Helena Niskanen, the New York marketing rep for Visit Finland, and the Finland Tourist Board, suggests I extend my visit to Lapland to include 36 Hours in Helsinki , and graciously offers to make all the necessary arrangements. She is very proud of her beloved city, and pleased I accept her invitation.
I check into the elegant Klaus K Hotel, conveniently located in the center of the city at Bulevardi 2/4. A member of Design Hotels, this very special boutique hotel, is family owned and managed by Mia and Marc Skorvc, a warm and charming couple who met in hotel school in France. They both honed their talents, taste and people skills working in New York … she at the Four Seasons, he at the Ritz Carlton. (photo)
A tour guide collects me, and we’re off in a chauffeured car to explore highlights of this eclectic, friendly, safe and clean city. First stop is the Design Forum showroom, a partner in the sales promotion activities of Finnish designers, design agencies and design intensive companies; it helps market and increase the demand for Finnish designs Internationally by providing media and sales promotion services, and by arranging design exhibitions and competitions. Aila Kolehmainen, Communications Manager of the Design Forum introduces me to some of the designs currently on exhibit, and then sends me off to discover the diversity of their members.
The city’s Design District, a vital part of Finnish city culture, is both a neighborhood and a state of mind. This intriguing and creative piece of Helsinki spans 25 streets and 150 members: from jewelry designers to bar owners, from galleries to shops and from design studios to design hotels. I pop in and out of half a dozen shops, galleries and restaurants … impressed by the uniqueness, authenticity and originality of the designs and people I meet. ( photos)
We visit the Temppeliautio Church; its exterior spaceship like design caused much controversy among the Finns. Although it has no alter, its benches are made of birch and its interior walls of rock, it does function as a place of worship, but additionally, its fantastic acoustics provide the sound effects for fabulous concerts. (photo)
We drive through neighborhoods that reflect changes in architectural styles, and then stop to admire another controversial Helsinki Landmark, the Sibelius Monument, honoring Finland’s great composer who died in 1967. The sculpture which reminds me of huge organs pipes was the results of a public fund raising campaign and competition in the 60’s, causing controversy over a contemporary versus abstract design. (photos)
It is snowing, and the streets are glistening; darkness comes early this time of year; it is hard to tell the time. I take a taxi to Sundman’s Restaurant at the South Harbor. Chef Jarmo Vaha-Savo greets me, and takes me on a tour of this historic Empire style mansion, originally built in 1817 as the home of ship Captain G.W. Sundman, with a fireplace in every room. When the house was no longer occupied as a residence, and the plan to turn it into a private club failed, it was turned into a restaurant in 1994 by two families who own 26 restaurants in the city. Chef takes me down to his wine cellar where 6,000 bottles rest like soldiers waiting for orders. Chef, who has presided over the kitchen for 11 years, tells me: “it’s a nice place to be a chef; there is something about the atmosphere of the house”.
The main dining room, (there are several smaller ones for more private parties), with its high vaulted mural painted ceiling may have once been Captain Sundman’s master bedroom. Candles flicker on each table; a simple sprig of fresh flowers sits in a small vase; chamber music plays in the background; only two other tables are occupied, one by a group of business men, another by three Americans in town for a conference.
I sit alone at a table by the window, relishing the treat of dining slowly and without conversation … savoring my own company and the attentive service being showered upon me. Outside the snow swirls across the frozen Baltic Sea; an ice cutter rests for the night, no doubt weary from a day of helping ships maneuver in and out of port.
The chef has ordered his special Menu Scandinavia: a five course feast that will be paired with five different white and red wines. The sommelier starts me off with a glass of crisp tart Moet Champagne; a delicate yet pungent mushroom, thyme and cream soup is served in a demitasse cup.
What follows is an extraordinary display of culinary excellence paired with exceptional wines that add dimension to “dining at its best”. Braised perch, perch mousse and whitefish roe, made with pesto, mayo, lemon and sour cream is served with a gold label Eden Valley Riesling from South Australia … a whipped and creamy Jerusalem artichoke soup, topped with a dollop of salmon tartare, is paired with a wonderful New Zealand sauvignon blanc, and with the main course: pigeon stuffed with foie- gras in a raspberry sauce ( both delicate and succulent), he pours a rich red Spanish rioja. For desert, a many layered soufflé of warm Mirabelle plums and cold mango sorbet is a masterpiece, especially with a sweet chenin blanc from the Loire Valley. This is truly a magical evening; I do appreciate being treated like royalty, especially so far from home on a snowy wonderland of a night. ( photos)
Stockman’s Department store is around the corner from the Klaus K; I trudge through the slushy snow to check out this huge family owned emporium; it reminds me of Macy’s, but with the dollar so weak against the Euro I don’t find any bargains I can’t live without. Helsinki is an ideal city for walking, and I continue to stroll past boutiques that line the streets. The Helsinki city information office located at Pohjoisesplanadi #19 publishes a very helpful booklet “Helsinki by Foot”. One suggestion for a walking tour is Eira, the sea-front part of Helsinki that was planned and built in the Jugend (art Nouveau) style of the turn the century.
Tiina Isohanni, the VP of Marketing for Lumene Skin Care Products (sold in the US at CVS and Duane Reade stores) invites me to lunch. Her skin is glowing, no doubt the result of using her company’s anti-aging products, made with pure extract from the cloudberry .., a highly antioxidant berry that only grows in the dry forests of the Artic. She shares some age- lifting tips and Finnish beauty culture.
Helena has scheduled an afternoon facial at the Palace Kamp Day Spa, in the historic Kamp Hotel on Kluuvikatu 4B. The atmosphere is most inviting; the treatment menu is impressive which probably explains why the Finns have such clear beautiful complexion. I change into a bathing suit; store my street clothes in a locker, and then retreat to the relaxation room. I alternate between three different types of saunas: an Italian style grotto steam sauna with the aroma of eucalyptus, a Turkish hammam-style steam bath, and a traditional Finnish sauna. After several in and outs, followed by icy cold showers, I relax on a gently heated lounge until it is time for my facial. I am led to a large and comforting treatment room; my facial has been custom designed to treat my weary skin with a wide range of Biodroga anti-time products that contain extracts from the Thornberry, another indigenous berry rich in antioxidants, and aroma peat. My rituals include a thorough cleansing, an exfoliating peel, a gentle massage and several masks to re-hydrate, oxygenate and firm my skin, restoring radiance and a glow it desperately craved. ( photos)
Looking positively radiant from four hours of pampering, I walk two blocks from my hotel to the Grotesk Restaurant at Ludviginkatu # 10, a happening restaurant and bar. I settle in at the bar to chat with the bartender; it is Saturday night, my last in Helsinki and I am in no hurry to dine. When I tell him about my recent Lapland experiences at Finlandia Vodka’s Bartender of the Year Competition, it turns out he was a competitor a few years ago. After I am seated at a table in the dining room, Chef Tommi and Chef Teemu come out to graciously welcome me; I follow them into to the kitchen and photograph some of the specialties as they plate them.
A parade of exceptional well flavored courses are sent to my table, paired with the chef’s choice of wines. My “last supper” and evening in Helsinki, both mellow and fun, leaves me wishing I could linger a few more days. (photos)
The Finns consider breakfast an important meal, and the daily breakfast buffet at the Klaus K Hotel (included in my room rate) is sumptuous and scrumptious, prepared with fresh-from- the-farm organic ingredients, and beautifully presented. Several tables are laden with sliced meats, salads, an assortment of Finnish cheeses, home made crusty breads, hand made butter, oven baked barley porridge, blueberry soup, organic muesli, yogurt and honey, fresh fruits and deserts. Some of my favorites: smoked white fish, sauna smoked ham, cold smoked reindeer, potato salad with herring, and the cold herb omelet. (Photos) Marc, Mia and their two young children join me for my last breakfast; they have arranged for a car to drive me to the airport, and when it is time to say our goodbyes, I am sorry to leave a city I have barely tasted, one that that has so much history, culture and talent to share. Check in at Finnair is effortless, I board shortly after I reach the gate, the moment I settle into my seat, it is clear flying all the way.
Interesting Facts about Finland:
* Almost 70% is covered by productive forest, making it the most heavily
forested country in Europe
* Has relatively little agricultural land
* Has the greatest abundance of lakes of any country in the world
* And with 100,000 islands in their lakes system, the largest
number of islands in the world outside of Canada
* The country has more than2 million saunas, enough to allow the entire
population to bathe at the same time
* Almost 2.5 million people in Finland are unmarried
For more info on: Travel to Finland and a calendar of events and festivals: www.visitfinland.com\ or email: [email protected] For Finnair Reservations: www.finnair.com Design Forum: www.designforum.fi