Finland is – according to a recent UN report – the happiest country on Earth. Whether that’s anything to do with having two million saunas to serve 5.5 million people (including, in Helsinki, one in a Burger King), as well as a claim to being the birthplace of Santa Claus, who knows?
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In the hottest months, the population of the country’s southern lake land swells with Finns visiting summer cottages. But the area, whose crowning glory is the 1,700-square-mile Lake Saimaa, the fourth-largest in Europe, is compelling year-round.
Nature here is astounding, and often untouched. At Anttolanhovi wellness village, on the outskirts of the city of Mikkeli, modern hillside villas (very Grand Designs) sit between the lake shore and the forest, yards from each.
Sauna really is a national obsession, and here you can get the authentic experience – relaxing in a typical smoke sauna and then sprinting off to jump in the lake, regardless of just how invigorating its temperature might be.
Based nearby is Tiina (guidetiina.fi), a Saimaa guide and forest engineer who’ll take you hiking to the forest’s most serene spots, and nudge your foraging in the right direction (not all mushrooms are created equal).
The Saimaa area is vast and each pocket has something to offer, so it’s worth exploring as much as you can. On Niinisaari – one of the lake’s 13,000-plus islands, about an hour’s drive and a short ferry ride from Anttolanhovi – are the Okkola holiday cottages. Seventeen in all, they’re dotted about for maximum seclusion, and each has at least one sauna, along with a pier and a rowing boat. The Niinipuu restaurant will deliver a rye-blueberry pie, a local delicacy, to your door.
A couple of hours from Niinisaari, inside Linnansaari National Park, is the Hotel & Spa Resort Järvisydän. On one of its lake safaris, you’ve got a chance of seeing the endangered Saimaa ringed seal. And if the seals elude you, there are still the charming inhabitants of Porokylä Reindeer Village, a short walk up the road. The resort’s Lake Spa offers a luxury version of sauna, and for those keen to get out on the lake itself, its tranquillity makes it the perfect place to try stand-up paddle boarding.
From here, set off again to Hotelli Punkaharju, about an hour’s drive away. In its fine-dining restaurant, local ingredients are served in dishes like sugar- and salt-cured lavaret with peas, burnt potato and horseradish ‘snow’. For anyone wishing to work up an appetite, there are postcard-worthy cycling routes, and yoga – practised in a sauna, obviously.
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