Finland was the only European country I had not explored, but meeting trusty Finns in every corner of the planet fashioned a promising prologue. It turns out Europe’s northeast corner has many charms, including baffling landscapes, trendsetting design and witty straight shooters.
Capital cities are not always the best way to judge a country, but Helsinki is an incredible example of urban planning and human cooperation (man working well with man, with machine and with nature). And I found this matter-of-fact, harmonizing approach pervasive both in the locals’ dispositions and in their way of life. Loud and boisterous behavior is apparently off the menu, as everyone seems to have paid attention in kindergarten—here, even pedestrians stay in their lanes.
The Baltic Sea-side capital city is an architectural museum and a heartbeat for design trends shaped by Nordic modernism—muscular and tidy—and an absolutely pleasant place to put foot to sidewalk. Beautiful cobblestone streets and garden parks are shaded by massive trees. Few buildings predate 1920, mostly due to the reconstruction following World War II. Hotel Katajanokka, my temporary home, is a majestic redbrick prison converted into privileged accommodations and no doubt hosts the most soundproof room you can sleep in (I did say it was a prison). My “cell” sports swank throw pillows and vodka in the freezer. Jailbird, their dragon-free dungeon restaurant, serves pheasant and cold beetroot on barley risotto. Inventive, but straightforward.
Because Finland is such a young country, thus unencumbered by historical pressures, fresh ideas flow freely. Thanks mainly to American and British film, television and media, Finns speak nearly perfect English, making it easy to discuss principles and possibilities with a variety of clever characters. Travelers who believe “natives” are more than just props for family photos will have an easy time making friends.
Finland is also famous for lakes—nearly 200,000 of them—and vodka, with Finlandia leading the charge. Blind invitations from locals to dine or drink together are rare, but if you make the first move they’ll respond in kind. One of my guitar heroes, Rock & Roll Hall-of-Famer Jorma Kaukonen descends from this enchanting land of stoicism. Jorma is my conversation starter (the former Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane man has an LI connection). Others handle the closers, often infused with patriotism and global economic strategies. In A21, a chic cocktail lounge overlooking a square boasting many statues of sword-wielding men on horseback, I ask a sharply dressed woman seated at a hewn-log bar about the half of her salary consumed by taxes. She smiles and replies, “Sounds like a solution searching for a problem.” Outsmarted, I play brain ping-pong with that riddle, drink another beer and then hop on a northbound flight to court nature.
Onward and Upward
Three hundred miles northwest of Helsinki, standing in a new patch of woods at a fork in the trail, I ask a passing hiker where the two paths lead. I tell him it doesn’t really matter where I end up. Leaning into his hiking poles, he demonstrates classic Finnish practicality by responding, “When you don’t know where you are going, any path will take you there.” I take his advice and move ahead.
A World Heritage Site is a highly coveted merit badge bestowed upon natural and cultural places by a branch of the UN. Their choices rarely disappoint, making them ideal targets for your wish-list javelin. Happily lost in Finland’s recently crowned Natural Site, the Kvarken Archipelago, I discover that a two-mile-thick glacier from the last ice age compressed the earth’s crust here for more than half a mile. Approximately 2,500 feet of earth has rebounded to repaint epic maritime scenery. This recovery of once compressed land is creating lush islands—with trees—that didn’t exist when local elders were kids. In only the last 50 years, formerly navigable waterways have become impassable and marinas are continuously relocating seaward to match the uplift.
Discussing the steadily rising terrain and winking with irony, a boat builder cracks, “Every year, it creates new bumps in the road.” That’s why they call it Terranova—the new land. The combination of newness of civilization and ethereal landscape makes for a traveler’s delight.
Björköby Island, population 400, is a microcosm that is more Swede than Finn—nearly everyone here speaks Swedish as their first language. A charming touch, the island seems to have an unwritten rule that everything is painted red. Houses, the towering Lutheran church and even the windmills beam bright crimson. Dozens of winding roads lead to endless photo ops with 20-plus hours of daylight for half the year. It’s a little like stepping into a dreamy movie.
The archipelago has a few islands with electricity-free homes owned by the sort of folks who don’t need to enroll in survival school to understand existing “off the grid.” The Björkö Wärdshus is a cozy inn (on the grid) with requisite sauna and in walking distance from the Kvarken’s central observation tower and loop trail. The inn doubles as a staging ground for year-round outdoor activities. My humble hosts, Pia and Göran, serve gourmet highlander stews, incredible forest-picked mushroom soup and hour-ago catch of the day. And yes, the building is red. While there, I join a writing group and its inspiration, Carita Nyström, author of The Maniac in the Garden, for a boat ride to offshore Valassaaret Island. It is a first for 72-year-old Nyström, who is fulfilling a lifelong dream. A hike across this mysterious, blossoming isle brings us to Valassaaret Lighthouse, a 19th-century marvel designed by Henry LePaute (an associate of Gustave Eiffel, of Parisian tower fame). The 100-foot black steel beacon was lit in 1886 and has been unmanned since 1964. Thanks to the rising land, it’s been rendered useless. Larger boats don’t pass this way anymore, but I’m glad we did. “Let’s be pen pals,” Carita tells/asks me. We are.
Ties That Bind
Being smart and good looking should never be a problem. Yet Finlanders, who excel in both accounts, had difficulty attaining their national identity. Their independence came in just 1917—late, compared to many of their neighbors—but they have had no trouble holding their own since then (repelling Russification twice in the last century). Nevertheless, they maintain a very neighborly, “live and let live” attitude. Along with Iceland and Greenland, many Finlanders consider themselves Nordic; not Scandinavian, which refers to Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
Today, you can get any Finlander going by discussing their efficient version of socialism, which is partially funded by astronomical alcohol taxes. They like no-nonsense conversations and can be intimidating when needed. A sculpted guy with a deep voice sitting on a stool in a chic Helsinki tavern serving hand-pulled brew notes, “This is where once reigning Sweden recruited its fiercest soldiers for the front lines.”
When you visit the world’s tenth richest country, you’ll surely be recruited into a sauna—the one Finnish word we all know—which serves as church, business meeting, spa and social occasion. During one such heated happy hour, I sit across from a nude woman discussing road rules with a pal. “Here we all pay our share,” the Nordic beauty declares, adding, “Speeding tickets are issued according to salary. A rich Nokia executive was fined $200,000 for his lead foot.”
Finns enjoy nearly 100-percent literacy, perfect tap water and few litterbugs. Health and education services are free or low-cost. Means of production are not state owned here, meaning their private sector thrives (which also means people have a shot at upward mobility), still they call their socialistic model “Nordic welfare,” with an accent on the well. Perhaps indicative of their Nordic pedigree, Finland has always been wooden boat-building territory, a major industry. Fishing and snowmobiling, which they invented, are sworn hobbies. Less than five percent of residents are born abroad, thus Finland’s population of 5.3 million is relatively homogenous. But Finns do reach out, freely educating and offering opportunity to international refugees (Somalis, for instance).
Finland might seem like the far side of Europe, but our ties run deep. The United States enjoys Finland’s design savvy, as evidenced by the St. Louis Gateway Arch and the “tulip chairs” used on the Star Trek set, which were designed by Finnish-born American Eero Saarinen. He is just one of the many Finlanders who helped settle huge swaths of America, where mixed Finglish became an early American dialect. Finns “get” the USA, so return the favor. Back in Helsinki’s lavish prison-hotel sauna—beside a wine cellar—I discuss the vagaries of vanity with a tender, steely-eyed woman. As classical music and heat filled the space, she summarizes what might be their national philosophy: “We don’t get facelifts; we go for faith lifts.”
If you find yourself in this neck of the woods, chances are you’ll stumble upon some of these “travelers’ musts.” To give you a head start, be sure to point your feet in the direction of:
The Vaasa Choir Festival is a non-religious vocal jam session drawing talent from 30 countries. Hip singing groups overtake shopping malls, concert halls and bars in this humble outpost on Finland’s west coast.
The Kvarken landscape, sketched by the ice age, now has a park with a boggy loop trail and observation tower for beholding the succession of ribbed moraine ridges that have risen above sea level. This transboundary park is host to 5,600 islands, and counting. Stay at the Björkö Wärdshus, and don’t miss Vaasa’s Terranova Museum.
Suomenlinna Sea Fortress is a mid-18th century walled maritime fortress that, despite being a grand World Heritage Site, also has bars, restaurants and a permanent population of 800. An easy and picturesque ferry from downtown Helsinki will get you there.
Hotel Katajanokka is your authentic, posh lily pad while in Helsinki.
On the Menu
You can feel Finland’s history while eating food with handmade roots served in restaurants with funky looks, gourmet nooks or old books. Restaurant Juuri, 50 rootsy and cozy seats, serves moaning-good food: Cabbage leaves filled with crayfish and cottage cheese in melted dill butter (appetizer) and pike cake “Wallenberg” style (entrée) complemented by a five-page wine list on a chunky clipboard. Restaurant Grotesk’s handmade food sits well in a welcoming milieu. Salutorget has epic asparagus soup and entrées fit for royalty. Kosmos Restaurant dishes out elegant old-style gourmet. The A21 Cocktail Lounge uses traditional Finnish ingredients that catch a buzz in both senses of the term.