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Once you get out into the wilds of Finland, it’s easy to think you are in the middle of nowhere, but I discovered recently that the small town of Ähtäri, with it’s zoo resort, is actually at the centre of everything. Below are some of things that you must not miss-out on when you visit Ähtäri.
#BeLikePanda or #SleepLikePanda
Since they arrived in early-2018, Pyry and Lumi the giant pandas have become the headline act at Ähtäri – they have even been re-branded, as SnowPandas. They reside in the custom-built Snowpanda House at Ähtäri Zoo, in enclosures that were designed to replicate the mountainside environment of their native China, complete with a stream running down the sloped, rocky terrain.
If you are lucky, you will be there at playtime, when the pandas are most active, padding around both inside and outside, playing with their toys or climbing frames. Or you will be there at feeding time, and see them expertly stripping their bamboo canes and devouring the inside. Making a lot of noise in the process.
It is recommended to buy a combination ticket for the zoo and panda house. This gives you two days at the zoo plus one visit to the panda house. Be sure to take your time, the pandas are not always ‘performing’, they also sleep. A lot. There are benches and bean bags, so you can make yourself comfortable and just hang-out with the pandas. People have been known to stay in the Panda House for hours. #BeLikePanda indeed (although I’m not sure if anyone has taken the #SleepLikePanda hashtag seriously, not yet anyway.)
Take a Tour of the Zoo
After spending half a day ‘being like a panda’, you can use your combination ticket to explore the rest of the zoo, and it is well worth your time. There are two distinct themes at Ähtäri Zoo, a wide collection of Scandinavian animals and a growing selection of Asian animals, those from a climate similar to Finland, such as, red pandas, takins and golden pheasants.
Before the arrival of the pandas, the Finnish brown bears, were the star attraction and they are still an important feature at Ähtäri Zoo. If you are planning to visit in springtime, it is well worth timing your visit to coincide with the brown bears waking up after their winter hibernation. This event draws the crowds to see the bears re-enter the outside world, rediscovering their love of playing in the snow and generally showing off in front of an audience.
There are two tracks around the zoo. Take the longer track to see ALL of the animals, or take the shorter one if you have a young family or are pushed for time. Why not enjoy the Snowpanda House and the shorter track on day one, and then take the longer track on day two. Both of the tracks lead you round to the the zoo’s Petting Farm, more of which below.
Enjoy a Fireside Picnic Beside the Animals
For many people reading this, it will seem an incredible concept; lighting a fire within a zoo. But this is Finland and starting a fire to cook sausages and toast marshmallows is a perfectly normal activity, even in the zoo. You cannot light a fire anywhere you choose, there are designated places with a shelter (laavu) and fire pit, . These spots are still close to the animal enclosures, however, and the elks are quite used to humans eating lunch nearby, so often come over to say ‘hei‘.
If you have not packed a picnic, but still want to enjoy an al fresco lunch with the animals, you can buy a takeaway lunch from the Panda Deli & Cafe in the Snowpanda House. All of the food is made fresh onsite every day.
Meet Traditional Finnish Animals at the Farmi Petting Zoo
As I mentioned above, the Petting Zoo (named Farmi) is at the end of the tracks through the Zoo, or can be accessed directly from the entrance to the Zoo. This area has been set-out to form a charming courtyard around a traditional Etelä-Pohjanmaa farmhouse, which was moved to Ähtäri especially. In the summertime, the farmhouse is also home to a cafe and gift shop.
As with the main Zoo, their is also a theme to the residents of the Petting Farm. Here you will find a collection of native Finnish animals, such as, horses and ponies, goats, sheep and cows, plus chickens, ducks and rabbits. All of the farm animals live in barns with a natural enclosure of woods, rocky terrain and grass behind them, accessible by animals when they want to go outside.
If you are lucky, you will see the ponies, cows etc. running around outside, it is especially fun to watch them rediscover their outdoor playground after they’ve been inside for winter.
Explore Finnish Nature
There are so many ways to explore Finnish nature at Ähtäri. Only 100 metres from the zoo is Lake Hankavesi, so in summertime what better way to explore than to rent a kayak or, better still, take a group excursion with a guide in one of Finland’s endless, summer evenings.
If going out on the water doesn’t appeal, you could stay on dry land and rent a bike. More specifically, rent a fatbike and explore the nature trails that snake through the forests of Ähtäri. The beauty of the wide tyres of the fatbike, is that they are perfect for both cross country riding in summer and snowy winter conditions.
Close to Hotel Mesikämmen is 5km of illuminated cross-country skiing tracks. These are maintained throughout winter, so they are always in the best possible condition. Never tried cross-country skiing? No problem, ski tuition can be arranged via the hotel.
Also, look out for forest yoga and mindfulness sessions. Just think, Panda yoga, so you can achieve Zen like a panda. #BeLikePanda
Why Not Stay For The Weekend?
If all of this activity sounds a bit too much for one day, I’d have to agree. Fortunately, there is a range of accommodation to suit all budgets, so why not make a weekend of it?
Hotel Mesikämmen is the perfect accommodation all year long. From the outside the building looks quite small, but looks can be deceiving. The reception and restaurant are the only visible part from the car park, the rest of the hotel has been carved out of the Ähtäri bedrock. If you looked at the hotel from the air, it looks like a tree, with the roots stretching out from the trunk. The restaurant/reception are at the centre, with corridors of bedrooms snaking-out, which means all of the rooms have a lake view.
If you are looking for more space of your own, then there is a selection of stylish villas at the Naava Resort, located a few hundred metres from the zoo. These larger chalets have a modern Nordic design, quality furnishings and appliances and, naturally, great views over Lake Hankavesi.
In the summertime, there is the Ähtäri Zoo Camping campsite, which has places for camper vans, caravans and tents. Plus there are holiday cottages to rent all year round. Finally, if you are feeling adventurous, you could experience the kesäaitta (sleeping cabins). These are traditional wooden cabins, offering basic facilities and are located near the lake at Ähtäri Zoo Camping and at the nearby Family Golf centre, where they are positioned close to the small par 3 golf course.
Read more in English and plan your visit: https://www.ahtarizoo.fi/index.php/en/
– Mark Wiltshear, Explore Finland Radio Show