'I'm not fit, you know. I'm not fit at all." Steve, my guide, is lamenting the effect of the long Finnish winter on his pedal-pushing power. We are grinding our way up a hill - more a comment on us than how steep it is - heading for the Turku archipelago off the south-west coast of Finland where a new route for British cyclists opens this week.
It's raining. I am visiting in mid-May but spring has only just won its battle with the last snows of winter in southern Finland (as everyone keeps telling me - these Finns, they like to talk about the weather even more than the British). Plip plop. The heavy raindrops presage a shower. I'm glad I've bothered to put in my contact lenses, otherwise I'd be trying to view this sylvan splendour through steamy, rain-spattered specs. "It's a shame about the weather," Steve puffs. "But you can imagine how beautiful it is in the sunshine."
I can. Lush green forests of birch, pine and spruce roll out before us, the silver bark of the pines glinting in the gloom. Two-thirds of this country shelters under a largely coniferous canopy, a home for elk, lynx, bears, wolves and the greatest predator of all, man. Sometimes the trees are pushed back by vast meadows, yellow from the late onset of spring. Sometimes they are forced apart by great shining lakes. But the forests are always there - a monotony of beauty.
We have left behind the urban comforts of Naantali, the Finns' holiday capital, and are heading for the (relative) wilderness of Inio, one of the 20,000 islands and skerries that make up this archipelago. This is Day Two of Sherpa Expeditions' new self-guided tour. I am just enjoying a taster trip, accompanied by Steve Hart of The Travel Experience, who, with his Finnish wife and business partner, Merja, has organised this route for Sherpa.
Adventurous cyclists may be familiar with the Finnish section of the well-wheeled King's Road, the old postal route that runs from Bergen in Norway, via Stockholm and through southern Finland to St Petersburg. It passes through Finland's third city, Turku (say Tor-koo), after which this area is named, but doesn't venture on to the islands themselves. While the Finns consider the archipelago a summer playground, fleeing their urban homes to make the most of the desperately short summer, and the Germans and the Scandinavians have become frequent visitors, too, few Britons have explored the region.
The circuit begins with a whizz around medieval Turku before heading for the spa town of Naantali, with its pretty wooden houses huddled round a harbour. Then it's further into the countryside through Merimasku, to Teersalo, Hakkenpaa and Laupunen. From here the true island-hopping begins, jumping from Inio to Houtskari, Korppoo and Nauvo. The last day in the wilds is the loop from Gyttja on Nauvo to Airisto on Parainen, returning through the suburbs to Turku. That's a thigh-toning 120 miles (192km) in total.
But this is cycling aimed at tourists rather than athletes, and Sherpa has graded it easy to moderate, with luggage transfers helping to take the strain. The longest day requires 34 miles (55km) in the saddle, the shortest nine. The terrain is fairly flat, gently undulating at worst. It's perfectly tailored to someone like me who hasn't cycled more than a mile in years but has a bit of puff, offering enough of a challenge to maintain an interest in the actual activity - which, importantly, you can do at your own pace - while not detracting from the real business of taking in the views.
At the top of the hill we ride out on to the bridge spanning the Naantali Sound, a truly awesome lake stretching left and right into the distance. Once Vikings made their way east along these waters. Later, Hanseatic merchants used them as trading routes. The deep, still pool below us is the result of an earth-shattering, glacier-melting moment thousands of years before, one of countless lakes that formed when the earth's crust bubbled up to the surface. Now it is a picture of serenity.
At least it would be serene if it weren't for the occasional flurry of cars rushing out of a tunnel in the hillside behind us. But we are safely sidelined on the cycle path. No silly green strip of road for the Finns: they have a serious network of paved cycle routes running alongside major roads at a comfortable distance from motor traffic. An EU-funded project, Cycling in Finland, is trying to raise the network's profile. Money from the fund has helped establish this tour.
Refreshed, we press on, freewheeling down to the far shore, the breeze cooling our faces and the heavy fragrance of pine filling our nostrils. Finland is a cunning place; on a bridge like this it's obvious you're crossing water, but in other places the roads barely rise to a hump as they span the narrowest straits. Originally, this land was mountainous, but thousands of years of erosion and weathering have worn it down, a geological fact now welcomed by my calves.
This tour relies on ferries to criss-cross the larger lakes - a staggering five on one day alone. Some are just starting up for the summer season (this route is only accessible from late May to August) and their absence has further complicated the already taxing job of working out the itinerary. Steve has also tried to keep cycling on main roads down to a minimum. More often than not an alternative scenic route has been found. We head for one of these back roads, slipping off the highway by a barren field, empty but for a small pile of hay bails wrapped in plastic (another weather check: there was frost here until a couple of weeks ago) and disappear into a grove.
The sky clouds over and the trees close in. Now, I can see for myself that spring has come late by the light-green spruce saplings that line the track. Plip, plop, the rain is back. But the trees soaring above our heads provide a natural umbrella. In fact, the woods feel rather cosy. Simple clapboard houses painted in cheerful reds, yellows, blues and greens peep through the tree trunks. A neat row of mailboxes reveals the existence of a community. This is the kind of place where you half expect to see a backwoodsman, axe slung over his shoulder, returning home from a hard day chopping wood, guided by a plume of smoke promising a hearty meal of roast elk and cloudberries. Instead, we pass a well-dressed woman walking her saluki dogs.
On we go, deeper into the forest. I fancy we are leaving civilisation far behind but, suddenly, another lake opens up and we spy a clutch of ramshackle cabins below the track, a scrawled sign pointing the way to an outdoor shower. "I don't think our cyclists would like to stay here," Steve says. The suitability of the cyclists' lodgings has been almost as big a consideration as the route. The options on the archipelago are few and far between and sometimes very basic. "Do you think private bathrooms are important to the British?" he asks. It's a rhetorical question, not only because the hotels have been booked now but because everyone in the travel business who I meet during my visit to Finland delights is telling me about the idiosyncrasies of the different nationalities. The Germans, it seems, would be happy to just lie down by the road. But we, like the Japanese, want en-suite bathrooms.
The Sherpa tour includes two nights where sharing a bathroom is necessary (how will we survive?). At Inio, the cyclists stay in a small wooden house, and at Gyttja on Nauvo the accommodation is in a converted barn, albeit a rather stylish one. At Laupunen, a manor house is home for the night, although it's more youth hostel than aristocratic pile. And in Naantali, the guesthouse is in one of the traditional wooden buildings in the old town.
At Airisto Strand, cyclists stay in a family run hotel on the edge of a lake. After a muscle-releasing sauna (although I pass up the invitation to jump in the chilly Baltic waters), we reconvene for a supper of local pike-perch and discuss the following day's route. We will take the short spin from Gyttja to Airisto, but in reverse (the route, not the bikes, you understand), and try out one of the ferry hops.
Next morning we wake to glorious sunshine. Tropical and polar masses clash in Finland ensuring that the weather is terminally unpredictable - no wonder the Finns are obsessed by it. Luckily for us the climate is warmest in the south-west, which clocks up half the amount of winter days suffered by Lapland and welcomes the spring and summer a whole month earlier than its northern neighbour.
Almost as soon as we hit the road we stop again at an 18th-century timber cabin that now houses a café. It may be an early rest for us, but Steve judges that Sherpa cyclists approaching from the other direction will find it a welcome break before the final stretch to the hotel. But Café Sattmark isn't just a convenient watering hole, it's also an historic building that offers a little window on the archipelago's past. The old hut has served several functions over the centuries, from a naval barracks for sailors from Sweden, Finland's colonial master for eight centuries, to a home for the men who used to operate a local ferry, long since replaced by a bridge. These days tourists frequent its low, dark rooms, eating fish and drinking strong coffee made with water drawn from the well. There are Finnish delicacies and preserves on sale, too, including a large display of old-fashioned sweets with several varieties of licorice, for which the Finns appear to have an insatiable appetite (especially the salt variety - don't ask).
On the grass outside, traditional games are kept alive and a maypole is erected every midsummer. An old hayloft houses a chic little shop, selling elegant silk and wool jumpers and scarves, sauna pails and quality Finnish knick-knacks. It would be cynical to call this venture Archipelagoland, but it would certainly gladden the heart of any passing resident of Islington. Even in the wilderness, the tourist euro is in demand.
We cycle on for Gyttja on Nauvo. The legacy of Swedish rule can still be seen in the bilingual roadsigns. There are more than quarter of a million Swedish-speaking Finns, many of whom live in this area. But the signs that are bothering me are those warning of marauding elk. I have visions of gigantic beasts leaping majestically out of the trees. "They're more likely to stagger out in front of you, like old drunks," Steve says.
We reach the ferry point just in time to board one of the smaller vessels - a lossi - and climb the stairs to the upper deck. Great granite islands covered in pines float by like giant green hairbrushes. Steve is happy. He has discovered it is not so much his fitness that is in question but his choice of a seven-gear bike which he has changed overnight for a 21-gear model. I am surprised and delighted that I'm not wracked with pain from the previous day's ride, although my ample rear isn't as effective a cushion as I'd hoped. Ten minutes later the ferry docks and we're off again into the wild - at least, as far as the next hotel.
Kate Simon travelled to Finland as a guest of The Travel Experience (00 358 9 622 9810; www.travel-experience.net) and stayed on the archipelago at the Naantali Spa, Airisto Strand and Strandbo hotels.
She flew to Helsinki courtesy of Finnair (020-7408 1222; www.finnair.com), which is offering a special return fare on its internet site from £105.
Sherpa Expeditions (020-8577 2717; www.sherpa expeditions.co.uk) offers a seven-night Finland Island-hopping tour for £885, including return flights, accommodation, some meals, luggage transfers, maps and notes, hire of bicycle, helmet and panniers, welcome guide and emergency service.
Cycle Rides (0800 389 3384; www.cycle-rides.co.uk) also covers part of the Turku archipelago on a 10-night cycling tour of Finland departing 19 June. It still has some places available. The tour costs £1,320, including return flights, half-board accommodation, luggage transfers, maps and notes, courier and rescue service.
Finnish Tourist Board (020-7365 2512; www.finland-tourism.com).
Cycling in Finland (www.cyclinginfinland.com).Reuse content