.

Farris Bad is impressive. While most people come for the bathing, the treatments are high quality, the staff courteous, and the facilities clean and spacious. Although Aufguss and sauna masters are a feature in many northern and eastern European countries, the passion and expertise of the team Lasse Eriksen has attracted – with their knowledge and skills – shine through.

Food and beverage
The weakest experience at the hotel was the food and beverage – both in terms of service and quality. The lunch was a buffet and since we arrived towards the latter part of the service, we found the food was a little overcooked and dry.

The evening service was much better, with an a la carte menu. Since we had treatments in the evening we decided to get to dinner as soon as it opened. We were second in line and within two minutes there were 25 groups of couples behind us. Within 30 minutes the restaurant seemed full.

Breakfast is a typical Scandinavian-style buffet, and in fact all meals are very much to Scandinavian taste and met expectations. However, I feel there is an opportunity to improve the quality and to link the food to the experiences of sauna and Nordic traditions. There is also an opportunity to connect food and nutritional advice to complement the treatments or bastu services.

The best part of the food and beverage experience was the thoughtful snacks which were placed in the room after our treatments and bastu sessions. Fresh fruit, nuts and juices ensured we were hydrated and nourished

Final observations
Farris Bad is well worth a two- to three-day visit if you want to immerse yourself in bathing and learn about the Nordic bastu traditions. It’s also a good place to hold a business congress, with great meeting facilities both indoors and out.

The 50 pieces of art and photography around the hotel are also memorable. We were lucky to have our host explain their significance, but for guests that aren’t so fortunate, there could be more written communication of the hotel’s history and a pictorial guide to the art. We would also have liked a leaflet explaining the regeneration of this part of Larvik and benefit to the local community.

The history of the hotel, the city, mineral water and Nordic bastu traditions are connected and many hotel guests want to learn more about places they’re visiting and the stories behind the services they receive.

More: www.farrisbad.com. For details of the event sauna, click here: www.spabusiness.com/100

Andrew Gibson is contributing editor of Spa Business magazine

Originally published in Spa Business 2021 issue 4

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