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Savu Seeks to Reinvent the Sauna Experience in Vermont — and Beyond

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Published December 6, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Savu co-owners Nicole Sweeney and Dave Nelson - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Savu co-owners Nicole Sweeney and Dave Nelson

Nicole Sweeney and Dave Nelson embraced Scandinavian sauna culture while living in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009. There, they said, people treat a session of sitting in a very hot room like a daily trip to the gym or glass of wine after work. It's routine, part of a wellness regimen practiced by people from all walks of life. In Finland in particular, saunas are as common as bars and just as communal — gathering places to unwind, Sweeney and Nelson explained.

The couple wanted to bring that tradition to the United States when they returned 12 years ago, first to Hawaii, then to San Francisco. But they quickly recognized that Americans' independence, penchant for privacy and body self-consciousness weren't compatible with the collective sauna experience. People here see their health and fitness habits as personal, not as activities to share with others.

So Sweeney and Nelson adapted their vision, focusing on a sauna experience that would offer peaceful seclusion. In May 2021, they moved to Sweeney's native Vermont to launch Savu.

The couple, who now live in Winooski, began by opening a single sauna on the Jeffersonville property of Sweeney's parents, near Smugglers' Notch. The following spring, Savu added two more saunas for the public to rent at the Burlington Surf Club behind Hula, the tech incubator and coworking space on Lakeside Avenue.

"Americans versus Europeans, in general, just feel a lot more private about their bathing habits," Nelson, 37, said during a recent interview. "In Europe, you have these giant, public sauna spa facilities where people go and they walk around naked, and they're around strangers."

"It's normal," Sweeney, 36, added. "So we wanted to really lean into what will make people relax and feel good here, and what we learned is: [That's] them having their own space."

Randy Camacho in the cold plunge pool at Savu's Burlington Surf Club location - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Randy Camacho in the cold plunge pool at Savu's Burlington Surf Club location

Now, the Savu owners are taking the solitary sauna experience a step further. In the mold of the Airbnb app, which travelers use to book stays at private homes, Sweeney and Nelson have begun soliciting landowners in pristine settings to allow Savu to set up custom-built saunas and lounging decks on their properties in exchange for a portion of the booking revenues. Customers will reserve their sauna time and check in on a Savu app — currently in development — that provides detailed instructions. No direct contact with a person is necessary.

With this concept, which the couple calls Savu Unbound, the company can expand quickly while avoiding hefty investment and a long process of finding locations and building out each sauna operation with staff and facilities, Nelson said. The app model requires no staff, no amenities.

The couple are currently testing the Unbound model at Savu's minimalist wooden hut at Smuggs, which stands in a remote spot down a separate driveway, away from the Sweeney home. Sweeney's mother used to greet sauna guests and hand out Savu's upscale cotton towels and robes before their sessions. Now, when they book online, Savu tells them to bring their own linens.

Scene from Savu's Jeffersonville location - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Scene from Savu's Jeffersonville location

Inside the hut, a basket of electric-heated granite stones warms to the ideal 200 degrees for sauna soaking. Patrons relax for an hour or more, turning toasty as they gaze out the window at Mount Mansfield. If they wish, they can ladle water over the oval stones to create steam.

A sauna holds particular appeal in the winter, when a blazing-hot box defends against the outside chill. On a particularly blustery November day, the soothing Savu chamber at the Burlington Surf Club overlooked whitecaps skidding across Lake Champlain.

But Sweeney and Nelson said sauna soaking is just as valuable during a sweltering summer, when it helps regulate internal body temperature and make people more comfortable.

The couple are talking to other New England property owners about two additional Unbound sites and seeking funding for their concept. "The idea is to expand sauna culture everywhere, to beautiful places across the U.S.," Sweeney said.

Scene from Savu's Jeffersonville location - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Scene from Savu's Jeffersonville location

Individuals or small groups can reserve the Savu saunas for $65 per hour from Thursday to Sunday at Smuggs and Wednesday through Sunday in Burlington. The saunas comfortably fit four people — or six, if they know each other well enough to get cozy. Both locations have been booked solid most weeks since they opened, Sweeney said.

Gina Cocchiaro never cared much for the sauna at her gym, but she has become a Savu devotee since she and her husband took in the mountain views at the Smuggs location late last year. "It's really very peaceful there," she said.

The Richmond couple have since started spending their date nights at both Savu locations. "This level of relaxation is so difficult to achieve," Cocchiaro said. "It's such a true reset. It feels very healing and cleansing, even emotionally."

Savu, the Finnish word for smoke, refers to the individual shacks that Finns built centuries ago beside their homes for a quick, fiery fix. Sweeney, who studied architecture at the University of Arizona and is an experienced woodworker, designed the saunas herself.

After starting Savu, the couple began getting requests to build saunas for private homes. They have delivered 15 custom-designed saunas, constructed at their warehouse in Williston and priced from $18,000 to $35,000.

Scene from Savu's Jeffersonville location - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Scene from Savu's Jeffersonville location

Each Savu sauna is a simple wooden sanctuary, burnt to black on the outside and lined inside with cedar planks from floor to ceiling, all sourced in Vermont and aligned with painstaking precision so the grain matches. Most have windows for a view of their surroundings, deepening the connection with nature and "letting the outside in," as Sweeney put it.

The design is meant to evoke cleanliness and inspire serenity.

"We want to offer people the opportunity to step out of their daily lives and feel what it's like to be in their body," said Nelson, who met Sweeney in college, where he got a degree in human anatomy and physiology. He spent several years as a professional bike racer in Europe while Sweeney was in Copenhagen, and he later worked for an electric bike startup in San Francisco.

"We come from a place of believing that people are probably a little bit too connected to their technologies and their phones and their social networks," he continued. The couple hope to offer a chance to "experience something different and reconnect with what's going on inside."

The benefits of heat bathing aren't solely psychological. Studies have shown that sauna use can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and neurocognitive disease, as well as relieve occurrences of arthritis and headaches, according to a 2018 report published by the Mayo Clinic.

Scene from Savu's Jeffersonville location - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Scene from Savu's Jeffersonville location

Many sauna enthusiasts today like to complete their body-cooking session with a cold plunge in a nearby pool, tub, pond or river. The extreme temperature shift creates a sense of euphoria, Sweeney said.

"The feeling that you get from being in a 200-degree sauna and then going in a 40-degree cold plunge — you literally feel turned inside out in the best way possible," she said. "You feel high. It's truly, like, a crazy experience."

At the Smuggs site, a deck and stall are fitted with a hanging bucket, which guests can fill with cold water and dump over their heads post-sauna. At the Lakeside location, the two saunas sit on opposite sides of a wooden deck, with a large tub for the cold plunge in the middle.

In the summer, surf club staff check in sauna guests and hand them robes and towels. In the winter, Savu repurposes a trailer that Higher Ground uses for the musicians who play the Ben & Jerry's Concerts on the Green to serve as the sauna check-in, where visitors can change into robes and leave their belongings. Savu encourages them to wear bathing suits rather than go naked, whether in the public Burlington setting or at Unbound locations on a stranger's property.

The concept of a self-sufficient sauna experience, however, gives guests the opportunity to decide for themselves.

"We want to get people excited about this Unbound idea," Sweeney said. "We really think that there's something special there and that we're doing something cool and unique.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Some Like It Hot | Savu seeks to reinvent the sauna experience in Vermont — and beyond"

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