Small is beautiful

With all those courteous Finnish drivers, endless greenery and a tech-savvy Santa, Bruce Elder thinks all his Christmases have come at once.

'You've been to Finland!" people exclaim, as though such a trip is beyond comprehension. "What's it like?" Few people go to Finland, it seems, and even fewer know anyone who has been there. Given the modern attention span, the challenge is to sum up the country in a few minutes. So I start with: "Finland in one word - trees!"

It is not as glib as you might think. Between 65 and 70 per cent of Finland is covered by trees. Drive from one end of the country to the other and the impression is of endless forests of birch, larch and spruce.

But, after two weeks in Finland - during which I drive from the southern port of Turku (where John Landy broke the world record for the mile in 1954) up the western coast to well beyond the Arctic Circle and then south down the eastern border that touches on Russia and through the country's scenic lakeside region before arriving in Helsinki - the overpowering memory is of a country with the best drivers in the world.

Every time I get on the Australian roads and some bozo pushes in and gives me a one-finger salute I feel like yelling: "Go to Finland and learn how to drive, ya mug!" The Finns - only 5 million of them - have produced more than their share of brilliant F1 drivers. Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen have won more Grand Prix events between them than US drivers have.

But that is hardly a compelling reason to visit a country. The appeal of Finland is subtle and complex. On one level I am in a country that reminds me of Australia in the 1950s. That's not to say it is old-fashioned. But Finland seems to have avoided some of the uglier aspects of the modern world. I do not see a McDonald's, KFC, Hungry Jack's or Pizza Hut. The country has its own hamburger chain, the service stations seem to have endless cups of percolated coffee and there is a fad for non-franchised pizzas.

There is an air of relaxation and simplicity that reminds me of a caravan holiday to a sleepy beach resort. But the Finns don't get into caravans. They have wooden holiday cottages and huts beside any of the seemingly endless lakes.

Despite the fact they were squeezed between the Russian and Swedish empires for centuries, the Finns are remarkably comfortable in their own skins. They feel no need to pretend they are serious political players on the world stage. They have no desire to cosy up to a superpower or swagger around offering solutions to the planet's problems. They enjoy their independence and celebrate the slow and the small.

That doesn't mean there is nothing for a visitor to do in Finland. Here are the highlights of my journey:

What are the chances of 600 timber houses, all heated by fires in the long winter months, surviving for more than two centuries? That is why Old Rauma appears on the World Heritage list as "representative of Scandinavian wood-building traditions".

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Rauma, a coastal town about 100 kilometres north of Turku, was established in 1442 and has the largest collection of historic timber houses in the Nordic countries. Most of the houses are from the 18th and 19th centuries and display the superb craftsmanship of Finnish and Swedish carpenters and joiners.

Old Rauma is characterised by narrow, often cobblestoned, streets and pathways. To walk around it is to experience a townscape unlike any other in the world and, because it is not a popular tourist attraction, the perfectly preserved old town isn't polluted by gift shops, galleries, cafes and restaurants.

Inari is more than 300 kilometres by road north of the Arctic Circle and only about 40 kilometres from the Russian border. The nearest major town is the Russian seaport of Murmansk. This region, popularly known as Lapland, is about as far north as you can get in Finland before you hit the tundra. Yet here I am, waiting for the midnight sun to never set, choosing a wine from a list that boldly proclaims, in an advertisement across the top of every page, that Jacob's Creek chardonay is on the menu, and eating - wait for it - reindeer carpaccio with marinated mushrooms and lingonberry chutney; white fish from Lake Inari with a basil, butter and white wine sauce and Lappish potato puree; and creme brulee with cinnamon and cloudberry juice. It all costs less than $50 and that is with a glass of, yes, I confess, Jacob's Creek.

Beyond the exceptional food this small outpost also has one of the finest indigenous-environmental museums in the world. It started in 1960 as an open-air collection of Lapp (or Sami, as they prefer to be called) houses, storerooms and structures designed for hunting, reindeer herding and fishing. In recent years a state-of-the-art exhibition of Sami culture and lifestyle has been developed in a new museum building. In one large room, each wall, with huge illuminated photographs and videos, represents a season. You walk around the room and experience a year in the life of the Sami people.

And do I see the midnight sun? Well, after all that food and wine I fall asleep only to be woken at midnight by noisy schoolchildren celebrating the end of the school year. I pull the curtains aside, gaze out the window and there, just above the tops of the spruce and birch, and looking forlorn and wintry although it is the height of summer, is the sun.

The beautiful town of Savonlinna is in the heart of the country's eastern lakes district. It boasts the darkly fascinating Olavinlinna Castle, where a month-long opera festival is held each summer. Grey and forbidding on a rocky outcrop, Olavinlinna has a grim medieval asceticism. Guided tours reveal a castle that, when inhabited by its builder, the Danish knight Eric Axelsson Tott, must have been cruelly cold in winter and unassailable for invaders.

Hour-long cruises circumnavigate Savonlinna, passing the castle and giving visitors views of the town and surrounding lakes. But the best view of the lakes is from Punkaharju Ridge, a seven-kilometre chain of eskers (sand and gravel ridges left by glaciation). It is so narrow in many places that you can look across Lake Puruvesi on one side and Lake Pihlajavesi on the other. The walk through the sun-dappled woods along the ridge is one of the wonders of the region.

Only a few kilometres north, 22 kilometres from Savonlinna, is the largest Christian timber church in the world. Kerimaki is an Evangelical Lutheran building that can seat 3000 worshippers. It was built by the community - every man in the parish had to help - in 1844-47. The belfry at the front of the church gives fine views of the church and countryside.

Finland, in its quiet way, has always been industrially innovative. The fact this small country produces a mobile phone, named after the town of Nokia, that dominates world markets' bears witness to its entrepreneurial spirit.

And here in the woods between Helsinki and Savonlinna is an old paper mill. It is on the World Heritage list and so perfectly preserved that to be taken around it is to get an insight into a world where horses, water power and manpower were the only way paper and cardboard could be made. Built in 1882, the mill, which produced whiteboard for book covers, continued to operate until 1964. Just before it was closed the owners filmed the workers and the processes that still involved drying and weighing each cardboard sheet, engines driven by water power from the adjoining mill and horse-drawn delivery of the spruce logs, which were ground into pulp. It is an opportunity to immerse yourself in a lifestyle that is more than a century old.

This weekend, all over Europe and as far away as Japan and China, parents will be loading their children on planes and flying to Rovaniemi, a modern city in far-north Finland that is only eight kilometres from the Arctic Circle and is the administrative capital of Lapland. The reason: to see Santa Claus at his Santa Claus Office - at Joulumaantie 1, 96930 Arctic Circle, Finland - and to sit on the old man's knee and tell him what they want for Christmas.

I arrive at the Santa Claus Office just before noon and find that I will have to wait until he has taken his lunchtime nap if I want an interview with Santa. So I have a couple of hours to fill. You can say it is corny and crass but, hey, Santa Claus Village is fun. A line runs down the middle of the village and you can jump or hop from one side of the Arctic Circle to the other calling out "North Pole, Africa, North Pole, Africa" as you go.

At least, that is what the Austrian who runs the Swarovski outlet in the complex shouts from his veranda.

"Swarovski in Santa Claus's village?" I call back. Surely this place is about children, snow, trinkets and cheapness? Do people really spend $520 on a crystal star for the tree? Apparently the summer travellers are generally older than the Christmas clientelle and they are the ones who spend hundreds of dollars buying upmarket crystal for their Christmas tree and their grandchildren.

I tell the salesman I hope to interview the real Santa outside the festive season. Perhaps Santa with schnapps on his breath? Or bored and tetchy? "Ah," he says. "You should check him out at the local pub on Friday afternoons, when he's finished for the week. That's when he's interesting. He's a typical Finn."

At 2pm I return to Santa's Office for my audience. I'm not disappointed. He's a large, jovial fellow with a long white beard, rimless spectacles, gargantuan boots and a facility to ask: "What would you like for Christmas little boy [or girl]?" in about 27 languages.

He explains what it is like during that boom time in the three weeks before Christmas. "You must understand," he says, with a suitably cliched twinkle in his eye, "that for children from London and Paris and Rome this is a magical day. They get off the plane at Rovaniemi and it is the first time they have seen snow. Then they come out here and they see reindeers, sleighs and meet me. It is something they will remember for the rest of their lives."

As I sit next to Santa - two white-bearded men together - an "elf" takes our photo with a digital camera and studio lighting. He crops the image on screen, sharpens it and seeks my approval. "I could be smiling more." The process is repeated. By the time I bid Santa farewell there is a print in a red folder. Gone are wooden toys, rickety sleighs and recalcitrant reindeer. Santa lives in a digital world of 21st-century professionalism.

Destination Finland

* GETTING THERE
You can fly directly to Turku and Helsinki from most major European cities. But for a beautiful and romantic entry fly to Stockholm and catch the ferry (it takes a day) to Turku via the Aland Islands.

* WHEN TO GO
The summer season is brief. It starts on June 1 (in some places it is June 20) and goes to August 13 or, at the latest, August 31. Most of the day-cruise vessels at Savonlinna operate for a maximum of three months.

* EATING THERE
All service stations have good fast food and coffee. After visiting Finland I can claim to have eaten raw reindeer, smoked reindeer in a delicious blue-cheese soup, reindeer steaks and reindeer prosciutto.

* MORE INFORMATION
Finland, the home of Nokia, is technology savvy. Most hotels have wireless internet connections. Booking hotels is easy on the internet. Most people speak English well. The currency is the euro. The roads are good and, except at the height of summer, accommodation is plentiful.

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