Having a snowball fight while sailing in the Mediterranean was never on my travel bucket list. But here we are, my other half and I, clad in just bathers and giggling through chattering teeth as we scoop up chunks of white powder and douse them on each other's bare, goosebump-dimpled skin.
Indulging your inner child comes quite naturally in the Viking Snow Grotto which, despite a temperature of minus 10 degrees, is among the most irresistible features of the company's near-identical fleet of luxury, adults-only ocean-going cruise liners.
We're on Viking Jupiter, the sixth and newest in the fleet, on a 15-day voyage from Barcelona to Copenhagen. And whenever we fancy soothing our aching muscles – usually just after waking in the morning or returning to the ship following a shore excursion – we make a beeline for the complimentary LivNordic Spa, which boasts the Snow Grotto and various other spots designed to cool you down and heat you up again in true Nordic style.
The tradition of alternating a sauna with cold dips or rolling in the snow runs deep in the culture of Scandinavian countries, the belief being that it's a body detox that also eases tired minds and muscles and boosts the immune system and circulation.
Ask at the spa reception and they'll give you instructions for a self-guided Nordic bathing ritual. At the spa shop you can complement the process by buying organic products from Lapland. Or simply do your own thing in a spa that is scattered with loungers and nicely furnished with native Scandinavian materials such as Swedish limestone, birch and juniper wood.Start off somewhere warm, perhaps in the Experience shower, where jets fizz hot water from myriad directions, or enter the dark, muggy steam room, where it's 46 degrees, with what feels like 99 per cent humidity. After five minutes sweating, you'll likely want to chill outside. You can tug a rope that tips a bucket of 14 degree water over your head, or delve into the Snow Grotto, an intimate cubicle not much bigger than the bathroom in our Deluxe Veranda stateroom.
At a squeeze, you could fit four people, but we always have the grotto to ourselves, which is pretty remarkable considering the spa is free for all 930 guests (the quietest time, we find, is about 7pm, when most passengers are having dinner). The grotto has a blue glow, frosty walls, icicles dangling from the ceiling and a floor carpeted in fresh artificial snow similar to that produced by machines at ski resorts.Snowball fights aren't obligatory – and are, arguably, out of character for a ship with a refined, sophisticated air. You can stand and shiver instead or do likewise seated on a bench. Two or three minutes in sub-zero temperatures is enough for us before we dash back to the steam room or dip into the spa's central 36-degree pool or neighbouring 38-degree hot tub, which come alive with bubbles at the press of a button. There are other hot-cold options in the single-sex changing rooms, including a 70 to 80-degree dry sauna and a 14-degree plunge pool.
The key to the Nordic bathing ritual, we're told by the spa's therapists, is not necessarily how long you spend in each place, but how often you repeat the process. Warming the body opens the pores; the cold rinses the toxins and closes pores.The spa area has other wellness diversions, including a free-to-use gym with weights and cardio machines, daily yoga and stretching classes ($US10 a pop) and a hair salon offering everything from trims to Nordic scalp treatments. Also available for an additional fee are facials and massages with therapists applying Scandinavian products such as birch scrubs, blueberry body wraps and lingonberry face creams.
After an 80-minute Swedish mindful massage, my partner returns to our room scented with fragrant oils and looking as contented as I've seen her all year. Yes, even happier than when she was throwing a snowball at my head.
Steve McKenna was a guest of Viking Cruises.
A 15-day cruise from Barcelona to Bergen (Norway) on Viking Jupiter, departing in April 2020, is priced from $7395 a person. See vikingcruises.com.au