Last updated August 23, 2021
“My family has owned this land since the King of Sweden gifted it to us in the 1600s,” says Patrick Heiskanen, as we stand on a dock and take in the expanse of forest and mirror-still water that surrounds Hotel & Spa Resort Järvisydän, a wilderness wonderland in the heart of Finnish Lakeland.
Since 1658, the Heiskanen family has been running a guesthouse in Porosalmi along the labyrinthine waters of Lake Saimaa, which at the time was the highway (water route in summer; ice road in winter) between the then borders of the Kingdom of Sweden and the Russian Empire. Today, that guesthouse is a full-fledged outdoors adventure and wellness resort run by the 11th generation.
Coming to Järvisydän is a lesson in history and one that is nothing short of fascinating—weaving in centuries-old Finnish culture with breathtaking nature and unforgettable experiences.
But here’s the thing. Coming to Järvisydän is also a lesson in me. I’m a city girl. I love my concrete sidewalks, my mini pockets of green, my lively street cafés. Give me urban bathing over forest bathing any day of the week.
I knew I was heading east from Helsinki toward trees and water. Finland is often referred to as “the land of a thousand lakes” with most of these in the Finnish Lakeland district. Saimaa is the country’s largest freshwater lake and the fourth largest in Europe. It’s also the perfect spot to get upfront and personal with the close relationship Finns have with nature.
You see, nature plays a huge role in Finnish ideology, activities and wellness. During the summer the sun never seems to set allowing long days of hiking, wild swimming and boating. In the winter months when the days are much shorter, there’s cross-country skiing, ice fishing and skating on the agenda.
I was spellbound. You can feel the spirit of the distant past. Think Nordic mythology meets modern amenities. The main hotel has a physical presence that is reminiscent of a grand old lodge in a U.S. national park with timber, boulders, indigenous artifacts and petrified wood.
The property weaves together the region’s culture in the form of mythology, art and wilderness. The buildings are made of raw materials harvested from the water and the forest. The majority of food is sourced within 100 kilometers and rotates seasonally.
Wherever you walk you are greeted by the sweet smell of wood and wood-carved art that depicts The Kalevala, Finland’s national epic which has helped shape the nation’s identity.
These are just some of the attention to detail that the owners are passionate about.
As luck has it, my room for the night is a glass-domed suite with a fireplace and kitchenette in the Kota Hotel of the resort. The word “kota” is the first known synonym for the word “home” in the Nordic hunter-gatherer culture.
Each Kota building consists of seven rooms circling a communal living room with a cozy fireplace. What makes this space truly authentic is the piped-in sound of nature, bringing echoes of the wild indoors.
Additional accommodations include Log Villas, Hillside Villas, Lakeside Villas, guest rooms in the main hotel, Houseboats and Scenery Suites that cascade down the hill and are ideal for basking in the midnight sun during the summer.
As I soon found out, every guest room, suite or villa has something unique about it: be it a private sauna, Jacuzzi, patio or rooftop terrace.
There’s a rustic warm vibe to the accommodations, which are decorated from top to bottom with pure Finnish style—emphasizing wood, clean lines, utility and functional furnishings.
Now, I came prepared. Books, journals, headphones, laptop, yoga mat. You name it. I packed it just in case I had nothing to do. What I wasn’t prepared for is the peace, calm and laid-back attitude.
Do what you want, when you want. Slow down and smell the flowers and wild strawberries. Admire those woodcarvings that dot the pathway.
Järvisydän is an experience-driven resort with activities year-round. The outdoor adventure spirit serves as a welcoming base for exploration both on land and water.
Since we’re in Finnish Lakeland, everyone lives by and for the lake (even in winter). Water-based activities include swimming, boating, canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), fishing, ice fishing, skating and water safaris to watch the endangered Saimaa ringed seals play.
The resort is located in Linnansaari Kansallispuisto—Finland’s oldest national park—and there are oodles of trails to explore. Being in Finnish nature not only refreshes and relaxes the brain, but also frees the soul.
Guests can choose from hiking, e-fat biking, horseback riding on Icelandic horses, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing (with equipment rentals available). Other on-site activities include yoga, sauna-ing and wine tasting with exclusive wines from a local monastery.
I enjoyed an amuse-bouche of activities that left me yearning to do more (even in the winter and I am NOT a winter person). It felt like summer camp for an adult.
By far my favorite water activity is SUP. There’s no greater feeling than being on that board. The silence of Lake Saimaa lulls me into meditation while waves gently lap against the rails.
I had the option of SUPing to Kaarnetsaari, a local pine-tree-covered island. But I opted for a guided boat excursion instead. I highly recommend taking at least one excursion with a guide. You get the full context of the experience this way.
I boarded the old wooden boat and off we sailed. Fun fact: Kaarnetsaari was once where a local church held its confirmation retreats. Nowadays the island is an outpost for picnics (the resort kitchen can pack a basket of goodies for you), hiking and sunbathing.
The first surprise came in the form of a café serving a menu of traditional salmon soup and Finnish-style pancakes. The next surprise (remember we are in the middle of nowhere) came in the form of augmented reality, which lets you explore wildlife on the island using your smartphone or tablet via an app.
The loop is approximately one mile. Not saying you need to be in good shape, but there are some tricky paths where you need to climb and descend rocks.
Sauna is a Finnish wellness tradition that runs deep in their heritage. For centuries, sauna has been a space for physical and spiritual cleansing.
It is no surprise that Järvisydän boasts Sauna World and the Lake Spa, hidden under forest terrain and set amidst rugged rocks with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Lake Saimaa.
The swimming pools are magical. In fact, there are five of them. Three indoor and two outdoor that are filled with unheated water from Lake Saimaa. Six saunas grace the spa and range from stone (185 °F) to traditional (158 °F) to steam (131 °F).
When you come out of the sauna, it’s common to take a shower, roll in the snow or jump into the lake. And you can do just that. A flight of stairs leads directly to the refreshing lake water.
There’s also a quiet room that doubles as a salt room offering halotherapy for skin and breathing issues. The sea salt-covered ceiling, walls and floor emit therapeutic minerals into the air.
The day spa offers facials, hot stone and classical massages, peat therapy and special pampering treatments found only at Järvisydän. The massage that spoke to me was the pulikkahieronta, a treatment inspired by the region’s folklore. The massage is carried out using a traditional pie rolling pin. My muscles felt like jelly afterward.
Outside the Lake Spa is Sauna World, comprising two Finnish saunas, a smoke sauna, a steam sauna and a hot tub. This area is under renovation so I wasn’t able to get my sweat on. Next time.
PS: don’t be surprised if you see guests tooting around the resort in robes. That’s how you do spas here in Finland.
To experience a culture is to experience its food. And meals here are to be savored. The resort recently opened its Kota restaurant—a teepee-like structure located between the Scenery Suites and Log Villas.
The venue looked intriguing with its open fire smack dab in the center and tables dotting the back of the room. The host for the evening explained the three-course menu: soup, followed by the main dish cooked over the open fire and dessert closing out the evening.
He then turned on a soundscape evocative of medieval times. Diners were guided outside in between courses to the campfire where we chatted with the host and each other.
Unfortunately, I was only at the resort for one night and didn’t get an opportunity to try the restaurants in the main building or on the water. I did take a peek inside the Wine Cellar cave where local culinary specialties are served on wood platters and sizzling iron pans.
The casual Bistro bar serves pizza (including reindeer topping) and burgers, while the two floating restaurants along the shore serve Thai and fish dishes.
You can easily spend several days here, slowing down and taking in the magic of Finnish Lakeland.
If you’re craving an authentic experience that leaves you with a feeling that you truly got to know the people and culture—this place is it.
Järvisydän is the dose of medicine I didn’t know I needed. I arrived as one person and left as another.
All spa packages include breakfast, entrance to the Lake Spa (one visit per day of accommodation) and your choice of one of the following activities: seasonal rental equipment for a 2-hour period, wine tasting, ticket for an artist’s evening or a cruise to a local island.