Most of Finland could be dubbed lake land, but around here it seems there’s more aqua than terra firma. Reflecting the sky and forests as clearly as a mirror, the sparkling, clean water leaves an indelible impression. When exploring the region, it’s almost obligatory to get waterborne, whether it be while practicing your paddling skills in a canoe or by hopping aboard a historic steamboat for leisurely progress down canals and across lakes. On land, there’s just as much to do. Architecture buffs from around the globe make the pilgrimage here to visit Alvar Aalto’s buildings, opera aficionados arrive en masse to attend the world-famous Savonlinna Opera Festival and outdoor enthusiasts shoulder their packs and set out to hike through tranquil forests of spruce, birch, and pine. And at the end of active days, there are always saunas to relax in.
POINTS OF INTEREST
The historic frontier settlement of Savonlinna is one of Finland’s prettiest towns and most compelling tourist destinations. Scattered across a garland of small islands strung between Haukivesi and Pihlajavesi lakes, its major attraction is the visually dramatic Olavinlinna Castle, constructed in the 15th century and now the spectacular venue of July’s world-famous Savonlinna Opera Festival. In summer, when the lakes shimmer in the sun and operatic arias waft through the forest-scented air, the place is quite magical. In winter it’s blanketed in fairy-talelike snow, and its friendly locals can be relied upon to offer visitors a warm welcome.
Punkaharju, the famous pine-covered esker (sand or gravel ridge) on the shore of Lake Saimaa, is touted in tourist brochures as ‘Finland’s national landscape’. The region was first declared a protected area by Tsar Alexander in 1803 and became a favored summering spot for St Petersburg gentry. The unspoiled landscape is extremely picturesque and great for walking, cycling, and cross-country skiing. It can be reached on an easy day trip from Savonlinna, but is also an appealing place to stay.
THE SEAL LAKES
Two primarily watery national parks in the Savonlinna area – Kolovesi and Linnansaari – offer fabulous lake scapes dotted with islands that are best explored by hiring a canoe or kayak. Several outfitters offer these services, and free camping spots dot the lakes’ shores. It’s the best part of the Lakeland to really get up close and personal with this region’s natural beauty. This is the habitat of the endangered freshwater Saimaa ringed seal. Separated from its Baltic cousins at the end of the last Ice Age, it was in imminent danger of extinction during the 20th century due to hunting and human interference. Though there remain only a precarious 300-odd of the greyish beasts, population levels are on the increase. Late May is the most likely time to see seals, as they are molting and spend much time on rocks.
Tiny, sedate, and extremely scenic, this village 25 miles southwest of Savonlinna is known as the finishing point for the Oravereitti, Finland’s most famous canoeing route. If visiting for the annual Sulkavan Suursoudut rowing festival, be sure to organize your accommodation well in advance.
Set on the shores of Saimaa, Finland’s largest lake, this sizeable provincial town is an important regional transport hub and military base, and was the headquarters of the Finnish army during WWII; visiting museums relating to those years are the main – in truth only – compelling reason to visit.
The date when the Valamo community was initially established is disputed, but most historians cite the late 14th century. Originally located on Lake Ladoga, it survived the Russian Revolution’s aftermath because the original monastery (now in Russian Karelia) fell just within newly independent Finland. This changed during the 1939-40 Winter War when the region fell to the Soviets. Fortunately, Ladoga froze (a rare occurrence), allowing a hurried evacuation of 190 monks, icons, and treasures. The evacuated monks set up a new community here in Heinävesi in 1940, and the original monastery became a Russian military base; it was only in 1989 that a monastic community was re-established there. With its idyllic setting on an island in Juojävi and its excellent facilities, the Heinävesi monastery is now one of Finland’s most popular tourist attractions.
Vivacious and modern, western Lakeland’s main town has a wonderful waterside location, an optimistic feel, and an impeccable architectural pedigree. Thanks to the work of Alvar Aalto, who started his career here, Jyväskylä (yoovah-skoo-lah) is of global architectural interest. At the other end of the cultural spectrum, petrolheads around the world know it as a legendary World Rally Championships venue. The large student population and lively arts scenes give the town plenty of energy and nightlife.
Kuopio is the quintessential summery lakeside town, offering pleasure cruises on the azure water, hikes in spruce forests, tasty local fish specialties, and plenty of terraces and beer gardens where you can enjoy a drink. Those visitors who are more interested in cultural diversions than the great outdoors will enjoy visiting the town’s portfolio of museums; note that all of these are closed on Mondays.