Sunday, July 6, 2014

Helsinki Finland

Photos here: Helsinki


Why Helsinki? 

My One World around the world award ticket (see ATW blog entry) was a great deal, but I had a tough time finding an award flight to take me back home.  Trans-Atlantic award tickets are notoriously scarce during the summer.  British Air had availability, but their extra fees were about $700.  What’s the point of using an award ticket if you have to pay that much for a single leg?

Luckily, Finn Air had business class seats available (only on certain dates) from Helsinki to JFK.  I had no particular desire to see Helsinki, but I needed to get back home somehow.  Originally, I planned just to connect through the airport.

Later, I discovered that I could visit St. Petersburg Russia from Helsinki through a visa loop hole.  I hadn’t considered getting a Russian visa, since the process is both long and pricey.  The country is also so vast that I just ruled it out.  Still, I figured St. Petersburg is Russia’s number one tourist destination for a reason, and if I could visit there visa and hassle free, why not?  See the blog entry for this leg of my trip.

So I ended up booking an overnight in Helsinki.  Later, I also added Copenhagen and Stockholm to the end of my trip, making for a neat Scandinavian side trip.

My time in Helsinki was limited.  I arrived in the afternoon to a gorgeous day.  Scandinavia is the most expensive part of Europe, but I managed to find the Hotel Fabian without bleeding through the nose too much.  The hotel was fine, as was the location.  The city is quite small for a European capital.   Between a late sunset (around 11pm) and the hotel’s free bike rental, I was able to see all of the city that day.

Helsinki is gorgeous, as are its people.  Scandinavians generally are a friendly, laid back, and good looking people.   When summer comes, bringing an end to winter’s perpetual darkness, the locals open up with so much glee it carries you away.   I biked around Helsinki visiting the tourist sights, but had the most fun just sitting around the parks watching, and occasionally talking, to the locals as they celebrated the lovely day.

Taxes throughout Scandinavia make bars very expensive, so most locals just buy alcohol and food at the local grocery store and party outdoors.  Helsinki is no exception.  The area around the Esplanade in particular fills up with good looking locals having a good time.  I keep emphasizing “good looking” not from any lascivious view.  It’s just difficult not to be struck by how blonde, healthy, vibrant, and for some reason young everyone looked.  Not that everyone was a clone.  I met the occasional punker and stoner.  Still, I enjoyed my day in Helsinki.

My meals weren’t as good.  As I mentioned, the city is quite expensive.  The hotel recommended a place around the corner.  When I sat down, the waiter explained they serve small courses and suggested ordering at least six, at E10 per plate.  Together with a glass of wine and some water, I was looking at spending almost E100 (or about $140) at a place that looked fairly average.

Perhaps I should have tried it.  I instead found a Chinese restaurant nearby that had decent reviews.  The place was full, and lots of Chinese patrons were devouring plates of food.  I ordered a beer and a spicy chicken dish.  It set me back about E40, but the food was truly bad.  They used way too much capsicum and overfried the chicken.  I would have walked away but for the fact that I was famished.

Afterwards, I tried a couple of bars, including a karaoke one where the locals were belting out Finnish tunes with gusto.  Finns like to party late, especially in the summer time when it doesn’t really get dark until the wee hours, and it looked like the fun was just beginning. 

I didn’t stay at either bar too long.  For whatever reason, I just didn’t feel like drinking that much.  Sitting at the bar, I did meet a weird Japanese woman.  She was somewhat entertaining just because she was so bizarre.  She would mutter some conversation, and then simply gaze out the window blankly.  Just when one got used to ignoring her, she would interrupt people’s conversation by blurting out some incoherent sentence in perfect English.  She would then tune out again.  I thought at first she might be stoned or drunk, but I ultimately labeled her as just a weirdo.  I beat a fast track out of that bar before someone thought I was responsible for her.

(Separately, I wonder what the Japanese connection, if any, is to Helsinki.  My flight from Paris to Helsinki was at least half Japanese!  I assume some kind of connecting flight back home?  Strange mystery...)

I headed back to the hotel and slept well. 

The breakfast the next day was quite crowded.  I had the day free until the late afternoon when I would catch my cruise to St. Petersburg.  I had intended to work out, but the hotel’s gym is actually located at its sister hotel’s property.  The weather was gloomy and rainy, and I felt lazy.  I wandered the city just a bit, feeling glad that I saw almost all of it the prior day under more beautiful conditions.  For my last meal, I ate at McDonalds, remembering my fiasco from the night before.  I bought a sandwich and a drink for the cruise, and headed for the boats saying goodbye to the city.

Helsinki is a manageable, small, attractive city.  However, it does not compare well to its larger Scandinavian brethren of Oslo, Copenhagen, or Stockholm.  I liked my short stay here, but I don’t see any reason to return any time soon.


Photos here: Helsinki

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