Considering Finland is 10% water (there are 188,000 lakes), it should come as no surprise that watersports and water based activities are so popular here. Off the coast of Finland there are an astounding 30,000 islands scattered among the archipelagos, making its coastal waters a haven for sailors and boaters, and cruises, both inland and offshore, are an excellent and convenient way of experiencing the country's unique beauty.
Sailing in the Baltic can be challenging for sailors for a number of reasons. To begin with there are the archipelagos of islands big and small, the skerries, and the channels between where rocks and reefs may lie just beneath the surface. Then there is the matter of unpredictable, and often very little wind, and the lack of any real current. Sailors enjoy pitting their skills against these factors, but perhaps the real attraction of sailing in the Baltic is the incredible beauty of these waters, especially in the areas which are National Parks.
There are three National Parks in the waters off Finland, the largest being the Archipelago National Park which covers some 500 square kilometres, and which forms the core area of the large Archipelago Sea Biosphere Reserve, established by UNESCO in 1994 to promote sustainable development, and research on interdependency between man and the nature. It also is a part of the PAN Parks network, which ensures that you are visiting the best of Europe's wilderness. A PAN Park offers real wilderness with outstanding nature and high quality tourism facilities, well balanced with wilderness protection and sustainable local development. To navigate these waters you'll need up-to-date charts, which you can get from the Finnish Maritime Administration.
Further west, the avid boater can enjoy the smaller, just 52 square kilometres, Ekenäs Archipelago National Park in the Gulf of Finland, a part of the delightful Nyland archipelago. It includes three out of the four archipelago zones: inner and outer archipelago, and the open sea. Almost 90% of the park consists of water areas, and it has no other land areas but islands, such as Älgö, Fladalandet, Modermagan and Jussarö.
The Eastern Gulf of Finland National Park includes the outer archipelago of the easternmost coastal municipalities. The hundred islands and islets of the park are scattered onto a large open sea area, which is 60 kilometres wide, and far from the mainland or the inhabited islands. Eastern Gulf of Finland National Park is included in the network of the most important protected areas in the Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area.
Off the western coast of Finland is the remarkable Kvarken Archipelago, a collection of wilderness-like islands among a labyrinthe of rocks and islets. In 2006 it was added to UNESCO World Heritage List.
Of course, you won't need to take to the seas to enjoy sailing or boating in Finland. 10% of the country is covered in water, and Central Finland is dominated by the Saimaa lake system, which is the largest water system in Europe covering a total area of 4,400 square kilometres, 1,700 square kilometres of which are waters. The coastline of the Saimaa lakes is 15,000 kilometres, and there is 3,000 kilometres of sailing routes here, with 70 ports and harbours where you can dock. Further north, in the Savo region, is Kuopio amid another network of lakes, the largest of which is Lake Kallavesi. New waterways have been developed in this region, chief among them the 90 kilometre Tahko Boating Route which connects Kuopio and the holiday resort of Tahko.
One of the best ways to enjoy Finland's unique scenery and nature is to travel through the country's abundant waterways and water routes. Moving silently across the waterways allows the visitor to encounter much of Finland's amazing fauna that would be spooked by noise, including the rare and protected Saimaa seals in their natural habitat. And of course travelling by canoe or kayak is an environmentally friendly and ecologically sustainable means of getting around.
The inland waterways are not the only places where kayakers and canoeists can enjoy themselves, the Baltic Sea is also a perfect environment to explore thanks to thousands of islands and islets that make up the numerous archipelagos stretching from Finland's border with Russia all the way around the coast to the Kvarken Archipelago in the Gulf of Bothnia. These waters are popular because the Baltic has little or no current, and high winds here are very rare indeed. However, the archipelagos are a maze, so good charts are necessary for longer journeys.
Although Finland is a fairly flat country, with no real mountain range to speak of, there are still excellent opportunities for whitewater rafting and shooting the rapids. This is because during the winter there can be a metre or more of snow lying on the ground, and come the months of April and May all this snow melts and the rivers surge to the sea. This is especially true of the northern parts of the country.
Taking on these whitewaters in a canoe or in a kayak is not recommended, unless you are an expert, but in a rubber raft or in a wooden boat with an experienced guide this will be a thrill you're unlikely to forget. In northern Karelia the rapids through Ruunaa are very popular, but there are similarly exciting experiences to be had in the Kuusamo region, and especially in Lapland. Running along the border with Sweden, for example, you'll find the Tornio and Muonio rivers which provide hundreds of kilometres of wonderful canoeing opportunities.
One of the most relaxing ways of exploring the many archipelagos whose islands are scattered around the coastal waters of Finland is from the deck of a ship. Cruise ships of every size and kind pass through Finnish harbours throughout the year, whether you're looking for a day away exploring Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Germany, Denmark or Sweden, or whether you want to experience the natural beauty of Finland's coast.
In the large coastal cities of Helsinki and Turku, as well as the smaller towns of Kotka, Pori, Nantaali, Vaasa, Raahe, and Oulu, trips around and through the islands, as well as cruises to neighbouring cities and towns, are available on a wide variety of boats, some the very essence of modernity, and others bearing a long and proud history. For example, you can take a quick cruise from the harbor of Helsinki, on small ferries around the town, to the island of Pihlajasaari or to the island fortress of Suomenlinna, where you can spend a sunny afternoon picnicing or exploring the ancient sea fortress. From Turku there are coastal cruises among the islands and to Naantali, where the Finnish President's summer residence is located, and which is home to Moominland. From both cities cruises to Mariehamn in the Åland archipelago are popular, and not just for it's tax-free status! It's also possible to sail to St. Petersburg without the necessity, and inconvenience (not to mention expense), of getting a visa, or across the Baltic to Tallinn.
Travellers visiting the Finnish interior become quickly aware that 10% of this verdant country is water, wherever you go it seems that the cities, towns and villages are built by the edge of a lake. Indeed, the Saima Lake system is the largest of it's kind in Europe, and extends from Lappeenranta in the south to Isalmi in the west and Nurmes in the East, covering almost 4.5 square kilometres. Like many other lakes in eastern and central Finland, the lakes in the Saimaa system are connected by canals, the most extensive of which is the Saimaa Canal which connects the system to the Gulf of Finland, via Vyborg in Russia. Saimaa is also connected to Kuopio in the Savo region, which in turn is connected to the port of Hanko on the Baltic coast.
There are dozens of steam vessels serving the waterways of the Saimaa lake area and Lake Päijänne, many of which were built as long as one hundred years ago. These charming, old world vessels, with their brass fittings and wooden decks, often offer accommodation, and always provide meals or refreshments on board. Expeditions can last from a couple of hours, a full day of travel, or even several days, and ideal for exploring inland Finland.
There are many routes to choose from, including Nurmes in the northern part of Lake Pielinen via the Karelina harbours and ports of Lieksa and Joensuu to the ancient town of Savonlinna, past the eyecatching Olavinlinna fortress. From Savonlinna there are tours to and from Kuopio, the longest passenger ship route on the inland waterways. In many ports you'll come across old time steamships, for example lake steamers connect Lahti and Heinola with Jyväskyla, and from Tampere you follow the Poet's Way on your way to Ruovesi.