I’m finding it hard to breathe. My heart feels like it’s about to burst through my ribcage and sweat is pouring down my body. It’s crazy hot in here – well over 100°C. I’m desperate to leave but I’m determined not to be the first to wimp out. I tune into the low, female voice in the room, which is murmuring words I can just about catch: “Keep breathing. Imagine you are in the ocean – the waves splashing over you. Reach inside – look for your inner strength.”
What might sound like torture is in fact a Danish spa ‘treatment’. I’m in Kurhotel Skodsborg – a coastal spa-hotel, 30 minutes north-east of Copenhagen – to try out its SaunaGus experience. The ‘extreme’ sauna aims to test your mettle by keeping you in a stifling hot cabin for as long as you can stand. As well as getting rid of the body’s toxins and improving circulation, you can also burn around 400 calories per session due to water loss alone. It’s a lot more hot, hot, hot than the hygge, hygge, hygge I was expecting.
Tina Andersen is our Gus Master – a tattooed and toned Scandi woman who barely breaks a sweat – and whose job it is to talk us through the process. Her monotonous words have a strangely hypnotic effect. She ‘works’ the sauna oven, adding glugs of water and drops of aromatherapy oils, so the room gets suffocatingly hot. Then, like a whirling dervish, she whips the air with a towel causing a rush of heat to rise up, leaving us gulping for air. What perfumed hell is this?
Finally, after two sessions of what seemed like an interminable length of time (Tina later assured us they were, in fact, only 15 minutes each), we are led outside. It’s time for the second challenge: a breezy walk along the jetty and into the Baltic Sea. It’s fr-fr-freezing and, yet, head-thumpingly exhilarating. After a third and final warm-up back in the sauna – which now feels positively balmy – we are set free.
Dating back 115 years, Kurhotel Skodborg was one of Denmark’s original destination spas. Founded by Dr Carl Ottosen, an expert in physiotherapy, in 1898, it soon became an annual hotspot for wealthy Danes who were attracted to his simple principles for a healthy life: light, air, water, nutrition, exercise and rest.
After falling out of fashion in the 1960s, however, the hotel fell into disrepair. It was eventually converted into a bland, conference hotel, its history hidden to many who visited. When the dynamic Mai Kappenberger took over as CEO in 2012, she delved back into its past and realised that the original principles tapped into a modern-day consciousness. She’s been busy ever since revamping the hotel, bringing the space back to its former glory, and reviving the resort’s health and wellbeing ethos for a modern-day traveller.
Rooms are minimalist and light-filled. The white-on-white scheme is warmed by thick grey carpets, down duvets and cool-Scandi lighting. Details are everything. At night, for instance, you’ll find a small hot water bottle waiting in your bed, healthy oat biscuits under a glass dome and fresh lemon and ginger to make a hot, soothing drink.
The so-called lobby, which is more like a series of living rooms, contains a library and cosy nooks to relax with velvet sofas and squidgy pouffes. It’s the perfect setting for the hotel’s renowned literary evenings with famous Nordic Noir writers.
The spa, of course, is central. With its angular lines and modernist feel, it houses 16 different cooling and warming experiences (think: salt grotto, hydrospa and infra-red heat beds). Stand-out therapies include a signature BioEffect facial – which activates skin cells to produce collagen – and the Nordic Fire & Ice facial treatment by iS Clinical, a new cosmeceutical brand.
Food is as indulgent as you want to make it. There’s fine dining in The Restaurant by Kroun, which is based around local delicacies such as Pollack with Radishes, Danish Black Lobster and Lumpfish Roe. You can have wines to match, or, if you are on a health kick, there’s an inventive non-alcoholic menu to choose from (including a Gooseberry Martini and a rather odd Cranberry and Mushroom cocktail). The third-floor Brasserie, meanwhile, is buzzy and more relaxed, with a menu focusing on freshly-caught fish. Best of all is the breakfast: ginger shots kick-start your day, beetroot juice is served instead of orange, and the kitchen makes its own ‘paleo’ bread (non-gluten with a variety of seeds) piled high with avocado.
As well as the spa, there are plenty of other activities on offer. Book one of the clean-eating cookery classes in Kitchen Rex (a former palace in the grounds of the hotel) run by maverick Michelin-starred chef Thomas Rode, who gave up his starry Copenhagen restaurant to pursue the ‘good life’ at Skodsborg. Take off on a bike ride through the forest, or go for one of the ‘mindful power’ sessions. You’ll find enough to take your breath away.
A double room at Kurhotel Skodsborg costs from £161 per night (based on two sharing). For more information please call +4545585800 or visit: skodsborg.dk
A version of this article also appeared in Metro newspaper on 31 July 2017