There's More To Helsinki Than Just Northern Lights
Getting a taste of Nordic splendour in just three days.
BY Lestari Hairul | May 19, 2017 | Travel
There are moments in your life when that deep, sinking feeling of regret drains all the conviction you had earlier. I feel this standing on a pebble-strewn strip of Hietaniemi beach as the instructor explains what is about to happen. I feel this seeing the duct tape covering the bolts of the board that I am to stand on, as I zip up my bulky dry suit feeling ridiculous in Crocs. And I feel this, in the pit of my gut, as the freezing waters of the Baltic Sea rise up to meet my terriﬁed face.
My ﬁrst taste of Finland begins at the point of boarding. Greens and blues dance across the dark; ethereal lights bestow a layer of calm upon the night. For a spell, everyone is hushed, transﬁxed by the sight, before the chatter of airplane boarding resumes its course. It is somewhat beautiful. I adjust my seat and lean back, the lights changing their colour scheme on the ceiling almost in sync with the Aurora Borealis on my screen.
I am in a Nordic heaven furnished in Marimekko, in an environment that is almost sterile but paradoxically comforting. I down my second squeaky glass of Finnair’s delicious blueberry and champagne cocktail out of sight from my seatmate. Post-light show, calming blue mood lighting makes me think of cryogenic sleep set within a futuristic spaceship to some distant galaxy. The cabin crew informs us that the air has been specially puriﬁed for our comfort. Twelve hours in this metal bird gives me the best sleep in ages.
That feeling of being in a place that is light years ahead of most cities continues at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport. We arrive in the wee hours, and all is quiet with the same blue and white calm as the plane. In fact, so calm am I that the bulky coat I’ve lugged along for the trip is momentarily forgotten even as we walk through two degrees of cold to the waiting tour bus. Here, presumably still loopy, I mistake the reﬂection of the light above the driver’s seat on a glass window as a possible Aurora Borealis. We will not be seeing any of that, unfortunately.
Forty minutes later, we are in Porvoo, a medieval town full of charming, low buildings set on cobblestone streets. All is quiet, with everything still shuttered early in the morning and only this ragtag band of Asia-Paciﬁc journalists mad enough to wander about in the cold taking Instagram shots of bare trees, a medieval Church and a yarnbombed bridge. We encounter two or three townspeople out and about, walking their dogs. A few shops are lit up, though their doors remain closed. The wide glass windows and small doorsteps of the shopfronts are exactly what I imagined this place would look like, according to the fantasy of Europe that I have in my head, replete with the scant branches and piles of brown and orange leaves of autumn. Moomin characters, the utterly Finnish cartoon export, crowd the display window of a tiny store. Everyone pauses to peer in for a moment, remembering the round, white, almost hippopotamus-ish creatures created by Tove Jansson that celebrates Dionysian philosophy.
Delicious aromas start to permeate the air. We follow the scent trail of chocolates being made and swarm the Burnberg Candy Shop. Its history started in 1871 and its main factory is located on the outskirts of the town, in an industrial area. We visit the smaller shop in the Old Town instead, where one can sample a variety of sweets and chocolates before buying. In a pile in a corner, I ﬁnd an old label featuring caricatures of an African couple smooching on a box of Suukkoja Kyssar candy. I buy a packet of plain chocolate fudge instead.
Chocolates can keep the furnace burning for only so long. On the edge of the forest in Emäsalo, an island in Porvoo, we feast before we start our trek through the wilderness with Seikkailulaakso, an outdoors adventure company. Gigantic slabs of salmon from Norway (“because the best salmon comes from there!” claims the proprietor with a laugh) smoked in-house, fresh salads bursting with ﬂavour, thick slices of bread and the pièce de résistance, bowls of smoked reindeer and cheese soup. Warm and thick, it goes down like heaven. Reindeer is less gamey than I thought it would be, and when smoked and chopped to bits, provides a nice, meaty bite to the soup.
The lodge overlooks part of the Baltic Sea, devoid of any activity except for a lone swan out in the distance. All is peaceful, save for the boisterous journalists not abated by the cold. After bundling up in warmer clothes, our guide begins the ﬁrst part of the journey into mindfulness by vividly describing the changing seasons and landscapes, the freezing over of the waters in winter, the ﬂourishing of the vegetation in spring, and the animation of all kinds of activity both human and wild in summer.
We walk like children, curious and open-minded with all the senses, or like animals all aware of the environment. For the most part, we comply with the guide’s valiant attempt at leading us closer to zen. I edge my way to the top of the line, away from the noise and nearer to the meditative, almost hypnotic voice of the guide. This Mind and Nature path programme is meant to provide a respite from the noise and the chatter of city life, and I intend to make full use of it.
The ground is cushiony, the undergrowth pleasant on our short trek, and there are giant moss-covered boulders everywhere, a landscape that was shaped by the last Ice Age. Mostly quiet, with the occasional piercing of a shriek of laughter, and then later the rare sirens of a ﬁre engine. Two pass by and the Finns remark on the oddity. Such is the quiet life of a place that is only 400-strong in human population.
Birch, pine, spruce, juniper and rowan—the species of wood that my fantasy-addled mind automatically associates with wands—crowd the forest, with special appearances by dead pine trees that are still standing. Kelopuu is the special Finnish word for it. Lichen grows on branches and twigs, a sign that means the air is clean. Reindeer feed on them, but Rudolph only lives in Lapland, way up north where one can see the Lights. With the Everyman’s Right policy in Finland, anyone can wander about the natural landscape to do anything except harm the wildlife or harvest crops. Most things grown in the wild like berries, mushrooms and nuts are available for the picking as you roam. I pick a few tiny, watery blueberries, not exactly in the right season, and they crush between my ﬁngers, bloodying them with their juice.
After a few rounds of tag to beat the cold, and some stumbling about feeling nature with our eyes closed, we end the communing by a warm outdoor ﬁre with hot drinks—just as the ﬁrst ﬂurry of snow starts to fall.
Hot and cold
Sauna is the true religion here. Pronounced “sao-na” with an uplift to the second syllable, the culture of sweating it out in a conﬁned space originated in Finland where it was considered the cleanest place of the domicile; babies were birthed there, and even housed the dead before a funeral. Almost every home here has a sauna, as does every apartment building. There’s even a sauna in a Burger King, opposite the Stockmann department store in Helsinki, and in one of the cabins on a giant Ferris wheel.
And in Finland, tradition dictates that you do it in your birthday suit.
But before that, we plunge into the SuperCold treatment at the Hotel Haikko Manor & Spa. I volunteer to be the ﬁrst. Clad only in a swimsuit, mittens, socks and felt footwear, I enter a chamber set to -110°C. Correction, my head remains visible to the rest of the gaping crowd, as my body progressively freezes all in the name of some vague health beneﬁts. I can say deﬁnitively, with experience, that -110°C is cold, bloody cold. The experience lasts mere minutes, and I concede that it is quite invigorating. But my mind is fully focused on the length of time needed before frostbite settles in. Can I still function if just my head remains?
The SuperCold treatment room leads to the rest of the Spa, ﬁlled with different types of heat rooms and pools. Per the Finnish way, you can have your drinks too, as you relax the rest of the day away, dehydrating and rehydrating in the name of health. I meet a friendly Finn with her family in the infrared sauna, considered an entry-level one, who explains further. To them, it is a necessary health practice, and not a luxury kept just for the holidays. I try out the steam bath and the aromatherapy sauna before heading back to the dressing room for the ultimate Finnish sauna.
For the Finns, nudity is completely natural. Writing that out seems absurd; of course, nudity is natural, but even to a relatively shameless person such as me, the prospect of disrobing in front of fellow colleagues feels a little nervy. Blame it on the Singaporean-ness embedded deep in the bones. Stripping off swimsuits is necessary, according to the lore that goes that wet swimsuits in saunas with higher temperatures will produce fumes that are bad for the lungs, especially if you’ve gone swimming in a chlorinated pool. The lady from the infrared sauna is already holding court by the heated rocks and a pail of water. With temperatures rising to 80°C, sometimes higher, whoever sits there controls the room. She smiles encouragingly at me and two other colleagues, the only ones of the group daring enough to go the full monty.
The heat takes a little getting used to. So, dipping in and out may be necessary before you ﬁnd that comfortable point. Soon enough though, we are chatting, relaxing as if it’s a totally everyday thing that we’re doing, avoiding the gaze from falling on inappropriate bits. You know how your mind just goes to the thing despite you not wanting to go there? It falls away after a while. And if you think of your sweaty bits sticking to the wooden slats, just remember that you’re meant to shower thoroughly ﬁrst beforehand and place a paper towel under your arse.
Flyboarding in the Baltic Sea
I dream of the sauna as on and on I plunge. Backwards, forwards, sideways in all angles and silly positions, occasionally gulping the sea until I learnt to shut my mouth and accept my fate. It is amazing what the body can get used to. Six degrees? Four? Why does it matter when my face is red and raw, and now numb from the cold? I am the only fool out in the middle of the sea, while everyone else is warm and toasty, shopping to their heart’s content elsewhere in Helsinki.
I’d speciﬁcally requested for something to do in the Stopover Finland programme that wasn’t about shopping or eating. I think my words were “adventurous” and “physically demanding, also can”. Flyboarding in the Baltic Sea during the tail-end of autumn was the last thing on my mind. But here we are. The instructor laughs, from the safety and the comfort of his jet ski. He is very encouraging. “Just slowly stand up on the board, and don’t put your weight forward!”
Very simple instructions.
But after a few necessary introductory moments of faceplanting painfully into the cold, cold sea, something ﬁnally clicks. His instructions make sense, and the few falls that I do are quickly recovered. Still, I rise. And higher I go on the two jets of water under my feet, manoeuvring with just minor adjustments of my weight on the board, tilting according to where I want to go. Of course, there are faceplants, but they are faceplants received with joy because they can only mean another round of ﬂying up into the air.
And as soon as I feel graceful enough to attempt some of the wild stunts in the videos, it’s over. Fifteen to 20 minutes, was it? Absolutely invigorating, even as it leaves me with core and leg muscles on ﬁre. Still better than browsing the shops, I reckon.
I soothe my aching body almost immediately after that in Löyly. Translating to mean “sauna heat”, it is the last place, from the outside, that I thought would be a sauna. Geometric architecture crafted in wood with access to the sea, the place houses two types of public saunas, a private facility and a restaurant, and looks like a theatre or a museum peddling high culture.
After trying out the wood-burning sauna, and then the traditional smoke sauna, the latter done in darkness, life returns to my limbs and excitement roils again. I ﬁnally succeed in inciting my colleagues to take a dip in the sea— which, at the moment, is purely made of waves crashing onto the rocks and wind blathering in all directions. The centre has a small barrier warning you of the possibility of being swept away to oblivion, but I am riding high on exhilaration and I will not be denied.
Three times, a baptism in the Baltic all over again. Stay in the sauna long enough to warm the bones, and then it’s a mad, slippery dash to plunge into the freezing sea. Back and forth. When in Finland, do as the Finns do, even if the only Finn around doing it is the sole person in charge of us.
We return to the tour bus, warm and toasty, giddy with happiness and drink. Even the nonsensical chatter about this being the last year to catch the Northern Lights does not faze me. The exhilarating activities of the day and the wind down at the sauna help greatly. I think I accept now the beauty and the beneﬁts of extreme temperatures.
Design and food
I rib on shopping and food because they’re not things that I enjoy the most, but here, I can somewhat appreciate them. If only because design is done right in Finland, and the Finns are a practical people not inclined to ﬂighty fashion trends, with an interesting burgeoning food culture. Lokal, in Helsinki’s design district, is a gathering place for the city’s creatives. The opening parties for their exhibits, which change every month, are major social events. The place gives off a sense of calm and, when before I was dismissive of the Kinfolk aesthetic, I somewhat get it now. There is beauty in the simplicity of things placed together artfully.
Throughout the trip, I have been well-fed. Inventive establishments like Restaurant Juuri—all with an eye on sustainability and a nose for fresh produce—put together dishes full of ﬂavour and with varied yet harmonious textures. Cloudberry juice, sea buckthorn juice and numerous other unpronounceable and bewildering delicious ingredients pop up on the trip. There is none of the sense that I get in other cities where hipster food and hipster tastes decide the direction the cuisine goes, none of that unwarranted snootiness and pedantry that isn’t reﬂected in the tastiness of the food.
The Old Market Hall next to the Market Square, ﬁrst opened in 1889, stands out in my mind. Glistening tubs of ﬁsh roe in vibrant red, orange and yellow sit next to smoked ﬁsh beautifully brown and burnt amber. Cans of bear meat, bear pâté, reindeer meat, elk meat and bear grease soap populate another shop, and I am afraid but tempted to try. Lots and lots of fresh salmon, char, giant shrimps, sea urchins still with their husks of spikes and shellﬁsh. Canned caviar from Russia in one stall, and another selling Indian spices. A Vietnamese stall selling pho and spring rolls near another selling reindeer kebabs. And of course, organic foods of all kinds. Most Finns eat at home, as it’s cheaper, and having a market hall like this is close to heaven for the avid home cook.
The sole dark spot of this trip is receiving the bad news that a drink I’ve become addicted to is nowhere to be found for retail sale. Mahla, the organic birch sap beverage bottled almost immediately at source, was found to be contaminated. Since it’s all done without preservatives, the latest batch had to be recalled, leaving a bunch of dejected tourists empty-handed. I console myself with a can of reindeer meatballs from the airport, thinking also of the spruce shoot juice from Lapland. But my seat on the Finnair ﬂight back home awaits, and so does yet another squeaky glass of Blue Sky cocktail. I’ll be back for you, Northern Lights.
This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, May 2017.