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Located at the top of Europe and home to Santa and the sauna, Finland is a land of contrasts; light warm summers, cold dark winters, the midnight sun, the northern lights, green forests and blue lakes.

Discovering Finland

Located at the top of Europe and home to Santa and the sauna, Finland is a land of contrasts; light warm summers, cold dark winters, the midnight sun, the northern lights, green forests and blue lakes. With each season, everything changes in ways that happen nowhere else – colour, light, temperature, sounds and smells. Catherine Beattie visited in June when the summer nights go on forever …… 

The rain has stopped and the light summer night casts a rosy pink glow as we head through the woods to the lakeside cabin. We are in Finland – land of the midnight sun – and about to experience our first authentic Finnish sauna. It has been a long day – a flight from London to Helsinki followed by a three-hour drive to Anttolan on the shores of Lake Saimaa. We are staying in the Anttolan Hovi Manor House Hotel – the smaller of Anttolanhovi’s two hotels and the former home of a Russian princess. With its extensive old gardens, carefully restored interiors, décor and speciality Russian cuisine, we could be back in the 19th century! While our rooms are pristine, they are surprisingly small with single beds and simple modern furnishings. In 2008, visitor accommodation at Anttolanhovi was increased with 19 state-of-the art two and three bedroomed villas set beside the lake and on the hillside plus a large new luxury smoked sauna. 

After a Russian themed dinner – mushroom dumplings with sour cream and adjika sauce, bortsch soup, chicken kiev, Russian brewed tea and pastries – our congenial hosts insist we join them in the sauna (pronounced sow-na in Finland) beside the lake. 

As inhibited Brits, stripping off and going ‘au natural’ in the sauna’s fierce dry heat is the last thing we feel like doing, but it would be rude to disappoint our hosts. To our surprise (and relief), because we are a mixed group we are asked to bring our swimsuits. 

The sauna in the lakeside cabin is certainly hot, but tolerable in short bursts when punctuated with a cooling shower. Soon we are dripping with sweat and slapping ourselves with the traditional leafy birch twigs (vasta) dipped in warmed honey. After about an hour, we end the session in true Finnish style by jumping into the lake! 

Feeling unbelievably clean and invigorated, we stop off at the Kota restaurant for some freshly brewed coffee and pancakes cooked over an open fire, before falling into our beds in the still light early hours of the morning. Welcome to summer in Finland! 

Finland is one of Europe’s lesser known destinations – a fascinating little country with a high standard of living and a terrain that includes thousands of lakes, islands and forests. Sandwiched between larger neighbours Sweden and Russia, Finland stretches from the Baltic sea to north of the Arctic Circle. With a population of around 5 million people and nearly 2 million saunas, it is impossible to ignore the Finns’ passion for their most famous invention and their enthusiasm for visitors to share it. Many saunas are situated beside Finland’s lakes so that sessions can finish with a refreshing cold plunge. During the long, cold winter, some brave folk jump through holes into icy lakes and roll in the snow before returning to the heat of the sauna. 

After breakfast, we visit Hovineito, the spa centre next to the larger Anttolanhovi Hotel, where I have a simple massage followed by a peat bath. Facilities are clean and warm but not luxurious. The reasonably priced spa menu includes spa baths, massages and beauty services but must be booked in advance due to the restricted opening times (from noon or 1pm until 5 or 5.30pm Tuesdays to Friday and from 11am to 11.30am on Saturdays). 

The attractive Anttolan area offers a wide range of winter and summer sporting and leisure amenities including boat cruises, jogging and ski trails, canoes, snowshoes, fishing, cross-country skiing, tennis, mini golf and even beach volley on the shore of Lake Saimaa. For culture buffs, every summer Anttolan hosts the HoviArt exhibition, where leading Finnish and international artists display their work in the old yard buildings of the manor house. The old cowshed, stables, pigsty, smithy forge, hayloft and dairy create stunning and unusual backdrops for the contemporary art. 

We leave Annatolanhovi and drive to Leppavirta in the Finnish Lake district. It is a scenic journey as the road winds across bridges linking small islands and beside countless lakes fringed with graceful birch trees and banks of stunning blue lupins. 

The rather austere exterior of the Spa Hotel Vesileppis is soon forgotten when we look over its outstanding health and leisure facilities that include the world’s first underground skiing arena, built 100 feet under the hotel with natural snow all year round. There is also a tropical (90ºF) spa complex with six pools, separate saunas, gym, ice hockey stadium, sports store and health centre offering spa and beauty treatments and physiotherapy. 

No sooner have we checked in, than we are supplied with Nordic Walking poles so we can try this popular fitness fad on one of the nature trails. By the time we’ve mastered the wide arm swing an a kind of rhythm, heavy rain is falling and we abandon the walk and head instead to the tropical spa area for a swim and a sauna. This time the guys have their own sauna, so after daubing myself all over in therapeutic black mud, I experience my first naked sauna and very pleasant it is too! 

Even in the 21st century, the sauna remains an integral part of the Finnish identity and a national institution – its beneficial effects rooted in traditional Finnish-Karelian folk medicine. Years ago, the sauna was a place to treat illnesses and to cleanse mind and body during all the stages of human life, from birth to washing the dead. Women often gave birth to their children in the sauna, as in rural communities it was often the warmest and most hygienic place. The tradition of a week long confinement in the sauna, followed by the newborn being ceremoniously carried into the house, lived on until the early part of the 20th century. Interestingly, the concept of sweating for health, cleanliness and pleasure plays a part in many other ancient cleansing rituals around the world including the Turkish hammam, the Russian bania, the Mexican temescal and the sweat lodges of North America. 

Sauna bathing does not prevent or cure long-term illnesses, but by raising the body temperature, stimulates the immune system to increase production of antibodies and natural interferon (a cancer-fighting protein). A good healthy sweat is also an excellent detoxificant, warding off colds and flu, relieving respiratory and sinus problems and easing joint pain and muscle stiffness. The sauna also speeds up the heartbeat, stimulates circulation and metabolism and may (temporarily) lower blood pressure. Despite its benefits, sauna bathing is not suitable for everyone and should be avoided by pregnant women and those with low blood pressure, who may feel faint in the heat. 

On our busy last day (and night) in Finland, we travel to Kuopio (population 90,000), eastern Finland’s largest city and a renowned centre of culture and education. The excellent Old Kuopio Museum is a must for any visitor, and is formed from a block of 11 old wooden houses with authentic interiors of family homes and workshops from the 18th to 20th century, along with a pharmacy museum. 

After our visit, we browse the shops around the lively market place, which is thronged with people of all ages dancing in colourful national costumes. We enjoy a further taste of dancing and culture at the Kuopio dance festival at the City Theatre, a popular annual dance extravaganza that celebrates the many forms of international dance. The enthralling performance we see encompasses hip-hop, classical ballet, flamenco and modern Finnish dance. 

After the performance, we go for a drink at the top of Kuopio’s famous Puijo Tower, which soars 725 feet above the Lake Kallavesi and has a bar, restaurant and open area with fantastic panoramic views of the area’s lakes and islands. 

Finland’s long light summer nights allow for so many extra nocturnal activities; after the Puijo Tower we take a dinner cruise on Lake Kallavesi for a couple of hours and then join the crowds enjoying late night drinks on the quayside. It is still light when we return in the early hours to the Holiday Centre at Rauhalahti and our delightful wooden cabins overlooking the lake – all equipped with private sauna, of course. 

The next ‘morning’, we meet up for the novelty of rowing the short distance across the lake in a traditional ‘church boat’ where we are having a delicious brunch at Jätkänkämppä Lumberjacks’ Lodge restaurant. This former lumberjacks home also boasts the world’s largest smoke sauna, a traditional wood-heated chimneyless smoke sauna accommodating up to 70 people at a time. How these hard working lumberjacks must have appreciated its warmth in the chill of the long Finnish winter. Jätkänkämppä offers separate changing and washrooms for men and women and a shared steam room. Towels and sauna bench cloths are provided and there is a spacious veranda for cooling off. We cannot leave Finland without experiencing it and find it dark and atmospheric with a gentle heat and pleasant smoky aroma. 

None of the hotels we visited had dedicated or particularly luxurious spas, but according to the tourist office, ‘spas and treatments in Finland are currently undergoing a renaissance.’ New spas are opening in modern hotels, staffed by doctors and nurses and offering the latest facilities, treatments and equipment. Slimming, fasting, relaxation, beauty and rehabilitation treatment packages range from 67 to 151 euros per person for a weekend package with half board to 252 to 590 euros per person for a week package, depending on the number and type of treatments included. 

The luxury spa market may be taking off in this land of beautiful lakes and green forests, but for most Finns the SAUNA will always be their favourite source of wellbeing and relaxation. 

Finnair return flights London – Helsinki start from £179 www.finnair.comFor inclusive packages with flights and accommodtion visit Guild Travel www.guildtravel.comAnttolan Hovi Manor House Hotel www.anttolanhovi.fiSpa Hotel Vesileppis www.vesileppis.fiHoliday Centre at Rauhalahti and Lumberjacks’

Further details on Finnish spas

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