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|Where’s Natalie? Helsinki, Finland|
Finland's capital city offers history, culture, shopping and luxury accommodations -- what more could you ask for?
By Natalie Bahadur
When I first got the invitation to visit Helsinki, I'll be honest; I didn't jump at the opportunity. Of all the magnificent world cities that clutter my must-see list, Helsinki just wasn't on there. Everyone thought I was crazy for turning down such a unique opportunity and soon, I came to see reason. What was I thinking? When would I ever find myself a chance to visit Finland's capital city? It's not a vacation destination that leaps readily to mind, and if I didn't go now, when would I? And so, as my doubts melted away, they were replaced with a growing sense of excitement and anticipation. I was headed to ... Finland!
LEAVING ON A JET PLANE
A number of carriers fly into Helsinki-Vantaa Airport (HEL). Finnair is the country's national airline, but other carriers include KLM, British Airways, Lufthansa and Northwest Airlines, among others. I was booked on a KLM flight out of Toronto's Pearson International Airport (YYZ) that would connect in Amsterdam. I arrived at the airport two hours ahead of my departure time, confident that this would be a sufficient amount of time to get myself checked-in. But as I approached the KLM check-in desk, my heart started to beat faster. The line was long, I could see that; but as I walked along, searching for its interminable end, I couldn't believe that this line, winding and wrapping around the terminal, was the one I needed to join. I was sure I'd miss my flight. There was no way I was going to get through this line, which looked about 400 people deep, in two hours. I stopped the first KLM official I saw walking by and asked what was going on. Turns out our plane was coming from Amsterdam and had had "technical issues", (the most explicit explanation I could get!). Naturally, our flight was delayed. Instead of leaving at 6:05pm as originally scheduled, we'd be leaving at 9:10pm. Add to that the fact that the machines used for self check-in had malfunctioned and were unable to print boarding passes, and perhaps you have a sense of the chaos I was immersed in.
Two hours and fifteen minutes after arriving at the airport, I finally found myself at the KLM check-in counter. The agent was friendly and accommodating as she apologized for the long line, the delay and the overall inconvenience of it all. Because of the delay, it was clear that I would miss my connection in Amsterdam. But the KLM agent had already gone ahead and booked me on the next flight out of Amsterdam and into Helsinki. With an apologetic smile, she handed me my boarding passes and a $10 food voucher that could be used at any of the participating airport restaurants. A thoughtful gesture, but in an airport, $10 doesn't go far! TIP: Before leaving home, check online to confirm that your flight is still scheduled to depart on time. While this is no guarantee that it won't still be delayed, it may save you hanging about the airport if a delay notice has already been posted for passengers.
SCENES FROM AN AIRPORT
It was now about 6:30pm and I was all checked in, but not departing until 9:10pm. With my food voucher safely tucked away, I decided to look for dinner. The choices at Pearson's Terminal 3 are modest. The Playwright Bar and Grill turned out to be my best option. There were no free tables, so I opted for a seat at the bar, surrounded mostly by business travelers whose eyes were glued to the sports highlights on TV, their hands glued to bottles of beer. The menu was what you might expect; hamburgers, nachos and a rather extensive list of alcoholic options. This was more bar than grill. I ordered the chicken tenders, French fries and a Diet Coke, the cost of which, I might add, was not covered by my $10 voucher. The total was $14.34.
Sitting alone at a bar, which admittedly, I've not done often, is the perfect time to people watch. So, my eyes were on her as she walked in. With big eyes, full lips and long brown hair, she was a less hot version of Angelina Jolie. Her doe eyes scanned the bar and like me, found nowhere else to sit except up at the bar, sandwiched between sports-lovin', beer-drinkin' men. No one noticed as she took her seat. But as soon as she ordered a shot of tequila with salt and a lemon wedge, she had the attention of those around her; the men snapped to, jolted out of their sports-induced hypnosis. The man to her left swooped in to make conversation with the liberal young woman and I'm sure he was feeling rather pleased with himself when she invited him to join her for another shot. They drank and laughed and then suddenly, as quickly as she had appeared, she picked up her bags and is gone. This guy is disappointed to be sure and as he looks around, his gaze lands on me. As he sidles up to chat, I know that this is my cue, so I pay my bill and leave.
YYZ TO AMS
Flight time from Toronto to Amsterdam is 6 hours and 25 minutes. Our 747, which seats over 400 passengers, is huge. I'm most stunned by the wingspan of this enormous aircraft. Sadly, though, the seats themselves didn't boast the spaciousness I had expected. I'm relatively small, only 5' 4" and I could barely squeeze into my window seat. The man seated next to me, in the unfortunate middle seat, jokingly asked if I wanted to switch places with him. Though I felt badly for him, squeezed into such an unyielding space, I declined his offer. The seats were tiny with little room for my legs, let alone my purse. And the seats themselves, in their fully upright position, were actually quite reclined, which I also found uncomfortable. But I settled in with my Glamour UK magazine (terribly trashy, but peppered with delightfully delicious Brit wit), my bag of hickory smoked almonds (I never travel without snacks!) and got as comfortable as I could for my 6+-hour flight.
Scheduled to depart at 9:10pm, we actually took off at 10pm. The one advantage of our delay was that we were now flying out of Toronto at nighttime. The Toronto skyline is pretty any time of day, but at night, it's particularly spectacular. I love to see my city sparkling brightly against the dark night sky.
The KLM flight attendants were exceptionally friendly and attentive. Meal service was prompt and we were served a dinner of roast beef with roasted potatoes, mixed vegetables (which were rather soggy), couscous, a dinner roll and a brownie for dessert. By the time dinner was served to our section of the plane, there were no vegetarian meals left. Drat! The flight was enjoyable. The in-flight movie was Ocean's Thirteen and when I asked for water, I was given handy little pre-packaged cups.
Amsterdam Airport is a major European hub for connecting flights and no one I spoke to on my flight from Toronto, was actually destined for Amsterdam. We were all connecting on to different final destinations. While I was headed for Helsinki, those around me were headed to Istanbul, Addis Ababa, Zagreb and Delhi. My, it is a small world after all.
Amsterdam's Schiphol airport (AMS) is one of the largest in Europe. In 2006, it ranked fourth among European airports for the greatest amount of traffic passing through, clocking in with more than 46 million passengers. It falls just behind London's Heathrow airport (67 million passengers), Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport (56 million passengers) and Germany's Frankfurt am Main airport (52 million passengers).
There's lots of shopping, but don't get distracted if you're trying to make a connecting flight. It took me about 15 minutes to clear customs, 15 minutes to get through security, and another 35 minutes to actually walk from arrival gate F to departure gate C. But if you've got time left after that, be sure to check out the shops. There's even a wine and seafood bar, which, by airport standards, is rather civilized indeed! If you need Internet access, you can pick up a wireless signal throughout most of the airport. Setting up an account, if you don't have one, is quick and easy. I paid six euro for 30 minutes.
AMS TO HEL
My flight from Amsterdam to Helsinki was quick and easy, just two and a half hours. After being cramped and uncomfortable on my transatlantic flight from Toronto, this flight was much easier. With no one in the middle seat beside me, I had room to stretch out. The KLM flight attendants were warm and friendly and for a quick jaunt, we were served a delicious and healthy snack of cold pasta salad, a hearty dinner roll, crackers and cheese. It was a long travel day and 18 hours after I left my house, I finally landed on Helsinki soil. I definitely wasn't in Kansas (or Toronto!) anymore!
A BRIEF HISTORY
Helsinki is not only the capital of Finland; it's the country's largest city, too, with a population of about 528,000. Including the surrounding areas, the population swells to one million, while Finland's total population is about five million. Tiny, by comparison to the populations of, say, Canada or the US. The city is old and historic, founded in 1550 by King Gustav I of Sweden. Because of the country's Swedish history (Finland was ruled by Sweden until 1809, then under Russian rule until gaining independence in 1917), Swedish is one of the country's official languages, along with Finnish. Helsinki is situated on the southern tip of Finland, on the Gulf of Finland, on the north shore of the Baltic Sea. Did you know that Finland has 188,000 lakes? Not surprisingly, fish is a staple in the Finnish diet.
KLAUS K HOTEL
Exhausted and totally jet-lagged after my 18-hour journey, I couldn't have been happier to be heading to my hotel. I spent my first night at the Klaus K Hotel. Located at the crossroads of the city centre main streets Mannerheimintie and Erottaja, the Klaus K Hotel is a charming, 137-room boutique hotel. It's got two wonderful restaurants (I sampled both!), a bar and nightclub and has a welcoming, modern air to it, from the moment you step foot inside. Check-in was quick and easy and I headed swiftly to my room, eager for a few moments to sit down, relax and freshen up.
My room was small. Very small. I had difficulty maneuvering my moderately-sized suitcase through the front door and around the foot of the bed to put it ... well, there was nowhere to put it really, so I hauled it onto a chair in the corner of the room. With just lil' ol' me inside, the room felt crowded and cramped. I can't imagine what it would have been like, had I a travel companion with me. The modern rooms are decorated according to four different themes; Passion, Mystical, Desire and Envy. I was in a Passion room, which is up to 215 square feet in size, unlike the Envy suites, which are about 592 square feet. But the considerable lack of real estate aside, the room was pleasantly decorated, including a fab flat-screen TV, and was clean and inviting, particularly for a weary traveler like myself.
My double bed looked so good – the crisp white sheets and luxurious red blanket seemed to beckon to me in a gentle whisper and I wanted nothing more than to crawl between them and catch a few winks. But I had just landed in Helsinki of all places ... sleep would have to wait! So I decided a shower would revive me and I'd be ready to at least have a nice dinner before collapsing with exhaustion.
The shower was a new experience. Situated in the far corner of the bathroom, the shower had a swinging glass door that neither fully enclosed the shower area, nor reached to the bottom of the floor. So as I turned the shower on, water seeped across the entire bathroom floor. Surprised, I turned the shower off, certain there must be something wrong. I tried again with the same results. When I spotted the drain on the floor, outside the shower, in the middle of the bathroom floor, I was unpleasantly surprised. So this was actually how it was supposed to work. The entire bathroom was "the shower" and every square inch of it was going to get soaked. I later learned that this is a trend in Europe and that the bathrooms are actually, more fittingly, called wet rooms. Appropriate, yes, practical – not by a long shot!
While the hotel does offer three meeting rooms for business travelers, rooms aren't exactly "workspace-friendly." At least, mine wasn't. There was no desk or place for me to sit and work at my laptop (an absolute necessity!) There was a small, pullout desk on wheels that sufficed, but was certainly not adequate for a few hours of solid working. However, the hotel does offer wireless Internet access, which costs 15 euro for 24 hours.
Note: When I finally hit the hay that night, I was kept awake by the sound of the streetcar, trundling along all night on the street below. When booking, ask for a room that is not facing out onto the main street. In doing so, you may sacrifice a view but get a good night's sleep. You'll have to decide which is more important to you. Or, you can always use earplugs to reduce noise levels.
In addition to the two on-site Klaus K Hotel restaurants, Ilmatar and Toscanini, there's a bar and nightclub called Ahjo. I dined at both of the hotel restaurants. Ilmatar (which means "goddess of the wind") is, by comparison to the casual Toscanini, a bit more formal. The menu features decidedly Finnish fare like roasted pikeperch, filet of reindeer and fresh arctic cloudberries with cinnamon ice cream for dessert. Toscanini on the other hand, serves, as its name might suggest, an Italian menu with things like bruschetta, caprese salad and pasta dishes, something I later determined was rare on menus in Finnish restaurants. Breakfast is served in Ilmatar and is a tasty buffet of pastries, fresh breads, fruit, cereal and more. The food at both restaurants is wonderful. Room rates at the Klaus K hotel range from 140 to 170 euro during the week for a single room and start at 200 euro on weekends for a single room. Breakfast is included in these rates. Klaus K Hotel, Bulevardi 2, 00120 Helsinki, Tel. +358 (0) 20 770 4700; for reservations, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the best ways to acquaint yourself with the city is to take a guided walking or bus tour. I took a one-hour-forty-five-minute bus tour, which made three stops along the way at major Helsinki landmarks. Our first stop was Senate Square, a popular tourist attraction. This large, outdoor square is a symbol of Helsinki's history and presents an interesting juxtaposition of religion, politics and education. The square is flanked on the north side by the impressive and imposing Lutheran Cathedral, the construction of which was completed in 1852. Situated atop a magnificent staircase, The Lutheran Cathedral is designed in the neo-classical architectural style and is a major tourist destination; each year, upwards of 350,000 people visit the church, the majority of which are tourists. On the eastern side of the square you'll find The Palace of the Council of State, built in 1822 and on the opposite side is the University of Helsinki's main building, built in 1832. Dominating the centre of the square is a statue of Emperor Alexander II, a reminder of Finland's past association with Russia.
Next stop: Temppeliaukio Church. This incredible church is a must-see for all visitors to Helsinki. Completed in 1969, this church is built entirely inside solid rock and is also known as The Church of the Rock. Surrounded by glass panels, the church is flooded with natural light and it's also got amazing acoustics; it's a popular venue for concerts. In fact, I was lucky enough to stumble upon the Finnish National Opera Orchestra rehearsing when I visited. What a treat!
And finally: The Sibelius Park and Monument. This park was created to pay tribute to the life and work of Jean Sibelius, the famous Finnish composer (1865-1957). The park itself is pretty, with plenty of birch trees, oversized rocks and park benches to sit and enjoy the view. But what's of most interest is the sculpture (abstractly resembling organ pipes) by Eila Hiltunen, created to honor Sibelius. A disembodied sculpture of the composer's head in cast stainless steel sits not far away. Unveiled in 1967, the "organ" monument weighs 24 tons and is a point of pride for many Finns. To book walking or bus tours, visit www.helsinkiexpert.fi.
Jean Sibelius is Finland's national composer. A composer of classical music, Sibelius wrote seven symphonies and over 800 other works, many of which have helped to shape Finland's identity in the 19th and 20th centuries. His most well-known composition, Finlandia, has become a symbol of Finnish nationalism. Sibelius Park isn't the only tribute to the famous composer. Sibelius Hall, located in Lahti (about an hour's drive outside of Helsinki), was opened in the spring of 2000, the first public building dedicated solely to the musical genius. The concert hall is impressive, light and bright inside, boasting a mostly wooden interior of birch, spruce and pine that is, in a word, stunning. The main concert hall, an acoustical masterpiece, seats 1,250 and features state-of-the-art acoustic engineering, making for a superior sound experience. In the Forest Hall, the main area outside the concert hall, the ceiling is spectacular. Little lights dot the ceiling, designed as a star map to recreate the sky's star formation on the night Sibelius was born. If you get a chance to catch a concert, perhaps the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, do it! Sibelius Hall, Ankkurikatu 7, 15140 Lahti, Tel: +358 (0)3-814-2801 or visit www.sibeliushall.fi.
SIBELIUS MUSIC FESTIVAL
Each year, Lahti plays host to the Sibelius Music Festival. The 9th annual international Sibelius Festival of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra will be held at Sibelius Hall from September 11th to the 14th, 2008 and if you get the opportunity, I highly recommend you visit during this time period to check it out. Between September 11th and 13th, there will be three orchestral concerts and on September 13th and 14th, two chamber music concerts. Of course, there will be other Sibelius-themed events throughout the program as well. It's a wonderful opportunity to sit back and enjoy the dulcet tones of beautiful classical music and to better acquaint yourself with this inspired composer's work. Tickets will be available starting January 2nd, 2008 for single tickets; group sales and advance reservations will begin in the fall of 2007. For more information about Lahti Symphony Orchestra group sales, telephone: +358 3 814 4460 or e-mail email@example.com.
Between 1904 and 1972, Ainola was the home of Jean Sibelius and his family; his wife Aino and their five daughters. Ainola, which means "Aino's house", is located on the shores of Lake Tuusula, about 25 miles north of Helsinki. Quietly tucked away in the countryside, surrounded by trees and much silence, the house was the perfect escape for Sibelius, who needed peace and quiet to concentrate on his work. Sibelius lived in this house until his death in 1957. His wife Aino continued to live there for another 12 years, until her death in 1969. Both are buried in the garden behind the house. In 1972, Sibelius' daughters sold the property to the Finnish government. It was subsequently opened as a museum in 1974, and tours of the house, perfectly preserved, as it was when the family lived there, are offered between May and September. For tours of Ainola, visit www.helsinkiexpert.fi or www.lahtitravel.fi.
SOKOS HOTEL LAHDEN SEURAHUONE
I spent one night in Lahti and stayed at the 155-room Sokos Hotel Lahden Seurahuone. Situated in the centre of Lahti, this hotel is more traditional in style than the Klaus K Hotel. My room was much larger, with lots of room to move around in. Style may not be this hotel's strong suit (it's a bit dated, despite a recent refurbishment) but it's clean and functional. (I won't ask what happened to the pillows before I got there, though. Is it just me or do they look a little ... worse for wear?) The bathroom offered up a proper bathtub and shower (no wet rooms here!) and even had heated towel racks, which I loved. There's nothing like stepping out of the shower and wrapping yourself in a warm towel. I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to use the ironing board bolted to the wall, but I won't blame the hotel for that! I hold my fatigue and lack of patience responsible. Wireless Internet is available in 115 of the hotel's rooms and my room had a desk and chair, perfect for doing some work before bedtime. If you're traveling for business, this hotel is a good bet. Room rates vary: 100 to 140 euro for a standard single room, 120 to 160 euro for a standard double room. They have also superior-class rooms, the prices of which vary from 120 to 180 euro. Wireless Internet access is free for guests -- woohoo! Sokos Hotel Lahden Seurahuone, Aleksanterinkatu 14, 15110 Lahti, Tel: +358 (0)20 1234 655 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
DID SOMEONE SAY SHOPPING?
What's a vacation without a little shopping? In Helsinki, the options are limitless. The main shopping drags are Pohjoisesplanadi, Aleksanterinkatu and Fredrikinkatu. Along Pohjoisesplanadi, you'll find contemporary fashion and design stores, like the popular store Marimekko that has gorgeous bags, clothing and home decor items. Lots of cafes with outdoor patios line the street, perfect for popping in for a break and a coffee and pastry. And during the winter months, the street is actually heated! Can you believe that? Hot water pipes run below ground to melt the snow and ice, so shoppers needn't worry about trudging through the snow.
Stockmann and Sokos are the city's best-known department stores. As the Finns say, "If you can't find it at Stockmann, you don't need it!" Shopping malls like the Forum, Mannerheimintie and Itakeskus are not far from the city centre. But if you're looking for something a little more unique than a shopping mall, definitely head down to Market Square on the south harbour where the cruise ships come in. Open Monday through Thursday from 8am to 5pm, Fridays from 8am to 6pm and Saturdays from 8am to 3pm, this market is one of the biggest in Helsinki. I had so much fun, strolling from stall to stall, checking out beautiful handmade silk scarves, jewelry and other souvenirs. I bought myself a pair of stunning turquoise suede and leather gloves as a functional (and fashionable!) reminder of my trip. Most stores are closed on Sundays, so do your shopping during the week and leave Sunday free for something leisurely, like a picnic in one of Helsinki's many pretty parks, perhaps?
My final night in Helsinki was spent at the Hotel Kamp, the only five-star hotel in all of Scandinavia. From the moment I laid eyes on the hotel, I was charmed and reminded of Paris. Situated in the heart of Helsinki, Hotel Kamp is directly across the street from the beautiful Esplanade Park; it's impeccably manicured and is the perfect place to take that picnic I mentioned. The hotel is also in the city's premiere shopping district, just steps from Kamp Galleria, Stockmann department store and Market Square. You can't beat the location and for travelers, it's a short 10.5 miles from the airport.
My deluxe room was large and airy with a welcoming king-sized bed and all the other amenities you might expect; satellite TV, mini-bar and 24-hour room service. The generous marble bathroom features a deep-soak bathtub (complete with rubber ducky!), perfect for relaxing in after a long day of city touring. The standalone walk-in shower has incredible water pressure, tempting guests to take impossibly long and environmentally irresponsible showers. The sitting area has a comfortable armchair and ottoman and there's a spacious work-area. Wireless Internet access available; 7 euro per hour or 20 euro for the day. I haven't slept as well as I did in my room at the Hotel Kamp in a long time. The pillows were like ... meringue ... they were so restful to sleep on and if I'd had room, I'd have stuffed one (OK, two) into my suitcase. Unfortunately, I slept so peacefully that night that I didn't wake up in the morning, relying solely on my wake-up call that never came! Thankfully, I wasn't in a rush to catch a flight but it was a rookie mistake: always set a back-up alarm, just in case! Room rates vary greatly, depending on the time of year and availability but range from 169 to 425 euro. Hotel Kamp,Pohjoisesplanadi 29, 00100 Helsinki, tel: +358 (0)9 576 111 or email email@example.com
KAMP CAFE & BAR
For elegant dining, you needn't leave the hotel. The Kamp Cafe and Bar, located on the main floor of the hotel is a happening spot for hotel guests and locals alike. The restaurant is lavish and opulent; it's no wonder that this was one of Jean Sibelius' favourite places to spend time. Fine white linens are crisp and clean against the restaurant's backdrop of rich dark wood. And the menu's pretty good, too! For starters, try the tiger prawns with ginger dressing (14,90 euro), then move on to the fried sole with paradise butter (41,00 euro) and top it all off with a milk chocolate mousse with lime creme and blueberry gelee (6,90 euro). Is your mouth watering yet? To view the entire menu, click here.
HEI, HEI, HELSINKI
I spent a jam-packed few days in Helsinki and I'm so glad I went. While this destination may not jump to mind when you're planning your vacation, I urge you to reconsider. The city is romantic and historic, full of cultural attractions, delectable food and designer shopping. And the locals are lovely. Though they have a reputation for being a rather straight-laced people, all those that I met were genuinely warm and welcoming. And I just adore the accent when Finns speak English. It's got a delicous lilt that makes you feel like they're speaking your language better than you are! So the next time you're pondering places to plant your feet, as your prepare to explore a new destination, think Helsinki. You won't be sorry.
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Note: This trip was sponsored by Finnish Tourist Board.
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