In the land of the midnight sun, the long days never Finnish. Staying in a summer cottage on a remote island in Finland is the perfect way to enjoy a family holiday away from the crowds
We arrived in Finland at 11 o'clock at night, in brilliant sunshine. The streets were empty and at this late hour the locals were all, very sensibly, either at home or in bed. It takes a while to get your head around bright sunshine in the dead of night, but this is the land of the midnight sun.
Finland is a country with a land area twice that of the UK, but a population of only five million. The resulting empty roads and even emptier landscape provide a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the rest of Europe in summer time.
We were headed for that very Finnish institution “the summer cottage”. With so much land area, it is a rare Finnish family that doesn’t have access to a timbered cottage, either in the depths of the forest or beside a lake. We drove to Juankoski in the central lake district of Finland where we would be staying for the next week. We met the owners at the end of a remote forest track; we’d never have found them without our mobile phones – and yes, Nokia is the name of a town in Finland.
A short boat trip across the mirrored surface of a lake took us to our temporary home on a beautiful tiny island called Keskisaari. When I asked how they had managed to get all the materials for the cottage and sauna to the island, the owner Maati said dryly, and with typical Finnish understatement: “By truck, of course”. No, this isn’t a lateral-thinking exercise – and I’m sure you have already guessed the answer. They drove across the icy surface of the lake in winter.
Keskisaari was totally peaceful and our typical log cabin blended perfectly into the beautiful surroundings. After settling in, we headed for the wood-burning sauna where you can try and take the heat for as long as possible before dashing out for a cooling plunge into the lake. With birch trees growing all around, the makings of a vasta (or vihta), the bunch of leafy twigs with which Finnish sauna “bathers” beat themselves, are conveniently to hand. This may sound a little masochistic, but it actually has a very pleasurable massaging effect and is reputed to tone the skin, while the birch leaves have a lovely soothing fragrance.
We had timed our visit to coincide with mid-summer’s eve. To those living in southern climes, it is perhaps hard to imagine the significance of this day for the Finns. The short, cold days of the Finnish winter are replaced by summer days of almost perpetual daylight. By tradition, at mid-summer the doors and gates of summer cottages throughout rural areas are decorated with leafy birch branches and young girls go in search of seven different kinds of wild flower to place under their pillow and hope to dream of their future husband. Many young Finns choose to marry on this wonderfully romantic evening.
After a meal of Finnish salmon soup, we headed out across the lake to the little island of Ristisaari where we had been invited to join two families who had celebrated this night together for more than 50 years. Standing in a verdant forest glade, recounting stories of years past, drinking kostenkova (Finnish vodka) and listening to the macabre jokes of our hosts (who were both surgeons), we felt privileged to share with them a happy and magical evening. As midnight approached, we lit an enormous bonfire and roasted sausages by the lakeside. The sun dipped briefly below the horizon, leaving a strange, almost surreal purplish half-light, only to rise again half an hour later.
We stayed at Keskisaari for a week, with wonderfully long sunny days passing blissfully. Only at a summer cottage is it possible to experience the “real” Finland. Reading a good book by the lake, fishing, picking wild flowers, berries and mushrooms, rowing a boat – in one word, relaxing.
“Real” Finnish summer cottages can be quite basic, with outside loos and saunas. Most Finns favour this basic back-to-nature style – but if you prefer to retain your creature comforts, it is possible to rent rather luxurious and extremely comfortable cottages with showers, microwaves and satellite TV.
Children will love the cottage experience, too. Our two girls were thrilled to be living on “their “ island and enjoyed picking wild flowers (everywhere in wild profusion), collecting logs for the sauna and most especially digging for worms for our mostly unsuccessful fishing expeditions. We found plenty of other child-friendly activities nearby, including pony riding and a wildlife park complete with wolves, elks and bears, all indigenous to Finland. We also swam and paddled in the lake – but even in summer, the water can be chilly. Do be aware that, in some areas, there can be a problem with mosquitoes, particularly in the evenings – so remember to take plenty of sprays and insect repellent.
After our cottage holiday, we headed south. Do take the time to visit Finland’s capital, Helsinki. The sea and islands, the sound of ship’s horns, the marinas, the fish market and the wonderful seafood all shape its character. For me, the great charm of Helsinki lies in the outlying islands dotting the sea around the city, some connected by bridges to the mainland, some a short ferry ride away. Korkeasaari houses the Helsinki City Zoo and was a big hit with our girls, while Seurasaari has beautiful forest walks and an outdoor museum of rural buildings from all over Finland, some dating from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Ryanair (www.ryanair.co.uk) flies to Tampere, two hours north of Helsinki. EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies direct to Helsinki. We found four return tickets for £370 in July this year.
Where to stay
Finnish summer cottage holidays can be booked through: Lomarengas Oy (+358 9 5766 3350, www.lomarengas.fi). Prices range from about £350 to £1,500 per cottage per week. Helsinki apartments are available from about £65 per night. Try www.habitation.fi for a good selection.
Finnish Tourist Office (www.visitfinland.com)