Finland is the world’s happiest country. So what REALLY makes the locals forever


Beyond the veranda of the lakeside cottage, a brilliant June sun turns orange then red before it sinks behind the shoreline.

Sibelius’s stirring music swells from speakers and a gentle breeze rustles the reeds. Indoors the log fire flickers in the stone hearth.

Time to light the wood-burning sauna, accompanied by a tot of Finlandia vodka.

After the blast of heat — I manage 12 minutes — I leap naked from the pontoon into Lake Asikkala, a couple of hours north of Helsinki. This is the ‘wahay!’ moment, a sizzling consummation of earth, fire and water.

Welcome to the Finnish lifestyle that has seen the Nordic nation come top of a recent World Happiness Index compiled by the UN (no less) and designed to quantify that most ethereal of commodities: contentment.

The good life: Mark Porter explores Finland, the country that has come top of a recent World Happiness Index. During his trip, he stops in the 800-year-old coastal city of Porvoo (pictured), the country's second-oldest settlement

The good life: Mark Porter explores Finland, the country that has come top of a recent World Happiness Index. During his trip, he stops in the 800-year-old coastal city of Porvoo (pictured), the country’s second-oldest settlement 

The competition was set up by the General Assembly under Resolution 66/281, and Finland has won six times in the last ten years. 

Last time it pipped Denmark into second place, with Iceland, Switzerland and the Netherlands following behind in that order. So is it all it’s cracked up to be? As far as the lakeside cottage is concerned, yes. 

And being a big fan of the great Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius, on my second day I leave my charming billet and head back down towards Helsinki for the shores of Lake Tuusula to visit the home of the composer.

'Cobblestoned streets are lined with brightly coloured wooden houses,' Mark says of Porvoo

‘Cobblestoned streets are lined with brightly coloured wooden houses,’ Mark says of Porvoo

TIME TO CHECK IN FOR A HAPPINESS MASTERCLASS

My ‘happiness masterclass’ is at a hotel made from turf, boulders and acres of glass punctuated by steel, overlooking a lake of glacial calm, which we reach after a three-hour drive deep into the forests north east of Helsinki.

The Kuru hotel is a pagan cathedral with moss-covered walls set in a sea of serenity. You enter via a door in a rockscape that resembles the HQ of 007’s nemesis, Dr Karma. It is here the secret to life’s most intangible asset will be revealed.

In the fading midnight sunshine I take a sauna with my fellow happiness-searchers. We leap into the freezing lake and find great joy on getting out.

In nearby Savonlinna, a retired diplomat and historian, Timo, takes us for a stroll — and admits something. ‘We don’t smile much, don’t talk a lot,’ he says. ‘We are modest and self-deprecating. And we’re pessimists.

‘Our national poet Eino Leino said whoever is happy should hide it. And we say that words are silver, but silence is golden.’ We reflect briefly (in silence) and realise what he is saying: pessimists can’t lose. Every cloud has a silver lining. Expect nothing and you will be pleasantly surprised.

The Kuru hotel lies in 'a sea of serenity'

The Kuru hotel lies in ‘a sea of serenity’

The next morning outdoorswoman Mikaela whisks us off to an island to hug trees. She makes coffee on a birch fire using firelighters of recycled toilet paper and wax.

She has another theory about the national psyche: ‘Finns know that they must pay for their happiness with their long dark winters and this gives them the equilibrium to deal with life.’

The gap between rich and poor is not as pronounced in Finland as in other countries. ‘If you are Finnish you are part of one big family. We look after our own,’ says Arja, who runs the Cafe Majurska at Lappeenranta Fortress, next to the Russian border.

We visit a Finnish design workshop (after seeing lambs on a 17th-century farm) and sew pompoms onto small mats woven by the charming Taina Snellman-Langenskiold, a cutting-edge designer and mistress of meaningfulness, beauty and sustainability — all key to the Finnish character.

Back at the Kuru, I take another sauna and ponder the meaning of life. In this moment, I feel happy — and that’s a good start.

It does make me happy being here. So content I can’t help myself and blast out the first few bars of the A minor Impromptu on the Steinway in front of the tiled hearth (before memory failure brings me to an abrupt halt).

My guide smiles indulgently — happy as well — before continuing her narrative. The fireplace is in Sibelius’s favourite key, she says. ‘He could hear colours in the way that you can see them. To him that shade of green was F major.’

Unusual, perhaps. But Finland seems to be a land of the imagination, where not seeing is part of the picture, where the obvious has been airbrushed from the score. The land where the spirit rules and banality is banished to the sidelines.

Finland’s popularity as a long weekend destination is well established with budget airline connections from the UK. This is, after all, the home of Father Christmas, 187,888 lakes, a current affairs radio channel in Latin and a football league that only plays in swamps.

How could anyone resist? Even in the height of winter. On a previous visit, I had seen a sign at the airport which read: ‘Nobody in their right mind would come to Helsinki in November. Except you, you badass.’ With all due respect, nobody in their right mind would jump into the Baltic through a hole in the ice after a drink-sodden session in the sauna. Or count all those lakes. Or have an Elvis impersonator who sings in Ancient Greek.

But I digress. Back to Sibelius. His home, with its splendid antique sauna, was at the heart of an early 20th-century arts and crafts movement. The Tuusula shoreline is dotted with such grand wooden dachas. All lovely looking, happy-seeming places.

Out on the lake, in an old flat-bottomed fire tender, we glide along the shoreline before alighting at Krapi, a rambling old farm that is now a family-run hotel. Before dinner, I continue my sauna crawl in the hotel’s spacious tiled broilerhouse. ‘Sauna’ is the only Finnish word to have made it into the English language and is a ritual that’s been going on since caveman settlers discovered that hot stones sprinkled with water unclog even the dirtiest pores.

In the past, women gave birth in them because the soot from the traditional smoke sauna was bacteria-resistant, so created a sterile environment. 

It is also where the pre-marriage purification ceremony took place and where the dead were washed and prepared for burial. In fact, they are so popular that there are 3.3 million saunas serving only 5.3 million people in Finland.

Perhaps that’s why everyone is so cheerful. When you ladle water on to the stones, that lung-busting vapour given off is called löyly. 

After observing the steam ritual — and a self-administered flogging with birch twigs — I dress for dinner.

Hearty Finnish fare is served from a table groaning with pickles, smoked meat and fish. Soused herrings and freshwater lobster (rapu) jockey for position with baked hams, beef and venison.

But first, a tureen of lohikeitto, a cream of salmon soup. 

My four-day tour by hire car takes me on to the 800-year-old coastal town of Porvoo some 20 miles east of Helsinki, the second oldest settlement in Finland. Cobblestoned streets are lined with brightly coloured wooden houses, and warehouses sit above the banks of the muscular Porvoonjoki river.

At the heart of the old town — Vanhakaupunki — is the 14th-century Lutheran cathedral, a modest white edifice that has risen from the rubble of invading armies more times than you could shake a crosier at. 

Mark notes that Finland is the home of Father Christmas, 187,888 lakes (one of which is pictured), a current affairs radio channel in Latin and a football league that only plays in swamps

Mark notes that Finland is the home of Father Christmas, 187,888 lakes (one of which is pictured), a current affairs radio channel in Latin and a football league that only plays in swamps 

There are 3.3 million saunas serving only 5.3 million people in Finland, Mark reveals, adding: 'Perhaps that’s why everyone is so cheerful' (stock photo)

There are 3.3 million saunas serving only 5.3 million people in Finland, Mark reveals, adding: ‘Perhaps that’s why everyone is so cheerful’ (stock photo) 

The final night of Mark's trip is spent in the capital, Helsinki. Above is Helsinki Cathedral

The final night of Mark’s trip is spent in the capital, Helsinki. Above is Helsinki Cathedral

My final night is in Helsinki, where I have time to explore a wonderful modern sauna complex called Löyly. A proud piece of modern architecture over the bay, it boasts a traditional and a smoke sauna.

The locals, who seem exceptionally friendly, try to insist I take the plunge into the Baltic. 

A naked chap with a big grin and a large glass of cider offers to show me the way. ‘Are you mad?’ I ask… but he seems happy enough.

TRAVEL FACTS

Finnair flies to Helsinki from £134 from Heathrow, £192 from Manchester and £212 from Edinburgh (finnair.com). Three-night breaks at Patiala Manor Cabins by Lake Asikkala from £215 (00358 40 7693053, patialankartanonlomamokit.fi).



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