Heaven near Helsinki: Why Finland is the place to go for rural forest relaxation

From eating a ‘forest on a plate’ to be ‘whisked’ with twigs, it’s all about the au naturel, Finn-style in the lesser visited Saimaa region.

I’m flat on my back on the forest floor, deep in the Finnish ‘Land of the Lakes’. A full moon glimmers through the treetops.

There’s not a sound to be heard beyond my own breathing. It feels as if nothing at all is happening. And yet I feel intensely alive.

I’ve been walking with Tero Vänttinen of Punkaharju, Finland’s oldest hotel (rooms from £185pn) and one of my stop-offs on a restorative trip around Lake Saimaa in south-eastern Finland.

Saimaa is a strange lake indeed: fragmented by canals, dotted by 13,710 islands, and with a ragged coastline that, at 9,020 miles, is the longest of any lake in the world.

The rarest seal on Earth is found here, as are elk, blue hares and even wolves and bears. Vintage wooden steamers ply its waters and the summer cabins of your wildest #cottagecore dreams dot its shores.


Punkaharju is a dreamy pink confection, now owned by Finn supermodel Saimi Hoyer, who decamped to the region for health reasons.

Today it attracts foodies for its healthy yet indulgent dining based on forest-foraged products: a pre-dinner cocktail features black trumpet mushroom-infused bourbon, pickled chanterelles and rosemary, while one starter is a delicious artichoke soup with porcini and grilled mushroom oil.

I worked up an appetite walking with Tero, a 40-year-old personal trainer whose forest meditation inspires me to tune into what is going on around me.


By closing off the visual, you focus in turn on what you can hear, smell, taste, touch. And what you can hug – in this case, the gnarly trunk of a pine tree by the lake.

From here, Tero lures me to the hotel’s lakeside sauna for a hot yoga session.

An added Finnish touch is being ‘whisked’ by a vihta, a bunch of young tree twigs – something that leaves very-English me so hot and bothered that I uncharacteristically run out to the lake pier in my bikini, Finnish-style, for an invigorating waggle of my limbs in its icy waters.

The resulting endorphin surge is huge.

Next up is Kuru Resort, freshly unboxed at the end of 2021 to offer stilted hillside villas with vast picture windows on to a lake that beckons with standup paddleboarding and kayaking.


Home to the first Sisley Spa in the Nordics, it hosts bliss-inducing activities such as aerial yoga and sound bathing – the latter a concept I’ve pooh-poohed in the past but that, for the course of an hour, feels like it is quite literally rewiring my brain.

Kuru is another foodie retreat.

My ‘forest on a plate’ of risotto with pickled and fried mushrooms, salted cranberries and young spruce is one of those dishes that makes you feel nearly everything you’ve ever eaten before is a pale imitation of food.

It’s another indulgence I’ve earned – this time with a serotonin-boosting fat-biking trip through Porosalmi forest at neighbouring family-friendly Järvisydän resort. Its vast spa and activities are open to guests of adult-only Kuru, including, in season, ice-skating on an 11-mile lake trail.

My last night is spent at Halla Resort, where in deepest winter chef Ilkka Arvola ice-fishes the perch and pike he uses in his dishes.

It’s here that, after the soundest of sleeps, I rise to greet the sunrise from my private jetty. Everything glows: the sky, the water.

The world seems to hold its breath, and I hold mine. I close my eyes, as Tero taught me to. Beside me, I hear reeds shiver in the breeze and a fish flip in the water.

Nothing and everything is happening, and I am intensely alive.

Flights from London to Helsinki from £98 one way with Finnair. Rooms at Kuru Resort from £238pn; lakeside villas at Halla Resort from £366pn (sleep up to six). For more info go to visitfinland.com and visitsaimaa.fi/en

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