Lake Saimaa: Finland’s Nature Playground

Lake Saimaa is the largest lake in Finland – and it's a huge draw for travelers.

A smoke sauna along the shore of Lake Saimaa. Photo by Janna Graber
A smoke sauna along the shore of Lake Saimaa. Photo by Janna Graber

Finnish Sauna

In Finland, sauna is a revered tradition and a large part of Finnish culture. Any visit to Finland without time in the sauna would be incomplete. So after dinner, we head to the lakeside smoke sauna.

There are many different types of saunas in Finland, including wood stove sauna, steam sauna, ice sauna and tonight’s feature sauna – smoke sauna.

Smoke saunas do not have a chimney. Wood is burned in large stove, allowing smoke and heat to fill the room. When the sauna is hot enough, the fire is allowed to die and smoke is ventilated out. The residual heat warms the sauna for the duration of a visit. And although the walls are often black from smoke, the smell is enticing and the heat warm and comforting.

To the Finns, sauna is a huge part of health and wellness. It’s a “must” to be enjoyed at regular intervals. Without it, many Finns feel they are incomplete.

“Sauna makes me feel truly clean,” explains one local. “And it’s where I relax and unwind,” says another. Being invited to enjoy a sauna with a Finn is an honor. It’s a place where you can discuss real life issues and bond with one another. Toddlers here take their first visit to sauna when they are only a few months old and continue throughout their life.

All that time in the sauna means the Finns have a strong tolerance for the heat, something my American friends and I struggle with.

The heat in the smoke sauna hits us like a wave when we enter, but we happily follow the example of our Finnish friends and take a seat on the wooden benches.

Relaxed smiles fill their faces and they breathe in deeply. They look so serene.

As for my friends and me? Not so much.

“I need to get some fresh air!” one of the Americans says, rushing out the door after only a few minutes’ time.

Finnish sauna, it seems, takes some practice.

That’s when we learn the next step of a Finnish lakeside sauna – simply jump in the lake and cool off.

The cool lake water is refreshing after time in the sauna. Photo by Janna Graber
The cool lake water is refreshing after time in the sauna. Photo by Janna Graber

The cool water startles up as we leap from the pier, but soon we’re laughing and enjoying the soothing water. It’s already 10:45 pm, but the skies are still light. The shadows of the forests along the shore grow darker, but the sky has a quiet glow, creating a fairytale-like atmosphere in the waning summer light.

We spend the next hour going back and forth from the sauna to the lake, building up our sauna tolerance. By now, we’ve begun to understand.

It’s not just the heat of the sauna that is appealing – it’s being part of Mother Nature and feeling her extremes, hot and cold. It’s being surrounded by the earth’s beauty, accompanied by the warmth and laughter of friends.

As my friends splash in the lake, I turn on my back and float back toward the pier. A serene smile fills my face. It’s a wonderful night to be in Finland.

If You Go to Finland

Anttolanhovi Art & Design Villas. Photo by Janna Graber
Anttolanhovi Art & Design Villas. Photo by Janna Graber

Where to Stay on Lake Saimaa

Lake Saimaa has many historic manor homes and luxury resorts. Each of the places below has a strong focus on healthy cuisine made from fresh, local ingredients. They offer excellent service and comfortable accommodations in a natural, lakeside setting.

Anttolanhovi Wellness Village

Large glass windows provide scenic views of the lake at Anttolanhovi Art & Design villas. The villas are perfect for a family or group, and even have a full kitchen and living room. The décor is luxury Finnish design with light woods and lots of glass. Many guests come just to eat at Anttolanhovi’s restaurant, which features local food. The resort’s waterside location is the quintessential Finnish lakeside experience.

Hotel & Spa Resort Järvisydän

When Tanja Heiskanen married into the Heiskanen family, she knew that part of her life would be dedicated to serving travelers. Her husband, Markus, is the 11th generation in his family to host travelers at their hotel on the shores of Lake Saimaa. All that experience of the generations has paid off. Their resort – Hotel & Spa Resort Järvisydän – provides luxury accommodations along with cuisine prepared by top chefs with the freshest ingredients. The room are spacious and well-designed, with comfortable beds and nice views of the lake. The resort also has their extensive Finnish Sauna World, which offers three different types of saunas, as well as an outdoor hot tub. Best of all, the Heiskanens are fun people. The highlights of my stay were a morning stand up paddling trip with Tanja (SUP can be rented onsite) and singing Karaoke with Markus and other staff and diners.

Sahanlahti Resort

The terrace at Sahanlahti Resort has been rated as one of the most beautiful terrace views in Finland – and for good reason. The resort, which has an old sawmill milieu, is located on a hill overlooking Lake Saimaa. Along with comfortable accommodations, it’s known for its local and organic food, special craft beers and organic wines.

Hotelli Punkaharju

The historic Hotelli Punkaharju was built in 1845 in the forest lake shore along Lake Saimaa. It’s been lovingly restored, and its central theme is a focus on nature. Dishes in its restaurant are made from local ingredients and wild food. Stop by for lunch or to take a lake cruise on its steamer.

Olavinlinna Castle is home to the Savonlinna Opera Festival. Photo by Janna Graber
Olavinlinna Castle is home to the Savonlinna Opera Festival. Photo by Janna Graber

Don’t Miss: Opera in a 15th-Century Castle

The small lakeside city of Savonlinna has a beautiful setting along Lake Saimaa and is known for its focus on the arts. Each summer, it hosts the Savonlinna Opera Festival. (We got to see Othello.) It’s quite a memorable experience to see Shakespeare performed in a 15th-century castle. The festival has grown so popular, that it now attracts more than 60,000 a year.

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Author Bio: Janna Graber has covered travel in more than 40 countries. She is the managing editor at Go World Travel Magazine and the editor of three travel anthologies, including A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel.