Granted, it was a summer holiday, and I was often told of the mild 20°C summers it enjoys, but I didn’t expect…. what’s Finnish for heatwave?
Yes, it was hot, searingly hot, and dry as well, but not unbearable—mostly because it wasn’t jam-packed with tourists. Also, the fabulous itinerary planned by ambassador Paula Parviainen from the Embassy of Finland in Singapore took me to the serene lakes and coasts, where I could completely enjoy what this beautiful country had to offer. For those travelling to this Nordic country in the summer, these two itineraries work well alone or combined into one longer tour.
My trip began with a smooth journey on Finnair’s new A350 aircraft with single window lie-flat seats and Marimekko amenity kits and slippers. The almost 12-hour flight allowed me a good sleep after my supper of creamy salmon soup, and I arrive bright and early in capital city Helsinki.
I say “bright” because it’s summer, and that means glorious long days of sunshine (sunset in July was around 10.30pm). One little gripe is that the Finns aren’t used to hot weather, so many establishments don’t have air conditioning. But at least they’ve mastered the art of installing effective blackout curtains in the hotels.
I stayed a day in Helsinki, whose main attractions such as the Rock Church and Ateneum Art Museum can be easily enjoyed in one afternoon. Having visited Helsinki before, I strolled around the main shopping area of Esplanadi, where my hotel, the classic Hotel Kämp, is located. The big bonus of my visit this time is that Paula happened to be in town and could join me for some part of the itinerary.
Today, she took me to a seaside dinner at HSS Paviljong set on the little island of Liuskasaari. A word on islands: Finland has a huge number of them—180,000 to be exact—and more lakes than that, so it’s very common to find charming restaurants on small islands, which are accessible by privately operated ferries with the fare conveniently charged to your restaurant bill.
TATLER ITINERARY ONE: TO THE LAKELANDS
The next morning, I took a train (or rather two trains, as there was a change midway) to Punkaharju, on the edge of the Saimaa region of lakes, islands and magical forests. Finland’s trains are not of the same standard as continental European trains and need some upgrading, but a journey to that area by car will take slightly longer but is likely more comfortable.
I checked into the charming boutique Hotel Punkaharju, owned and run by Finnish celebrity and former supermodel Saimi Hoyer. She has taken a Russian hunting lodge built in 1844 and transformed it into the most charming inn, surrounded by acres of forest and sitting on a small hill overlooking a lake. I have experienced beaches and mountains, but forests and lakes were completely new to me and their stillness and grandeur overwhelmed me with emotion.
After an evening walk to the lake, I joined Saimi at a special dinner she was hosting at the hotel restaurant. A jazz band performed after dinner, which was unbelievably delicious and prepared by chef Mikko Lahtinen. Saimi is a stunning redhead, who walked the Parisian runways in the nineties until a life-threatening illness brought her home. Her recovery is now complete and she’s in top form, as seen by the success of her hotel, and we became BFFs immediately. (Should you decide to visit her, mention that you’re my friend and she’ll treat you like a crazy rich Asian!)
Jetlag forced an early night on me, but it meant I was up early the next day to make my way to the nearby Savonlinna, where an annual opera festival was in progress. I checked into the Lossiranta Lodge, which boasts the best location in town, by the banks of the Lake Saimaa and directly facing the medieval fortress of Olavinlinna. The lodgings are quirky with mismatched “home-style” decor, making me feel like I was staying with an eccentric aunt. Paula drove up from Helsinki and joined me for lunch at Café Saimaa, where we devoured a local speciality—a sardine-like Muiko fish, served grilled over mashed potatoes.
That evening, we strolled over to the Olavinlinna fortress, where we attended a performance of Madama Butterfly. After an exclusive backstage tour by the festival’s artistic director (and a few glasses of champagne), we enjoyed a dramatic performance in a stone courtyard with the most crystal-clear acoustics.
My journey continued further north the next day, but Paula planned a special treat. The itinerary has always been to take a steamboat through the lakes to Hotel Järvisydän but instead, Paula’s friends, Antti and Anne, took us on their boat. Either way, it’s a leisurely cruise where one can enjoy the almost meditative four-hour sail through the most beautiful, panoramic and serene scenery.
My lodgings happened to be the oldest hotel in Finland (founded in 1658 and still run by the same family), and we arrived in time for a pre-dinner sauna which, like it or not, is an activity one must do in Finland. After all, the Finns practically invented it and have elevated the experience to an art form. The big feature of this hotel is a “spamusement” park called Sauna World, which offers heat treatments of all kinds (plus a chilled room and even a salt room) in a rock and wood complex that won’t look out of place in an episode of The Flintstones.
I joined Antti in a traditional wood-burning sauna, where sweat flowed, and after a mutual lashing of birch leaves, we ran out of the sauna hut and hurled ourselves straight into the bracing waters of the lake. This was an exhilarating and refreshing experience since it was provided by Mother Nature—definitely on par with a Northern Lights sighting.
My fourth morning in the area was spent touring Linnansaari National Park on a small boat captained by hotel owner Markus Heiskanen’s father. We glided around the still waters of the lakes, winding our way around the verdant islands, spotting ospreys and looking out for seals. The tour ended on an island with a picnic lunch of fish soup, grill-it-yourself sausages and paper-thin crepes with fresh, sweet strawberries.
Back at Järvisydän, I bid farewell to Paula and continued down to Porvoo by bus to rest for the night at Hotel Haikko Manor. This grand hotel and spa is old-fashioned in a charming way, and great if you needed to break the journey. However, if you are short of time, it can be done as an easy day trip from Helsinki, as Porvoo is a very picturesque stop. The second oldest town in Finland is wonderful to walk through, with narrow cobbled lanes that wind around brightly painted wooden houses.
From there, I took a three-hour taxi ride across to Finland’s west coast, a great addition to your tour if you have time to spare, but if the sea is more your thing, then the following could be an alternative plan instead of the lakes.
TATLER ITINERARY TWO: TO THE WEST COAST
Turku is a compact, stylish town, divided by the River Aura, with lots to do, and great cafes and restaurants. Much of the city life is centred on the riverbanks, where there are breezy cafes in the day, and lively restaurants on moored barges by night. Radisson Blu Marina Palace Hotel is perfectly located right in the centre of things, and is modern, stylish and air‑conditioned.
One of the highlights the city offers is a sail up and down the river on an electric boat, with one key difference: you steer it yourself, no licence required! Trying to get out of the way of an oncoming ferry is more heart‑stopping than the fiercest roller-coaster ride, I promise you, but boat operator Lana Boats makes it better with sparkling wine and strawberries, wholeheartedly promoting drink-steering.
Turku’s many museums and restaurants can be visited with special Food and Museum Walk cards which, for an affordable fee, allow multiple entries to the city’s top attractions and establishments. My dinner at Restaurant Kaskis was amazing—green gazpacho and succulent rainbow trout—but the wait can be a few months, so book ahead. This being Finland’s old capital, I found a lot of history preserved, and no better than in the Old Market to sample smoked fish and other Finnish specialities, and the fabulous Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum, housed in a small village of wooden buildings untouched by the great fire in 1827 that destroyed the city.
I had a happy wander through the streets and, unlike in Porvoo, I was free to poke my head into any house I liked to see reconstructed interiors and handicrafts being made by costumed craftsmen. The 700-year-old Turku Castle was another important stop for its imposing structure and grand courtyards made me feel like a Game of Thrones extra.
Having missed sailing on a steamboat in Savonlinna, I had another opportunity when I boarded the 85-year-old S/S Ukkopekka on a one hour and 45min trip to Naantali. Situated just north of Turku, this seaside town is most famous for being the home of the Moomins, a children’s storybook series featuring hippo‑like characters. Other than coming across them vaguely in the past, I wasn’t familiar enough with the characters, unlike the hordes of Japanese and Koreans, who even got married at the summertime‑only amusement park set on, you guessed it, an island. I found Naantali’s old town less photogenic than Porvoo, and perhaps a day trip from Turku would suffice. But the sprawling, family-friendly Naantali Spa Hotel provides a decent sleepover and has—joy of joys—a Thai restaurant!
I stopped over in Helsinki again to catch my flight home, and stayed at the stylish new Hotel St George, which is part of the Kämp Collection Hotels. Situated on the edge of the design district, it’s an easy stroll to small shops, galleries and restaurants, but I’d recommend going a little out of the city centre to the outlet stores of fashion brand Marimekko and home furnishings legend Iittala, both of whom ship your purchases to you in a jiffy. But remember to leave some money to get a bottle of the excellent Laplandia vodka on your way out to toast this great country when you are home, with a hearty “kippis!”