Unique lakescapes Mikkeli and surrounding districts have much to offer visitors of all kinds. Only a stone's throw from the modern town centre, a restaurant with the ambience of a gracious old country manor serves delicious food with a strong emphasis on the game that abounds in the surrounding forests. Those longing for the real peace of nature can withdraw to a lakeside cottage and listen to the wind soughing in the trees and the waves lapping on the shore, but without having to dispense with any of the comforts of urban life. Finland's largest lake, Saimaa, with its clean water and countless islands is ideal for active holidays, exploring in canoes or trying to coax some of its abundant fish to take the bait. For those whose thoughts run more to culture and history, the magnificent Stone Age rock paintings and Iron Age remains to be found in the area are well worth seeing.
The handicrafts vicarage
On the shore of Saimaa and a little aside from the centre of Mikkeli stands Finland's largest wooden parsonage, Kenkävero (literally "Shoe Tax"). Built in the middle of the last century and recently restored with great care and skill, it has taken on a new lease of life as a popular destination for visitors with an eye for beautiful objects. The many outbuildings and an old cow byre have been taken over by a local handicrafts association and works made by more than 200 pairs of skilled hands are on display and sale there. In the various workshops on the premises, visitors can see pottery and wooden articles being made, and even try their own hands at this work. There is also a gallery with changing exhibitions of handicrafts and industrial art objects.
In the main building, members of the Martta countrywomen's organisation are busy in the restaurant, carrying on the tradition of hospitality for which vicarages were once renowned. Outdoors, a display garden laid out in squares contains hundreds of species of herbs and vegetables. The garden, cultivated using organic methods, supports the Martta organisation in its advisory work; there is a strong belief that new livelihoods based on locally-grown herbs can play an important role in developing new rural livelihoods.
Living like the gentry
Tertti Manor lies a few kilometres east of Mikkeli. It is mentioned in records as early as the 17th century, when it enjoyed tax privileges in return for maintaining cavalry for the King of Sweden. The main building acquired its present appearance in the late 19th century, when it was bought by the family to which the present owner, Matti Pylkkänen, belongs. The atmosphere of relaxed dignity in the hotel that he and his wife Pepita have run there for the past twenty or so years immediately envelops the visitor. Sitting on the porch and admiring the lakescape while one sips a drink made from strawberries grown in the manor garden is like a trip back in time.
The carefully preserved surroundings and the interior of the manor with its original furniture help one get into the period mood. An even better aid is the atmosphere of hospitality that the host and hostess have been so successful at creating.
"We enjoy receiving guests and looking after them," says Pepita Pylkkänen.
Tertti has become nationally famous for its buffets. Many of the ingredients, berries, herbs, fish and game, come from the estate qitself or from neighbouring ones. "We do our cooking using recipes that have been handed down for generations. Many of the dishes have been on the family menu for a very long time. Game is one of our specialities; we serve elk meat and pheasant quite often," Pepita explains.
Overnight guests stay in old log barns that have been converted into guest rooms with an air of old-style luxury. In the gardens around the manor guests can savour the fragrances of herbs and roses or just enjoy the peace as they wander among the rockeries.
Wines and liqueurs from berries
Just south of Mikkeli take the road east and drive some distance through the forest- clad hills and eventually you will come to Finland's biggest wine estate. Wine this far north? Yes, indeed, because berries rather than grapes are the raw material.
"Visitors from the great wine-producing countries further south in Europe are usually taken aback until we tell them that we make berry wines. They like our berries for their strong aroma and high purity. By Central European standards they would be classed as organically grown, because we use only minimal amounts of crop-protection chemicals," explains Sirpa Villanen, who runs the estate.
In addition to wines, liqueurs and distilled spirits are made on the estate. The annual capacity is currently 40,000 litres and steadily growing. The raw materials are estate - grown red - and blackcurrants and apples as well as red whortleberries and bilberries picked in the surrounding forests. Owing to one of the quirks of Finnish alcohol laws, visitors can buy wines to take away on weekdays, but not on Sundays, whilst liqueurs and spirits must always be ordered through the national liquor monopoly Alko. All beverages can be sampled on the premises.
Beautiful scenery and peace by the water
After the wine estate, continue eastwards along the road that winds through thick forests and occasionally along stunningly scenic Lake Saimaa shorelines. At Sahanlahti in Puumala a treat awaits if they visit the resort that Aira and Jorma Kiuru run with such devotion. There the day begins with a bowl of "night porridge", whole grains of barley that have softened to deliciousness all night in the gentle heat of an oven.
The couple have spent the past 13 years building up their resort. It has a restaurant, well-appointed cabins, a guest marina with a full range of services and a caravan park. The location on the shore of Saimaa is spectacularly beautiful and the resort harmonised excellently with the surrounding environment, where everyone can certainly find a place to be alone and enjoy the tranquillity of nature. "We also try to take the environment into account in ways other than just the visual side," says Aira Kiuru. "For example, we have been taking part in projects related to sustainable development for a long time. We have reduced our energy consumption, the restaurant no longer uses disposable portion packaging and we compost our wastes."
Just in case having nothing to do but enjoy peace and quiet might become boring, the Kiurus have arranged all kinds of leisure pursuits for their guests. There are rowing boats that all can use, well-signposted canoe routes radiate from the resort, fishing permits are available and one can even go on an organised picnic trip in one of the large rowing boats that used to ferry parishioners to church on Sundays. There are tennis and badminton courts and the daring can even put themselves to the test on the "adventure course" that the host has built together with an expert. At the end of the day there is a genuine Finnish smoke sauna, i.e. a chimneyless one, just the place to wash off all the sweat that one has worked up. The recreational options in the winter season range from snowmobile trips to cross-country skiing.