I look down from my airplane window to see Finland swathed in myriad shades of green. It seemed like I was destined to see the country in one shade: when I last visited in winter, the land sparkled white. This summer, I was back, and couldn’t wait to see what the happiest country had in store. I was headed to Finland’s under-explored Lakeland. Home to Lake Saimaa, the country’s largest lake, Lakeland also cradles Imatra and Lappeenranta, two cities just kilometres away from the Russian border that my group of Indian writers was to visit. On my two-hour drive from Helsinki to Imatra, I sit with my face glued to the window—craning my neck to see the dramatic clouds, but it is really the land that holds my attention. As we drive on the national highway, I gaze out at velvety pine forests, their emerald standing out amid the fluorescent green of fresh grass splashed with the pink, purple, yellow, white of wildflowers. Wildflowers abound, and I itch to stop the bus for a closer look. Over the next few days, I learn the names of these flowers, and with it, how to ‘summer’ like a Finn.
Scandinavian summer calls for lighter eating: less red meat and root vegetables, more fish, fresh greens and summer potatoes. Oh, and berries—strawberries, raspberries, lingonberries, blueberries, all kinds of berries. Finland follows Everyman’s Rights—anyone can go foraging and fishing on public land. This includes the 13,000-plus islands scattered around Lake Saimaa. Any Finn worth their salt will spend at least part of their summer sailing, foraging, fishing, and generally returning to their roots. Rent a boat—the waters of Lake Saimaa teem with fish, and no prior permits are needed for rod fishing. Build a wood-fire or carry your barbecue along so you can cook your fish on site. Maybe forage for mushrooms and herbs on the side.
Newbies, fret not. Start with Vuoksi Fishing Park in Imatra. At this family-run establishment, nestled by the Vuoksi river, owner Toni Kainulainen will gladly show you the ropes as you fish from the resident salmon pool. Or you can book a guided fishing trip with him, the river is full of bounty, including rainbow trout, pike, perch, whitefish and vendace. This is also a good spot to get permits if you’re interested in angling or heading out solo. There’s a smokehouse and restaurant on the premises, so you can catch your fish and eat it too—without having to do the hard work (check vuoksenkalastuspuisto.fi for rental and permit details).
In the city, look for Rimpsu-Reetta, for Karelian pies by Reetta Tuuha. A take on the traditional pies from this very region (South Karelia), Reetta elevates the rye flour-and-rice pies with a host of delightful toppings: reindeer, lamb, beet root, tomato-and-mozzarella and even blueberry and Quark (a personal favourite). These mini pies look delightful and taste even better; there are vegan options too (timings are regularly updated on rimpsu.fi). If you want a taste of the original, head to Cafe Elma, started by accountant-turned-baker Lotta Kärhä five years ago. Painted in pastel colours and decorated with kitchen memorabilia, this is a good spot for pie and coffee. Tip: buy some of the rye sourdough for breakfast (Weekly lunch specials and custom cake details on lounaskahvilaelma.fi).
To row out to any of the uninhabited islands in Lake Saimaa for a camping-foraging experience, you can collect the topography map from the Tourist Office. It will help you navigate better around the rocky parts of the lake. If you don’t want to do it alone, try an outfitter like TaigaSaimaa. Owner Toni took us to Muukonsaari island, a 15-minute boat ride away. The island transported me back to prehistoric times—heavy foliage, thickly-forested land, stray pinecones, leaves and twigs that crack-snapped under my shoes. Here a dandelion, there purple foxgloves. Somewhere, a frog croaked. In the light of the dappled sun, Toni spotted chaga mushrooms, which he promptly plucked to infuse in our tea. What tea, you ask? We walked to a clearing where Toni set up his wood-fired stove, took out the utensils he’d carried and made us pancakes and tea, which we lapped up with a side of Queen jam (blueberry+raspberry) and fresh berries. To perfect this very-Finn experience, we ate and drank from traditional birch wood bowls and cups. Settled on top of a mossy boulder, awash in this picnic spirit, I asked Toni about possible wildlife, to which he said he spotted moose once. There are also foxes and rabbits. On another part of the island sits TaigaSaimaa’s wooden cottages and a sauna, which they rent out to groups. No running water, and electricity comes from solar panels. I was sold (taigasaimaa.fi; mushroom- and berry-picking on Muukonsaari island from €75/Rs6,000 per person, reach out to them for group camping rates).
It’s impossible to live the Finnish life without one absolute essential: sauna. A common Finnish saying is that there are more saunas than people in the country, and the Finns are always looking to add some impromptu excitement to a ‘normal’ sauna. Last winter, I had done the exhilarating sauna-jump on an ice pool-sauna-repeat loop. Summer, I learnt, is equally fun. This time, I got to swim in the lake instead—a summery delight for Finnish hearts, a chilly shock to my Indian bones. It was not yet time for the midnight sun when I visited in early June, but it was summer enough for sunsets to take place at almost 11 p.m.—their stunning mirror imagery on lakes holding me captive. We also went to Hossukan Helmi sauna, a wooden cabin by Lake Saimaa in Imatra. It comes equipped with a meeting room, wood-fired sauna, hot tub, and floating suits for those who can’t swim. I spotted other cabins too, respectful distances away. The sound of people laughing carried through. Inside the cabin, we changed into bathing suits, and started with the sauna. And lake. And sauna. And lake. And eventually, hot tub. When I check the time again, it is almost 10 p.m. and the sky has started to turn purple, reflecting in the waters of the placid lake. All I can do is breathe in and out, blissful. Grateful (The sauna is open to public on Thursdays €10/Rs800 per person; facebook.com/hossukanhelmi). Another way, of course, is to make the most of hotel saunas. Ours, at Holiday Club Saimaa, was a sauna water park, complete with dancing fountains, slides and flashing lights, aptly called Cirque De Saimaa (Circus of Saimaa). Amongst the many offerings, there was a wood sauna, a salt sauna, a heated pool, and a special kids’ sauna too. Be warned though: it is hot and steamy in this area, and if you, like me, wear glasses (which have to be kept in lockers before heading out), keep a friend with good eyesight handy… or walk into the wrong changing rooms, multiple times (holidayclubresorts.com; doubles from €108/Rs8,500; Cirque De Saimaa entry €22/Rs1,735).
Lake Saimaa is a glacial lake, and it formed the Vuoksi river in the wake of a natural phenomenon over 5,700 years ago. The fourth-largest lake in Europe, it is home to 30 species of fish, including endangered ones like white-spotted Arctic char and dark-spotted landlocked salmon. From Lappeenranta, there are regular cruises to explore the lake—some which take you all the way to Russian city of Vyborg, just a few hours away. Fun fact: if you travel to-and-from via a cruise ship to Russia from Finland, you can stay there visa-free for 72 hours. Next time, I promised myself. For now, we were aboard M/S Camilla, enjoying a two-hour lunch cruise on the Saimaa Canal.
The canal connects Lake Saimaa to the Gulf of Finland, and while its construction started in the 19th century, almost half of the canal was ceded to Russia after the 1939 war. Curiously, Lake Saimaa is at a higher elevation than the Gulf (a little over 76 metres), and if not for a “lock” mechanism in place in the canal, the lake would have been empty. Confused? I was too, until we reached Mälkiä lock, the first of eight. I was standing at the stern when we entered the lock and the gate was shut. A few minutes later, I realised the ship was going lower. After almost 10 minutes, the front gate was opened, and the water level was now 13 metres lower. There are seven more such locks along the regular route, before one reaches the Gulf of Finland. Our cruise ship however, was slated to cross only one.
While we dined on a refreshing beetroot and goat cheese salad, baked fish and new potatoes, and ice cream with Queen jam, we also learnt about the Saimaa ringed seal, a critically endangered species indigenous to these waters. They’re so Finnish, they keep a respectful distance between each other while sun-basking on rocks. Sadly, we didn’t spot any, but the cruise more than made up for it (karelialines.fi; cruise ticket €22/Rs1,735; 3-course meal from €41/Rs3,500).
Since summers are short-lived, Finns make the most of it. There are summer fairs and theatres, extravagant midsummer day celebrations, and in Imatra, a rapids show. When the waters of Saimaa spilled over to what is now Kruununpuisto Nature Reserve, it altered the landscape entirely. Over the years, the waters scoured through the rocks to a narrow ravine, forming the Imatra rapids. The land of the reserve was officially protected from 1842, making it Finland’s oldest nature reserve, sheltering swathes of unique vegetation and millennia-old rock formations. It is said that the roaring of the Imatra rapids attracted crowds from far and wide, and those who visited followed human impulse—carved into the rocks are their names. The oldest carvings date back to 1700s, and there’s even one by Brazil’s emperor Dom Pedro II, circa 1876. We walked past these carvings, hearing history echo amid the gorgeous landforms. While the rapids have now been harnessed for a hydro-electric power plant, the dam is opened in the summer, when people from across the country flock to watch the show (check imatrainfo.fi for rapid shows and timings, there are special ones slated for winter as well).
Right next to the rapids, widely considered the birthplace of tourism in Finland, stands what the Finns have voted as the most beautiful building in the country for two years running. An art nouveau building, the white-and-grey Scandic Imatran Valtionhotelli looks more like a castle with its turreted towers and fanciful arches. On the roof, there’s a stony black cat poised to jump, the doorway has foxes carved into the red stone. Quite the photo op, I noted (scandichotels.com; doubles from €135/Rs10,500 for standard rooms in a different complex, €185/Rs14,500 for rooms in the main building).
In Lappeenranta, a 17th-century border town by Lake Saimaa, the Fortress of Lappeenranta tells the tale. The fortress juts out on a cliff face overlooking the Lappeenranta harbour, and it houses Finland’s oldest Orthodox church, and ancient cannons and guardhouses, all built under Swedish and Russian rule. As we walked past houses coated in happy reds and yellows, I noticed how the planters on window sills tend to spill over with boldly coloured pansies and geraniums. There are still over 70 families who live here, I learned. There are art museums and cavalry museums, and some delightful craft shops. I entered one, and spot rows upon rows of painted postcards with artworks of Finnish foxes. I bought 12. A little ahead there are a pair of cannons, and behind, a summer meadow filled with yellow dandelions. I could not resist—I walked to the meadow, sat down at its blooming, sun-filled heart, and smelled the flowers around me. The grass beneath my feet felt soft… sweet, almost. Both good descriptors for Finland in summer. Feeling twice as lucky as last time, I raised my invisible, overflowing cup—to the happiest country in the world.
Finnair offers direct flights from Delhi to Helsinki. From here, both Lappeenranta and Imatra are a 2-hr train or bus ride away (visitlappeenranta.fi; imatrainfo.fi). Indian travellers need a Schengen visa. While summers are short-lived, and much-loved, winter also holds plentiful delights.
Lubna Amir travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.