Finland: best things to do in the beautiful 'natural playground'- and why it's great for sustainable travel
On a trip to several of the scenic highlights of Finland, Craig Sinclair learned first-hand how spectacular the natural environment is there - and how dedicated the people are to preserving it
I'm blessed, living in Edinburgh. Less than two hours from the rolling hills, towering trees, a landscape ideal for fun and exploring. Naively, I always assumed it couldn't get better than this. But after a recent trip to Finland, I have to crown it the nature playground of the world. Trees are taller, thatches of green vegetation greener. Lakes bluer, and at an eye-opening scale. Their national parks are vast and scattered. More to the point, though, their nature is thriving, because the Finnish people are so concerned with preserving and celebrating their environment.
While the country has so much to offer, I stayed in locations all under an hour's drive from Helsinki, in search of culture, food, spectacular scenery, and to learn more about their flourishing sustainable tourism industry. Hence my first stay was an hour's south of the capital, at The Barö - a luxury hotel in the heart of the Finnish archipelago built with sustainability in mind.
Visiting in February, I had expected to see white glistening trees, clear water and the blue skies Finland is famous for. Even though it was dark by the time I arrived, I was greeted with a surprise. The treetops did not glisten with snow. Instead, they were covered by dense fog coming in from the sea, providing a deliciously Scandinavian moodiness. What secrets lay beneath I would have to wait to discover the next morning.
I was excited to see The Barö. The images that I had seen evoked thoughts of Oscar Isaac’s lavish yet minimalist woodland abode in Ex Machina (albeit that was filmed in Norway).
The Barö does away with a traditional reception - or, for that matter, corridors and lifts. Each room is prefabricated, built offsite in Finland and craned onto the site, so as not to disturb the landscape or wildlife. The rooms are connected by a series of nature-trail walkways elevated a few inches off the ground, again to minimise the impact on the rockeries and natural surroundings.
For those looking to escape people and retreat to solace , it’s a five minute walk below the rooms to the river side to find a Finnish staple - the sauna. The river is easily accessed alongside, perfect for a brisk dip after a solid sweat.
After a few hours in the sauna (and a few minutes in the river), I retreated to my room to relax before dinner. Given the prefab nature of the buildings, I expected to feel like I was in a box, but the wooden interiors (matched to the exteriors), had a comforting feel. Minimalist lighting - two spot lights focused narrowly to the floor on one side of the room - were the only thing that could be seen against the black walls. The effect of this was to draw attention to the flood of natural light that came from the window - a window that made up the entire fourth wall of the room. This also offered a great view of the trees in the archipelago.
For additional light in the evening, I made good use of the wood stove built into the corner of the room. Detached from the world, I fell into a very relaxing sleep.
The heart of The Barö
The hub of The Barö is its restaurant and bar area. An open kitchen allows you to marvel at the experienced culinary team producing an ever-evolving menu that showcases seasonal, locally sourced food. These kitchen wizards created gourmet treats from the simplest of ingredients, such as oats and forest mushrooms. I savoured the best non-macaroni macaroni cheese I’ve ever had (the 'mac' was oats).
Just outside the restaurant, the patio area was lively with residents and locals alike (its open to all) for as long as the sun stayed up. With plenty of seating and an outdoor jacuzzi too, it radiated cool.
Nuuksio National Park
Rested, relaxed, and rejuvenated, it was time to explore that aforementioned majestic nature. Nuuksio National Park is situated just north of Espoo, Finland’s second biggest city (Nuuksio is less than an hour's drive from Helsinki and Espoo each). Here there's a trove of places to stay, visit and experience for nature lovers, campers and families alike.
Finland has one of the best products to give value for your money: their landscape, their coastlines, their wildlife, their trees
For those looking to camp or to learn about nature in a fun way, head to the Haltia Finnish Nature Centre. It’s a great base to rent equipment, find help, and plan your journey across the many trails to the lakes and designated campsites (many of these sites host campfires and have outdoor cooking facilities). They're especially good at entertaining families. Exhibitions at the centre allow children to crawl into a model Karhunpesä - bear's den - to see what it's like to hibernate, or enjoy a VR experience detailing the life of a flying squirrel.
Reindeer in Nuuksio
Fifteen minutes from Haltia, I got the chance to get nose to nose with a herd of Finnish reindeer at the Nuuksio Reindeer Park. Home to rescued reindeer, visitors can feed them lichen like it's going out of fashion. Deer numbers are controlled to make sure they do not deplete the land's resources, although reindeer are - and have always been - crucial to the Finnish people - both as a source of meat, and a huge touristic draw.
The site has two glamping pods, if you fancy staying over, each with an adjoining window where your new deer friends can join you for breakfast.
Lodgings for the adventurous
My accommodation that night was the Haltia Lake Lodge. A repurposed local sports institute, the lodge caters to people looking for outdoor adventure and learning, and they also have a host of state of the art glamping lodges. Activities offered at the lodge include fat-biking and snow sports - they'll help you out with snowshoes and backpacks if you want to go trekking. The area is well worth exploring - quite aside from that extraordinary Finnish nature (the woodlands look as is they come straight from the pages of fairy tale) you can hike to a cave featuring a prehistoric cave painting of a moose. It's a gorgeous reminder of how long the Finnish people have had a relationship with their natural surroundings.
Owner Teemu Tuomarla is passionate about the sustainability of the site. Concerned by how exploitative tourism can be, and harmful to the environment, Haltia does more than pay lip service to keeping things eco-friendly. The site runs on 100% wind energy, uses next to no plastic, recycles everything and renovates using circular economy.
The rain cloud of sustainable travel?
Sustainability has one serious black mark marring its virtuous copybook: it’s not cheap. The accommodation, food, even travel - all comes at a premium you don't have to pay when booking a package holiday or chain hotel. What’s the point of trying to do right by the environment if its priced too exclusively for most people to partake in it?
Considering my Finland trip, I view it like this. Yes, travelling sustainably is expensive - but that's because we've been spoiled by cheap places to stay abroad and the means to travel there. These come at a detrimental cost to the planet. Air travel in particular results in damaging C02 emissions, while the tourist industry is responsible for deforestation, cultural homogenisation, as well as draining money from the local economy.
Booking activities in Finland? Look for organisations that have a small green 'Sustainable Travel Finland' marker on them. These companies have done their best to off-set the effects of travel and tourism on the planet. STF companies have a sustainability certificate 'audited by a third party, to guarantee high-quality and long-term development in order to provide sustainable tourism services'.
The Fins know this. The places I visited on my trip were doing everything within their power to off-set this. Even the airlines. As Finland is not directly connected to mailine Europe, unless you are planning on catching a ferry from Estonia, the only way to travel to finland is by air. According to Teemu Tuomarla it’s nearly impossible to operate a business in Finland without meeting the criteria to operate sustainably. On top of this, Finland has one of the best products to give value for your money. It’s their landscape, their coastlines, their wildlife, their trees. And they have been looking after them for a long time.
Bottom line: go big, do it right, or stay home. Book a sustainable holiday in Finland and you won’t regret it. Because when you go big in Finland, you get a lot of big back.
Craig flew courtesy of Finnair who flies from London Heathrow, Manchester and Edinburgh to Helsinki all year round – with their Heathrow service operating up to 5x per day. The Nordic airline is gearing up to celebrate its centenary later this year, with a renewed focus on sustainability and promoting its roots in Finland.