Traveling abroad with young children has all the makings of a major family disaster -- alien surroundings, time changes and hectic touring. So when planning a summer vacation in Finland, we chose an economical farmhouse holiday at one of a growing number of working farms that welcome guests.
These family-oriented destinations, complete with chickens, horses and plenty of room for kids to roam, long have been favored destinations for Finnish families during their short summer season. Finns love to get away to their pristine lakes, seaside saunas and their roots as tillers of the land.
We sought out the farmhouse locale for its deliberately relaxed atmosphere. We weren't disappointed. Our two children -- Morgan, 14 months, and Eve, almost 5 years old -- were experienced travelers, but this was to be our first trip abroad as a family. We were determined not to see Finland as vagabond tourists but rather to establish ourselves at the farmhouse and its kid-friendly diversions. What under other circumstances could have been an exhausting trek turned out to be a relaxing, restful, family-oriented good time.
After a night's stay in Helsinki our farmhouse adventure began in earnest. We had chosen to stay at a farm less than three hours' drive from downtown Helsinki. There are nearly 100 farmhouses located throughout the country offering guest accommodation and listed by the Finnish 4-H Federation, a state rating and inspection bureau. We opted to travel by rental car rather than by bus (my daughter Eve's preference) to our destination -- Hoimela, a homestead at the end of a narrow, dirt-hardened lane bordered by ancient birch trees outside the village of Asikkala.
Our journey almost halfway around the globe into a comfortable, familiar homelike setting was far less problematic than some stateside car-ride catastrophes. The easy transition was not lost upon Eve, who by week's end was dreading the departure from her new home and was anxious to learn Finnish, which appeared in her limited experience to be the most popular of foreign tongues.
Hoimela is the home of Risto and Sirkku Jaruenpaa and their two children. Risto races horses, boards others, and raises corn and hay, and Sirkku teaches art at the local school. Sirkku speaks a very respectable English, and she served as informal tour adviser during our stay.
The manor house sits on the top of a pine-studded ridge overlooking Lake Paijanne. Every summer the Jaruenpaas move out of the house's bedrooms and into a converted shed to make way for guests.
The four of us shared one of these rooms -- one of two at the top of a gleaming white staircase. Downstairs were two shared bathrooms, a television and game room, and a large common room with a piano and view of the lake where buffet meals were taken.
In addition, there are a few guest cottages, one right on the lake withits own wood-burning sauna -- my choice for our next visit.
There was much to keep us engaged at the farm, and lots of time to do it. It never really became dark in this, the land of the midnight sun. The constant light and the six-hour time change wreaked havoc on the children's sleeping schedule. But as difficult as a couple of the nights were for my wife and I, it didn't affect our itinerary. Our daily activities centered around the farm and its attractions, so there was plenty of time for impromptu naps.
Breakfast was served every morning from 7:30 to 9:30; when we slept until 10:30 one morning we found breakfast still waiting for us. Cornflakes, breads, boiled eggs and porridge were on offer, along with fruit juices, coffee and tea.
When the sun was shining, we'd walk down to the lake less than 30 yards distant. The water was clear and cold, and we seldom had to put up with the droning of motorboats. Morgan, our younger child, spent hours testing her courage at the water's edge or trying to engage a 2-foot high porcelain elf -- one of the many that dotted the farmyard. Eve and I traveled gracefully by rowboats on long, peaceful explorations of the cottage-dotted coast. When I expressed an interest in fishing, Sirkku went out and bought a small rod and reel. Somehow we never found the time to use it.
wandered the paths that Risto uses to exercise his horses throughout the forested grounds, including one that led to some swings and a slide. We'd often walk up to the horses grazing in the meadow -- not for any reason in particular, but just to see them, or as a destination when we were trying to stroll Morgan to sleep.
Risto's son, Oscar, taught Eve the rudiments of Finnish baseball -- yes there is such a thing, played with a fairly good imitation of a bat. We reciprocated by lobbing a couple of creampuff pitches his way.
It is important to remember that this was a working farm, and that precautions for guests such as ourselves were secondary to its main purpose. The Finns have a '50s sensibility of liability exposure that may strike Americans as incautious. So we had to watch that Morgan did not play with the darts that we found in the sandbox, and we were careful that Eve did not disappear into one of the open tool and machine sheds.
For lunch we were on our own, but the village store was less than a mile away. We kept our cheeses, yogurt, milk and bread in a refrigerator reserved for guests.
The dinner bell would sound at 5:30 p.m. Meals were simple and hearty -- lamb stews, lots of potatoes, fried fish and pasta.
After dinner we'd dress the kids in pajamas and go downstairs to the den to play games, color and try to decipher Finnish television.
We did manage to have a private, childless sauna one evening. The Finns, contrary to legend, are the true inventors of the sauna, and the small, wooden smokehouses are ubiquitous throughout the country.
Risto would fire the sauna up every evening after dinner, placing cordwood in the simple, stone-topped heater. Next to the heater was a vat full of hot water, and opposite this was an equally large container of cold water, each outfitted with necessary scoops and buckets. Guests reserved hourlong blocs, but since we took the last slot, at 9 p.m., we had the lakeside sauna for as long as . . . until we were told that Morgan was awake and crying. It was heaven while it lasted.
One day, when the clouds gathered, we drove south for a couple of miles to the town of Vaaksy. There, bridging the quarter-mile between lakes Paijanne and Vesijarvi is a tree-lined canal, complete with a working lock in its middle. Watching the lock in operation from the vantage point of an outdoor ice cream parlor provided an afternoon's easygoing entertainment.
After dinner that evening, Risto offered us sahti, a traditional malt drink that he had brewed in the sauna -- versatile contraptions, aren't they? We sat together at a table next to the Finnish flag that flies in front of the farmhouse and sipped the bitter home brew. True, we had come a very long way, and we had not seen much of Finland. Or then again, maybe we had.