Dick Lee: The Finnish Line

Travel

September 16, 2016 | BY Dick Lee

After a lifetime of associating Finland only with the aurora borealis, Dick Lee reckoned it was time to find out more.

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It all started with an invitation from Singapore’s non‑resident ambassador to Finland (and my dear friend) Jaya Mohideen to meet Finnish ambassador to Singapore, Paula Parviainen, which led to my second visit to Scandinavia. (The first being many years back on a Stockholm stopover.)

In an instant, Paula connected me with Finnair and Visit Finland, and my itinerary was planned, air tickets booked, and I found myself on a comfortable overnight flight to the Finnish capital Helsinki.

My first surprise—and there were many more to come—was the all Singaporean crew who offered warm service, refreshingly different from our national carrier’s structured efficiency. Fashion designer Yang Derong, who came along as my photographer, adored the crispy Finnish rye crackers served on board, while I was content with a sleep‑inducing antihistamine.

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We arrived early in the morning when it was still dark, but I was quickly informed that daylight had started to build up and our days won’t be shrouded in darkness as I’d feared. Just a short drive from Helsinki Airport is Hotel Haven, a stylish boutique lodging in the heart of the city.

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After a hearty Finnish breakfast of cereal, smoked herring and wonderfully crisp bread in the hotel’s traditional dining room, I stepped out for a closer first look at the city and to try walking in the snow, which in itself was not something I’m used to, and required careful treading.

While Finland is known for its cutting-edge design, I find Helsinki beautifully 19th century in style, with a few modern edifices startlingly positioned in unexpected locations. Its proximity to water gives it a spacious Nordic feel, especially as the city is so sparsely populated (over 600,000 people out of a total country population of 5.4 million).

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I returned to the hotel to meet our guide from AuroraXplorer, which had planned an itinerary suited to my request for an urban experience in Helsinki, and this, they did so expertly. Leaving the obligatory “City Tour” for another time, we headed directly to Finnish textile icon Marimekko, a label I first encountered when I was studying fashion design in London in the 1970s.

Founded by Armi Ratia in 1949, the print‑based design house specialises in bold fabrics with a hand-drawn feel. Its signature floral design Unikko is still in production and even used for Finnair’s amenity kits and slippers today. I learnt that they deliver anywhere in the world and, of course, I buy a stack of towels.

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Our guide had to drag me away for our lunch appointment at Helsinki institution, Restaurant Savoy, which opened in 1937 and designed by my personal design idols Alvar and Aino Aalto, whose timeless works are still beautifully preserved in the rooftop restaurant. In fact, the restaurant’s best known interior feature is the design power couple’s iconic Savoy Vase, with its undulating sides, which is still healthily in production today.

Lunch was created by Helsinki’s most exciting chef, Kari Aihinen, who served a “light” six-course meal of seared scallops, veal tartare, pan-fried sole and a delicate confit of goose leg. (Chef Aihinen also designed the business class menu on Finnair’s A350 flights.)

Feeling full after lunch, but never too full to shop, I headed to the Iittala outlet store—Iittala being the other Finnish brand I find essential to my life. Its emporium of quintessentially Scandinavian glassware is a credit-card-draining treasure trove of kitchen and table essentials, and yes, they deliver anywhere! I stocked up on Savoy pieces in every colour, and also discovered that Iittala’s parent company owns Fiskars, the makers of those orange-handled scissors, which have been handled for decades by dressmakers the world over.

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Dinner was at Salutorget, a casual Finnish bistro on the main street Esplanadi, a 5min walk from our hotel. Housed in a former bank, the restaurant is spacious, with a formal air, but relaxed and cosy. Hungry after all that shopping, we devoured Finnish comfort food such as pan-fried Baltic herring, salmon soup and the crispiest blinis ever.

The next day was design day, and I weaved through the snow-covered streets to visit extraordinary monuments and structures such as the Sibelius Monument of 1967, built to honour Jean Sibelius, the Finnish composer of the popular Finlandia hymm and other notable works. Other unmissable sights include the amazing Rock Church, built in 1969 and incorporated into a solid rock face, with a remarkable dome made of 22km of copper wire; and Helsinki’s newest architectural masterpiece, the compact and serene Kamppi Chapel, made entirely of spruce and ash wood, both inside and out.

That evening, a delightful dinner was organised by Visit Finland at the ultra-chic, one-Michelin-star restaurant Olo, joined by a creative company of Finnish talents from fashion brands Frenn (minimal menswear) and Marita Huurinainen (remarkable wooden slippers with curved soles), as well as personalities from the music industry. In between comparing our countries’ cultural scenes, we sample a tasting menu of delicacies such as semolina porridge, rye bread dipped in garlic soup and lamb with celeriac.

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UP NORTH

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Dick Lee with Santa and his merry elves.

After digging my heels into Helsinki and enjoying its city scene, it was time to get to the Arctic part of my adventure. A short Finnair flight away, lies Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland, a region that bridges Finland, Norway and Sweden. Flying over the vast landscape of white, the approach felt a little intimidating, but promised new experiences ahead.

This part of my trip was organised by Lapland Luxury, a deluxe tour company which also owns several properties I would visit. Our “Experience Designer” Eino, a well-informed and responsive guide providing excellent service, was with us throughout the entire visit.

Being the home of Santa Claus, we stayed at the Hotel Santa Claus in the city centre, which was thankfully free of Santarinas and mistletoes. Contemporary and comfortable, my Santa Claus Suite comes with a roomy sauna. (The sauna is part of the Finnish DNA, present in almost every household, and makes complete sense with -10°C temperatures here.)

I was taken to dine at Arctic Boulevard, in Rovaniemi’s newest hotel, which dishes up a modern take on traditional Lappish cuisine. Something one would get used to when eating out is the abundance
of berries, particularly lingonberries and cranberries, in the cuisine, along with reindeer meat. I always balked at the word “reindeer” in every menu, as I cannot erase the image of a friendly and cute red-nosed animal. However, I must admit that its meat is succulent and thankfully devoid of gameyness.

The next few days were action-packed with visits to the Korundi Art Museum, and Arktikum, a museum of all things Arctic—well worth a visit. The design maniac in me was unable to resist visiting a few Alvar Aalto creations (he helmed the rebuilding of the city after it was entirely destroyed in World War II), like the city hall with perfectly preserved mid-century interiors, and the quietly elegant city library.

The touristy activities were highly enjoyable: slushing through the countryside on a sled pulled by a panting team of huskies was surreal—nothing but the soft patter of the dogs amid the winter silence in the fields; and another sleigh ride, this time transported by reindeers, which were surprisingly smaller than I had imagined them to be. Of course, the ride filled me with guilt and shame as I had gastronomically partook of their brethren.

There was also skiing to be enjoyed in the nearby Ounasvaara Ski Resort, with its eight slopes (which Derong enjoyed), while I rode a jet-ski up the hill to the Lapland Hotel Sky to enjoy a hot chocolate before going up to the roof to the most spectacular panorama of Rovaniemi. I also stop at the Ranua Wildlife Park with its small selection of Arctic animals, where I was privileged to have a fearful (but awesome) close encounter with a giant polar bear as she was being fed.

One memorable visit was to Santa’s Secret Forest, literally within the depths of a forest of snow-laden tree skeletons. There, we lunch on wood-roasted salmon in a traditional kota, or tent covered with reindeer skin. Later, a pair of cheeky elves led us to the epicentre of stocking-filler enterprise: Santa’s Workshop. After being taken through the elaborate operations HQ, who should suddenly appear but St Nicholas himself, as full-bearded and rotund as ever, reducing me to a simpering child who still wants to sit on his knee.

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The unique glass igloos of the Arctic Snow Hotel offers the experience of sleeping in the open but with a warm and cosy feel.

On the grounds of this magical place, and next to a frozen lake, is a prototype villa of the Arctic TreeHouse Hotel, which is being built near the airport, and will open in time for the winter season. The cabin is luxuriously appointed with picture-perfect views and reindeer fur everywhere. Also on the grounds is the Metsäkyly Arctic Forest Spa, a large cabin with a roomy dining area and roomier sauna, designed for groups. Next door is a traditional smoke sauna, where heat is generated by burning wood, and I did the whole works, including thrashing myself with lashings of birch branches, and hurling myself into the snow before sinking blissfully into a warm Jacuzzi.

Our last night was spent at Arctic Snow Hotel (everything is named Arctic!) where I opt for the glass igloo rather than the Snow Hotel, and here is the best advice I can give: no matter what anyone says, do not stay in a Snow Hotel, unless you want to be imprisoned in a dark, damp, freezing box of ice with no facilities and have to sleep with ten layers of clothes (and boots!) The igloo was much more comfortable—albeit transparent—and it was here that I suddenly remembered my primary reason for coming to Finland: to see the Northern Lights!

My time was so full of fun that I collapsed exhausted every night, forgetting to stay alert in case Aurora decides to show up. Luckily, that final night was the clearest it had been, and I was in a remote place with little distracting light, and a clear view of the sky from my bed. There was even an “Aurora Alarm” I could activate, but guess who forgot to turn it on? Anyway, I had a sound sleep and woke up hoping that the lights didn’t show, saving their appearance for my next visit.

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