The Best Meal in Finland Is Being Served in a Remote Forest You Have to Travel by Train to Get to

This property in Finland takes three hours to reach from Helsinki, but if you're willing to make the journey, you'll be rewarded with some of the freshest food you'll ever eat.

 What It’s Like to Eat, Drink, and Sauna on a Floating Raft in Finland

Uhkua Saimaa, Kuva Anna-Katri Hänninen

Helsinki, I learn, is a misdirection. The Finnish capital, which beams with unique Soviet and Swedish architecture, is not “the real Finland,” I’m told over and over again. This is not to say Helsinki isn’t wonderful — it is. The city is a bounty of excellent pastries, fine dining, and perhaps my new favorite charcuterie selection: sauna ham (a ham that is, as the name suggests, cured for 8-plus hours in an — unoccupied — sauna). But ask the locals, and they’ll tell you that to discover Finland, one has to go further inland. Much further. 

While Lapland is undoubtedly the spot to head in the winter for the northern lights and reindeer, for a true midsummer getaway, Finland’s Lakeland region is the place to be. Lake Saimaa (pronounced sigh-ma), one of the largest lakes in Europe, is filled with fresh fish and absolutely breathtaking views. If you want to experience Finland at its core in the summertime, and the only reason you wouldn’t is because you’ve never heard how great it is (if the Finns are one thing, it’s humble), this is the place to be in the Nordics. 

Think of it as Lake Como but far less crowded and far less hot. The lake is best described as a labyrinth, but even that doesn’t do its winding and sprawling nature justice. Formed by an ice age glacier, there are archipelagos interspersed throughout the waterway so large and so small that after driving for hundreds of kilometers, you have to stop and ask, is this really the same lake weaving its way through towering forests of birch and bushes bursting with berries? And the answer is yes, somehow, it is. 

The water is fresh. So fresh the locals drink straight from the lake through cupped hands. And the water makes the fish fresh. So fresh the locals say they could pluck one from the water and bite into it like an apple. If they wanted to. “I wouldn’t though,” one tells me. 

But it’s in one remote corner of this maze-lake oasis that a family of three — Illka, Asta, and their daughter — are giving visitors a true Finnish summertime experience. Their property takes over three hours to reach from Helsinki, and you’ll have to travel by train and car to reach it. But once you’re there, you won’t have to lift a finger if you so choose.

 What It’s Like to Eat, Drink, and Sauna on a Floating Raft in Finland

Uhkua Saimaa, Kuva Anna-Katri Hänninen

When I arrived, I pulled into a barnyard that looked nearly abandoned. But Illka and Asta, the two owners of Uhkua Oy, like it this way. The entire property is self-sufficient and, interestingly enough, runs without electricity. There’s a chicken coop, two saunas, a garden, a forest at their disposal, and of course, the bounty from the lake. And don’t worry if you’re not the outdoorsy type — guests get the two guides all to themselves, and together, you’ll cook the best meal you’ve ever eaten. Altogether these two humble humans are able to transform a rugged, rustic life into an easy way of being. I’d even go as far as saying that the surrounding nature is as much a part of them as their own hands. Ilka and Asta prove that Finland is bountiful, and perhaps the world is, too. You just have to know where to look. 

First, we look in the forest. Asta, an expert forager, must have a built-in radar for berry bushes. Together, we walked through the birch forest surrounding their home until suddenly, she would dart off right into the direction of a new-found bounty. Our baskets overflowed with delicious herbs and berries she would later use as garnishes and full courses. 

When I go to meet Illka by the docks a few moments later, he can’t help but ask how foraging went. “Did you find any wood sorrel?” he asks. We didn’t find any, but that doesn’t stop him — “one second,” he mutters before trudging off into the forest. Moments later, he returns with a basketful. He leaves it on a picnic table, and I follow him aboard his boat. He pulls the engine on this fully recycled machine, and it sputters to life. We speed out onto the lake. He kills the engine and begins pulling a rope out of the crystal-clear water. It’s one of his fishing traps, and now it’s almost too heavy to lift. 

“This isn’t even a good day,” he laughs, while all I can do is stare, awestruck, at more fish than I’ve ever seen flopping against the woven netting. He tells me what we’ve caught and explains how to best prepare each one. “These small perch are really excellent as the base of the soup, and this pike, this is what we’ll have tonight,” he tells me. He releases most of the fish, only taking what he needs for today and tomorrow, and then resets the traps as if the lake is his personal refrigerator, a guarantor of freshness, all before I can offer to help.

 What It’s Like to Eat, Drink, and Sauna on a Floating Raft in Finland

Uhkua Saimaa, Kuva Anna-Katri Hänninen

We head back, stopping along the way to sip Finnish Long Drink on the lake and to hopefully catch a rare glimpse of a Saimaa Seal, an indigenous creature living in these waters for hundreds of years. We don’t see any, but it’s fun to peer through binoculars at the clear water, and we do spot an Osprey circling its nest overhead. Before I know it, we’re pulled up against his floating sauna, chucking wood into the furnace, then sitting, sweating, laughing, swapping stories. “My grandfather used to heat the sauna up to 100°C,” he tells me, “but I don’t do it that hot.” 

Still, I can barely stand five minutes among the sizzling coals. Before we exit, he tells me to dip the birch we’ve gathered into the water bucket and use it to whip myself. “All over,” he says. Surprisingly, it doesn’t hurt. Instead, it smooths my skin and makes the itchy sensation from my mosquito bites stop. Finally. 

“Time to swim,” he huffs, and we step out from the blistering room and dive directly into the frigid lake below. Back aboard the raft, I can feel the blood coursing through my body and hear the birds chirping louder than ever. Illka is used to these post-sauna effects, and while I’m standing there soaking it in, he’s already lighting the grill.

I forgot to mention the most important part: Illka is a trained chef who worked at some of the most celebrated restaurants in Helsinki, but prefers to cook for and with his guests. He bakes a rye flatbread over the intense heat of the grill, sears the fish over coals, softens new potatoes, and chars the last asparagus of the season. Everything is garnished with the herbs we foraged and ready in under an hour. 

It’s not as if there’s a rush: There’s plenty of craft beer to drink, and the sun doesn’t set here anyway. We’re too far north. But together, we sit, on the floating sauna raft, sipping wine and indulging in food that came from not a 100-mile radius, but a 1-mile radius. It is sustainable without the lecture. It doesn’t need one. 

 What It’s Like to Eat, Drink, and Sauna on a Floating Raft in Finland

Uhkua Saimaa, Kuva Anna-Katri Hänninen

Before I know it, Illka is paddling me back to the other floating raft — there’s no sauna here but instead a cottage with a bed, and here is where I’ll sleep and watch the midnight sun. From my floating cabin, night slips away, and I’m lulled into dreams by the not-so-distant memories of boats bobbing through the water. In the morning, from the deck, I’m awoken by the warbles and chirps of the lake birds and a sudden-yet-peaceful splash. I see Asta paddling toward me on the rowboat. She is the only disturbance in the otherwise completely glass-like water, which somehow glues itself back together again after her boat passes through. 

She pulls up to the edge of the raft, stands, balances the rowboat, and hands me a picnic basket. Inside is a foraged berry smoothie, fresh cheese from the neighbors, fresh baked rye bread, a frittata made with eggs from the chickens, and a Thermos of piping hot coffee. 

She asks me if I need anything else. All I can request from her is a place to get cell reception. I’d like to push my flight back a week. 

Where Else to Stay and Eat in the Region

Sahanlahti Resort: For a classic luxurious experience, head to Sahanlahti Resort, which boasts a restaurant on a deck above the lake with one of the best views in the region. The resort also recently opened luxury cottages lakeside with en suite saunas and lake access. 

Okkola Holiday Cottages: Located on an island in the middle of Lakeland, Okkola is only accessible by boat or ferry, but well worth the journey. There are cottages to stay in, but the can’t-miss here is the lunch buffet, complete with in-house smoked trout and cured fish of nearly every variety. But if there’s one thing you must eat here, it’s a Karelian Pie, a traditional pastry made with rye and filled with rice porridge. Ask for Paola, and she’ll melt butter over it. 

Terrti Manor: Located just seven kilometers from the railway in Mikelli, Tertti Manor is the perfect spot to stop for lunch or to spend a night. The buildings are almost entirely from the 17th century, and the working farm delivers fresh produce to the restaurant overlooking the property’s herb garden. 

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