Let me introduce to you Lake Saimaa!
I’m sure you’ve heard of the Lapland before; the snow-covered town of Santa Claus in northern Finland. But today, I’ll be introducing you to a not so well-known side of Finland — a hidden gem ideal for nature lovers, away from the popular touristic attractions.
I’ll start like this…
Close your eyes and imagine you’re standing by a lake, next to a wooden cabin surrounded by trees. It’s a few moments before sunset – the lake is painted orange and everything’s so serene. You are peacefully walking towards the wooden dock to take a dive into the water. Afterwards, you grab a beer or a glass of wine made of berries and head to the sauna. Ten minutes into the wooden sauna and off you go for another dive into the lake. It’s time for dinner; your roasted salmon is on the dinner table by the terrace, waiting for you. You sit down to enjoy the meal with the company of a few friends. It’s so peaceful and you feel calm and happier than ever.
This could have been an excerpt from a great novel, hadn’t it been my everyday routine while staying at the Finnish Lakeland where life takes place around and inside lake Saimaa — Finland’s biggest lake and the 4th biggest in Europe — three and a half hours away from Athens.
A hidden corner of almost 4.400 square kilometres in southeastern Finland, two hours from Helsinki and less than two hours from Saint Petersburg in Russia. There are over 13.000 islands in the region and a shoreline that left me speechless while exploring it. A place on Earth where green and blue are equally combined in a way I had never seen before in my life.
My trip began with me landing at the airport of Lappeenranta, a beautiful town situated on the shore of the lake. This was Ryanair’s first flight connecting Greece to Finland and I was more than excited to explore this part of the country. Little did I know of the beauty I was going to experience during my time there.
It was a short, fifteen minute drive from the airport to the city. This quiet, sunny small town would be our first destination during our one-week trip exploring Finland. I was lucky to experience a few warm, sunny days while there. I got rid of the sweaters quickly since it was almost 27 degrees – it’s rare to be this hot in May.
There goes the myth for the cold, icy Finland. The high temperature took me by surprise as we headed for lunch. The Kitchen, a restaurant that served buffet had great food and amazing fish. I already knew that I would enjoy a lot of fish in Finland — especially salmon. Lunch is served around 12 so keep that in mind while in the country. For approximately 10 euros per person, we enjoyed a great meal. That’s usually the cost for a meal on a buffet — if you choose an a la carte restaurant, it might be a little higher though.
Just like that, another myth for Finland proved to be wrong. Finland is not expensive; I can assure you that it is even the cheapest of all Scandinavian countries. That’s right!
After lunch, we headed with Electra from Airnews.gr and a fellow travel blogger to our hotel — the Lappeenranta Spa, a historic hotel from 1802 on the shore of Lake Saimaa, tied with the long history of spa and wellness in the area.
The city of Lappeenranta is situated on the shore of Lake Saimaa and it’s and ideal starting point for a roadtrip around the lake. It’s easy to walk around and includes the old town with the fortress, the harbour and the new town built by the railway station.
Lappeenranta offers a plethora of activities and choices for tourists and travellers. You can walk around the Old Town – which looks nothing like any other European Old Town — from Kauppakatu Street to Kristiinankatu to explore the Lappeenranta Art Museum, the South Karelian Museum and the Theotokos (Virgin Mary) Orthodox Church showing the Russian influences of the city. Note that, many Russian soldiers stayed in Lappeenranta after the Russo-Swedish War in 1741-43.
Lappeenranta is full of life during summer thanks to its many visitors from every corner of Finland as well as, Russia. The kissing park (Pusupuisto) is perfect for a picnic while the old town features concerts and plays all summer long. The Sandcastle Festival open from June to September is an annual event on the fortress headland featuring sculptures made of sand. This year, sandcastles will be inspired from Greece, Italy and, of course, the 2018 World Cup hosted by the neighbouring Russia. The music festivals LappeFest and VekaraFest will also be launching on June 15th while the International Grand Market by the harbour will be open from June 28.
I highly recommend you to take a cruise from Lake Saimaa to the Gulf of Finland through the Saimaa Canal. The canal was built in 1856 and connects Lake Saimaa with the Gulf of Finland and the Russian city of Vyborg. The 43km cruise along the Canal is mesmerizing; the blue of the water and the green of the surrounding nature makes an incredible combination that will leave you in awe — you’d wish you had a small cottage in one of the small islands at the lake like the Finnish do.
There are currently three cruise ships in the canal: M/S Margareta — the one we took and enjoyed our meal and drink aboard the ship during the tour –, the M/S Camilla and the M/S Christina. Another great idea is to take the 3-day Visa-free cruise from Lappeenranta to Vyborg and Saint Petersburg in Russia. For a little less than 300 euros, you will enjoy a 3-day trip to both countries with overnight stays and meals aboard the ship. You can learn more at saimaatravel.fi.
Extra tip: The city has a lot of interesting food choices but I’d suggest you to visit the canteens by the harbour — you’ll enjoy traditional karelian pies and a cup of great coffee. As for the coolest cafe in town, you’ll find it inside the old fortress town: Kahvila Majurska Oy.
Accommodation: Lappeenranta Spa. -ask for a room at the Old Spa Building –
Next stop the second largest city of Lake Saimaa — Imatra. The city’s mostly known for its proximity to the Russian border and for its waterfalls, the Imatrankoski. Part of the iwater from the ce that melted during the Ice Age moved to Salpausselkä and Imatra creating the Vuoksi river – the river was so strong that cut Imatra in the middle. The dam which was created there to control the water pressure is incredible especially during the summer months when many festivals and activities take place.
Walk through the Kruununpuisto Park (Crown Park) to watch the view of the dam from above and photograph the Valtionhotelli, the hotel that looks like a castle and according to the Finnish it’s one of the most beautiful buildings in Finland. If you feel like walking, walk towards the Vuoksi river on Tainionkoskentie street where it meets the Vuoksen Kalastuspuisto (Vuoksi Fishing Park). This is where you can fish your own salmon and have it cooked for you on the spot. The salmon soup there is incredible.
There are a lot of festivals in Imatra during the summer. The Big Band street music festival is in June while on July the are hosts a food event and in August you can join a local festival wearing a traditional costume or or go to the GoRetro music festival. If you are a fan of trekking or cycling, dedicate three hours at the Geopark in the lake to explore the nature and clear your head with mesmerizing images of the lake.
Extra tip: If you want to leave an extraordinary sauna experience, try the floating sauna (Saunalautta-Imatra). This is actually a ferry where you can use the sauna while traveling the river.
Accommodation: Imatran Kylpylä Spa (Ukonniemi area) where you will enjoy the spa and sauna. A more alternative choice for nature-lovers, the Vuoksi Fishing Park camping.
After visiting two of the most important cities in Saimaa, time to visit a cottage near the lake’s shore. We met Tomi, co-owner of the Taiga Saimaa company who welcomed us in his family’s cottage in one of the lake’s islands.
After two hours in the lake where we took hundreds of photos of the small islands and the green scenery, we were finally there. We arrived at the wooden deck where we left the boat and walked towards the house. The fireplace was already waiting for us with a few bites to eat until dinner was ready. The landscape and scenery of the island and the wooden cottage was amazing.
Right next to the cottage, we found the sauna and next to it our rooms. Across that, there was the toilet – no water and flushing was available. This was the Finnish way; you just threw a small amount of scented soil.
I went for a walk and admired the calmness of nature. I was really happy in this moment, exploring a hidden corner of our planet. I felt lucky to be alive. The sun was up, nature looked wonderful, the weather was great, the lake and the sound of the birds singing. That was all I needed to feel blessed.
It was around 9 at night but due to the midnight sun, it was like noon outside. I felt tired but the night didn’t seem to be falling any time soon.
I tried the sauna to relax. I had tried it once before but it was nothing like it. The Finnish sauna is a lifestyle not a luxury. It is a habit for families and individuals to relax after a stressful day. If there’s a lake near the sauna to cool down once in every ten minutes, then everything’s perfect. So did I. After ten minutes of sauna, I took a dip in the cold lake. It was freezing but I did it. After another ten minutes of sauna, I was ready for our dinner.
Tomi informed us that there were fishing lessons available and that he’d caught a salmon for dinner. As we waited for the fish to cook, Tomi told us everything about the freezing winter when everything is covered in snow and the summer when the sun never sets. How different life can be only 3.5 hours from Greece!
After dinner and the chat about life in Finland it was time for bed even though it was still bright outside. At around 4 I woke up. The sun was already rising — it was unbelievable! At midnight, it was still bright and at 4 the sun was rising again. I went out and sat on the wooden chair in my terrace.
It was magical! This was pure bliss!
Extra tip: If you want to live the “cottage life” experience, spend two nights in a cottage not just one. You can combine your stay with activities such as trekking, fishing, kayak, or hiking. All the cottages are on islands in lake Saimaa and feature a sauna and access to the lake. It is an amazing experience! The cost for a night starts at 60 euros and can go up to 150 — note that the cottages are usually comfortable enough for large groups so it can be really inexpensive way of vacation.
Accommodation: Private traditional cottage – Taiga Saimaa, or cottage camping at Μuukonsaari island.
For more info on all the places mentioned above you can visit : GoSaimaa.com
Time to explore more of the lake and meet new places after Imatraand Lapeenranta. Mikko assisted our transportation as we moved to Puumala. Nature ws at its best again!
When we arrived on this island, we met Paula who showed us how the karelian pies we were eating everyday were made. Paula owns a large piece of land where she built 17 rental cottages (Okkola). She has also created a cozy restaurant where you can enjoy the traditional dishes. I loved the mushroom soup.
The cottages feature a wooden deck, private beach and a wonderful view. Like a movie scene!
Extra tip: If you visit the area in mid-July don’t miss the Niini Jazz as well as the smoke sauna which you should try! Ask for access tot he tree house — they use it for meetings but they can definitely give you a tour there should you want to.
Accommodation: Okkola holiday cottages
On the boat again
Time for a boat ride in Saimaa again! This time we are heading towards Yövesi, a smaller part of Saimaa to see the painted rocks — a big deal for the locals. After 2.5 hours on the boat we arrive at the Astuvansalmi rock paintings where human and animal figures are painted on the rocks dating back to 3.800 BC. Next to that, there is an immense rock in the shape of a human head and we are in awe! In Finland there are over 90 points of interest featuring various prehistoric wall paintings.
For more information about this place, look for Harry at www.ssvoy.fi
Before heading to the cottage where we would spend the night, we stopped for a cup of coffee at an old Manor House and off to more exploring!
Mikkeli is the most popular and most expensive area in the lake. There are over 10.195 summer cottages here — either private or rentals — for those seeking a few quiet days by the lake.
A flea market with traditional food is set up everyday during summer accompanied by various activities and festivals. If you are a fan of walking, go to Neitvuori to enjoy the panoramic view from above. Look for the Hiidenmaa trails — you’ll find it from Anttolaa ndι Siikakoski areas.
Next stop, a beautiful cottage in Anttola by the lake. Miss Sirpa and the Ollinmaki winery owns the cottage where they produce berry and fruit wine.
The scenery is magical once again. We are staying at Villa Natalia and it looks like out of a fairytale! A wooden cottage with a lovely balcony, hidden inside the greenery — we wished we could stay there forever! We got to taste some exquisite dishes to accompany our wine — we cautiously tried a piece of reindeer too.
After dinner, we took a walk at the wooden deck of our cottage. Once again, I was happy to be experiencing this beauty! Time for sauna after our walk and then, some resting.
Extra tip: Do it the Finnish way! After breakfast, hop in the sauna and then the lake. You will be ready to seize the day after that.
Accommodation: : Villa Natalia
We are on the road again heading to an old Manor House which was turned into a restaurant with a different theme in each room and huge gardens wih fruits and vegetables used in the restaurant or sold to the visitors. Tertti Manor also features rooms to stay and a beautiful cafe to enjoy a cup of coffee and pastries.
Definitely try the coffee from roses – I loved it! (Tertti Manor)
Teahouse of Wehmais
The road take us to a unique teahouse in all Finland where we tried different tea varieties. The Tea House was inspired by Anna. She built it based on the philosophy of enjoying and focusing on the tea ritual.
The smell and the taste was almost as magical as the surroundings! ( TeaHouse)
Next destination, a place where the oldest residents in the country live — the seals! The seals are in Rantasalmi, well-hidden from humans and an incredible sight to watch!
There is a low chance to watch a seal sunbathing in one of the rocks in the lake. During our “seal safari” our guide informed us to grab the binoculars because he had spotted one! I was excited!
Another great experience added to my Lake Saimaa trip!
After the safari, I relaxed in the spa at the Hotel & Spa Resort Järvisydän. There were many different types of sauna and a heated pool as well as salt-therapy rooms, hammams and massage rooms. There was also an outdoor pool with lake water — ideal for those who love nature!
The hotel features many more activities apart from the seal safari, like yoga and water sports. To learn more about the different summer activities, check here.
Accommodation: Hotel & Spa Resort Järvisydän
Our last destination was Savonlinna, the heart of Lake Saimaa. A beautiful town with long history — I recommend stopping here before heading to the Kolovesi National Park or the Linnansaari National Park. Walk on the harbor and take the steamboat to admire the view from the lake. You can have dinner in one of the restaurants by the water and walk around the open market in the city center.
The place is full of life since manystudents go there from all around Finland and the neighbouring countries to attend the Savonlinna Opera Festival taking place inside the old castle. Many populars plays will be featured from 6/7 to 4/8 and it is worth visiting. The Riihisaari — Lake Saimaa Nature and Culture Centre is also worth visiting. You can access two legendary ships too: the Mikko and the Salama. (More info)
Extra tip: Don’t leave Savonlinna without trying the local fish — the “Muikku”.
Accommodation: Café-Restaurant & Hotel Saima
A stop at Loikansaari Island before heading to our hotel. Pirjo, an owner of summer cottages for rent, has created a workshop where she makes different textiles from natural products. She was so skilled, knitting the traditional way: with a belt in her waist, using wood and small branches. (Read more here)
This is a small paradise hidden among the trees and next to the lake. In total harmony with the lake.
The Forest Museum Lusto features more about the special connection of the locals with nature during ages. A beautiful museum about forests, wood and the traditional professions of the area.
After that a visit to the old Railway Station is another example of harmonic relationship of man and nature. The old couple living there has transformed the building into their residence, occassionally opening it to the public for exhibitions and events.
The entire area is perfect for cycling kayak and walking — the little bridge connecting the two strips of land among the lake is ideal to walk on. The tallest tree in the country is hidden there too.
The oldest hotel of the country is there too, the Hotelli Punkaharju, an old Manor housewith big history recently renovated. The room number 6 is the oldest in the hotel — that’s where I stayed. The old ranger used to stay there and enjoy the view of the lake every morning as they say. The hotel’s interior is bright and beautiful while the food has the “nature to plate” philosophy.
An independent wooden house featured the traditional sauna with tree branches which are watered with cold water during summer and then used to cool down their body after sauna.
After the sauna, a dip in the lake is mandatory while a juice or a drink is great to have while watching the sunset. Relax your mind and body.
Extra tip: The hotel has also summer cottages- it is worth staying there! Ask for Tero if you would like to have yoga or water sports.
Accommodation: Hotelli Punkaharju
For more information: visitsaimaa.fi
The philosophy of the Finnish sauna:
Before visiting Finland, sauna for me was something I did once a year in a spa hotel. A relatively impersonal process that I had never loved because I couldn’t actually understand the meaning of being in an “oven” with people that I didn’t know who they were keep sweating all the time.
Until I came “face to face” with the Finnish sauna, an experience like a ritual. Most families here have a sauna room and every day they go along with their children or by themselves so as to “clean” body and mind. With temperatures above 80 degrees, and by throwing water on the wooden stove, the steam created makes the body sweat faster and removes toxins and negative energy. For the lucky ones who have their cottages next to the lake, they’re used to take a dip into the lake after the sauna, and that my dears is the best part of the Finnish sauna. Of course, many of them swim in the lake even during winter.
So, sauna in Finland is actually a place of relaxation and even a place for gatherings for friends and family. During the weekends, friends arrange an “evening sauna”, which means that for 3 hours they are gathering all together and enjoying a sauna experience including light food, drinks and chit chat.
However, the sauna is also a place where important discussions can be held, and I was also told that sauna is so important that if someone proposes you a… sauna meeting, a business talk in the sauna, it means that he appreciates and respect you!
How do I go there?
At the end of the post I have included a map in order for you to check out the trip we made around the lake in a week. Arriving by Ryanair at Lappeenranta airport, the best ways to move around are the following:
- Either by taxi which brings you to the city center and from there either you rent a car for a roadtrip or
- You move by train between to the big cities and from there you organize your itinerary directly with the cottage owners or the local travel agencies that will take care of your stay and transportation.
- This can also be done directly at your arrival at Lappeenranta Airport where someone from the place where you will be staying, can bring you to the hotel or the cottage with an extra charge.
And something more:
- Finland is the safest country in the world
- Finland is the less expensive Scandinavian country
- Six months a year they live almost in the dark and 6 months (actually during summer time) the sun never goes down
- Finland is a country with 3,2 million saunas and 5,4 million people.
- Finns love berries, salmon and mushrooms. Do not leave without trying all three of them
- Types of accommodation in Lake Sima: cottages (mökki,) hotel spas, town hotels, manor houses, few hostels
- The people of Lakeland are the friendliest Scandinavians I have ever met. Smiling, with a sense of humor and always happy to start a conversation. To my great surprise, I found that we Greeks are really similar in term of mood and temperament
- From Lappeenranta you can easily go to Helsinki, St Petersburg (allegro train) and Moscow (Tolstoi train) by train, in less than 3 hours for the first two places and a few extra hours for Moscow
- You can enjoy a three-day cruise from Lappeenranta to St. Petersburg without a visa
- Lake Saimaa is THE place to be during summer! It’s the ideal time to take part in festivals and feel the summerish vibes of Lakeland as the whole area enjoys the midnight sun, the white nights and the warm weather and that means lots and lots of festivals, summer markets and celebrations
The area of Lake Saimaa or Finnish Lakeland was a pleasant surprise for me, a well hidden gem, a green secret area in the heart of Finland that gifted me with terrific images, with smells, flavors, intense feelings and gave me “food for thought”. Actually, how clever is it to live in big cities and being totally cut off from nature? How intelligent is it to hunt for the”big city life” and lose the essence of simple things, a walk in the woods, a swim in the lake, having lunch or having dinner with the family on the balcony without being worried about the time or the place or tomorrow’s presentation at work?
Lake Saimaa has “opened” for me, doors and thoughts that they have been locked in my mind for years. The people I met there and the landscapes that saw with my own eyes, the way locals live their lives in total harmony with nature made me appreciate the simple things in life, the ones that we actually don’t see while living the “big city life”.
So, before going back home, I decided to bring with me a piece of that place ’cause I didn’t want to forget the scenary and the feelings that Lake Saimaa made me feel. This little seal that I called Lady Saimaa, came with me back to Greece and its’ purpose is to remind me of this beautiful paradise that I discovered during my first visit in Finland, my trip to the Finnish Lakaland!
Hope to see you soon Lake Saimaa! Thank you for the hospitality! Special thanks to Ryanair and to the organizations GoSaimaa and VisitSaimaa!