by Katja Gaskell
I’ve been having a love affair with Finland since we visited Finnish Lapland two years ago. Having been seduced by endless snowscapes and sleigh rides, I was keen to return and see what the country was like during the summer. Ranked as the world’s happiest place last year, I was hoping that Finland would deliver the kind of family holiday that we were looking for, plenty of time in the Great Outdoors and a bucketful of adventure.
Our Finnish road trip started in the seaside capital of Helsinki at the island fortress of Suomenlinna. Meaning ‘the Fortress of Finland’, this complex was built in 1749 on a series of small islands to defend against possible Russian invasion. Much of the original structure remains today and we had fun exploring tunnels, experiencing life on a submarine and paddling in small coves.
Once back in the city centre, we headed to Allas Sea Pools, an outdoor complex with a 25m lap pool, a shallow children’s pool and a sea water pool, filled with water from the Baltic sea. I opted for pool number three and gingerly made my way into the chilly water only to be told by a local swimmer that the temperature was positively balmy compared to the middle of winter. I still didn’t last very long!
From Helsinki we headed north on empty roads flanked by spruce and pine trees. During the summer months, Finland consists of two colours: green and blue. Wherever you travel, you are greeted with vast swathes of forests speckled with crystal-clear lakes. More than 70% of Finland is forest and there are so many bodies of water that the country is often called “the land of a thousand lakes”. Even this moniker is misleading – there are actually a total of 188,000 lakes in Finland stretching from Helsinki up to Lake Inari in the far north.
Our destination was Lake Saimaa, the biggest lake in the country and home to over 14,000 islands. There are so many islands, in fact, that Lake Saimaa doesn’t look like one body of water, rather a series of lagoons and waterways. During the summer months, visitors flock to the lake’s shores and spend weeks in picturesque wooden cabins, swimming and sailing in the waters.
Home for the next few nights was the beautiful Anttolanhovi Art & Design Villas where we tried out all manner of Finnish pastimes from rowing boats and paddle boards to the traditional sauna / swim combo. But what we quickly discovered is that the Finnish Lakeland region also has a lot to offer away from the water. We spent one morning picking berries at the family-run Raijan Aitta farm and another day on a guided walk with Harri up to Neitvuori Hill, the highest peak in the area. We even visited Santa’s summer hideaway. Unfortunately, the big man had already returned to Lapland but my kids contented themselves with trying out his ‘naughty or nice’ machine – and were insistent that they had all made the ‘good’ list. From Lake Saimaa we headed further north, stopping at the 15th century Olavinlinna Castle along the way, famous for its annual opera festival. The next couple of days were spent at the Järvisydän Hotel & Spa Resort on the edge of the Linnansaari National Park. Our main reason for coming here was to try and spot the very cute – and, as it turned out, very elusive – Saimaa Ringed Seal. What our trip lacked in wildlife, however, was quickly made up for by our enthusiastic captain, Jarri, who told us many a wonderful tale about growing up in the region.
After the lakes we headed south again to Turku, the former capital of Finland. Founded in the 13th century, this pretty city is filled with museums, shops and lively cafés. We visited the 700-year-old Turku Castle and spent the afternoon sampling local foods at the Turku Market Hall. Another day we hired electric boats and cruised along the River Aura that runs through the heart of the city.
Turku is also the gateway to Moominworld, home to Finland’s most famous residents. Located on a magical island in nearby Naantali, Moominworld celebrates author Tove Jansson’s loveable characters. We discovered Snork’s new invention, found a colourful dragon in the sea and met Thingumy and Bob. The highlight of the visit, however, was definitely the Moomin hug with Moomintroll.
All too quickly our Finland adventure came to an end. I now love Finland even more than I did before. It’s hard not to really: long sunny days, plenty of fresh air and quality family time spent in beautiful nature. Finland, we will definitely be back.
Katja's trip was arranged by Visit Finland, Visit Turku and Visit Saimaa.