I’ve never wholeheartedly shared the hatred of a sauna window. While I will always extol the virtues of an unholy dark sweatbox (Terry T, I’m looking at you), there’s at least one room with a view that holds a special place in my heart. Sure, that huge window comes at the expense of a few good degrees of heat. Sure, one’s need for a view while sauna-ing comes precisely from the lack of requisite zone-out temperatures caused by the presence of the impractical wall-sized pane of glass. But when the product of a causal compromise looks like this, well, anything can be rationalised.
Yes, that’s a silly commercial shot. Real sauna-cam is a tricky art to master, and one I haven’t actually gotten around to testing anyway. We (I) want to bring less, not more gear into the sauna. But I testify that this photo isn’t all too different to what the eye beholds inside Bondi Icebergs’ sauna room. Hailing from the bitter and unbeautiful southern climes of Melbourne town as I do, there’s a tendency for everything in Sydney to take on a postcard-from-paradise look. Don’t second guess, just enjoy the pretty.
Icebergs is a seabath facility perched iconically on the south side of Bondi Beach. As far as dealing with Bondi goes, it’s probably your smartest bet for avoiding tourists (you hypocritical tourist, you). At only $5.50 for entry you’d have rocks in your head not to swing by. The baths, as you can see, are filled with the same good ocean water as the rest of the beach. There’s a larger pool, perhaps just shy of 20 metres, for lap swimming, and another smaller pool for wading, frolicking and floating. Because this is Bondi, the cult of the body beautiful for which Sydney is so famous takes on parodic dimensions here. Icebergs, like the rest of the beach, will have babes in all varieties in varied states of repose. Leg spreading, phone yapping. This is ok, because Icebergs is also home to the serious group of swimmers by the same name. These folk have earned membership and the tacit respect of non-members by swimming at the baths at least three Sundays of every month between May and September. That’s Australian winter, folks. It’s still fucking cold. Icebergs (the place) maintains a good little balance between lightweight beach babes and intense sea dogs that love a regular freeze and thaw. Surprisingly the baths themselves are rarely what anyone would call busy – even in peak summer season. The only place that’s never quiet is the sauna.
Yep, the sauna really steps up. Despite all the charms of Icebergs, I’d probably never really cross the Point Piper/Bondi threshold if the rocks weren’t cooking. To reiterate – entry to this place is $5.50. That’s FULL entry. Fuck, the bitch of NARC stings me for $7.10 with concession. And all I get to see through Northcote’s window is a balding Greek grandfather chatting up a middle aged Vietnamese woman in the spa. It’s not even as good as it sounds.
The sauna at Icebergs is powered by two large conventional electric units, one at either side of the door. On my most recent visit a major flaw in the design of the room was pointed out to me during sauna chat – incidentally, is there any better subject for sauna chat than saunas? For some reason the ceiling is a foot higher above the front part of the sauna before it drops down again at a right angle for the rest of the room. This means that a good deal of the heat generated by the units rises and becomes trapped at the point before the ceiling drops to its regular height, only to escape out of the door whenever it’s opened. Which is often. As a consequence the sauna is rarely as hot as it should be for its size, considering it’s cooking on two burners.
This is mitigated by the strong watering culture I suspect is fostered by the Icebergs members. There’s a refreshing and absolute lack of signs forbidding the pouring of water on the rocks. I have never visited without some wise-guy giving them a full dousing, often with a dash of Eucalyptus oil. Once I accidentally dripped my pink lemonade bottle on the rocks, leaving the room in a stinking cloud of cotton candy – and no one minded. With the right person attending to these duties, the temperature can rise to a doable level. Although I’m sad to say I’m yet to experience a good ‘I’m getting the fuck outta here’ moment, I have zoned and dreamed, usually with an eye to the horizon hoping for a whale sighting (it happens, only not to me), or otherwise, watching the younger surfers wring all the ride they can out of the waves that wash the shore.
As an incurable non-lap swimmer my appreciation of the sea bath aspect of Icebergs only comes from using the pool as a between-sauna-rounds plunge. In this respect the pool is more than adequate – it’s deep, clean and super cold. Knowing the water has come directly from the adjacent ocean somehow gives the act of plunge-pooling an extra refreshing dimension. I have no time for diving into chlorinated water between saunas so I’m particularly grateful for opportunities to do true hot-cold cycling as the sauna gods intended.
I’ve always enjoyed the chat at Icebergs. Experience behind the bar has shown me there’s nothing bitchier than a middle-aged businessman and certain Icebergs members have proven no mean exception. Last time someone was getting their speedos in a knot about never getting invited to an ongoing brunch. There’s also some high quality bullshit going on – ideas for phone apps, general theories of language acquisition, work-out tips, Indonesia in the 1970s, bifocal versus multifocal lenses, pretty girls. That’s the talk you want to hear, and there’s no shortage of it. Given its location within a premiere tourist destination – there’s a weird restaurant upstairs and god knows what goes on up there – it’s reassuring to know that Icebergs retains its culture of regulars. One can’t help feeling that these guys know they know what they’re doing. Let’s see what the board says:
|Quality of Chit chat/10||9|
|Ability and efficacy of water on rocks /10
(or use sensor to increase steam/heat)
|Quality of fresh air access /10||10|
|Cost to value /5||5|
|Little extras /10||8|
|Overall feeling /10||9|
|OVERALL PROXIMITY TO BOILING POINT/100||90|
Holy moly, 90. That might sound high for a place that has never pushed it, heat wise. Still, while it hasn’t pushed it, the room does get hot enough to sweat and zone. I imagine without the sauna as the warm ‘carrot’ dangling in front of swimmers doing laps in the freezing water of the Pacific, Icebergs would have very few members. It’s the unsung hero of the club, and fast becoming my personal favourite haunt in our fairer neighbouring city.
Bondi Icebergs: ‘The Home of Winter Swimming Since 1929’
1 Notts Ave, Bondi Beach NSW 2026