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Finland’s Endless Lakes Are for All Seasons

<i> Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section</i>

I grew up in the Land o’ Lakes of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and I remember writing in a school paper that we had more lakes than anywhere else.

I didn’t know then that there were 187,888 lakes in Finland, a country smaller than California.

With Finland’s population of only 4.9 million, that means a lake for every 25 Finns, counting just the lakes larger than 545 square yards. By comparison, Minnesota has about 20,000 lakes, Wisconsin about 8,000.

There are lakes to be enjoyed every season of the year. You can cruise, sail, windsurf, canoe, rowboat, swim and fish in spring, summer and autumn. Fish through the ice and cross-country ski over it in the winter. The glow of the Northern Lights will lead the way in the winter.

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You may join international competitors and spectators around the lakes this winter at scores of downhill, ski jumping and cross-country competitions, including the 1989 Cross-Country Skiing World Championships, Feb. 17-26 in the lake district of Lahti.

Lots of Islands

The lakes in this country produce another statistic: 179,548 inland islands.

On the islands and along the lake shores are hundreds of thousands of vacation cottages, many available for weekend and vacation rentals. Most have saunas; there is one sauna for every four Finns.

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Many encyclopedias still estimate the number of lakes in Finland at 60,000. But new cartography methods developed by the Finns pinpoint the exact number.

Large lakes linked by the waterways of rivers and canals to smaller lakes makes inland cruising a rewarding way of travel, especially in the southern half of the country, where most of the lakes are clustered.

Along the cruise routes, amid all the natural beauty, are cultural attractions of historic and contemporary Finland.

Lake Cruise

For 4 1/2 hours we cruised aboard the Silverline’s Silver Star, from Hameenlinna to Tampere. Hameenlinna is 1 hours by train north of Helsinki. This small city was founded in 1639 and has Finland’s oldest medieval castle. Another attraction is the home in which composer Jean Sibelius was born in 1865.

After exploring Hameenlinna, we took a taxi to the nearby village of Iittala to visit the century-old Iittala Glassworks, which has won awards for its crystal.

Each year, nearly 300,000 visitors tour the Iittala Glassworks, making it one of the most popular tourist attractions in southern Finland. You can watch the glass being shaped, visit the museum and make purchases.

We had an early lunch at the glassworks in Restaurant Cafe Puntteli, then took a taxi to Visavuori above the embarkation point for the Silver Star’s 1 p.m. departure. We visited the preserved studio home of sculptor Emil Wikstrom and the museum containing his works.

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Soon after we left for Tampere via the water highway, lakes strung together by river channels lined with green forests. Summer homes and cottages were tucked into the trees along the shore and on small islands.

Lakes Like Seas

Some lakes were like inland seas, and we shared them with sailboats. Closer to Tampere were oarsmen training in long racing boats.

A recorded commentary in English, German, Swedish and Finnish described our route for the 45 passengers. We sat on the open deck when the sky was blue and sat by picture windows in the main cabin when a rain squall swept across the water.

Food and drinks are optional. The cruise costs about $30 U.S. per person. Tampere, a city of 170,000, is on an isthmus between two lakes, dominated at its western end by a high ridge of pine forests, narrow streets, expensive suburban homes and the luxurious Rosendahl Resort Hotel.

From Tampere, most cruise passengers continue northward for another eight hours to Virrat, following a chain of lakes and streams served by the Poet’s Way cruiser Tarjanne.

The cruise stops at the wooden church town of Ruovesi, where Finnish poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg spent the summers of 1825 and 1826. The wooden church, still serving its parish, was built in 1778.

No Hurry

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No one is ever in a hurry to leave Tampere. The Silver Star docked within a sheltered bay in the heart of the city, near the entrance to the swift rapids that link two large lakes. It was just a few minutes’ walk to the 18-story, five-star Hotel Ilvis beside the water.

From the windows of our room we had grand views, but the best were from the rooftop saunas. Doubles with breakfast are about $150 during the week, $100 on weekends.

At the modest but comfortable Hotel Uimahallim Maja, close to the amusement park and its 168-meter-high observation tower, not far from city center, doubles start at about $50.

Founded in 1779, Tampere is a city that harmonizes industrial production with history and culture. When a factory built early in this century moved to the outskirts from a site near Hotel Ilvis, the restored old structure was converted to boutiques and restaurants.

The Orthodox Cathedral is from the 19th Century. Stone churches date to the Middle Ages, centuries before the founding of the city. Long known as a city of writers, Tampere is also a city of architecture, from charming wooden houses to art nouveau and the futuristic form and sculpture of the new Kaleva Church.

The university of 12,000 students shares the cultural setting with a dozen museums. The Modern Art Gallery varies its displays from Picasso to contemporary American artists. The city also has a museum about Lenin and his life in Finland.

The architecture of the new city library, seen from above, resembles a raven with its wings spread. When the new performing arts center opens in 1990, it is expected to be another masterwork of modern architecture.

Film Festival

The Tampere Film Festival in February gets entries from throughout the world. The musical life of the city varies from its own opera and symphony to choirs, jazz, folk and rock. At Pyynikki Summer Theater, the outdoor auditorium revolves for scene changes from forest to lake shore.

The lake-shore setting changed for us again in the vastness of Kauppi Sports Park on the east side of the city, at the edge of another lake district. Until winter begins, there are canoeing, swimming, jogging, tennis, squash, bowling and horseback riding.

For more information on travel to Finland, contact the Scandinavian National Tourist Offices, 655 3rd Ave., New York 10017, phone (212) 949-2333.


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