‘Hyvää syntymäpäivää Suomi!’ Which, I hope, is the correct Finnish translation for ‘Happy Birthday Finland’, because the country celebrated 100 years of independence on 6 December, and there’s no better time to join in the fun.
Finland declared its independence from the Russian Republic after the revolutions that took place in the aftermath of the First World War. The 100 years since then has seen the country develop a truly unique identity - albeit heavily influenced by its eastern and western neighbours Russia and Sweden. This traditionally reserved nation is now finally starting to shout about what an amazing holiday destination it is.
The centenary celebrations are a case in point. In the early years Independence Day was a fairly solemn occasion primarily marked by church services and patriotic speeches, but recent years have seen it become a much livelier affair, with parties, parades, entertainment and more, and all dressed up in the blue and white of the national flag.
In its anniversary year the parties have gone on all year, with a variety of shows, festivals and exhibitions, as well as activities for Finnish families to embrace the spirit of its ‘Together’ theme, and to provide a great taste of what the country has to offer its visitors. Among the celebratory highlights there have been an incredible Light Festival, a fascinating exhibition, Modern Life!, at Helsinki Art Museum showcasing Finnish Modernism, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra have given a special concert of tunes for the entire country to sing along to. The world’s largest village festival, which took place over three days in August, included ‘Let’s Eat Together' - an event which saw thousands of people getting together to share food and fun.
A final week of celebrations takes place across Finland leading up to the big day itself, which climaxes with blue and white lights being lit across the country and a huge fireworks display in Helsinki as the bombastic finale.
Finland’s Prime Minister, Juha Sipilä, said the celebrations marked a ‘changemaker of positivity’ that would push the country to even greater heights.
“It is a pleasure to share Finland’s accomplishments and strengths in Finland as well as abroad,” he said. “During its 100 years of independence Finland has cherished strong democracy. Also, Finland takes top places in international rankings concerning equality, stability, freedom of speech and clean nature.”
The latter is something for which Finland is best known, and the country regularly tops polls for having the highest living standards in the world. It also has the most heavy metal rock bands per capita - make of that what you will! For those with the interests of the environment at heart, you'll be happy to learn that, like its Scandinavian neighbours, Finland is renowned for its clean air, clean living and natural beauty.
Finland has nearly 190,000 lakes - more than any other country in the world - and 40 national parks, the latest of which was added earlier this year.
Hossa National Park is a fabulous area of remote wilderness near the Russian border, and a beautiful place to get back to nature. It’s also like going back in time, as the region is an ancient hunting ground of the indigenous Samí people, where you can find rock art created 5,000 years ago and dwellings that date back to 8000 BC. The locals still farm reindeer on this land, which features stunning cliffs - a rarity in Finland, which is mostly flat - towering over freshwater lakes so clean you can drink from them. If you’re lucky you’ll spot wolverines and European brown bears doing just that - little wonder Hossa has become an instant hit with nature lovers.
Sticking with natural wonders, it’s hard to escape those lakes - the country is overflowing with them. Finland even has its own Lake District, a massive region in the middle of the country where there are thousands of waterways, including Lake Saimaa, the fifth biggest lake in Europe.
This is the place to make the most of Finland’s great outdoors, and the locals are expert at doing just that. They head for the lakeside summer resorts which are perfect places to chill out in. One of the highlights is the annual month-long opera festival at Savonlinna (6 July - 4 August 2018), where medieval Olavinlinna Castle provides the stunning lakeside backdrop. The city also started, and regularly hosts, the Mobile Phone Throwing World Championships, one of many madcap pursuits that the Finns do for fun. Elsewhere in the country you can take part in the world championships for swamp soccer (football played in a bog) air guitar (that’ll be the heavy metal fans then) and even wife carrying.
There are rather more traditional pursuits in the lively city of Tampere, which lies west of Savonlinna and has a lovely cathedral, as well as a variety of galleries and museums. And I mean variety - a couple of blocks from the Lenin Museum there’s another dedicated to children’s book stars, the Moomins. Why not visit both and spend the evening comparing and contrasting during an evening lake cruise?
If you’re travelling with children, then the favoured attraction is inevitable. They’ll also love the Moomin World theme park in the southwest city of Naantali, but even the Moomins are likely to lose out in a popularity contest to the region’s most famous resident... And that would be Santa Claus himself, along with Rudolph, his fellow reindeer and Santa's elf helpers, who live in the almost mythical Lapland.
Lapland spans four countries, but it is widely believed that Santa lives in Rovaniemi, in Finnish Lapland. At least that’s where his workshop is, as well as the Santa Claus Village Christmas theme park, a year-round attraction sure to excite children and their parents in equal and opposite measure - particularly if they visit just a couple of months shy of the big day.
Rovaniemi, the unofficial capital of Lapland, is very much the gateway to this amazing place, where the magic of the Arctic Circle is more than a match for St Nick. There are many sleigh and reindeer rides of course, but venture further afield and you’ll see some of the most dramatic landscapes in Europe, where hills and pine forests contrast with vast swathes of tundra. Visit in the height of summer and you’ll be mesmerised by the midnight sun, which is visible throughout much of the region, and for much of the day, which is why Finland came to be fondly known as the 'Land of the Midnight Sun'.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, as well as the country, lively and colourful Helsinki is one of the great capitals of Europe. A hugely attractive city it benefits from having a range of contemporary and historic attractions. If you’re flying in, then it’ll almost certainly be your first and last port of call in Finland, so set some time aside to explore it properly.
Helsinki sits on a dramatic headland overlooking the Baltic Sea and, aesthetically, has more in common with Eastern Europe than its Scandinavian neighbours, but contrasts that by being a hotbed of art and culture. Jugendstil architecture, a fascinating interpretation of Art Nouveau, can be seen in numerous façades, sculptures and even in the main railway station, while ultra-modern contemporary art can be found in the Kiasma Museum in Helsinki.
The city also has a great shopping, café and restaurant scene, and in the summer plays hosts to a variety of concerts, festivals and other live entertainment, including the country’s premier cultural event, the annual two-week Helsinki Festival.
And if you need a break from the metropolis, there are more than 300 islands off the coast of Helsinki, many of which are idyllic escapes where you can sit back and take in some summer sun.
Of course the most popular way to relax in Finland is to strip off and get sweaty in a sauna with a bunch of naked strangers. The bizarre practice might be alien to many of us, but it’s been the cornerstone of Finnish culture for hundreds of years, and taking part can be a great way to free the mind - as well as the body!
In addition to numerous municipal options, most holiday resorts offer sauna facilities, from elaborate spa complexes where communal nudity is no longer a pre-requisite, to private facilities within individual lodges, villas and other accommodation. Many high-quality resorts, such as those highlighted below, are becoming destinations in their own right, offering fabulous lifestyle escapes to enable you to enjoy a truly unique experience in the remarkably unique country that is Finland.
RCI resort choices
Holiday Club Hannunkivi (Resort Directory ID 2940)
Set on the shores of Kivijärvi Lake in central Finland, this peaceful resort village of log cottages is the perfect escape from city life. An ideal place to recharge your batteries, the RCI Silver Crown resort has an array of activities on site, including boating and fishing, sauna and spa facilities and, in winter, you can even ski right from the door. Snowmobiling, snowshoe hiking, midnight skiing and sled safaris are among other exciting winter pursuits to be enjoyed here.
Holiday Club Katinkulta (Resort Directory ID 2247)
This RCI Gold Crown resort in eastern Finland is set in beautiful unspoilt lakeland countryside and offers a range of accommodation options - including spacious holiday houses with private saunas - and a myriad of facilities, including a fabulous spa hotel.
There’s an 18-hole golf-course and outdoor tennis courts on site, as well as an indoor leisure centre with sauna, pool, tennis, squash and badminton courts, golf range, children’s play rooms, restaurants and bars. Step outside and you can enjoy fishing, boating, hiking and swimming in summer, and downhill and cross-country skiing in winter.
Holiday Club Kuusamon Tropiikki (Resort Directory ID 2591)
An RCI Hospitality Award winner, this resort is a welcoming oasis for all the family, set against a stunning lake backdrop surrounded by pristine forests in northeastern Finland. Accommodation ranges from hotel rooms to holiday houses, all within a quick stroll of the lovely restaurant and spa offering a range of indulgent treatments. There’s plenty of fun to be had too, with family entertainment options including a water park, bowling alley and Angry Birds Activity Park.
Holiday Club Salla (Resort Directory ID 3939)
Enjoy an authentic Lapland experience at this lovely resort where you’ll find fells, backwoods and dramatic wilderness right outside your door. Accommodation is in spacious two-bedroom units all within walking distance of the ski slopes. There are miles of cross-country skiing and snowmobiling tracks to enjoy in winter, while summer pursuits include hiking and fishing. There’s also a reindeer park nearby, and if you just want to chill out then you can relax in the resort’s peaceful spa.
If you'd like to see how extraordinary the 37 Finnish resorts which are signed up to RCI's Holiday Exchange programme are, then just click the button below to browse through the pictures and details to see how you could be holidaying in this unique country.
If you own timeshare but have not joined a timeshare holiday swap and exchange programme, you should look at what RCI membership has to offer. You could have more than 4,000 resorts to bring into your holiday planning - a world of destination choice - as well as many fabulous holiday lifestyle options and services to make your precious getaways something really special.