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Situated in Southeastern Finland, Lake Saimaa in the Lakeland district is the country’s largest lake and the fourth-largest natural freshwater lake in Europe, boasting a maze of 15,000 islands and more coastline than the entire nation of Spain. This means innumerable ways to be immersed in nature and find joy. Finland has been voted the happiest place on earth four times in a row in an annual UN-sponsored report. The moment you arrive in the Lake Saimaa region, it’s easy to understand the Finnish people’s secret to their happiness.

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In addition to the purest of natural settings, the area’s seasonal variations, cultural sites, outdoor activities, and the opportunity to see the world’s rarest seal make this region an inviting destination year-round. The scenery transforms from vibrant summery green to beautiful orange and scarlet hues in the autumn, and to fairytale-esque white in the winter. It's no wonder Finns are proud of their environment. Visitors can enjoy hiking, biking, canoeing, cruising, berry and mushroom picking in the warmer months and try cross-country skiing, Nordic skating, and winter lake swimming after time in the sauna. The sun sets for only a few hours in the summer, allowing one to soak in as much of the scenic beauty as possible and experience myriad outdoor activities. Keep reading to learn more about the highlights of the Lake Saimaa region.

Seeing The Rarest Seal In The World

A popular spring activity is taking a boat tour to see the famed ringed seal – the rarest seal in the world – found exclusively in Lake Saimaa. The ringed seal is one of two species of freshwater seals on the planet (the other seal lives in Lake Ladoga near the Finnish-Russian border). The ringed seal has inhabited Lake Saimaa since the ice age and faced near extinction due to fishing and climate change. The seal population declined to less than 200 in the early 1980s, but protection measures brought the number close to 400 in recent years. Thanks to the help of the community coming together to provide lakeshore snowdrifts for these endemic seals to give birth, the iconic Finnish seal is making a comeback.

Visitors can see these curious seals and their adorable pups on a three-hour guided excursion in Linnansaari National Park with SaimaaHoliday Oravi. With the iconic “rings” on their skin, they can be seen molting on the rocks or playing with their pups. Although tours run from May to September, the best opportunity to see them is during the molting season, from the beginning of May until the first week of June; afterwards, the ideal time to spot these adorable seals is at sunset as they swim. After a day of boating, travelers can rest easy at the rustic yet luxurious Nature Hotel & Spa Resort Järvisydän in nearby Rantasalmi.

  • Cost: Seal safari starts at $79 per person on a group tour and $406 for a private tour.

Connecting With History And Culture

The Lake Saimaa region offers visitors a mix of culture, historical events, and attractions. Each summer, the globe’s northernmost medieval castle -- Olavinlinna Castle built in 1475 in the city of Savonlinna – hosts a month-long opera festival performing to an audience of around 60,000. First held in 1912, the Savonlinna Opera Festival is an internationally recognized Finnish cultural event bringing together music lovers from around the globe to enjoy the classical operatic repertoire and its own productions. The Saimaa ringed seal itself became a star of its very own opera a few years ago, scripted and composed with help from local primary school students.

  • Cost: Tickets start at $103 + $5 service fee

In the summer months, history and anthropology enthusiasts can get onboard the Aino-Laiva to cruise to the 6,000-year-old Astuvansalmi rock paintings in Ristiina, Mikkeli. This is the largest rock art site in the Nordics and one of UNESCO’s Global Geopark sites. Spread across a vertical rock face are approximately 80 prehistoric paintings of hand prints, moose, human figures, fish, lines, paw prints, and mystical patterns located 13 to 29 feet above Saimaa’s current water level, which can be viewed from a platform.

Among the paintings, one particular figure – a female holding a bow – stands out. It has come to be known as Artemis of Astuvansalmi. Figures of women holding weapons are not found elsewhere in Finland. The Aino-Laiva cruise takes visitors to the Kallioniemi EN Setälä's historic manor house, and those looking to spend the night can take advantage of the overnight accommodations at the manor. Kallioniemi is open during the Spring and Summer seasons from March to September.

  • Cost: Tickets for the rock paintings cruise cost $41 for adults, $16 child under 15, and children under three are free.

Related: Meet Turku: Guide To The Oldest Town In Finland

Experiencing The Finnish Sauna

The word sauna is synonymous with Finland, the birthplace of this rejuvenating tradition. It’s estimated that the country has two million saunas for its 5.3 million population. Almost all residents, including pregnant women, children, and the elderly enjoy sitting in the warm embrace of the sauna weekly. Even a single session in a sauna, followed by a dip in the freezing lake in the winter, can make you feel invigorated.

Luckily, it’s not hard to find a sauna. Apartment buildings, offices, vacation rentals, boats, and even cars all come equipped with their own built-in sauna. Sahanlahti Resort in Puumala, less than an hour's drive from Mikkeli, has various types of saunas, including a traditional wood-heated sauna, an electric sauna, and a sauna made from ice in the winter, all of which have access to the for a refreshing dip afterward. The resort also offers various types of accommodation equipped with modern amenities, and three restaurants, one of which features one of the best views of Lake Saimaa.

Getting There

Finland and the Saimaa region are easily accessible from major North American cities. FINNAIR offers service to Helsinski, the capital city of Finland. Upon arrival, reaching the Lakeland region in Eastern Finland is just a couple of hours' drive.