HELSINKI: A TRIP WITH ICE AND FIRE | TRAVEL FEATURE
In this issue’s spirit of activity, Elouise Hobbs looks somewhere a little different for a summer holiday to get moving and explore a fascinating country.
When most people think of Finland, Christmas trips to meet Santa Claus and the Aurora Borealis, more commonly known as the Northern Lights, spring to mind. However, the Finnish capital is often overlooked as a summer holiday destination.
In Finland, there’s an old saying – when the swallows return, summer has begun – and there really is no better place to get outdoors and learn a new sport this summer than Helsinki. The city is surrounded by over 300 islands and a sea fortress, which are perfect for exploring. Many of the islands, such as Pihlajasaari and Suomenlinna, can be reached by a ferry which runs from early morning until late at night.
As yoga has grown in popularity, many yoga retreats have popped up on the small islands that surround Helsinki. It’s easy to see why. A visit to one of the islands is a rare opportunity to experience land largely untouched by humans where the only sounds are from the various wildlife – an owl at night, a woodpecker in the morning, a deer dancing through the forest. These retreats offer a total unwinding experience where you can tone up, improve your mental health and even reduce the toxins in your body.
During the summer, all the locals from the coastal town of Helsinki head to waterside cottages for endless days of swimming, fishing and canoeing, all accompanied by breathtaking views and incredible food. And, as the locals know best, summer is the perfect time to head to a hidden cottage that lies just outside the city centre for an active summer of fun.
Finland has earned the nickname ‘the land of a thousand lakes” for good reason. When you drive through the country during the summer, the cities are filled with vast areas where the only colours you can see are bright green and clear blue. A thousand actually understates the figure by some degree – there is actually a total of 188,000 lakes in Finland, which locals and tourists alike use for a plethora of watersports and activities.
Ever wanted to learn to windsurf, kitesurf or have a go at stand-up paddleboarding? Along the coast, there are lots of schools where you can learn to be a pro, or just spend a lot of time hauling yourself back up on the board. As clean waters are such a rarity these days, the Finnish take great pride in theirs. Protecting their national waters is serious business, and they expect visitors to leave everywhere exactly how they found it.
One amazing aspect of a Finnish summer that often gets overlooked is the incredibly long days. During the summer months, the sun rises at around 4am and it won’t set until 11pm. For those who venture north of the Arctic Circle, the sun does not set at all for June and July. The ‘Midnight Sun’ season is caused by the tilt of the earth and creates hours of beautiful sunlight that makes it seem as if the sun is setting or rising for hours. This phenomenon means that you can do everything that you would during the day in the evening, meaning you have so much more time to explore – if only you can stay awake.
If you wanted to head more inland, you will be spoilt for options. Helsinki is home to over half a million inhabitants but is one of the greenest cities in the world. Roughly a third of Helsinki is covered in green areas; the large Central Park and its forests can be easily reached from the city centre.
Unsurprisingly, Finland is amazing for cyclists, with lots of flat roads, gentle hills and little traffic. The scenery is spectacular: lakes, farmland, small villages, and forests roll alongside the trails and roads. If you’re looking for something a bit more adventurous, then you can head to the mountains, see some of the untouched wild hills and ride the bumpy mountain trails. Locals often visit the forests for a hike to relax and rejuvenate from the hectic pace of life and this tradition has been happening for hundreds of years. The tried and tested practice of going for a mountain hike has proven health benefits; a brisk walk through the countryside can lower blood pressure and relieve anxiety.
The country also has the ‘everyman’s right’, which means that you can pick any plant to use for cooking, eating and medicinal purposes – join a group and get back to your ancestral roots by gathering berries, mushrooms and leaves for your dinner. Alternatively, deep in the Finnish forest you can while away the day walking the forests on a guided tour looking for wildlife.
Many tour guides take groups out to one of Finland’s 37 national parks, which are free and open to everyone all year round. There, you can discover many wild animals including the world’s rarest seal, wolves, lynx, eagles, cranes and swans. If you’re lucky you might even see a wolverine – the Arctic animals which look like slimmer, smaller bears and which are closely related to otters and badgers. Finland is also home to 1,500 wild bears; they’re shy of humans, so wait until early morning when it’s most likely to be dark if you wish to catch a glimpse of them. This will require patience, perseverance and a keen eye.
After all that sport and exertion, you will need something to relax your muscles and mind and what better way than via a world-famous Finnish sauna? With as many as three million saunas in Finland, that usually have temperatures reaching almost 100 degrees, it is the perfect place to sweat out all your toxins and cleanse impurities from your system. In Finland, the sauna is not only a place for relaxation but is a place steeped in history; in the past, it has been a place where babies were born, the sick were looked after and the deceased were prepared before burial.
Although many of these traditions have died out, many still remain; when in a traditional Finnish sauna, you leave your clothes and towel in the changing room and go in naked. Men and women usually – not always – have separate areas; it’s worth checking ahead, as in mixed saunas it’s perfectly acceptable to wear a swimsuit. One thing to note is that because the saunas get so hot, it is advised to take regular breaks to cool down by taking a quick dip in a lake, sea or the snow in winter.
Ultimately, if you want to be the envy of all your friends, try something new and spend your summer holiday discovering an amazing hidden part of the world, then it’s time for a visit to the Nordic paradise that is Helsinki this summer.