Most of us want to get to arrive at our final destination as quickly as possible. However, if you happen to be flying halfway around the world to get to your “home” for a long holiday – in this particular case, to the UK, Europe or even Canada and America, you may as well look at a couple of add-ons or detours so you can see some new places. One option well worth considering is Finland.
Fly into the capital Helsinki, and from there you can do plenty. Head to Lapland, Finland’s northernmost region, to see the northern lights which are visible nearly all year round. Sleep in ice rooms, get drawn by husky sleighs across vast white fields and – if you really want – leap into icy lakes. Saunas (“sow-naas” as the Finns say it) are popular and it’s the norm to plunge yourself intermittently into cold water during a steamy session. Even I stepped slowly into the grey sea off Helsinki, when the air temperature was two degrees Celsius. The shock disappears quite quickly after a couple of beers (which are also drunk in the saunas!).
If you don’t want to take another flight, you can stay in or around Helsinki; aside from the city itself, there are a few interesting towns and rural spots to keep you busy for at least a few days. In the winter, Helsinki is a little bleak and grey, but there are plenty of excellent restaurants, designer shops and innovative museums such as the City Museum. The Design District is fairly expensive for designer clothes and accessories, but there are some interesting and unique items. Everywhere is pretty easy to get to and there’s public transport if you don’t want to walk. Most people seem to speak excellent English. It looks like it would be delightful in summer, too. We stayed at the brand new Hotel Indigo Helsinki, which was lovely – very central, with fantastic beds. I’d forgotten the comfort of European beds! The good thing about a cold country is that they know how to heat the rooms well, but it also means it’s quite misleading when you’re getting dressed. It’s only when you step outside that you realise how cold it is – so, take layers, and add and remove them as required.
Wine & Dine
Food is a really important part of the culture and social life of Finland. We had a fantastic lunch at the relatively new restaurant Vinkkeli, in the heart of Helsinki’s Kaartinkaupunki district. Our meals were served with a light non-alcoholic drink made from fir trees – similar to wine but even more drinkable, if that’s possible. Many of the dishes have creamy sauces, and there are also creamy soups with the yummiest of breads. You’ll need to walk quite a bit to burn off some of the calories! Elsewhere, Trilby & Chadwick is a secret speakeasy bar based on the days of prohibition, and Juuri is a small and cosy restaurant. Then there are delicatessens, like the one in the Stockmann building, where you can buy smoked fish, a huge variety of cheeses, breads and so on. The Old Market Hall right on the sea has more cheeses, fish and savouries.
Porvoo is a medieval town about an hour away from the airport. Not a lot has changed in the main part of the town; many of the houses date back to the 1300s! Streets are cobbled and there are plenty of little shops to keep you busy. Beware the “sweetie shop”, where you can taste-test nearly everything – I ended up with so many bags of chocolate, fudge and caramel creations! Haikko Manor is not far away too; it’s an old home that has been converted to a boutique hotel. We stayed in the standard rooms in the convention section, a new build that houses saunas, steam rooms, plunge pools and even a cryotherapy tank that takes your body down to minus 128 degrees Celsius – I watched while others did it! Meals at Haikko are served in the manor itself, and it’s a gorgeous setting in the large dining room and the beautiful breakfast rooms. The food was excellent and a good change even from all the variety that Asia has to offer. At breakfast there was a choice of lactose-free milk, gluten free breads and plenty of organic offerings too.
The countryside near to the capital is a mix of beautiful forests, large lakes and lots of open space and skies. We went on a nature walk near Porvoo; the forest floors are thick mattresses of moss, so springy that I’m sure you could have a good night’s sleep on it. Edible berries are everywhere on the ground, with other not-so- safe-looking mushrooms and flowers. You’ll also find kayak tours and horse-riding available.
Apart from plunging into the sea from the vast terraces of Loyly, a beautiful new modern design sauna right on Helsinki’s waterfront, you can hire a jet-ski or take a cruise. It’s this cruise option that seals the deal for this city as a stopover option. Various ships and ferries can take you to a variety of places either up the coast in Finland, or to Stockholm in Sweden, St Petersburg in Russia (which is apparently amazing), or – another one that really appealed to me – to Talin, a medieval city in Estonia. Before this trip I’d never heard of Talin, but it sounds fascinating. The cruise liners even have shops on board, plus shows, plenty of things for children to do, and various eateries. This would be a great way of adding a couple of days to your stopover, letting you see as many as four different countries in the process, with no extra hotel bookings or travel costs other than the cruise.
Finland tourism: visithelsinki.fi/en | visitfinland.com
Hotel Indigo: helsinki-boulevard.hotelindigo.com
Haikko Manor: haikko.fi/en
Nature walks and stays: seikkailulaakso.com
Restaurant Vinkkeli: ravintolavinkkeli.fi
Restaurant Juuri: juuri.fi/en
Cruises from Helsinki: tallinksilja.com
Helsinki City Museum: helsinginkaupunginmuseo.fi/en
For more ideas on stopover packages in Finland, and to book flights: finnair.com
This article first appeared in the Apr/May edition of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.
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