In Finland there are almost as many saunas as there are people, and nine out of ten Finns relax in a sauna at least once a week. The practice of visiting a sauna is ingrained in Finnish life and, as the saying goes, an ailment is only deadly if liquor, tar and sauna can’t cure it.
The further north you travel, the colder it becomes and the greater the appeal of allowing hot steam to soothe your muscles, revitalise your body and clear your pores.
Kuusamo is a region just below Lapland and bordering Russia, and adventure activities in Kuusamo are extremely popular. It’s an exciting destination made all the more enticing by the huge selection of luxurious saunas to unwind in after a day exposed to the elements. On a recent trip to the region, I visited three of the top-rated Kuusamo saunas to find out which was the best.
IISAKKI’S LAKESIDE SAUNA
First on the list of Kuusamo saunas was Iisakki’s Lakeside Sauna. We arrived feeling cold and damp following a day of fishing and white water rafting. With muscles a little sore from navigating rapids, a session of sit-down sauna yoga seemed like the perfect antidote.
After changing in a beautiful cabin with a log fire, we met in a huge sauna with space for up to 20 people.
The temperature is kept relatively low for sauna yoga to ensure you don’t exert yourself too much. Our instructor encouraged us to take regular breaks and to drink lots of water.
The exercises weren’t too strenuous; there was much more of a focus on stretching than building up core body strength, although a couple of the leg lifts had us shaking from head to toe.
Following the session, our sauna elf (as they like to be known) cranked up the heat to close to 80ºC. At the Iisakki’s Lakeside Sauna, they use a wood-fired mechanism, creating a slow and gentle steam.
When the amateurs among us started to feel faint, it was time to pop outside for a dip in the lake. One swift dunk was sufficient to reactivate our senses, after which the jacuzzi was too inviting a prospect to miss. As the forceful jets massaged our backs, we watched the sun begin to set over the lake and felt completely rejuvenated.
SEVEN-STAR SAUNA, ISOKENKÄISTEN KLUBI
The second of the Kuusamo saunas could not have been in a more remote location, and this time we were lucky enough to spend the night.
Isokenkäisten Klubi is an upmarket guesthouse tucked away in the trees close to the Russian border. In fact, it’s so near, there are signs warning you not to enter the border zone.
A family-run affair, the accommodation comprises a number of homely cabins built from recycled grey wood, with windows facing directly into the forest.
At the moment it can accommodate around 50 people, but there are plans for glass pods to be constructed for better views of the night’s sky. Their position on Lake Heikinjärvi means there’s no light pollution to distract from the Northern Lights, which are extremely vivid on clear nights between October and March.
The sisters, Katja and Sirpa, welcomed us in a Lappish hut heated by a central log fire. With salmon already nailed to a traditional cooking slate and a hot glühwein-style drink in our hands, they provided some background on the family business.
The name Isokenkäisten Klubi means ‘Club of the Big Shoe People’, which relates to the people with high-ranking positions who used to visit when the business first opened to tourists in the 90s.
Today, people visit their accommodation for a wide range of activities, including bear watching, cooking classes, cross-country skiing, hiking, snow-shoeing, ice fishing, ATV and snowmobile rides, and rally car racing on ice. They also run an annual silence retreat with meditation and vegetarian food.
All of the meals at Isokenkäisten Klubi are home-cooked by the sisters and use local ingredients. Their potatoes are grown on site, berries are picked from the surrounding forest, and cheese and meat are sourced from nearby farms.
Breakfast is a delicious buffet of breads, meat, cheese and pastries, and if you’re lucky you might get to try grandmother Sitkka’s tasty cinnamon buns.
Also situated right beside a lake, their traditional smoke sauna is heated using dry birch logs from the forest. You’re encouraged to learn a few Finnish words, such as ‘löyly’ (the hot steam that envelopes you when water is thrown on the stove) and ‘vasta’ (a collection of fragrant birch whisks used to whip the body and waft the löyly over your skin).
A peat mask treatment is also provided. When smeared over the skin and left for around 20 minutes it’s said to give a smoother, more youthful feel and appearance.
The sauna seats 15 people, with benches at various heights depending on your heat preference. They provide snacks and easy access to water and fruit juice. Alcohol is also available, although it’s not recommended because of the risk of dehydration.
A short wooden pier leads to a perfect plunge site on the lake, and in winter they cut a hole in the ice for bathing.
Pohjolan Pirtti is located in Vuotunki – one of the oldest villages in Kuusamo. Of the three Kuusamo saunas we visited, this was the one with the most lively atmosphere. In fact, rumour has it that they sometimes host Arctic beach parties, complete with music and a snow bar.
On arrival, our hosts led us to a warm lounge with a log fire and explained that they were the eleventh and twelfth generations of a family that had managed the estate for centuries.
The building housing the saunas used to be a cow shed, but was now efficiently split into three different saunas (one steam, one electric and one wood heated), with a large jacuzzi overlooking yet another lake. Our group split into two and we rotated around the various rooms. In the first, we enjoyed a wild herb foot spa treatment. In the second we marvelled at the concept of throwing ladles of water on an electric device. Finally, the wood-heated sauna was big enough for us all and we took it in turns to receive a juniper branch whisking treatment. In contrast with the birch vastas, these spiny branches are placed lightly over your skin to create a pleasant prickling sensation.
As each of us reached our limits we crowded into the hot tub one by one and ended the spa with a few beers.
A visit to Pohjolan Pirtti is never complete without a sit-down meal. After freshening up, we reconvened in a large room in a 100-year-old building with space for up to 50 guests. As we tucked into an exceptional spread fit for royalty, we learned that this is where Santa likes to spend Christmas. With a blanket of snow on the ground outside, they offer toboggan rides, followed by Santa’s story time, carol singing, home-cooked Christmas roasts and gingerbread making for the kids. There couldn’t be a more magical place to spend the festive period.
All of the Kuusamo saunas provided an exceptional service and it would be very difficult to choose a favourite. But fear not, that’s where a ‘sauna bus’ comes in handy. And yes, this is a sauna on a bus. This service allows you to take in the local scenery as you sauna hop your way through the region (with regular stops to cool off in the lake or take a roll in the snow, of course)!