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Absolutely Finnished: A summer trip to Helsinki and Lapland

By: Jonathan Ward

“For God’s sake, put me down; I want to go back to the flat and sleep!” I yelled, as Henry and Sam carried me down the street by my arms and legs. Well, that’s what I wanted to yell. Instead it came out as a garbled moan.

“Don’t worry,” said Henry, “you’ll get a second wind.” I squirmed and struggled, but I wasn’t going anywhere. Would the cold logic of reason take me in the right direction?

No. The only direction I was headed was back into Navy Jerry’s, a rum bar in Helsinki, and the sole conspirator in me becoming this mumbling, stumbling mess.

The cocktail’s description had promised to “cradle me in its boozy arms and caress my overstressed brain.” Sounded amazing, even if the name “Zombie” was less than exotic. “I’ll try one,” I said to the barmaid, handing over a €50 note.

My drink arrived along with my change and I took a large swig. It slipped down my throat like a chainsaw and fizzed through my spine like a firework. The barmaid gave me a wink. I was slightly concerned. Then I checked the change in the palm of my hand; the drink had cost €25 – forty Singapore dollars.  

Fifteen minutes later, as my legs began to betray me, I concluded that the description of a Zombie cocktail should instead read: “Knock a few back and rejoice in sweet alcoholic bliss as you forget how to walk and your soul turns to mush.”

And that was the beginning of the end. As my mind was by the white rum, cask-strength rum, Demerara navy rum, golden falernum and whatever else made up this God-forsaken concoction, my last thought was how far away Helsinki felt from where I’d been the previous week, in the magical land of the Arctic Circle, with its midnight sun, Santa’s grotto, and – of course – naked saunas.


Laps of a lake
The capital of Finnish Lapland, Rovaniemi is 700km north of Helsinki, right on the Artic Circle – it’s “The Official Hometown of Santa Claus”. Our destination, though, wasn’t the town itself, or Santa (yet), so once our flight arrived we piled into a waiting minibus and set off.

A victim of Hitler’s scorched earth policy, Rovaniemi was mostly rebuilt during the 60s – a decade which was as good for architecture as the mid 80s was for music. Good thing, then, that people don’t come to Lapland for the architecture but for nature – not mighty mountains or sweeping fjords, but endless pine forests, countless lakes and bold barren fells poking out between breathtaking beauty.

Forty minutes later, we were unpacking our bags beside Iso Vietonen, one of Finland’s 100,000 lakes. For the next four days we had the reign of three cabins dotted around different sides of the stunningly beautiful lake, whose waters stretch for ten miles, surrounded by forests.

Kristiina, our local host, was determined that we enjoy the best of the Finnish experience, and had set us up with all the things she’d done growing up in the area. We would fish, swim, paddle board, barbecue and drink ourselves silly. Perfect.

One thing to watch out for in the Lappish summer is the Lappish mosquito (hyttynen): a persistent little bugger who’ll turn your legs into an all-day snack bar; venturing out without industrial-strength insect repellent is not advised.

On the upside, summer also brings the famous midnight sun. “We’ll sleep when the sun goes down!” was the motto of the week, and the closest it ever got to setting was hovering over the treetops in a crimson sunset that lasted from after dinner to the early hours of the morning.

When we weren’t out on the lake, gorging on Karelian pies, näkkileipä, ruisleipä or other impossible to pronounce Finnish snacks, we were in the sauna. With around one sauna (pronounced “sow-na”) for every two and a half Finns, this is the equivalent of going to the pub for Brits – only with fewer pints, nuts and fights.

Naked hot tub, anyone? 

Before any authentic Finnish sauna, you head into the forest, strip a dozen or so branches from a birch tree and tie them together to make your own personal whipping stick. (I’m surprised this isn’t some kind of Catholic ritual.) You’ll then find yourself sitting in a dark wood-panelled room, the small glow of a fire revealing a bunch of sweating, naked men, several of whom are beating themselves repeatedly with their branches. Another ladles water over the heated stones of a stove, and within seconds a wave of heat slaps your face and envelops your entire body. Not your average evening with the boys, then.

After a good roasting at 100 degrees Celsius, tradition dictates that you must run and dive into something colder than Ozzy Osbourne’s nipple. If this had been December, it would have been headfirst into the snowdrifts outside – the colder the better. There was no snow, though, “just” the lake – but going from what feels like the heart of the sun into anything less is always a shock to the system. I underwent the early stages of a sex change running into that lake…

After swimming around for a bit, it’s back into the sauna. Another hundred-degree roasting follows, then it’s back to the lake. Relax, roast and repeat – with beer time in the middle. We did this seven times until my pores were as wide as the Grand Canyon. A couple of hours later, I felt as relaxed as melted butter. (I never thought I’d come out of a room of naked men saying that.)

In the mornings, we cooked sausages in a tepee-shaped grilling hut called a grillkota, and explored the forests. (And got attacked by bees.) The rest of our days were filled with midnight swims, 4am smoke saunas, hot-tub sessions, hours spent on the lake catching no fish, and playing bad frisbee-golf.

On Saturday evening we rowed across the lake to one of the bigger cabins, our boat crew like a frat version of the Pilgrims, loaded up with kegs and hot dogs. There waiting for us was a marquee, a Finnish band, Rudolph steaks for dinner, and drinking games where one of the forfeits was gutting a fish and filleting it for grilling (a typically practical Finnish forfeit). Long days and even longer hangovers followed – indeed the sun never did quite set.


Side-tracked by Santa
On day four, before our return flight to Helsinki, there was time for a quick visit to Santa (who conveniently lives next to the motorway). I’m not going to lie, his grotto (Santa Claus Village) was … creepy. Maybe it was the tinny Christmas music drifting through the hot empty park devoid of snow or people, but it really didn’t take much to imagine this as the setting for some clichéd horror movie.

On the positive side, there is a Santa’s Post Office from which you can send a card with a special, extortionately priced Santa Clause postmark.

The other way he claws (no pun intended) back operational costs is by posing for photos with visitors. Clearly he’s a busy guy, I understand that; but does an email with said photo attached really have to set you back a jaw-dropping €49 euros? It almost made me think this park was just a huge money-making ploy – almost, until I met Santa, sitting there in “Christmas House”, fat, jolly and with a beard that ZZ Top would be envious of.

“Santa, it’s an honour to meet you,” I said sincerely, readying the Christmas list in my head.

“My dear boy, what do you want for Christmas?”

But then Jimmy, a New Yorker – cast to type by his backwards baseball cap and Upper West side drawl – interrupted: “I want a girlfriend who won’t bitch about me behind my back to people she’s just met!”

“Umm…” said Santa.

Awkward. I’m sure these types of requests are usually filtered by the elves. We had our photo taken and disappeared as quickly as possible. A truly magical experience.

Helsinki Cathedral 

Helsinki drinkies
Founded in 1550 but rebuilt by Russian tsars as a miniature version of Saint Petersburg (a role it has played in many movies), Helsinki pulls off the trick of feeling like an international metropolis while still retaining that small-town European feel. It’s easily walkable from one side to the other, and although it doesn’t take a long time to see the main sights, you could spend a month there and still be discovering new neighbourhoods, restaurants, bars and hidden secrets of “the Daughter of the Baltic”.

We took our time sauntering, unhurried, from one side of Helsinki to the other, and nailed most of the tourist hotspots in a day: the grand train station, Helsinki Cathedral, the golden cupolas and redbrick façade of Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, Market Square.

We had lunch in Hietalahti Market Hall and then took a ferry to Suomenlinna, one of the world’s biggest island fortresses, an iron fist poking out of the Finnish Gulf against any unwelcome visitors (that’s you, Russia).

It was later on that evening, after a great dinner at Kuurna’s restaurant, a small but highly recommended place where nettle crepes are a speciality, that my brain turned to mush thanks to the potent and expensive Zombie.

In the aftermath, my so-called friends kept repeating a chant: “Second wind! Second wind!” It worked: my second wind arrived. From one outdoor club in Erottaja square to a rooftop bar playing classic Scandinavian tunes (and the not so classic “What does the fox say?”), Helsinki goes from chilled alfresco living to tub-thumping Euro-nightspot – and I definitely had the headache the next day to prove it.

Then the sun went down, and we finally had an excuse to sleep.

Where to Stay
For a return to nature, look no further than Napapiirin Jarvilomat, where you can rent cabins and cottages set on a private beach area of Iso Vietonen with barbecues, saunas, boats and other equipment available. The airport at Rovaniemi is 45 minutes by car.

What to Do
In the summer months you have the midnight sun, in the winter the northern lights. You also have the choice of cross-country skiing, winter safari dog sledding (hettahuskies.com), or what the Finns consider the original and the best type of sauna, the savusauna (a smoke sauna heated 24 hours in advance with a large wood fire). Go to Kuopio, home to the world’s biggest smoke sauna.

Fishing on the lake - boat selfie! (Belfie?) 

Alternative Finnish Sports
Wife Carrying World Championships: Win your wife’s weight in beer – the dilemma is obvious.
World Cell Phone Throwing Championships: Maybe you have a girlfriend who you’ve personally experienced having the skills for this?
Air Guitar World Championships: Like a Katy Perry concert but with guitars rather than her vocals.
Mosquito Swatting Championships: You know you have too many mosquitos in your country when this is a sport.

When to Go
If you too want to chase the midnight sun, June is the time to go. The weather is warm and sunny (August and September are wetter) and Finnish school holidays haven’t begun yet, so you’ll find prices lower and places less crowded.