This Nordic Lake Region Is Like Acadia Times 50
It’s got hundreds and thousands of islands.
Welcome to the land of the midnight sun, home of Santa Clause, and birthplace of the sauna. It’s a place where the language is so complex and lyrical that it inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to create Elvish. Here you’ll find cured white fish with tangy pops of mustard seeds and berries so potently sweet after spending nearly 24 hours growing in sunlight. And most importantly, Finland is a country of endless forests and lakes, like land pockmarked with numerous blue mirrors reflecting even more trees and sky.
Nowhere is this more true than in the Saimaa lake region. If you were to take a cookie, smash it with a hammer, and sprinkle the bits over milk, you’d have some idea of what the terrain in this area looks like—if the cookie crumbles had pine trees growing from them and the milk were a shiny, deep blue. Zoom in to the country on a Google map, and you’ll see what we mean. Seemingly impossible roads skirt the water's edge to connect the broken bits of land. With about 15,000 islands, Lake Saimaa has more shoreline than Spain. And this is no crowded lake town. About 75% of the country is woods, and a 30-minute drive from anywhere in Helsinki will get you into some serious forest bathing.
But you’ll want to keep driving. Really, you could spend days driving through an uninterrupted "scenic viewpoint," cresting one hill just to see miles of more slopes in front of you, seeing one lake disappear around a bend just to see another lagoon round the corner in front of you. There might be an occasional red cottage on a little island with its own bridge, but otherwise, nature is largely undisturbed. But after four hours from Helsinki, you’ll reach Linnansaari National Park. And now it’s time to continue the journey via boat.
If you’ve ever been impressed by the couple islands in Acadia National Park in Maine, overcrowded with pines shooting up seemingly from the water itself, know that Linnansaari is like that times 50. A park of over 300 forested islands, the only way to get around is by water craft (unless you come during winter and walk directly on the thick ice of the frozen lake to get to the islands, that is). During warmer months, many rent kayaks, canoes, or motor boats. You could also take ferries, especially sightseeing ones, to view the 130 protected ring seals playing in the water. You could spend the night at a private campsite and feel like the ruler of your own island, or rest in luxurious, sauna-clad cabins. Here’s how and what to do in Linnansaari to find your personal island of tranquility.
Best time of year to visit
"They say Finland’s one of the happiest countries on Earth, but that survey must have been done in summer time," jokes Riku Nurminen, founder of Heltours bike tours of Helsinki.
There is something to be said for all that daylight, which makes for dazzlingly long days full of energy and optimism. Plus a land with so much water turns exceptionally green in the spring and summer. Locals in Helsinki often spend their summers in the Saimaa lake region, staying in a quiet cabin with a private sauna. And yes, sitting in a hot sauna is something to do even in warmer months, since this Nordic country doesn’t often get unbearably sweltering (unlike most of the US these days), and because the tradition involves jumping in a cold lake, and repeating the invigorating hot-to-cold cycle a couple times. Summer is the perfect time for playing on the water and spending long days outdoors. Many locals frequent the region in July, but all of June through August is a peak time to go.
That being said, autumn really should not be overlooked. Such a northern country sees fantastical orange and red hues come fall, usually in September and a bit into the beginning of October. Autumn is also the mushroom-foraging season, which is an activity most locals participate in. A Finnish law called Every Man’s Right decrees most land as public, so anyone can camp or forage for berries and mushrooms pretty much anywhere. It’s a beautiful thing to see less possessive ownership of land, since it’s thought to belong to everyone.
And then, of course, winter is a wondrous realm unto itself. If you like ice skating, snowshoeing, cross country skiing (a.k.a. Nordic skiing), there’s no better place to glide with a warmly pumping heart past snow-covered landscapes than Linnansaari National Park. Days might be shorter, but that just means more time for seeing green and purple northern lights rippling across the sky. Plus with all the arctic cocooning, fires, and saunas, the coziness factor is high. And if you were wondering, Finns do still practice the hot-to-cold sauna cycle in the winter, which means either jumping in a partially frozen lake or rolling around in the snow for a bit. We know you’re just dying to give it a go.
It’s worth noting December is another high-season time of the year. Not only is the winter sparkly and fresh, but the holiday season is a delight. This is the home of Santa Clause, after all. Though the locals swear even Santa has a summer cottage in Saimaa.
Get a boat, see a seal, and sleep under the stars
Linnansaari National Park is basically a collection of over 300 islands on Lake Saimaa, which is the biggest lake in Finland. Lake Saimaa is so large and winding that you might not realize the body of water you’re looking at is the same lake you saw a couple hours and 100 miles ago. The national park was made official in 1956 and helps protect one of the rarest and endangered seal species in the world: the ringed seal. Spotting one, though somewhat common here, is a claim-to-fame very few people can make.
These seals have bigger eyes than most others, making them cartoonishly cute. The rings on their fur, which is quite fluffy on young pups when they crawl out of the water for a bit, form a distinct pattern for each one. They’re thought to be as intelligent as dogs. In spring, the seals are often seen on top of rocks, drying out, and in summer, you can spot their heads (about the size of a bowling ball) swimming just above the water. In winter, volunteers help protect their nests during their breeding season, which are getting harder to maintain with a warming planet. Once ice forms on the surface of the lake, the seals swim underwater and dig a hole up into the ice from below with their claws. A thick layer of snow sits on top of the ice, so they then burrow under the snow and above the ice, creating a warmly insulated den for their pups. The volunteers add more snow on top (since there’s less of it these days) to keep them warm and protect them from foxes, wolverines, and eagles. Camping is strictly prohibited at this time of year for further protection—for those of you who were super eager to sleep outside in the snow.
The national park is also home to osprey and their huge nests up in the trees. You can also spot elk, deer, lynxes, and beavers. But other than wildlife, probably the best activity in Linnansaari is boating and being on the water in summer or northern lights and skiing in winter.
If you’re interested in a guided excursion, numerous vendors take visitors on boat tours, hiking tours, or foraging. Or head out on your own. You can rent canoes, SUP boards, and winter sports gear from Nature Hotel & Spa Resort Järvisydän or different boats and camping gear from SaimaaHoliday Oravi.
After taking a boat to the main and biggest island in the park, Linnansaari, you could hike three different paths, ranging from 20 minutes each way to an hour round trip to a couple hours. One particularly scenic hike is the lookout on Linnavuori Rock, which takes about 3-4 hours and involves climbing some stairs. On the same island, you’ll also find some old buildings maintained from the early 1900s to show how inhabitants used to live, completely self-sufficiently, on the islands.
If you want to try a day or two of your own self-sufficiency and being one with nature, 21 primitive campsites are scattered across different islands in the park. You’ll only find one camp site per island, and with a body of water this big, you definitely won’t be seeing any neighbors. You’ll have to rent a boat to reach them, and the closest campsite is about two and a half miles or an hour kayaking from the dock and rentals at Nature Hotel & Spa Resort Järvisydän. The next closest site is about seven miles from the launch, so likely around three hours in a kayak. Or you could opt to have a ferry take you out to an island, such as Linnansaari, and drop off your boat there, so you begin further out. And of course some opt to rent a motor boat. Since some smaller islands are easier to reach via kayak or canoe due to rocks, many take kayaks on the motor boat and paddle from wherever they anchor.
Stay at a cabin in the woods
If you’d rather not work for a hard-earned night’s rest, cabin options abound in Finland and make for relaxing escapes. Since practically all of Saimaa itself almost looks like a national park, finding lodging nearly anywhere in the region is a treat. Some of the best options are wooden cottages or inns, always lakeside, that are within easy driving distance to Linnansaari.
For those of us who aren’t into cookie-cutter cabins lined up next to each other or seeing your neighbors from the windows, Okkola Holiday Cottages are the ideal escape into the woods. The 17 cabins are spread across a wonky-shaped island (accessible by a car ferry) and each uniquely built building feels tucked away; you’ll find one crowning the top of a cliff, another hidden down a leafy path, and some on their own outcropping next to the water with no one else in sight. And of course, each has its own sauna. You’ll feel complete privacy and nature immersion here. Like islands surrounded by water, many Finns acknowledge that they like to give each other space (locals even joke that social distancing is easy here, since they were already used to standing 10 feet apart at bus stops); people are friendly, helpful, and then leave you to your thoughts, and that’s the nature of it here at Okkola. You can rent canoes to get out on the water or explore the 38-mile biking path in the area, which has many bike rentals along the route.
If you want to be as close to Linnansaari National Park as you can get without camping on the islands, Nature Hotel & Spa Resort Järvisydän sits on the shore of the watery national park. In fact, many seal-watching tours launch from the dock of the hotel. It’s also way more glamorous than camping could ever be. In addition to luxuriously rustic rooms in the main building, Järvisydän also offers a type of wooden yurt where some walls and a portion of the ceiling are glass. Pull the curtains on the ceiling open to watch the northern lights ripple across the sky, and feel free to light a fire in each yurt’s wood-burning stove.
The resort dates back to 1658 and has an onsite restaurant with enormous fireplaces befitting the great hall of a castle. You’ll notice a lot of wood and stone covered in moss and fur throws. Yet interiors and renovations are extremely modern, as evidenced by a sleek geothermal-powered spa. Wander into six different saunas (from wood and stone to infrared), a salt room, and five pools, which transition from indoors to the outdoor lake itself. You’ll also find a “storm room” that flashes blue lights and massages you with water spouts shooting from overhead and from the walls. And don’t miss activities like aerial yoga, forest yoga, champagne cruises, seal watching, or hiking the numerous forest trails stemming from the property.
On the other side of Linnansaari National Park sits B&B Taipaleenniemi, which is a homey and beautifully designed B&B. Once a milk farm from 1906, it feels like a comfy home from another time, as if you were staying with friends who were wealthy, had impeccable taste, and were ridiculously generous. On the property, you can participate in yoga, go kayaking or canoeing, hike in the parks, and of course book a sauna session. If you ask nicely, you might also be able to play their set of Molkky, which is a Finnish lawn game that’s easy, addictive, and will either leave you in a fit of giggles or competitively determined to start your own league in the US.
Explore towns, castles, and outdoor feasts
One of the towns any traveler must visit in the area is Savonlinna. This city and its museums, restaurants, shops, and cafes are spread across multiple islands. Savolinna is most recognized by Olavinlinna Castle, dominating a parcel of land connected by a small bridge. The castle is from 1475 and most famously hosts an opera festival every summer. You can go on guided tours, explore on your own, or visit the small museum inside.
About 25 minutes drive from Savonlinna is a Wine in the Woods experience at Hotel Punkaharju, which combines forest bathing and a wine tasting with small food pairings. Guests first walk through the forest and along cliff edges overlooking the lake in order to open up their senses and get in touch with their thoughts. The guide even invites participants to take off their shoes and walk on plush mosses and squishy beds of soft pine needles. Guests are then led to a wooden table in the forest set for a fine meal and greeted by a welcome glass of sparkling wine. Over the next 90 minutes in the tranquil outdoor setting, a sommelier leads diners through five pairings, often accompanied by bites of seaweed caviar or other fresh ingredients of the season.
If you’d rather do more of the drinking and less of the designated driving, consider staying the night. Founded in 1845, the old home turned lodging is the oldest operating hotel in Finland. There may or may not be a spirit sighting or two around the 20 rooms and 15 forest cabins. You can also attend one of the hotel’s numerous cultural events like jazz or painting nights, have dinner in the old fire tower, or venture on a mushroom cruise or mushroom excursion. If you run into the lively owner, ask her about mushrooms and you won’t regret it.
To get a literal taste of the country, try your hand at a Karelian pie workshop, which is a common dish in Finland. Often found at breakfast spreads, this savory pie is made of rye dough and rice pudding, then brushed with a dangerously-good butter and egg concoction. Though simple to make, it’s now considered a specialty item that must be sought out. The award-winning 2-3 hour workshop is offered at the chef’s picturesque and cozy home on (surprise) an island—and it’s quite possibly one of the warmest kitchen environments you could dream of. It’s like going over the river and through the woods to the house of the Finnish grandmother you never knew you needed. As the owner says, “This isn’t just for tourists, this is how we live—tourists can take part in real life.” They also offer berry pies, where, if you choose, you can go berry picking in the forest beforehand.
Dine on reindeer and so much fish
Speaking of food experiences, there’s also an abundance of dining options at restaurants. You’ll quickly learn that fish is omnipresent in Finland. In addition to salmon sandwiches on rye bread and freshwater lake fish prepared in numerous ways, you’ll also find lingonberry sauces, a soft and squishy bread called sikke, and roasted reindeer. Out here, many restaurants also have rooms to rent, like old-timey taverns for travelers.
If you want to eat right next to the national park, treat yourself to a decadent meal at Restaurant Piikatyttö at Järvisydän. The main dishes shine, such as the arctic char in a frothy crab sauce or the roasted duck in blackcurrant, but don’t overlook the stellar sides like beetroot oat risotto and caramelized parsnips. You’ll get an extensive wine list, though if you want a special regional treat, ask for the berry wine, which is made not from grapes, but the ever-present Finnish berry.
Other excellent meals with even better views are often about an hour drive around the islands of Lake Saimaa. In addition to rainbow trout, lamb, and an overnight barley porridge, Koskivahti restaurant at Sahanlahti Resort also offers the option of eating outside on a sun-drenched deck overlooking Lake Saimaa.
Or head to Tertti Manor, where you can be charmed by the homey setting. Different tables are set up in various rooms throughout the manor, bedecked with photos and trinkets that create a cozy atmosphere, and you can take a stroll through their lovely garden. You can either go for the buffet overflowing with options like smoked fish in mustard sauce or carrot pesto, juniper jelly, and citrus lentil salad, or a four-course dinner.
Ravintola at Hotel Punkaharju is one of the 50 best restaurants in Finland, and one of only a few outside of Helsinki to make the list. You can either get a three- or five-course menu. The dishes constantly change with the season, but examples have included lamb carpaccio, mushroom tartar, sugar-salted salmon, or a vegan algae-caviar.
At the end of the day, make sure to wash it all down with a Long Drink, which is a gin beverage that tastes similar to a sparkling lemonade, though some are made with grapefruit. They come in cans, so locals often take them into the sauna, naturally, for a refreshing way to relax.