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Enjoy waterborne adventures like nowhere else on earth with a journey through this extraordinary archipelago.
There’s something about island hopping that’s far more exciting than every other genre of adventure, like playing the lava game as a child, jumping from cushion to cushion to avoid touching the deadly carpet. The Finnish archipelago offers the biggest and best lava game in the world, with tens of thousands of cushions spread across 1,000km (621mi) of carpet. Luckily, the lava in this case is actually the clearest water imaginable, so it’s far from game over if you want to take a dip. Especially in summer, when this part of Finland gets the best weather anywhere in the country, regularly tipping the mercury over 25C (77F).
Speak to a Finn about the islander lifestyle and they’ll use words like laid-back, charming and unhurried. Words that fit rather nicely with the word holiday, which is why this part of Finland is a favourite among natives and international visitors.
If your holiday is to be an island-hopping one, Turku is the best place to start. It’s the former capital of Finland, and a gateway to the 250km (155mi) Archipelago Trail.
Turku has become increasingly popular, thanks to a series of new restaurants and bars, a funicular and even a microbrewery, bakery and coffee roastery in the former prison, which is well worth a visit. Turku blends contemporary cool with medieval magic, so the quaint cobblestone streets often buzz with events and festivals.
The Turku archipelago is made up of 20,000 islands and islets, a vast network that offers great sailing infrastructure, with many ports and marinas, as well as countless suitable spots to drop anchor and have a dip. A popular journey among local sailors runs along the south coast from Turku to Airisto and Taalintehdas. But you need not be a sailor to enjoy the best of this area. Much of the archipelago is accessible by foot, bike, ferry, car or waterbus.
This fascinating collection of islands – 6,700 in total, with only around 60 inhabited – has autonomous status, which means the 29,000 residents have their own parliament, stamps and even their own flag; also Swedish is the national language. With flat roads and ferries and bridges linking them together, the islands are particularly popular among cyclists keen to go on a solid two-wheeled adventure. Meanwhile, non-cyclists can explore by car, boat or even kayak.
Fishing is excellent here, as is golf, with three 18-hole courses to choose from.
There’s plenty to see, too, with highlights such as Kastelholm Castle – open May to mid-September – among the finest. Once home to Swedish kings, this 14th-century castle now houses an impressive art collection. Another must-visit is the ruins of Bomarsund, the Russian tsar’s granite fortress that was all but destroyed before ever being fully built. And don’t miss Lilla Holmen, popular with families, as children can swim, climb a pirate ship and visit the bird house.
Åland’s only city is Mariehamn: with only 11,000 residents, it gets 1.5m annual visitors who come to see its wooden houses and green parks and dine at its cute cafes and great restaurants.
Unimaginatively named, perhaps, but there simply isn’t a better moniker for the area that is home to more of Finland’s 188,000 lakes and 180,000 islands than anywhere else in the country. It is a land of lakes, after all, a land of lakes that seems to stretch on forever, each hop more beautiful than the last. Rivers, canals, forests and ridges are also a big part of the Lakeland party, which has three main ingredients to create the perfect holiday: lakeside cottages, saunas and a lot of water. Whatever you do while you’re here, however much or little you decide to explore, make sure you stay in a traditional cottage on the water’s edge, with a sauna, and spend some time doing things slowly – or puuhastella, as the Finns call it. If you do everything quickly, then you won’t be able to properly soak up the beauty of this land of green and blue.
Nature and city life merge harmoniously in Mikkeli. There are urban parks galore, fascinating Astuvansalmi rock paintings and the Neitvuori Hill, which offers spectacular views at the end of a rewarding hike.
They clearly enjoy the finer things in life here, two of many giveaways being the Juva Truffle Center – world experts in truffle farming – and the TeaHouse of Wehmais, which believes it has come up with the perfect cup of tea. Stand-up paddleboarding is almost mandatory here and a shot of yourself on still lake waters with a beautiful backdrop, looking like a pro, is a must for the slideshow back home. Another must-do is a cottage with a sauna, a common theme in Finland. There are literally thousands to choose from in the area, so this is the perfect place to do it. If you ever manage to leave your cottage, take a trip back in time with a steamship cruise or, for a more intimate experience, hire a kayak and set off on a water safari in search of a friendly Saimaa ringed seal.
There is an abundance of great overnight options in Savonlinna, thanks to the world-renowned opera festival that takes place every July in Olavinlinna Castle, attracting visitors from all over the world. This 15th-century castle is the northernmost medieval stone fortress still standing, and a national icon.
The nearby old town is colourful and cobbled – well worth a stroll – and a good spot to try local craft beers, as this part of the country is known for its impressive breweries. Head east of the city to visit Kerimäki, the world’s largest wooden church, where 3,000 people can sit at a time in the 27m-tall (88ft) building. Also worth a visit is Punkaharju ridge, where the pink hotel of the same name has drawn crowds for years. And since you’re in Finland, it would be weird not to visit Finnish Sauna World – yes, really – at the Järvisydän Hotel and Spa for a €30 (£26.50) bargain of sauna bonanza.
On the shores of Lake Vesijärvi, Lahti punches above its weight on social media, thanks to seemingly endless photo ops. Climb to the top of Radiomäki for a shot of the city and the lake, before heading to Malski, where a mural decorates the walls, and the Lahti Art Museum, due to open in 2021, next door. There are also sporting statues of Finnish legends such as footballer Jari Litmanen, as well as an impressive musical fountain and a less photogenic, but seriously delicious, culinary local speciality – the meat mug – essentially kebab meat in a paper cola cup. Strange but true.
The lake, one of the largest in Finland, is so clean, it provides drinking water for more than 1m Finns. But there’ll be no need to crouch down to drink it, as your exploration of the lake will offer up plenty of places along the shore to stop for refreshments.
Vääksy village is where you can sit and watch boats travel through the locks, eat ice cream, do a little shopping in the boutiques of Vääksyntie, or take the 8km (5mi) Pulkkilanharju Esker nature trail. Try to spend at least one night at the Ilola Inn, an old log house that has been transformed into a luxury hotel with a beach sauna.
From Lahti, you can take a boat over to Jyväskylä, where people who are really, really obsessed with sauna come to talk about it. In this region, you can enjoy the world’s largest smoke sauna, float on a sauna raft on the lake, enjoy sauna evenings or do sauna yoga. But there’s far more to it than smoke and steam. There are four national parks, with hundreds of kilometres of cycle paths and hiking trails, surrounded, as ever, by beauty. You can choose to camp, too, if you want to spend the night with nature. Or for a more luxurious bed with a view, try a glass igloo, where you can lie back and enjoy views of the glorious and unrivalled Lakeland.
Finland is ready to welcome travellers as soon as the time is right. Head to visitfinland.com to start planning your trip to this magnificent country.