The stress and fatigue of a pandemic-induced staycation for a year and a half became a distant memory as I ran from the steamy sauna tent of Revontuli Resort to jump into the freezing Lake Iso-Virmas. As I emerged from the water, refreshed and invigorated, I realized why I chose Finland for my first international vacation in almost two years. It is this raw connection to nature that makes the Finnish people joyful and the country named the Happiest Place on Earth four times in a row in an annual UN-sponsored report. After the year that I’ve had, I was ready for a taste of happiness.
Living in the most forested country in Europe, the Finns have access to the great outdoors within just 15 minutes of wherever they reside. Finland is also home to the Lakeland region in the province of Central Finland, which boasts the two largest lakes in the country: Lake Saimaa and Lake Päijänne. Jyväskylä Region, located in the western part of the Finnish Lakeland, is considered the Sauna Region of the World. Traveling from the charming capital city of Helsinki, I made my way to Lahti, the gateway to the lakes. Here, on Lake Vesijärvi, which connects to Lake Päijänne, I started my happiness tour on MS Happy Days with a boat sauna with a traditional healer.
But first, the significance of the sauna in Finland. There are over three million saunas serving the 5.5 million population of Finland, the birthplace of the sauna. In 2020, the Finnish sauna culture was added to UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Most private homes, lakeside cabins, apartments, and even office and government buildings have a natural wood-burning or electric sauna. Saunas are also added to boats and buses. Ask any Finn how often they sauna, and they will say anywhere from two to three times a week; they look forward to it on weekends and holiday breaks. In the past, the sauna was considered a sacred temple; women gave birth in the sauna and named their children in these holy places. Today, the sauna is a gathering spot for families and friends, providing an escape for relaxation and mental and physical healing.
As the boat engine gently vibrated and rocked the tiny vessel of MS Happy Days, folk healer Maaria Alén led me to the sauna situated at the bow. The quaint, clean wooden space overlooked the calm waters and autumnal view of yellowing birch trees along the shore. Maaria closed the door and poured water over the heated stones to let the steam rise. She then sang a blessing in Finnish. Soon, tiny beads of perspiration began to appear on my face. Maaria handed me a sauna whisk, made up of fresh birch leaves. The activity of whisking — gently patting the skin with birch leaves — helps with the flow of energy and clears the skin. The minty scent of birch, combined with the humid embrace of the rising steam, instantly calmed me. A gentle foot bath, composed of herbs and flowers, cooled my feet while the honey herbal face mask Maaria gently massaged into my skin began to melt its goodness into me. Stepping out of the sauna and onto the deck, a gust of cool wind enlivened my body. I felt relaxed, both in body and mind, and invigorated.
Sauna isn’t the only thing keeping Finns happy. Access to untouched natural beauty means regular hiking, biking, canoeing, snowshoeing, and skiing. Finland features 40 national parks and the country’s “Everyman’s rights” mean that people can venture just about anywhere. Adventure seekers can enjoy a host of activities, including ice swimming, nordic skating over frozen lakes, and snow-kiting.
While outdoor activities are abundant, the Finnish people often combine being in nature with another popular pastime — wild berry picking and mushroom foraging. Both berries and mushrooms, along with other fresh and local ingredients, are the basis of the Finnish diet. Most Finns, regardless of socioeconomic status, go into the forests in the summer and fall to forage. Cloudberries, lingonberries, bilberries, and raspberries grow in the boreal forests, while mushrooms of all kinds (from pine cep to chanterelle) can be found sprouting from the thick ground moss.
As someone who adores the great outdoors but never went foraging, it seemed fortuitous that my vacation rental at Halla Nature & Design Villas in the Lake Saimaa region was surrounded by woodland and pine forests. Within minutes of wandering away from the road connecting the villas, I found myself in a magical realm, one where thick green moss made each step lighter and the colorful canopy of trees filtered the evening light to provide a soft glow; everything around me seemed more vibrant and like a fairytale. While I didn’t spot angels flitting about, I did find varied mushrooms dotting the lush ground. I picked a few edible milkcap mushrooms before heading back. Although I couldn’t use the fungi I picked for dinner that night, the memory of foraging would stay with me for a long time to come. Finland and its stunning natural beauty would forever bring me feelings of pure happiness.