Known as the land of a thousand lakes, Finland actually has almost 188,000, but what are tens of thousands of islands between friends?
With pristine forests and freshwater lakes of such beauty, superlatives seem insufficient – Finland serves up nature and wonder on an immense scale.
We flew from London Heathrow via the national airline, Finnair into Helsinki and following a day in the snow-covered capital, we set off for the Lahti region, 100km away in the south of the country.
Finland has a small population of just 5.4 million and with Lahti at 60 square miles, there’s an abundance of space and an overwhelming sense of solitude.
A breath of fresh air takes on a new meaning in this wonder of nature.
Our senses seemed to heighten, our minds clearing as we allowed the charm of this remarkable natural landscape to engulf us.
“Branches hung low and heavy with the brilliant white of winter”
We stayed at two locations beside Lake Päijänne – the second largest lake in the country. At Lehmonkärki, a luxury resort with individual villas, owner Ari Yrjolä seemed to embody the philosophy of going the extra mile to ensure guests have the best experience.
Lehmonkärki, which means Linden Tree Cape, after the trees that grow in the area, is a haven in an idyllic setting. Our accommodation was in wooden cabins, each isolated from the others, ensuring peace and privacy.
There is an abundance of year-round activities for visitors including boating on the lake in summer.
One of the opportunities and a totally new to us was a snowmobile safari, and it was a fabulous experience.
I’d never even ridden a motorbike or jet-ski before, so a snowmobile seemed a slightly daunting prospect. But under Ari’s expert tutelage, we were in very good hands. We each had our own machine, and as the last minutes of daylight dwindled we raced over the frozen Lake Päijänne.
The roar of the engines was exciting as we glided over the snow and ice. Onwards we went through island forests and fields, along rutted paths and up and down inclines – this wild landscape now our playground. The branches of the trees hung low and heavy with the brilliant white of winter.
There was even a short stop for hot chocolate and biscuits next to a crackling fire at a log cabin. Unfortunately, our two-hour adventure was over all too quickly, but it was a great start to our stay.
Hot time in a cold landscape
Finns are very proud of their sauna culture and regard themselves as the founders of the whole experience. Most Finnish homes have a sauna and the whole family uses them regularly.
As the temperature fell to -27C, we found things freezing we’d never have expected – condensation from our own breath clinging to our eyelashes and causing mini icicles to form. We’d never encountered such low temperatures (the following day it fell to -29C), it seemed inconceivable that we could withstand such extremes.
But we did.
At Lehmonkärki we sampled two saunas, a more commonly found electric one – though this had a panorama view of Lake Päijänne and a traditional smoke sauna. With the cold evening air enticing us into their warmth, we made our way to the welcoming saunas.
However, after 15 minutes we had another local experience to try. Leaving the sweat-inducing heat of the sauna, snow and ice crunched underfoot as we ventured along a jetty to the lake in only in our swimwear and a small towel.
Approaching the vast frozen lake we spotted our destination – a small hole cut into the ice. Summing up every last vestige of courage, and amid the howls and screams of the trembling bodies that went into the iced-over lake before us, we stepped down into the freezing dark water.
Within seconds we were hurrying out, screaming and shouting the odd obscenity, as the shock and piercing bite of the incomprehensible cold hit.
Taking a dip in the lake’s ice hole is not obligatory, but it is an experience we’re pleased to say we’ve done, even though I won’t hurry to do it again.
After a short warming dip in the Jacuzzi, our sauna experience was complete and we then headed to the resort’s hunting lodge for a gourmet meal. Here cocooned in the wilderness we dined on local dishes and imbibed local culture and history, a wonderful end to a perfect day.
Feeling sporty in the land of a thousand lakes
The next day we explored this land of a thousand lakes and the Lahti region further and headed to yet more luxurious accommodation at Padasjoki, Kiuasniemi Villas. Again located on the huge and magnificent Lake Päijänne, our winter wonderland experience continued.
While Sarah donned snowshoes and explored the lakeshore, I decided to try my hand at ice fishing. I don’t fish usually, but the prospect of drilling a hole in the middle of an ice-covered lake to try to catch a fish was too good to miss.
Wrapped up against the elements, the crisp cold on my face, I walked onto the frozen lake.
A local guide drilled a hole in the ice and gave me a tiny rod, line and bait to dangle into the freezing waters. There I sat contemplating my mission to catch local perch and contrasting the scene of sitting 100 metres from land on a deeply frozen lake.
For me, this was something different – a spot of fun. For the locals, it’s part of their culture and history – part of their DNA. Finnish people love the winter – they don’t see these conditions as extreme, merely their playground.
After failing to catch anything I was grateful for the sumptuous evening meal the resorts’ chef had prepared for us. Before a real roaring fire, we had course after course of delicious offerings.
From Padasjoki, Kiuasniemi Villas you can visit other attractions and places of interest, such as Messilä for skiers – the largest ski centre in southern Lahti.
We headed over to the city of Lahti to see its international ski jump, where in 2017 the FIS Nordic Ski World Championships will be held. For those that remember Eddy the Eagle Edwards, this was his sport.
As we arrived at the top of the frighteningly high jump and peered all the way to the bottom, I could only admire those men and women with the courage to launch themselves off these slopes. To me, it looked more like a torturous, nerve-shredding experience.
While staying at both Lehmonkärki and Padasjoki, Kiuasniemi Villas we were far from a main road or any other habitation. The remoteness of the locations guaranteed peacefulness and tranquillity, as they were in the forest and adjacent Lake Päijänne. We felt like modern-day frontiersmen and women, braving the winter elements and battling for survival. In reality, it was beautifully remote and tranquil, and we stayed in luxury cabins with all the conveniences of modern life – even Wi-Fi.
But another lovely aspect of this isolation was how secure we all felt and at no time did we lock a door to the accommodation.
In our fast-moving, at times cynical world, this was a characteristic that melted our hearts and bound us to the Lahti region.
A step into the land of a thousand lakes is to step into the world as it was meant to be – safe and staggeringly beautiful.
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