A Winter Adventure Amid the Nordic Ice Floes
The Sampo is one of the world’s few tourist icebreakers, offering a one-of-a-kind experience on the frozen Gulf of Bothnia, the northernmost tip of the Baltic Sea. The four-hour cruise departs from Kemi, just south of the Arctic Circle, and ventures out into Europe’s largest continuous ice field.
Once out at sea, passengers are invited to don bright-orange watertight survival suits and float among the j newly broken ice, sometimes 3 feet thick. They can alight from the Sampo onto the rock-hard sea for ice fishing or be whisked away by snowmobiles or husky-driven sleds.
Either way, it is an exhilarating ride through splendid solitude that is both heart stopping and surreal as the midwinter half-light reflects off the white solid surface of the sea. Finland holds claim to being the world’s number one builder of ice-breaking ships, so passengers are in good hands. The captain leads a fascinating tour of the ship from bridge to engine room.
Tours that include the icebreaker often include land activities in or around Kemi such as winter safaris (snowmobile or dogsled rides, reindeer mushing, and exploration of Sami/Lapp settlements). Created every winter since 1996, Kemi’s fantastic SnowCastle grows larger and more inventive every year.
The three-story-tall wintry stronghold is composed of a courtyard, ice-sculpture exhibitions, a chapel, café, and auditorium where performances are often staged. Guests can overnight at the “World’s Largest SnowCastle” – preferably in the Honeymoon Suite.
An Island Castle Offers Opera Under the Stars – and the Midnight Sun
Finland is a land of lakes (with close to 188,000 of them), coastal inlets, and rivers, from the Saimaa Lake District near the Russian border to the gulf of Bothnia in the west. It is also one of the most heavily wooded regions on earth – the interlocking network of lakes, surrounded by dense forests of pine and birch trees, creating a vision of pristine nature rarely seen anywhere.
Set amid gorgeous scenery, the town of Savonlinna occupies three islands in Lake Saimaa, on the eastern edge of the Lake District. Long a spa destination for the Russian czars and their retinues, since 1912 the town has been more famous for its opera festival, the most important in northern Europe, held annually in the courtyard of the 15th-century Olavinlinna Castle.
A well-preserved island fortress built to repel attacks from the east, and now connected by a bridge to the mainland, the castle provides one of the most evocative settings of any outdoor music festival, enhanced by the long hours of shimmering late-day light.
For atmosphere and setting today, there is just one choice of lodging for those seeking to prolong the magic of an evening’s opera performance: the Hotel Rauhalinna. Built in 1897 by a general in the czar’s army, it was a lacy Moorish/Victorian fantasy gift for his wife.
Set on the lake and reachable by road or boat from Savonlinna harbor, it is a deservedly popular treat. Try its well-known “Buffet of the Czars” lunch or, at the very least, find respite at its café with lovely lake views.
A Shrine to Jean Sibelius
Jean Sibelius was Finland’s greatest composer, and the streams of pilgrims who come from all parts of the world to visit his home, named after his wife, Aino, are a testimony to the reverence in which he is held.
Although born in 1865 in nearby Hämeenlinna, Finland’s oldest inland town (founded in 1639), Sibelius lived in this modern villa in the south for half a century until his death in 1957. Considered avant-garde at the time of its construction, the house was designed by Finnish architect Lars Sonck, who was already known for his design of the summer residence of the president of Finland. Both Sibelius and his wife are buried on the grounds.
The museum is not conducive to concerts, but try not to leave Finland without hearing his work performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra in Finlandia Hall during the winter season (September through May). Helsinki’s late summer arts (and music-intensive) festival is Scandinavia’s largest and one of its most important. Originating as Sibelius Week in the 1950s, it has grown to include all forms of dance and music, from jazz to pop, with the performance of Sibelius’s music always a much-awaited highlight.
A Tribute to Design, History, and Finnish Cuisine
Three things explain why the Savoy is one of Finland’s most important eating establishments. First, its very beautiful and elegant design commissioned in 1937 from Alvar Aalto (1898-1976), one of Finland’s most famous sons.
He designed everything from the service stations to the lighting fixtures. Second, it was the favored haunt of the beloved “Marski,” the country’s revered national hero, Carl Gustav Mannerheim – architect of Finland’s independence and president of the first republic from 1944 to 1946. Follow in his footsteps and order his favorite cocktail: the Marskin Ryyppy (a schnapps made with vodka, aquavit, dry vermouth, and dry gin – known throughout Finland as a “Marski,” and said to have been consumed in large quantities by the general during those trying times).
He also loved vorschmack, a stew made of ground beef and mutton with minced herring that is simmered for two days and served with potato puree, pickles, beetroot, and sour cream. By now a traditional national dish, some say the recipe originated with Mannerheim himself, and (here’s reason number three) the Savoy’s is still considered the best around.
Diners who have their eye on the restaurant’s famous, freeform flower vase will be happy to know that the nearby store Artek is known for its inventory of Alvar Aalto-designed furniture, ceramics, and objects. But to understand the breadth of Aalto’s genius and his influence as the leading light of 20th-century Scandinavian design, visit Finlandiatalo (Finlandia Hall).
Completed in 1971, it is Finland’s main symphonic concert hall, and the oldest symphony orchestra in Scandinavia performs here from September to May.
Again the Center of the Society Life
After a thirty-year hibernation when it was earmarked for demolition, the Hotel Kämp has been reborn after a breathtaking, full-fledged, no-expenses-barred restoration.
Sitting proudly on the elegant Esplanade in the very heart of the city, the Kämp was as much a standout for its unparalleled splendor when it opened in 1887 as it is today, a true gold standard in the five-star, last-word-in-luxury category, unequaled anywhere else in Scandinavia. Since its inception, the Kämp has served as the capital’s central meeting place for aristocrats, politicians, journalists, artists, and celebrities.
The hotel also proved to be artistic inspiration for the composer Jean Sibelius, who visited it as often as possible and dedicated a song to it, and to the Swedish artist Victor Andren, whose painting A Party at Kämp still holds its position of importance in the exclusive Restaurant Kämp. Capturing the spirit of fin-de-siècle Helsinki, the hotel stands comfortably behind its motto “You have to be something special to be born twice.”