A summer spent in Iceland convinced me that Ireland has much to learn from our Nordic neighbours. The mercury rarely rises above 15C in Iceland in July, but the locals compensate with frequent visits to outdoor geothermal pools that seem to feature in every town, village and crossroads. I spent many happy hours in poolside hot tubs and saunas, seeing how the locals have learned to embrace the outdoors and make the most of their subarctic climate.
Then, several years ago, my wife booked us a trip around Finland in late November. Darkness fell at about 3pm and multiple coats and hats just about kept the cold at bay. But things began to look up when we discovered that most towns and villages feature steaming, outdoor saunas. We were soon thawing with the locals in a different sauna every night. Conversation flowed and I learned how the Finns have also come to embrace their cold climate with frequent visits to outdoor saunas, followed by a brief dip in one of their 188,000 lakes.
Being tightly packed into a small, hot room forges a bond, which might help explain why Finland has been voted the happiest country in the world for the past four years running. Despite initial reservations about the cold and the dark, this holiday was a lesson in how the Finns’ reverence for spending time in nature could be adapted to our own shores.
Those of us who live in countries where winter is often a three-season event need all the heat we can get to keep our spirits buoyant. So my antennae began to twitch when I came across a new log cabin hideaway on the shores of Lough Oughter, in Killykeen Forest Park in County Cavan.
Cavan boasts 365 lakes. A local photographer spent lockdown cataloguing them to prove they all exist. Intrigued, I took a boat a few weeks ago from the Cavan Adventure Centre to explore some of them. When several architectural cabins on stilts appeared behind the tree-lined shore, I tied up at a smart, red-tin boathouse where a bearded, flannel-shirt-wearing South African welcomed me to Cabü by the Lakes. Bernard gave me a quick tour of the 100-acre grounds, featuring 28 cabins, several outdoor hot tubs and saunas, and a giant open-air bar and games room, where we nursed hot chocolates in front of a super-sized stove.
The owners of Cowley Timbers, a construction firm in Nottinghamshire, took over this long-established resort from the Irish Forestry Board in 2017 and have brought all their expertise in wood construction to update the site. The company has a sister property on the Kent coast and plans to open another in the Cotswolds.
I pledged to return for a stay, and within weeks I found myself driving down the dark, twisting roads leading from Cavan town towards Killykeen Forest with my wife, young son and excited dog. Ireland, not unlike Finland, can feel bleak and miserable in winter, but once we pulled into Cabü by the Lakes the strings of festoon lights adorning the wooden buildings soon banished any gloom. The views of darkening skies looked considerably more attractive when seen from the confines of a bubbling hot tub in the woods, with a gin and tonic in our hands.
I began to realise how divorced my life has become from the natural world, as I initially felt unsettled by the enormity of the surrounding darkness. As the night wore on this fear was replaced by awe, as I relaxed and reset my city persona. Cavan doesn’t have the snowy charms of Finland, but being in the wild, wherever you are, can restore your connection to something bigger.
Later we lit the woodburner in our gorgeously designed cabin and flung open the Crittall doors to reveal the moon lighting up the lake in the distance. My wife happily settled into our cosy, wood-clad bedroom with a small mountain of books and barely budged from there for the rest of the weekend. It was hard to believe we were still in Ireland: we all felt as if we had been transported back to Scandinavia, or to a cutting-edge retreat in upstate New York.
The next morning, Bernard kitted out my son and I with lifejackets and sent us off with a map and a boat with an outboard engine, to putter for miles through flooded rivers overhung with tunnels of tangled trees, leading to countless quiet lakes. The noise of our approaching engine prompted huddles of swans to take flight.
Whooper swans with yellow beaks fly here from Iceland every year, their arrival heralding the start of winter. There’s not a lot of colour in the landscape at this time of year: the lakes, trees and clouds all shimmer in multiple shades of grey, giving the impression of travelling through a 19th-century German romantic painting by Caspar David Friedrich. We turned for home when the towering skyline of Killeshandra and its milk factory come into view. On our return trip we hung a left at Lady Farnham’s cottage and steered the tiller for 13th-century Cloughoughter castle, located on a tiny island on Lough Oughter.
Back at Cabü a well-earned Guinness awaited us in the newly opened bar, which we followed with a wedge of the brilliantly named Cavanbert (from nearby Corleggy Cheeses) that we picked up at the Cabü shop. An ensuing hour in an outdoor wooden bath, watching the trees sway slowly in a soft breeze, was perhaps the highlight of our trip.
It rained lightly the next morning. At dawn I walked along the lake shore, marvelling at the sound of the drops falling off the leaves. The rain lifted as Bernard set off from the jetty to take us on a morning of fishing and more lake-hopping. He told us how Cavan’s hilly, drumlin landscape was formed by the retreating glaciers. Later, we rented bikes and followed the lake paths around Killykeen Forest , through acres of dense spruce and silver birch. Before we left for home that night I heard a cuckoo sing in the woods for the first time in many years.
I’m so often aware of the Faustian bargain that city living entails: for all the joys of the bright lights, there is a trade-off, and we can lose the connection with nature that’s so vital for our souls. Ireland’s damp weather has its own beauty, and Cabü by the Lakes has created a Scandi-inspired retreat to access the healing power of the outdoors. My trip to Finland taught me that there’s much to love about cold climates, and I’m glad I don’t have to jump on a plane any more to experience this type of holiday. More cabin retreats and saunas are popping up beside lakes, rivers and beaches all over Ireland and the UK, and it’s a joy to be able to awaken the senses in locations that make the most of the great outdoors.
The trip was provided by Cabü by the Lakes; one-bedroom cabins from €175 a night (two-night minimum, three at weekends)
Full of hot air: five saunas in the UK
The Saltwater Sauna, Poole
Created by a Nordic sauna enthusiast this wood-fired Finnish sauna on Sandbanks beach seats eight and has views of the sea from its picture window. Bathers can manage the löyly (the steam that rises from the sauna stove), allowing control of heat and intensity.
Netil 360, London
Enjoy views across London from four glass-fronted saunas on a Hackney rooftop, then cool down in a waterfall before hitting the open-air bar restaurant.
Beach Box Spa, Brighton
This sauna/spa has just moved to a new site by the sea. The repurposed horse-trailer saunas offer views of the pier. beachboxspa.co.uk
Fforest Farm, Cardigan
A collection of self-catering cabins, barns, domes and bell tents in woodland near the town of Cardigan. Warm up at their wood-fired sauna after a swim at nearby Penbryn beach.
The Hot Box, Highlands
The Taymouth Marina sauna has panoramic windows with views across Loch Tay. To cool down a slide goes directly into the loch.