Finland’s Unspoilt Secret

Beverley Watts enjoys slow island life

During the pandemic, staycationing Finns discovered the relaxing peace of the Gulf of Finland and now we curious travellers are keen to follow in their footsteps. Helsinki is a wonderful compact city, with elegant cathedrals, efficient public trams and cheeky urban seagulls, but I decided to have a look further east for a more rural experience and a few surprises. The Loviisa, Kotka and Hamina region has its own charms and the islands off the coast are tranquil summer havens.

Gulf Of Finland

Wherever you go in Finland, there will be a sauna. For the Finns, life without regularly working up a sweat in a wooden hut is like the Brits without a cup of tea. A sauna is almost a holy place, important to wellbeing and peace of mind as well as cardiovascular health and muscle recovery. If it’s good for the Finns it’s likely to be good for me, too, I reckon, so I stripped to my swimsuit at Santalahti Resort, Kotka and prepared to be poached. 

Santalahti Resort

Traditionally, you’re meant to be naked but seeing as I was about to get hot and steamy with newly-acquainted travel companions, it seemed a rather daunting idea. We chatted while the sweat dripped off our noses in the Santa Glass Sauna we’d booked with gulf views and then padded to the seashore as the sunset at 10pm for a cooling dip. (Okay, well, I waded up to my knees.)

Santalahti Resort Cabin

My accommodation for the night was a log cabin in the woods, surrounded by pine trees, perfectly comfortable with its own bathroom. Crispy bagels with cheese and a mug of good coffee was a fortifying  breakfast for a guided morning hike next day along the Santalahti Nature Trail. The landscape immediately brought alive The Summer Book, an enchanting autobiographical novel by Moomin author Tove Jansson, based on summers with her grandmother on a tiny island in this region. 

Jansson’s Moomins, a family of white trolls, have shops dedicated to them in Finland and Moomin-themed children’s playgrounds abound. At the state-of-the-art Maritime Centre Vellamo in Kotka shaped like a tumbling wave, Jansson’s little wooden boat is amongst a huge array of items in a multi-exhibition and museum space. 

This arresting building, a shimmering sweep of glass and aluminium, is a place to wander all day. There are antique costumes, paintings and ceramics on display as well as nautical history. The interactive installations are very clever and Restaurant Laakonki serves a tasty lunch buffet. 

Moored to the museum ship pier are steam-powered icebreaker Tarmo and bright red lightship Kemi, both built in the very early 1900s. Tours of these historical boats make you realise the extreme hardship of a seaman’s life. The crews aboard Tarmo had to break up thick solid ice sheets blocking the harbour in freezing Finnish winters. Kemi, which guided other ships in dark and foul weather, lit the way with its lighthouse tower and sounded an ear-splitting foghorn.

Kaunissaari Island

It was time to head out to sea – on a calm, sunny day –  and if you like the wind whipping through your hair, a rigid inflatable speedboat can whizz you from Kotka to beautiful Kaunissaari Island. There is a slightly slower small passenger ferry, too, and slowly is definitely the right way to do things here. Hike around this quiet idyll, with its sprinkling of heritage ochre and vermilion painted houses. A mini museum is stacked full of antique village artifacts, used by the isolated islanders who arrived in the 16th century, and the apple pastries at the Kaunissaari Maja restaurant are delectable.

Or set sail from the Vimpasaari shoreline near Hamina with Vimpa Islands for a very special experience on privately-owned Rakinkotka Viking Island. Stay overnight in a log cabin, practise your axe-throwing and enjoy a beer around the campfire after, yes, an invigorating beachside sauna. Vikings descended on these granite-rich shores around 800AD and for a bit of fun, there are horned helmets to wear at dinner and owners Virpi and Pertti Illi are congenial hosts. Irish Terrier Lenni loves visitors and rushes to the dock to welcome everyone.

Back on the mainland, explore Hamina on foot. The town’s circular design, with the Town Hall at the centre, is easy to orientate. The Fortress Path leads to the early 19th century fortified walls and the Shopkeeper’s Museum captures the mood of a local period store with smithy and craftsmen’s facilities in the yard. Rampsi Kitchen & Lounge has a waterside deck and serves a great goats’ cheese salad.

Don’t go home without strolling through a few of Kotka’s lovely parks, especially the award-winning Sopakka Water Garden with its tumbling waterfall and statues. There’s also some phenomenal urban street art around this interesting port. The fur-hatted figure in Kotkankatu, a towering masterpiece covering a multi-storey building, is directly across the street from restaurant Vausti. (We opted for the three-course surprise menu which included home-smoked trout and roast goose and it was superb. Trust the chef!) It’s a short walk away from the central Sokos Hotel which has not only one but three saunas with terrace views.

On your way back to Helsinki airport, a great stop-off is Strömfors Ironworks in Loviisa. Founded in 1695, it’s a marvellously preserved open-air museum. Horseshoes, clogs and handmade nails were produced with a waterwheel – still working – on the Kymijoki River and inside the workshop it’s as if the apprentices have just left for the day. The picturesque village also has an unusual octagonal wooden church and Restaurant Mylly is the ideal place for a final Finnish meal. The quirky décor is delightful, my succulent fish of the day was served decorated with edible flowers and the rose gin and tonic a triumph.

More information

June is the sunniest month in Loviisa, Kotka and Hamina with an average of 298 hours of sunshine. July is the warmest at 21°C (70°F). In June and July average temperatures are between 20°C (68°F) and 26°C (79°F).

More information can be found at Visit Finland, Visit Kotka Hamina and Finnair. Finnair flies from London Heathrow, Manchester and Edinburgh to Helsinki all year round. Fares start at £98 one-way in Economy Class and £290 in Business Class. The Santalahti Resort is surrounded by sea and nature and offers 5-star luxury villas as well as cosy cabins, rates start at €89 per night. At Sokos Hotel Original Seurahuone start at €215 per night and Rakinkotka Viking Island rates start at  €115 per night.

To plan and book your holiday to Finland, call Silver Travel Advisor on 0800 014 5678.

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