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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Finland.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Finland.
You can expect a superior standard to your mate Dave’s beer-fuelled rendition of ‘Back in Black’. The competitors who make it to this, the holy grail of air guitar competitions, take their craft very seriously.
If you’re in any doubt as to the earnestness of the ideals of the competition, then have a read of the organisers’ ideology. These peaceful rockers believe that if everyone in the world played air guitar, wars would end, climate change would stop and all bad things would disappear. Now that’s got to be worth a riff, right?
Choose your song, practise like crazy, then send in a one-minute edited clip of your best effort. Or work your way through your national ranks. Be sure to play with technical accuracy and unbridled passion. Remember that your instrument must be invisible, although it can be either electric or acoustic in make (believe), and you are not allowed any air roadies or air back-up bands – that would, of course, be a totally unfair advantage.
WILDERNESS SAFARI – Grab your cameras and head out to the on-site Ranua Wildlife Park for an outdoor safari beginning with the birds, from eagles to owls, and seeing wolverines, moose, beavers and otters, finally ending with the reindeer. The main highlight is feeding time with the two fluffy white and black-haired arctic foxes. They are extremely rare — only 30-odd in the wild — largely due to the aggressive nature of the red fox that has overrun most of Europe. We also saw a male polar bear — from a distance. The park is lucky to have both a male and female resident, with a breeding success resulting in a cub now at Vienna Zoo. On our visit, the female was pregnant and resting.
SNOWMOBILING – Not for our under-10s unfortunately — children need to be old enough to reach the pedals— but a chance for older teens and adults to drive a snowmobile through the woods. Ours were, instead, pulled on a sleigh behind the guide as the adults followed on the snowmobiles. The older ones were allowed to drive around on the snowmobiles in circles when we got to the halfway point.
HUSKY SLED RIDE – Our group managed more than one tumble, quite a lot of tangled-up huskies, an overturned sled and a lot of laughter (and a little crying). So, an apology to our guide, Lionel who looked truly broken by the end of this activity. It’s not that his instructions weren’t dear. He said: “Always keep your feet on the brake when you stop or the huskies will go. If you take your feet off the sleigh the huskies will go. If you stop, keep both feet on the brake or the huskies will go. To turn left, lean left and to turn right, lean right. Do not take your feet off the sleigh or you will find the huskies will go.” Check. Got all that. The huskies did go. And stop a lot too. Would we do it again? Er, it’s probably best to come back to us on that.
SLEDS, SNOWMEN & SNOW ANGELS – If the sun sets early what can you do? Go sledding and make snow angels in the dark. There are ideally positioned hills near the lodgings, which provide sleds. Up and down, and up and down. Repeat until freezing. Or until one of you decides to build a snowman. Ace.
“Argh! Mum’s fallen down a hole,” pipes up a helpful child — my eldest — as I let out a yell. Yes, I have. I’m thigh-deep in a muddy hole and it’s really quite yuck. Alice in Wonderland this is not and, while I’m not transported to another land, where I do find myself is still quite something else. In freezing temperatures, lit up by the soft moonlight reflected by icy snow, this white-coated pine forest in the heart of Ranua, Finland is truly, sparklingly beautiful. It’s only 4pm but the darkness has already descended, with a quarter of Finland’s surface over the Arctic polar circle, at least one day a year the sun doesn’t set, or rise. And at this time of year, in December, there’s less than six hours of daylight a day. A flicker of twinkling orange light beckons a path towards our destination, faintly visible through the trees. We are one of two families — friends — delivered here by a traditional wooden sled (pulled these days by a traditional snowmobile), with cosy fur-lined seats.
It took just a 15-minute ride from our lodge into this deep, dark forest. But, for now, there’s a little extra time to pause and muse, as I’m stuck and getting colder by the minute. My son tries to hoist me out of the hole — mini-sink holes such as these are a result of global warming, we’re informed — while I discreetly try not to draw more attention to myself. Fortunately, another Dad comes to the rescue, laughing and teasing as he helps me out of the hole (it was really deep). Soggy socks, and a mucky, muddy all-in-one ski suit add to my discomfort, but ribbing is arguably far worse.
We’ve forsaken the full-on Disney-esque Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi — complete with elves, Mrs Claus, the big guy himself, the toy factory, post office and, most terrifying of all, the shop — for the opportunity to meet Father Christmas in a more authentic setting. We’ve come here, to Ranua, on a trip that involves the big outdoors, a little Sami culture, and Finnish nature at its finest. Once I’m freed, we continue our short walk, treading carefully through frozen snow, stepping over tree root s, dodging more mini pot holes, past thorny bushes and green morasses, towards the light we can see emanating evermore clearly from a hidden log cabin, smoke chuffing up from its chimney. The noise from our group has surely alerted our arrival, but the children tread on the slippery wooden steps, peering through the windows excitedly before not so carefully knocking on the door. A pot-bellied, white-bearded, red-suited, heavy-booted Santa opens the door.
“Hello, hello,” he says, his gentle voice belying a hint of his Finnish heritage. He beckons us in from the cold, into his wooden cabin, lit up by a candle, and a warm open stove. There’s a writing desk to the left and fur-lined benches behind. The children take a seat as Santa ensures we’re all comfortable by the open fire (I remain standing to try and dry my leg). A heavy-set large old tome has been left open on the desk, where Santa appears to have been interrupted from his scribing. He takes his seat, picks up his ink pen and explains: “This is the naughty and nice list. Have you been good this year?” The children are unusually quiet and somewhat bashful, their eyes betraying a sense of curiosity, perhaps disbelief… or perhaps not. Father Christmas, Santa Claus, St Nicholas, the big man, the dude: could this be the last year our children believe in him?
He says each of our names, including us parents, and questions if we have written a wish list and letter to Santa. Looking into his book, he points to the columns, noting the different lists he has created. There is a question mark by the dad’s name — he hasn’t been assigned to either list yet. The children giggle with excitement. “Dad, what have you done?” Santa is smiling: “The question mark, it just means I’ve not made up my mind. There are still a few more days to make good before the big day.” The kids are shy but the burning questions prevail: how does he manage to deliver all the presents and manage to slip into everyone’s houses unseen? Santa says: “The elves help with the presents and leave them under the tree and in the stockings. I have a magic key that lets me in.”
He asks them to wait a moment as he reaches round fora big, woolly sack, sitting unnoticed in the corner until now. Fishing out a present for each child, their wide eyes ate locked in excitement, looking at us, the parents, willing us to let them open them there and then. He wishes us all a lovely Christmas. My daughter comments Santa was very kind and friendly; my son says it was a nice, warm hut and Santa was a nice man. I’m cold, my leg is still wet, but I’m also kind of fuzzy inside. The children are seven and nine years old and, for now, it seems, they still believe in Father Christmas. And being able to take them on an ‘Alice in Wonderland journey’ with holes or without, well, that’s kind of special. The next day, we take a snowmobile safari. The Dad, who did the ribbing, falls down a hole. Perhaps Santa’s extra little gift for me? Maybe, he’s not on the ‘nice’ list after all.
WHAT: Jeris Family Winter Cottage Experience
WHY: Classic Finnish fun during this six-day trip includes husky safaris and a meal in an ice restaurant.
WHAT: Winter family holiday
WHY: Skiing and snowboarding, dog-sleighing and snowshoeing are all on the agenda on this eight-day Tatra Mountains trip.
WHAT: Northern Lights Adventure Break at Brandon Lodge
WHY: Expect an off-grid experience during this four-night t rip to the frozen Lulea archipelago with its 1,300 tiny islands: you’ll snowmobile on sea ice, snow-shoe and husky-sleigh in search of signs of Arctic wildlife. Staying in cabins, you can spend evenings watching for the Aurora Borealis.
WHAT: Holiday Club Hotel, Saariselka
WHY: Your base is a compact village, ideally located for taking part in wintry activities, hotel takes all the hard work out of entertaining tots with its Angry Birds activity park.
WHAT: Sport Hotel Hermitage & Spa, Soldeu
WHY: Staying in this luxury hotel means all the family have fun, whet her they hit the slopes or choose to chill out in the spa, the sun terrace, or in the restaurant tucking into the Michelin-star food. Younger guests can be amused in the kids’ club (ages four years to teens) at the neighbouring Sport Hotel.
For total switch-off this winter, head to Torassieppi Reindeer Farm, Located high above the Arctic Circle in a remote corner of Finnish Lapland, the farm is set amid a pine forest on the frozen shores of Lake Torasjarvi, Daring winter, the thermometer regularly plunges to -25°C and heavy snows blanket the ground. With mobile phones handed in on arrival, guests are freed from online distractions to fully enjoy activities such as snowshoeing in nearby Pallas-Yllastunturi National Park, a wilderness of swirling mists, snow-laden trees and some of the freshest air in Europe.
Back at Torassieppi, there are plenty of opportunities to explore the local area by foot, on cross-country skis or in a reindeer sleigh. If the cold gets too much, head into Torassieppi’s 19th-century farmhouse or its small museum, with displays detailing traditional life of Sami reindeer herders. And at day’s end, warm up with a glass of wine by the restaurant’s log fire before tucking into regional specialities such as reindeer stew and salmon soup. If the northern lights are forecast, guests head out on a husky safari, swooshing across frozen lakes in the hunt for the mysterious aurora.
Artisan Travel offers three-night offline breaks to Torassieppi. Accommodation is in double/twin rooms or upgrade to a woodland cottage. For a treat, book into one of the lakeside aurora domes with panoramic windows. Interiors are decked out with reindeer skins, thick rugs, piles of blankets and a wood-burning stove to keep the chill out.
Canada – Bolstered by the wave of positivity unleashed by its energetic new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, and with dynamic cities that dominate global livability indexes – plus its reputation for inclusiveness and impeccable politeness – the world’s second-largest country will usher in its sesquicentennial in 2017 in rollicking good health. Marking 150 years since confederation, the birthday party promises to be heavy on bonhomie and highly welcoming to international gate-crashers. The weak Canadian dollar means visitors should have plenty of pocket money to spend on Canada’s exciting fusion food and mysteriously undeerrated wine.
Colombia – Decades of civil war and violent crime meant Colombian passport stamps were once for hardcore travellers only. Fast-forward to the present day, and the lost years seem but a dust speck in Colombia’s rear-view mirror. There are no world wonders here, but the country’s mix of vibrant culture, nature and hospitality is a rich tapestry woven by welcoming arms. More than a decade into its dramatic about-face, this South American jewel is even expecting a visit from the world’s No. 1 Catholic. When Pope Francis kisses Colombian soil in 2017, it will mark the Andean nation’s first papal visit in 30 years.
Finland – Long fought over by Russia and Sweden, Finland finally gained independence in 1917, The Finns will celebrate their centenary with gusto: expect everything from outdoor concerts and communal culinary experiences to sauna evenings and vintage travel poster exhibitions. There’s even anew national park: 27,000 acres around the village of Hossa, studded with pine forests and crisscrossed with rivers. With the country also playing host to the World Figure Skating Championships and the Nordic World Ski Championships in 2017, there’s never been a better time to discover Finland’s proudly unique culture and landscapes.
Dominica – Locals joke that if Christopher Columbus rose from the grave and returned to the Caribbean, Dominica is the only island he would still recognise. One glimpse of its prehistoric ferns and deserted shores, and you’ll see what they mean. For decades, an absence of shiny white beaches has helped keep at bay the resort development that has swept through other parts of the Caribbean, Coconut palms are the only skyscrapers you’ll see here. Visit before Dominica gets its first large-scale chain resorts in 2018, which will pave the way for anew era of tourism.
Nepal – Even natural disasters can’t keep Nepal down for long. The 2015 earthquakes caused devastation, but what is most striking from a traveller’s perspective is not how much was lost but how much remains. Landmark temples crumbled, but others came through with just the odd tile out of place, and whole swathes of the country escaped serious damage, including most of the popular hiking trails, Nepal has all the skills required to repair monuments and infrastructure, but what it does need is income. By visiting Nepal now and supporting local culture and people, you could help a nation rebuild and bounce back even stronger.
Mongolia – In 2017 Mongolia will raise the curtain on a b rand- new capital – city airport, a state-of-the-art facility that symbolises the rapid modernisation of this country of steppe nomads. Ulaanbaatar has been the biggest beneficiary of an economic boom – the capital’s transformed skyline bristles with glass and steel towers. At the centre of this development is a £380 million Shangri-La hotel complex, to be completed by 2017. Beyond the city lies Mongolia’s stunning and sparsely populated countryside. Lake Khovsgol, known as the Blue Pearl of Asia, is an undoubted highlight. In 2015 the lake was connected to Ulaanbaatar by paved road, cutting driving time by 10 hours.
Mynmar – Change has been a long time coming in the nation also known as Burma, but the election of the first civilian government in half a century has all eyes on the future. No-one is pretending that all of Myanmar’s problems have gone away, but things are moving in the right direction, and Southeast Asia’s most secretive country is now poised to receive an influx of travellers. Visiting comes with challenges, but the reward is a window onto a vanishing Asia, where the difficulties of travel are part of the appeal. You’ll find a land with more stupas than office towers, where life moves to the timeless rhythms of chanting monks and monastery bells.
Ethiopia – With its own calendar (where else can you get 13 months of sunshine?), timekeeping, script, language, cuisine, church and coffee, Ethiopia is as exotic as countries come. And whether you’re hiking through the Simien Mountains to see wildlife that roams nowhere else on Earth, climbing to a church carved into a remote cliff face in Tigray, or boating across the waters of Lake Tana to visit an age-old monastery, you’ll be overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape. In 2017, new airline links will make the country more accessible than ever; be one of the first to get on board.
‘Real people making real drinks from real stuff’, says master distiller Mikko Mykkanen, explaining the Helsinki Distilling Company’s mission, slapping a copper still beside him, as if to drum in his point ‘Drinks to sip and appreciate, not, you know…’Raising several imaginary glasses, Mikko conveys the quantity-over-quality approach that has hitherto defined his nation’s attitude to alcohol. Along with urbane restraint, his firm exemplifies a renewed pride in all things-Finnish: the distillery is housed in a former dock-zone abattoir that is a brick and-white-tile monument to 1930s Helsinki Modernism, and its award winning spirits incorporate a sweeping range of native botanicals.
A complex gin crafted with lingonberries and angelica whisky and aquavit distilled from Finnish rye; there’s even a superbly smooth sea buckthorn grappa. For good measure, the Helsinki Distilling Company’s forthcoming bar will tap into the whisky still’s residual heat to power the world’s first ‘whisky-fired sauna’. Back in the city centre, the refinement and re-national is at ion of Finnish drinking culture hits an apotheosis at A21, a sepulchral, back-to-black cocktail bar that hides behind net curtains at the foot of a 1980s office block. ‘We asked ourselves: how would all those American cocktails taste if they’d been invented here?’ says chief bartender Laura Nissinen, garnishing a birch mojito with artful clumps of moss, ‘You know, everyone’s had Sex on the Beach, but what would Sex in the Forest be like?’ A21’s mysterious but most palatable answer is a coniferous, earthy infusion of Helsinki gin, thyme, blueberries and cranberry black tea, sipped through a silver birch straw.
Finland’s traditional Rudolf-and-spuds cuisine has proved more cheerfully resistant to epicurean trends-no-nonsense fuel for no-nonsense people. But a quiet revolution is underway at Savotta, a former police station neatly tricked up as a plank-floored old farmhouse that overlooks Helsinki’s showpiece imperial Senate Square. A heads car fed waitress lays out wooden trenchers with the cornucopia that sprouts from Finland’s summer forests: rump of reindeer fawn in chanterelle butter; Arctic char with blackcurrant leaves. Desserts come smothered in berries, birch syrup and a scattering of black pellets that are referenced with a knowing smile, ‘Visitors always ask if these are something from the reindeer,’ she says. ‘Sometimes they are even more surprised when I tell them it is liquorice.’
Why go? The Aland Islands do it their own way. Adrift in the north Baltic Sea, this cluster of 6,500 outcrops is ‘an autonomous and monolingual Swedish region of Finland’. It even has its own stamps and its own flag. It’s also the place to have a proper Scandinavian summer stay. Rent a cottage by the coast on the main island, Fasta Aland – itself, only 50km north to south – and make the most of the long days. Cycle to 14th-century Kastelholm Castle; hike the three-day 63km Sadelin trail, which wends via primeval forests and ancient burial grounds; and explore capital Mariehamn’s maritime heritage. Or kayak with sea eagles around the uninhabited atolls – the safe, isle-scattered Foglo area is ideal for beginners.
When to go: June-August is high season, when temperatures can reach the mid-20°Cs and most Finns/Swedes visit; around this time it’s light from 3am to 10pm. May and September are quieter options. Winters can be cold (-10°C).
How to go: The fastest ferries leave from Grisslehamn or Kapellskar (both Greater Stockholm; 2hrs) and Turku (Finland; 5hrs). Flights to Mariehamn airport leave from Stockholm (30mins), Turku (30mins) and Helsinki
Originally founded when Finland was under the rule of Sweden in the 16th century, Helsinki did not begin to flourish until the 19th century under Russian rule, after it became the capital of the then autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland in 1812; it did not truly emerge as an independent republic until 1917.
Despite nominally being an ally of Nazi Germany until 1945, Finland was not occupied by the Soviet Union after the war and consequently avoided the fate of a Communist dictatorship. It rapidly industrialised during the 1950s and developed into a social democracy in much the same manner as Sweden, Denmark and Norway. In 2011, Helsinki was named the best city to live in in the world by Monocle magazine – and in 2015, the Economist Intelligence Unit placed it in the top 10 most liveable cities.
Helsinki is home to a number of excellent museums – art museums, the natural history museum, and the Finnish Museum of Natural History which presents the history of Finland from the Stone Age to the present day.
The majority of Finland is Lutheran, but one of Helsinki’s most notable cathedrals is the Uspenski, a Russian Orthodox cathedral and the largest Orthodox church in western Europe. It is open and free to visit except on Mondays.
The Helsinki Cathedral has five beautiful domes in the neoclassical style. The most unique church however is Temppeliaukio, a Lutheran church built in the 1960s and is built directly into solid rock. It’s also worth simply walking around and enjoying the breathtaking Art Nouveau architecture, and the neoclassical buildings .
Check out the Design District for innovative Finnish design, and the high end shops along the Esplanadi (which is also home to a lovely park, ideal for relaxing in summer, when it can get extremely hot, and listening to the live music played on the bandstand).
Helsinki’s best shopping is to be found in its markets – the Old Market Hall has stalls for just about everything, while the Hakaniemi Market offers a huge selection of food, including seafood, as well as souvenirs.
Kauppatori is a fresh food market with fishermen selling their catches straight off their boats – quite the unique experience, and yes, you can try to haggle. And a visit to renowned fabric shop Marimekko is a must.
No visit to Helsinki would be complete without trying some freshly-baked korvapuusti (cinnamon rolls).
The Finns have a strong pub culture – relaxed food and drink with the family being preferred over haute cuisine. For an authentic Finnish pub experience, try Cella on Fleminggaten or Savel on Hameentie. Ragu and Passio are probably considered the best fine dining restaurants in Helsinki, but for proper Finnish food (a lot of fish) try Juuri, which has a reputation for its creativity and uniqueness, or Ravintola Kuu.
Finns love sparkling wines and vodka, but they are also fond of sima, essentially mead, though the recipe nowadays substitutes honey with fruit sugars (producing different flavours) and the alcohol percentage is very low.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and this is where he lives. Rovaniemi is considered the gateway to Lapland – known for its indigenous, formerly nomadic Sami (once commonly known as Lapp) people – and to Finland’s Arctic Circle, Santa’s home turf.
You can have your photo taken with one foot planted on either side of the Arctic Circle. Santa’s Village is how every child always imagined it to be, a snowy winter wonderland with a wonderfully jovial Santa in attendence every day. His busy workshop and helpers show how he keeps up, while the post office displays some of the 600,000 letters received every year from all over the world, about a third of which get answered.
An irresistible gift shop provides myriad Yuletide presents that can be shipped back home with a Santa’s Village postmark, or, for a nominal fee, add your child’s name to a list to receive a postcard from Santa. A nearby reindeer farm provides the chance for a Magic Sleighride (though one that never leaves the ground) drawn by Rudolph, Dancer, and Prancer lookalikes (a snowmobile alternative is also available).
Rovaniemi was nearly razed by the Germans in 1944 and largely rebuilt following plans that the famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto laid out in the shape of reindeer antlers.
Although there are only 6,500 Sami living in northern Finland now, and their nomadic days of herding roaming reindeer are diminishing, their cultural identity and customs are proudly kept alive at the fascinating, award-winning Arktikum Science Center, depicting life above the Arctic Circle.
The lovely Restaurant Oppipoika promotes Lappish cuisine: the standard salmon and fresh fish are ever present, but sample the unusual reindeer pepper steak and elk stew, with a dessert made of local cloudberries. Who knew you could eat so well in the Arctic Circle?