Today, our family-travel expert, Adriana, shares her trip to the Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi, in Finnish Lapland, filled with plenty of winter family fun and a special visit to Santa Claus.
As it turns out, the staff of the Holiday Inn in Helsinki did suggest we move floors. They put us on the top floor, in an ‘executive room,’ as far away from the ‘idols’ as we could possibly be. There are some interesting and very important differences between a regular room and an executive room that you may not immediately notice. (After all, the rooms are exactly the same size and basically the same layout.)
• Instead of two single beds pushed together you have a queen size bed, however you still have two separate duvets which has the result of feeling like you are sleeping in two single beds. • There is a large vase on the floor filled with sand and ‘decorative grasses’ • There is a hunk of ‘glass art’ on the night stand (by on I mean attached to because apparently executives have sticky fingers too.) • There is a bathrobe. (You can purchase your very own Holiday Inn bathrobe by contacting the front desk) • There is an actual bath mat rather than just one of those thin towel like mats • The towels are bigger and fluffier • There is a selection of bath products • And finally, what every executive must have while away on business… a bathroom scale.
And lucky us, we didn’t have to pay extra for any of these additional luxuries… honestly I don’t know how we lived without them.
As for Helsinki itself, it is a beautiful city. It is very vibrant. The city centre is clean and modern, without looking soulless. There are pedestrian shopping streets and several malls, many museums, a bustling harbor-side market and loads of restaurants.
The landscape reminded me a great deal of Eastern Canada; very rocky and hilly; lots of evergreen trees. It was very nice to be on the water again. Helsinki itself has a bit of the same vibe as Halifax; it seems to be a fairly young population, with the vibrancy and flair that that brings. It seems like there is always something interesting going on. It’s not too big (half a million people) and the downtown core is easily walk-able. If you don’t feel like walking, Helsinki has the easiest, cleanest, cheapest metro I’ve been on. It has one line. It costs 1-2 euros depending on what day it is and it comes every five minutes.
Most of my sightseeing was done solo, as Andrew was frantically working his butt off. I did a lot of walking and visited several parks. I walked along the coast and past several marinas, enjoying the smell of salt water. I strolled through the downtown quite a bit and did a lot of shopping, window and otherwise. (Helsinki turned out to be a great place to get my winter coat.) Their national department store, Stockmann, turned out to be the biggest one I’ve visited yet … I had thought Bijenkorf was huge.
I visited the modern art museum and the photography museum. I also visited the rock church. As the name indicates, it’s a church built into a rock. It doesn’t look like much at all from the outside, but the inside is quite beautiful. It is circular with a glass roof that has a copper dome in the centre. The walls are all the natural stone in a pinkish granite colour.
Saturday Drew and I actually had time to spend together, so we went to the harbor market. It was exactly as a market should be: lots of local produce (cranberries, mushrooms of all shapes and sizes), products (seafood, reindeer) and crafts (knitted goods, carvings, glassware), and without the junk and tackiness that often finds its way into heavily tourist-visited markets. We had our timing right and caught a boat tour of the harbor. It took a couple of hours and was a beautiful trip through all of the islands in Helsinki harbor. By the time we got back we were chilly and famished so we grabbed a yummy bite at the market.
In the afternoon we did some shopping and happened to catch an outdoor photo exhibit that I had first heard about in Amsterdam. (It was there while we were, last winter. They took it down the day before I went to see it so I missed out.) It is a series of aerial photographs sponsored by various environmental and humanitarian organizations. It is fantastic and I now own the catalogue. If you have the opportunity to see it, go. Many of the images on display are places and peoples that are vanishing. It is a stunning and eye opening exhibition.
In fact, most of my favorable memories of Helsinki revolve around food (as is often the case with Drew and me). One of Andrew’s co-workers and his wife took us for a fantastic night out. We had traditional Finnish food (the salmon bisque was to die for) in a very nice setting. After dinner they took us to a bar in a tower with a gorgeous view of the city.
We also did quite well at tracking down our own meals. We had a more modern Finnish meal one night at a lovely little café style spot. We had Nepalese one night when we were sick of steak and seafood (similar to Indian with different spice combinations). We had French one night and a great Italian thin crust pizza on our final night. We even tried Reindeer Ribs at the Tractor Bar (not that impressive). By far my favorite experience was our Russian night though. Our waitress was fantastic and very helpful. She explained all of the dishes and made suggestions for us. The food was fantastic. To wash it down we had Vodka that the chef flavored himself (Drew had honey and I had pepper). We left stuffed and happy.
All of the Finns we met were fantastic, warm and welcoming. They have much to be proud of in their beautiful country. I hope we can return and travel to some different places; Lapland sounds fantastic and many people recommended we take the ferry to Estonia for a day trip – Still more journeys to add to my ‘to do’ list.
Right about now, I should be on an airplane winging my way back to Brussels. Instead I am sipping horrid instant coffee in a blurry-eyed state, in my Helsinki hotel room. My head is throbbing from lack of sleep and I can only image that my poor overworked husband feels ten times worse.
We are still in Helsinki today because, yesterday afternoon, things on Andrew’s project weren’t going as planned. The higher-ups decided it would look better if Andrew stayed on, even though he could probably be just as useful from Brussels. In addition to the Helsinki project, (interesting name for a band) he has his normal projects which he has been working on every evening at the hotel. Last night it was nearly 3 am before he hit the bed. In itself, that would be enough to make anyone stressed and sleepy. But there is more going on at our happy little Holiday Inn than meets the eye.
When we arrived in Helsinki last week, I was very impressed with our accommodations. The hotel is brand new and beautifully decorated. We have had excellent service and even the food is very good and un-cardboard-like (albeit typically overpriced as all hotel food seems to be). Then there was the fantastic sauna, which I had to myself everyday… until Monday.
When I went into the locker room for the sauna on Monday, I was dismayed to see a pair of sandals on the floor. No more private sauna for me. I’ll admit, I have the North American prudishness about my body and can’t stand wandering around naked in the presence of others. It always freaked me out when I went to the gym and some of the women insisted on not covering up in the locker room.
But, I figured, when in Helsinki, do as the (Helsinkians? Helsinkites?) Finns do. So I showered and stepped into the sauna and plunked my naked self down as far as possible from the intruder in my private time. As she tossed water on the hot rocks, she said something in Finnish. I apologized and said I was English. She had asked me to tell her if it got too hot and then proceeded to ask where I was from.
I gave the explanation and answered the standard questions (i.e. what the hell I was doing there) and asked where she was from. It turned out that she was from a town outside of Helsinki but she was at the hotel, with 25 others, because she’s participating in the Finnish Idols competition. That’s right… It was my brush with Finnish stardom and we were both stark naked in the sauna.
In a 7 story hotel, you would think the odds would be 1 in 7 that we would be on the same floor as the Idol wannabes, but it was inevitably 100%. While I’m sure they are lovely, wholesome, Finnish youngsters by day. They are noisy, door slamming, irritants by night.
After 2 nights of being woken up somewhere between 3 and 4 am when they all came back to crash, Andrew spoke to the front desk. When he mentioned the nocturnal noise levels, the hostess asked for our room number. When Andrew replied, she gave him the ‘Oh, you poor bastard’ look and said that she would speak to the crowd.
While packing up all of our things and moving to another floor for only 2 more nights doesn’t appeal to me, neither does having an over-worked, sleep-deprived, and potentially murderous husband.
Despite these recent events, I really have had a wonderful time in Helsinki. It is a beautiful city and in many ways it reminds me of home. I’ll write all about it… once I’ve had a bit more sleep.