Helsinki: Look beyond the Finnish capital for superb saunas and deserted landscapes

The elegant and spacious setting captures the heart of novelist Maggie O'Farrell

We fly into Helsinki from a country beset by fresh fears of terrorism. At Edinburgh Airport, snowploughs ring-fence the departures hall and police have banned cars. The queue of traffic is so bad that we are forced to abandon our taxi and walk the final mile along the side of the road. After the surreal stress of this, I fall in love with Helsinki almost immediately, and for two reasons: there are no police blocks, and the airport has racks of buggies for people travelling with young children.

We venture further into the Finnish capital and discover it has an air of stately, calm elegance. White and cream neo-classical buildings line the wide, cobbled boulevards. The streets have intersecting tramlines flowing down their spines. In the middle of the main shopping street, Pohjoisesplanadi, is Esplanade Park, where people are sitting on benches to eat ice-creams and listen to the busking jazz musicians. A tightrope walker dressed as Superman treads the air between the trees; children climb the bronze sculptures and feed seeds to crooning pigeons.

With its boutiques and design shops and art deco cafés and street markets and bicycles, Helsinki feels suspiciously how Europe ought to be. Or perhaps I mean how Europe used to be. I spy no Starbucks here, no Nike shops, no Gap stores. Their absence is surprisingly, glaringly refreshing. The pace of life could not be further from hectic.

Finland was not always so peaceful, however. Its position between Sweden and Russia – two empires with an eye for expansion – has made for a history of attacks, counter-attacks, wars and struggles for independence. Finland was not so much colonised by these two 18th-century superpowers as trodden on, annexed, ceded, re-annexed, fragmented and repeatedly bargained over.

The language is a challenge. Finnish bears no parallels with any of the Indo-European languages, or with any of the Scandinavian tongues; it's Uralic, with Estonian and Samoyed as its closest relatives. There are said to be 15 cases for nouns and at least 160 conjugations for verbs; the word for "no" also conjugates. In most places in Europe, you can muddle along, comparing words, finding semantic echoes, forming your own mnemonics, picking up threads of conversations around you. But in Finland, I am as linguistically lost as in China. The word for "breakfast" is aamiainen. "Main course" is pääruoka; "bed" is sänkyä.

But I needn't have worried, because the Finns all speak English: the tram drivers, the waiters, the chambermaids, the policemen, the ice-cream sellers. I had an enlightening and in-depth conversation with a market stallholder on the dismayingly ambitious nature of contemporary ice hockey.

A journey west of Helsinki does nothing to puncture my new-found " Finphilism": the motorways are deserted, everyone keeps religiously within the speed limit, you can buy fresh strawberries by the litre at petrol stations, purple lupins grow along the verges and we arrive at our destination in good time.

The Naantali Spa Hotel is so enormous it has travelators instead of corridors. As the whole point of a spa hotel is to immerse yourself in as many different kinds of water as is humanly possible, we waste no time in heading for the spa, or kÿlpyla as it's known here.

It is a jaw-dropping sight. There's an enormous pool with curving sides and another – a spare, perhaps? – with straight ones. There are two Jacuzzis, one in full sunshine, one in the dark. There's a pool half-inside, half-outside. This one has a cupola over it. There are two Turkish baths and several saunas. There are pools that bubble, pools that jet, pools that swirl and pools that don't do anything other than be pool-like.

Did I mention that there's also a bar? Oh, and spare floats and swimming aids for children. And free soft drinks. And sun-loungers outside, for when you've swum through the tunnel.

What is perhaps most incredible is that the place is not populated, as it would be in the UK, by insufferables with BlackBerrys and unlikely haircuts but families, often of three generations. You'll see a woman with a baby on her hip in the Jacuzzi, chatting to her mother-in-law, who is helping the toddler on with his armbands. There'll be grandparents teaching a child to swim while the parents sunbathe, teenagers chatting to their dad while their siblings leap shrieking over their heads into the water. It's not unusual to see toddlers in the steam rooms, along with everybody else.

This south-western corner is where Finland begins to blur into its neighbour – and former ruler – Sweden. In many places here, Swedish is the dominant language and the Swedish name takes precedence over the Finnish on signposts. This can make for some interesting moments during map-reading. "Which way?" demands my husband, who is driving, as we zoom towards green motorway signs, emblazoned with an array of place names, each in two languages, neither of which I speak.

The Gulf of Bothnia meets the Gulf of Finland here, to form the Aland Sea. It is also where the landmass begins to fray and fragment into an archipelago. On a map, these islands are so small and so numerous that they resemble crumbs scattered on a blue tablecloth. Some can be reached by ferry and road, others are so far flung they are only accessible by private boat. Tove Jansson, who wrote the Moomins books, spent most of her life on these islands. It is said that whenever she got tired of journalists visiting her, she would up sticks and move to a different one.

A few years ago I saw a rare NFT screening of Haru, a Super 8 film made by Jansson's partner, Tuulikki Pietilä, about their summers on the tiny island of Klovharu. It showed them living and working on their miniature outcrop of rock, at first living in a kind of tarpaulin tent and, later, a cabin.

I think about Jansson and Pietilä as we drive south-west from Naantali, about their indifference in the face of storms, about the tiny boat that was their lifeline, about their passionate devotion to solitude. The thermometer on the car dashboard drops steadily and the sky gathers dark clouds as we pass green, waving fields, red-painted wooden houses with white window frames. We catch the ferry over a wide gully of sea water. A stiff breeze batters us from the north.

Nagu, known as Nauvo locally, is a collection of houses around a harbour, with a line of little wooden fishermen's huts along the water's edge. These days they sell not fish but organic cotton blouses, nautical hats and the ubiquitous array of Crocs. Our hotel is a pretty, wooden house with white columns and a hotelier of quite astonishing rudeness. We have, admittedly, arrived a little earlier than planned but we ask if we could leave our bags and come back later.

"No," she snarls from behind the desk. "Check-in is 2pm."

Seconds later, we troop back out into the rain. This has somewhat punctured my belief that all Finns are permanently courteous, smiling, slightly other-worldly in their patience and forbearance. Moomins made flesh, if you will. But it's not long before my faith is restored by meeting Frankie, an artist in a pink headscarf who is opening umbrellas in her café garden. In true Finnish fashion, there are colouring books and a rocking horse for my son to play with while she and I get down to the business of admiring her collection of vintage Marimekko fabrics.

The hotelier aside, Nagu appears to embody all of Finland's most seductive attributes: it's beautiful, it's peaceful and it's deserted. We go to the church and chance upon a rehearsal of an Elgar piano quintet and we sit at the back as they lift their music to the arched, timber roof. We find the world's most up-to-date playground, complete with rotating seesaw, and we have it all to ourselves, something my city-bred son cannot get over. We go to the beach, a sandy inlet surrounded by huge, smooth boulders, where a woman stands in the shallow water, the late-afternoon sun high above, coaxing five-year-olds to blow ping-pong balls to the shore. As swimming lessons go, it beats your local leisure centre.

And all this, I can't help thinking, is just preaching to the converted. I was already in love with Finland; the archipelago confirms that I wish to propose marriage. At the risk of sounding like a sociopath, one of the best things about Finland is that there's nobody there: 5.2 million people live in a country more than 50 per cent larger than Britain.

To get a true taste of Finnish life, you must sample two things: a sauna and a mökki, or summer cabin. An enviable one in four Finns owns a cabin or cottage, often by a lake, where you can go at weekends to commune with nature. The ideal, I'm told, is as few home comforts as possible, but with a sauna. Choosing a sauna over, say, running water seems odd to me, but I've never been to a mökki, so what do I know? Maybe after a week of lakeside life I, too, will throw off the shackles of electricity.

On the way north, I decide to have one last brush with modernity and stop off in Jyväskylä, home to numerous Alvar Aalto buildings, and a museum dedicated to his life and work. Along with Jansson and Sibelius, Aalto is a national hero. He spent his childhood in Jyväskylä, opened his first practice and received his first commissions here. We meet 3 7 Leena, who accompanies us to his theatre – a corner building clad in white tiles with his signature undulating, wave-like roof – and she tells us that his name, Aalto, means "wave". Leena is a typical Finn: polite, intelligent, fluent in five languages.

As we walk around the university campus, constructed almost entirely on Aalto's designs, I ask her about winter in Finland. "This year we had only four months of snow," she says wistfully. "Usually, we get five. I'm talking about real snow," she says and gestures to a point above my knees, "you know, three feet deep." How do you cope with it, I ask. "We love it!" she exclaims. "It's dark much of the time. We eat more, sleep more. And all towns have a place in the woods where they take the snow and dump it."

She primes us for our impending saunas, pronounced as "sow-nahs". "No swimsuits," she admonishes. "It's bad to breathe in the pool chemicals. You must be naked. And everyone goes in together. Finnish families take a sauna maybe twice a week." I tell her about the rules in Britain, which tend not to allow children and pregnant women, and she lets out a long and derisive laugh. "It's ridiculous. Saunas were used traditionally as the place women gave birth. You wouldn't take in a very little baby, younger than six months, but after that – of course!"

When we get to our lodgings in Rauhalahti, I decide that the phrase " log cabin" has been semantically stretched here. True, it is made of wood, but it's beautifully planed wood, painted a stylish shade of grey. Not only do we have electricity but there are a host of gadgets on which to squander it. We have two patios, our own private sauna and more outlets for running water than we can possibly use. We are also surrounded on four sides by the tall, straight, silver trunks of birch trees, and the lake is just down the slope.

If you have ever read a Moomins book, existence in a Finnish summer cabin is instantly recognisable: we go exploring in the woods, where we find berries and, intriguingly, a shipwreck. We swim in the lake, we row to an uninhabited island, where we consume a picnic and discover an ants' nest. We don't meet any of the Jansson baddies – the Groke, for example, or the weird and sinister Hattifattners – or any of her heroes either, but there's a curious and ever-present feeling that we just might. And the experience is closer to the spirit of the books than anything you'll find at the Moomin World theme park in Naantali.

On our last day, we take our boat across the lake to the smoke sauna. This one, I'm told, is the largest in the world. If the phrase "smoke sauna" conjures up a confined room choked with fumes, think again. They light a fire early in the day, wait for the room to heat up and, an hour before opening time, they open the doors to let out the smoke. This is the way saunas used to be, before the advent of electrical heaters.

Leena's sauna lessons come in handy here, even though it's so dark inside that no one would be able to tell if you were naked or indeed wearing a ball gown. When you step in, the heat is so intense you can feel it burning its way into your respiratory system. The door handle is so hot I let go of it with a yelp, causing the door to slam deafeningly behind me. There are three tiers of wooden benches, where people sit or lie in various positions, skin glossy with sweat. The walls are hung with thick blankets of soot and in the middle is a huge pyre, piled high with coals. From the highest bench, a man flings a ladle of water on to it and the pyre emits a furious, spitting hiss of steam. I wonder idly if my internal organs are starting to cook.

When it becomes too much, you can dash out, down the duckboards, along the jetty and dive into the lake. The shock is somewhere between painful and pleasurable. I push myself through the ferric brown waters and survey the shore, where people wrapped in towels sit about, sipping beers, chatting, their skin pink and gently steaming. Then I haul myself out of the lake and head back for another roasting in the sauna.

Maggie O'Farrell's latest book is 'The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox', published by Headline Review (£14.99)

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

Helsinki is served by Finnair (0870 241 4411; www.finnair.co.uk) from Heathrow, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Manchester; British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba. com) from Heathrow; and Blue1 (00 358 205 856 000; www.blue1.com) from Stansted.

To reduce the environmental impact, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

The writer travelled with Black Tomato (020-7610 9008; www.blacktomato.co.uk) and the Finnish Tourist Board. Black Tomato can organise 10-night bespoke trips to Finland from £999 per person. The price includes return Finnair flights, internal flights, transfers, car hire, three nights' accommodation in Helsinki and seven nights in a lakeside lodge.

STAYING THERE

Hotel Klaus K, Helsinki (00 358 20 770 4700; www.klauskhotel.com). Doubles start at €118 (£80), including breakfast. Naantali Spa Hotel, Naantali (00 358 2 44 55 100; www.naantalispa.fi). Doubles start at €156 (£105), including breakfast. Hotel Strandbo, Nagu (00 358 2 460 6200; www.strandbo.fi). Doubles start at €138 (£93), including breakfast.

VISITING THERE

Moomin World (00 358 2 511 1111; www.muumimaailma.fi). Open daily 10am-6pm; admission €18 (£12).

MORE INFORMATION

Finnish Tourist Board: 020-7365 2512; www.visitfinland.com/uk.

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