Is it possible to miss Paris because you're too busy Nordic bathing? As I jumped into the cold water plunge pool for the umpteenth time that day, I consoled myself it wasn't as if I hadn't seen the city of light before.
It all began innocuously enough when I boarded the new Viking Sea (930 passengers, 550 crew) in the middle of the Sydney summer. I had been invited to sail on one of the ship's first voyages, Barcelona to London, for her grand christening on the Thames – the largest ship ever to be christened there. The upsides of high-end cruising are well documented: from unpack and repack once to cordon bleu meals sans washing up, friendly staff, endless ocean, deck chairs aplenty, ditto bars and restaurants; usually a library and a theatrette or two - plus of course, the day spa.
Roll in a Norwegian-flagged ship and the temptations are even more nagging: open-faced smoked salmon sandwiches on rye bread, trays of pert cream cakes; chic Scandi décor, and, when you're sailing with Viking Cruises, facilities to indulge in the ancient art of Nordic bathing.
Situated on deck one, and billed as "a Nordic sanctuary of wellness", it took me a few days to make it down to the LivNordic Spa, operated by Raison d-Etre Spas, headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden.
My visit began routinely enough with a quick tour of the hairdressers, nail salon, barber and fitness centre, before the spa manager ushered me into the beating heart of this sumptuous, huge complex: a large, open, dimly lit room with a sizable hydrotherapy pool fitted out at one end with sunken metal day beds on which to rest, your head and shoulders peeping above the swirling waters. There was a smaller saltwater pool, and, in the far corner, four handsome ceramic-tiled thermal loungers, grand enough for a pharaoh. A steam room and snow grotto completed the picture. Snow grotto? True - not exactly what you'd expect to find on a cruise liner, but yes, a small cave or grotto with a floor of freshly made snow, no bigger than an Eskimo's hut.
The ladies change room housed yet more wellness paradise: a sauna constructed of sweet smelling birch wood and a cold plunge pool. In this separate utopia of fluffy bathrobes and huge towels, there were more comfy spots to sit, both still and sparkling water on offer, tea, books, magazines, no Wi-Fi reception and best of all, peace and quiet with anxiety-reducing beige décor to stare at. I'm reliably informed the gents changing room was just as good.
Prior to discovering the LivNordic Spa, I'd harboured plans to do every single day trip; to be first off/last back on this ship for the duration of the cruise. Viking does, after all, bill itself as the cruise line that spends the most amount of time in port – stopping almost every day and docking for about 12 hours compared to an average of just over nine hours a day for most other ocean liners.
Instead, I whirled, steamed and sweated – then ventured into the grotto. I opened the large glass door - blast of cold air – and tentatively stepped inside, where I stayed put for the next few minutes. To conquer cold is oddly exhilarating - and that night I slept like a baby. I eagerly returned the day after to roadtest the sauna and cold pool combo, where the pool was set to a brisk 12 degrees Celcius. (By contrast most Scandinavians would bathe in water of around 2 degrees).
The idea with Nordic bathing is to relax in the steam room or sauna for about ten minutes, then dunk in the cold pool or stand in the grotto, or, for the true bravehearts, douse yourself with an overhead bucket of freezing water that was suspended next to the steam room. And repeat the steps as often as you like. Or for as long as the other spa-goers can withstand your icy howls. It's true: after a few repeats of this you start to feel like a pre-packaged meal being microwaved then cooled. And yet, bizarrely, I was disinclined to stop.
Pretty soon, huge chunks of my days were disappearing in a blur of steam, dry heat, spa jets and fake snow. Outside, Lisbon, Malaga, Cadiz, Porto and numerous other European jewels drifted past. By the time we reached Le Havre – the jumping off port for a day in Paris - I was way too mired in lavender oil, rainhead showers and cloudberry facial masks to contemplate time away from the spa. "You enjoy it down there, don't you," Viking's former Australia & New Zealand managing director, Teresia Fors, said nervously on spotting me, descending into the ship's bowels for the third time – that day.
Prior to discovering the sport of Nordic bathing, I'd always been extremely reluctant about cold water - and figured you'd have to be tanked on vodka or Russian, or both, to jump in ice cold water. Sweden opened a bathhouse devoted to the purpose in 1269, however it feel into disrepute given the process, historically, included being whipped with birch tree branches "until the skin was a tingling pink". Today, wisdom has it unless you have a medical condition or blood pressure issues, hot and cold Nordic style bathing is generally considered to be invigorating. It helps relax tired muscles, increase blood circulation and aid detox. It can even boost your immunity. "I once knew a guy who spent a week in Helsinki, came home - and built a sauna in his house," one colleague told me.
On my final day aboard Viking Sea, I didn't even get up for London – I lingered in the grotto, lay on the thermal loungers and tearfully farewelled the staff. If this is what the Vikings really got up to on those voyages, make me a Norse any day. I'll even grow the beard. Just sign me up.
This article brought to you by Viking Cruises.