Bright rays of sunshine stream through the trees, highlighting the path before me. I’m on the hunt—for blueberries that is. My friends and I have spent the morning in a forest in southeastern Finland. My basket is empty, but my Finnish friends point out several places where blueberries hide.
Soon enough, the basket fills with the tiny berries, then the number dwindles as I eat them one by one.
Here in Finland, foraging is a beloved pastime. In grade school, Finnish children learn what can and can’t be eaten from the forest. The Finns believe that everyone has the right to enjoy outdoor pursuits. Their “everyman’s law” gives public access to the country’s vast forests, lakes, and rivers with few restrictions. That means that we can pick berries in a forest on an island in the middle of Lake Saimaa.
Lake Saimaa is Finland’s largest lake and the fourth-largest natural freshwater lake in Europe. It’s hard to grasp just how big this lake is, but there are more than 14,000 islands in Lake Saimaa.
The lake region is a virtual summer playground. Many small towns and communities line the shores, and the area is dotted with summer cottages. Lakeland, as this region of Finland is aptly called, calls to the very heart of Finnish identity. Being in nature holds a revered spot in Finnish tradition.
“To us, being in the forest is healing,” one of my Finnish friends tells me.
Here in the stillness of the woods, I have to agree.
Finland’s Lakeland Region
Lake Saimaa is a top vacation spot for Finns, but it’s drawing more international visitors like me. Over the next week, my friends and I spend our time leisurely exploring several towns and villages along the lake shores.
Our first stop is the town of Mikkeli, located between lakes Puula, Kyyvesi, and Saimaa. Many Finns dream of owning a summer cottage in this region, and some 10,500 of them do. During the summer, the sun sets for only a few hours, resulting in long days of sunlight for play and relaxation. In the winter, the water turns to ice, providing ample space for skating, hockey, and even cross-country skiing.
Mikkeli is a popular destination for families, and Kenkavero is one of the region’s most popular attractions. This restored vicarage has impressive gardens and is home to Santa’s Summer Hideout. Children seem to like seeing Santa and his elves in their natural habitat, and these elves are especially friendly.
Later, we stop for lunch at Tertti Manor, a historic family home. Like much of the food we eat during our trip, the ingredients are fresh and locally sourced. Those who think Finnish food is bland have not visited the country recently.
Fresh berries, mushrooms, fish, and homemade baked goods are a staple of Finnish cuisine. At Tertti Manor, we enjoy a huge buffet filled with fresh vegetables from the manor garden, homemade breads served with honey from the grounds, as well as duck, pheasant, and partridge from manor hunts.
Our next stop is the Ollinmaki Winery in Mikkeli, which produces wines, liqueurs, and spirits from fresh local berries. We sample several berry liqueurs, but my favorite is one made from lingonberry, a northern berry that is popular in Scandinavian cuisine. I purchase two bottles of the liqueur to take home.
Opera in a 15th-Century Castle
In the small lakeside city of Savonlinna, I experience something I never imagined—opera in a 15th-century castle. Located on Lake Saimaa, Savonlinna is known for its focus on the arts. Each summer, it hosts the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Olavinlinna Castle. The festival attracts more than 60,000 people a year. The stage setting inside the castle is surreal and I almost feel like part of the set.
Where to Stay on Lake Saimaa
We had many choices of accommodations in the region, including rented summer cottages, luxury resorts, and small inns. We choose to stay at the Anttolanhovi Art & Design Villas, right on the shores of the lake. The villas are perfect for a family or group, and even have a full kitchen and living room. The décor is luxury Finnish design with light woods and lots of glass. The resort’s waterside location is the quintessential Finnish lakeside experience.
My favorite experience at the villas is eating breakfast outside on the patio each morning. There’s just something special about overlooking a lake, coffee in hand, early in the morning.
One evening at the villas, we have a Finnish barbecue. The main dish is muikku, a tiny lake fish that is a popular dish in Finland. After adding fresh herbs and spices to the tiny fish, we cook them over an open fire.
The fish are served with fresh berry drinks, local vegetables, hearty salads, and homemade breads. I’m not sure if it’s the fresh air, the gorgeous lakeside location, or the chef’s skills, but I love everything on the menu.
When in Finland, you go to the sauna. To the Finns, saunas are a huge part of health and wellness. It’s a must to be enjoyed at regular intervals. Without it, many Finns feel they are incomplete.
“Sauna makes me feel clean,” explains one local. “And it’s where I relax and unwind,” says another.
So after dinner, we head to the lakeside smoke sauna.
There are many different types of saunas in Finland, including wood stove sauna, steam sauna, ice sauna, and tonight’s feature sauna—smoke sauna. Smoke saunas don’t have a chimney. Wood is burned in a large stove, allowing smoke and heat to fill the room.
When the sauna is hot enough, the fire is allowed to die and smoke is ventilated out. The residual heat warms the sauna for the duration of a visit. And although the walls are often black from smoke, the smell is enticing and the heat warm and comforting.
While the Finns have had years of practice to build up their heat tolerance, my American friends and I have not. The heat in the smoke sauna hits us like a wave when we enter, but we happily follow the example of our Finnish friends and take a seat on the wooden benches.
Relaxed smiles fill their faces and they breathe in deeply. They look so serene.
“I need fresh air!” one of the Americans says, rushing out the door after only a few minutes’ time.
Finnish sauna, it seems, takes some practice.
That’s when we learn the next step of a Finnish lakeside sauna experience—you jump into the lake and cool off.
The cool water is startling as we leap from the pier, but it’s refreshing. Though it’s almost 11 p.m., the sky is still light. I spend the next hour going from sauna to lake, and soon, I begin to understand.
It’s not just the sauna heat and cool water that is appealing, it’s being part of nature, surrounded by earth’s beauty and the laughter of friends.
While my friends splash in the lake, I turn and float on my back. It’s a wonderful night to be in Finland.
Janna Graber has covered travel in more than 45 countries. She is the editor of three travel anthologies, including “A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel,” and is the managing editor of Go World Travel Magazine.