There are those in Finland who will tell you jokes about how the year’s summer lasted an entire weekend. “Oh yes, we had a great summer this year; it came on a Wednesday,” others will say. Don’t believe such people. When I was in Finland in early June, I enjoyed an entire week of glorious sunshine, with temperatures in the high 20s. And that was just the beginning of the year’s warm season.
When the sun comes out to play, the Finns come out to party. That means weekends spent doing nothing at isolated summer cottages, long hikes in the forest and punts on the lake, swimming and fishing, and sauna (pronounced sow-nah). Oh, the Finnish fascination with the sauna. For a country of just over five million people, there are over three million saunas: in apartments and in offices, in hotels and holiday homes, and even in the airport. It is considered both relaxation and rejuvenation, personal and social, this time inside a wooden cabin, heated to over 90 degrees Celsius.
Not surprisingly, I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time in and around sauna spaces. I had heard that the Finns are comfortable, even think it de rigueur, enjoying the sauna in the nude, but I stuck to my modest swimsuit. My first time was at a luxury hotel in the Lakeland region down southeast, with two whole levels of space dedicated to the classic sauna and various modern innovations (that are not a patch on the real McCoy), swimming pools and water slides.
Traditionally, sauna is wood-fired, but nowadays, most of it is heated with electricity, although the other elements remain the same. Sauna 2.0 means infrared sauna, steam sauna and aroma sauna, among other things. According to custom, after sweating it out in the sauna, it is important to cool off. Indoors, this means a swim in the pool or even a brisk cold shower. And that is exactly what I did: sweltered in the sauna for 10 minutes, following which I lounged in the swimming pool for a bit. Rinse and repeat.
At my next hotel sauna experience, there were not just swimming pools but jacuzzi and hot tubs, as well as a hole — I cannot think of a better way to describe it — with water at a cold 12 degrees Celsius. After the heat of the sauna, this was an unmistakable wake-up call for all my muscles and nerves, even if all I could manage was a single shivering minute inside.
My most memorable experience in Finland, though, was an evening by Lake Saimaa, Finland’s largest lake — floating under the blue skies, dipping in and out of the frigid water after a complete sauna detox, all of this followed by a dinner on the shore, watching the sun stubbornly refuse to even fade at 10 pm. My orange bodysuit seemed more suited for taking off into outer space rather than stepping gingerly into a lake as I did. But it kept me dry and afloat, as I closed my eyes and let every bit of me unwind under the late evening sun. The sauna-soak (in this case, a dip in the lake) session after this was a breeze, my circulatory system initially shaken by the contrast in temperatures quickly lulled into a state of relaxation.
Another morning, I sailed on Saimaa, with Tomi Varis of Taiga Saimaa that offers various activities in and around the lake. An hour on the blue waters, and we fetched up at tiny Muukonsaari, one of the 13,000 islands on the lake, where Tomi rents out cottages for those seeking to get away from city life. All I had time for, though, was a walk in the dense forest along the lake, with a short break where Tomi set up a makeshift stove and rustled up fresh coffee and Finnish pancakes, eaten slathered with generous amounts of raspberry jam.
And in just a week there, I understood why Finland regularly features in the list of the world’s happiest countries.