I’ve read enough Scandinavian noir to know that where private islands in remote, top-secret locations in rural Finland are concerned, nothing good can come of it.
Throw in a few more narrative devices, such as guests signing up for a wellness program under the watchful eye of a businesswoman whose last company was valued in excess of $60 million USD, and you have the plot of a Jo Nesbø novel. The kind where the visiting journalist – reader, that would be me – never ends up filing her copy, if you catch my drift.
But as I skim across the Baltic Sea towards SuperShe Island in a boat piloted by Ida, a fresh-faced Finnish teenager, my concerns are allayed.
“That’s the island,” she says, smiling at a rocky expanse shrouded with pine trees jutting out from the clusters in the archipelago. As the boat docks, a family of swans swim past, five little cygnets gliding across the water with barely a ripple.
Ida marches me to Fire, my home for the duration of my stay and the smallest of the four available cabins, she says, but with “the best view”. I am here to experience firsthand the restorative powers of SuperShe Island, an exclusive all-female retreat in the Gulf of Finland launched in June by German entrepreneur Kristina Roth.
It will set you back about $6300 for the seven-day program, which includes transfers, a night in the capital Helsinki, farm-to-table meals and a roster of fitness, meditative and contemplative activities. The island houses a traditional Finnish sauna, a private beach, a yoga yurt, a massage and facial hut, kayaks and plenty of swinging hammocks for rest and relaxation as well. The retreat can accommodate no more than eight guests at a time, alongside six staff members and Roth herself. And there is not a single man among them.
SuperShe’s founder Kristina Roth has glowing skin the exact shade of honey only a particular strata of European women can manage to achieve. She is chatty and effervescent, clad unfussily in a green dress and a pair of thongs. Minutes after we meet she launches herself into some shrubbery, returning with a fistful of tiny, delicate blueberries that she proceeds to feed me. They’re delicious.
On SuperShe Island, in the company of women, Roth is relaxed. That’s exactly what she felt she needed after she sold her management consultancy business, valued at $US60 million, in 2015. That industry was high energy, high stress and highly masculine. Roth craved the support of like-minded women: successful and driven but also curious and passionate. “I like to surround myself with women where I feel inspired,” she said.
Thus, the SuperShe platform began as an all-female online community, supplemented with net- working events hosted by Roth. The island came later, after a chance meeting with her now- fiancé – a Finn called Benny, whose parents own an island in the archipelago and knew that one of them was for sale. “I saw it and I fell in love,” Roth recalls. “I’ve seen a couple of private islands in my life. But this is special... Here, I feel like I am the hamster that escaped the wheel.”
All-female clubs like SuperShe have been growing in popularity since co-working space The Wing opened its glossy, millennial-pink doors in New York in 2016. Roth is a member. So is Lena Dunham and media luminary Tina Brown. The private club offers everything from talks with Hillary Clinton to free blow-dries and elegant terrazzo tables upon which to build your empire. At one point, there was a 13,000-strong waiting list to join the SoHo outpost. Following investments totaling $57 million USD, The Wing has expanded to Washington DC and now has its sights set on Los Angeles, San Francisco and London.
The success of The Wing spawned other similar women’s clubs, in the UK (The AllBright) and Australia (One Roof). This year, the summer circuit in Europe featured two female-centric festivals, one in Sweden and another in Somerset (complete with the always popular vaginal steaming) called, uninspiringly, Woman Fest.
Feminism has never been cooler or more visible in popular culture. Celebrities wear T-shirts bearing the slogan “The future is female.” Wonder Woman made a billion dollars. #MeToo moved the goalposts. And there’s Emma Watson just being peak Emma Watson. The Wing sells key rings emblazoned with the phrase “Girls doing whatever the fuck they want in 2018.”
What is it about the dynamic of women-only spaces that makes them so appealing? According to Dame Carol Black, principal of women-only Newnham College at the University of Cambridge (whose alumnae include actress Emma Thompson and writer Sylvia Plath), “Students can develop their self-confidence, resilience and ability to take risks in a space where they see women in every conceivable leadership role.”
For Roth, the allure of being alone with women is in the ability to focus entirely on herself and her needs. “It’s a distraction,” she says of having men on the island. “It feels like you can really let your hair down [without them].” Not even Benny is allowed to visit. “The island is not a sexual place,” Roth says. It’s why she has turned down requests from honeymooning couples and barred an all-female bachelorette party from fouling the space with their lewd penis straws. “That’s not what the island is about,” she says firmly.
Specifically, the island is not about the traditionally masculine ways of the world. “Networking is very...” Roth gestures, punching a line in the air with her hand, rigid and uncompromising. “That’s my problem with it.”
There’s nothing hard about SuperShe Island. Everything is soft: soft power, soft speaking, soft furnishings. That was always the idea, Roth says, so as to create a space where women could feel at ease to focus on their mental health, to make friends, to dream up an idea for a new business, to have fun. To feel safe. In the #MeToo and #EverydaySexism age, where millions of women around the world unspool the details of countless micro – and horrifically macro – aggressions by men every moment of every day, it’s easy to see why secluding yourself on an all- female island might be appealing.
More than 8000 women applied for 96 available slots in the inaugural 12-week program on the island, which ends in mid-September. (The island is not equipped for the winter because: Finland, but Roth hopes to open a second SuperShe retreat in Turks and Caicos Islands in 2019.) Businesswomen and entrepreneurs aplenty have come, but also psychologists, nurses, artists, dancers and lawyers.
There has been only one hiccup. Prior to opening, Finnish authorities investigated SuperShe on the grounds it might be discriminatory against men. “There were men who complained,” Roth says furiously.
“It’s just so much bullshit... Even to have the audacity after hundreds of years..” she trails off, shaking her head.
Roth’s vision for the retreat is made manifest at dinner that evening, where we eat from plates of salmon and buckwheat on our laps. To my left is Jennifer, a health coach – and close friend of Sheryl Sandberg – from Portland. Across from me is Lucie, a fashion photographer from Prague. Next to her is Yasmin, who works in finance in Edinburgh. Miisa, a Finnish musical artist, rounds out the group. We talk about everything, from self-care and the machinations of making it in the corporate world to the benefits of yoga when you have just started your period.
“This place is very chilled out,” Yasmin says. Jennifer tells me that she has had three “amazing business ideas” since she arrived. “There’s a lot of space to reflect, and in my head the wheels are spinning,” she says. Roth describes the program as “dynamic”, and it is: weather-dependent and group- dependent with a lot of downtime. There are ways to fill the spaces between meals, yoga and workshops, such as journalling or meditating – I read two books – but sometimes island time can lag a bit.
The “island magic”, as Roth puts it, is that particular alchemy of women together – talking, sharing, disclosing. “If it would be the most unlikely women meeting and getting along, and they’d never meet anywhere else, that’s the most exciting [thing] for me,” she says.
But the price required to get to Finland, let alone the island, engenders a certain exclusivity. At roughly $900 a night SuperShe Island is a significant splurge. Roth does want to give some “freebies” to women who can’t afford to attend but whose values align with the organisation, and she hopes to offer a reduced stay – three days for half the price – to make it more accessible. But she adds that the price tag is part and parcel of running this kind of retreat, complete with yoga instructor and private chef.
“I cannot make a cheap island,” Roth says simply.
More broadly, on the subject of accessibility, Roth’s feminist ideals fall short. Though it’s open to anyone who identifies as female, transwomen included, there are no plans to make the island accessible to disabled guests with the addition of wheelchair ramps. “It’s a wild island,” Roth says.
“You need to be able to walk.” She hopes to change that with the Turks and Caicos venture.
I find myself drawn to Jennifer and Yasmin, two very different women whose paths would never have crossed with mine ordinarily. I’ve spent barely any time in the company of women my senior of whom I wasn’t either, a) a relative or, b) an employee. I talk to them and share with them, but, crucially, I listen to them. They are confident, empowered and strong. I want to be like them when I grow up.
As our time on the island draws to a close we swap numbers. There’s talk of taking a ferry to Estonia or a road trip through Scotland. On the drive back I mull over what Roth told me about SuperShe’s philosophy.
“We’re about building deep connections,” she said. “Imagine what beautiful things can come out of that blank canvas.”
My phone pings. It’s Jennifer, creating a WhatsApp group to share her booking confirmation for a flight from Helsinki to Edinburgh next week. “And Hannah?” Yasmin texts, rapid- fire, asking if I’m going to join them on this spontaneous trip. I think I will.
This article originally appeared in this month’s October issue of Marie Claire. On sale now.