By J.P. Anderson | December 31, 2018 | Lifestyle
The buzziest European destination for ’19? Think Helsinki, where cutting-edge food and design scenes and breathtaking natural getaways beckon adventurous travelers north.
The sylvan surroundings of Teijo National Park. (Photo courtesy of Visit Finland)
Norway’s fjords and Iceland’s epic landscapes are well-documented sources of Instagram obsession, but savvy travelers are discovering another gem farther to the east: Helsinki, the windswept, effortlessly cool waterside capital of Finland. The nation was named the happiest country in the world by a United Nations report in March 2018, and after a week spent in its environs over the summer, I believe it. The region offers a dream combo of natural beauty, a wealth of history and one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the continent. Here, three ways to experience Southern Finland to the fullest.
Independent since only 1917, Finland is young even by American standards, and its history of Swedish and Russian rule makes for a fascinating Helsinki skyline, a mix of old-world influences combined with a forward-thinking, decidedly Nordic eye for contemporary design. That old-versus-new dynamic is bracingly evident at the stylish new Hotel St. George (suite rates from $500 per night).
A former printing house, the 100,000-plus-square-foot property has been stunningly converted into a 153-room destination boasting gorgeous accommodations, a wellness program by Finnish life-balance guru Aki Hintsa, and serious food and drink options, including Turkish celebrity chef Mehmet Gürs’ Restaurant Andrea and a bustling lobby-level mixology spot whose cocktail program has already been deemed the nation’s best. Browse the in-house Monocle store (the first in a Nordic country), then stroll to the bustling central shopping district just blocks away.
Helsinki’s famously uberchic design scene is on full display between the lush Esplanadi Park (considered the Champs Elysées of Finland) and Aleksanterinkatu Street, including cheerful textiles at Marimekko, undulating Alvar Aalto vases at Iittala, ancient world-inspired jewelry by Kalevala, the latest in Nordic furniture at Artek and luxury footwear from emerging fashion queen Minna Parikka, whose playful bunny ear shoes have been seen on fashionistas the world over.
Foodies have plenty to get excited about here too, as the capital’s culinary scene offers an invigorating mix of classic and contemporary fare. There’s no skipping the genteel Savoy, which draws the city’s elite for multicourse fine dining—exquisite reindeer tartare, subtle perch with mint and sage and delicate spruce shoot ice cream with spice cake—served in a dining room overlooking the gabled rooftops of the city.
Wintergarden at the new Hotel St. George has already been named the nation’s top cocktail destination. (Photo courtesy of Hotel St. George)
BACK TO NATURE
Helsinki is undeniably the nation’s pulsing epicenter, but to truly understand the Finnish sensibility, you have to get out of the city and into nature, where nearly 190,000 lakes and 60 million acres of forest (more per capita than in any other European country) beckon and to which Finns flock at every opportunity. That’s why I find myself in Teijo National Park, a trendy escape in the nation’s stunning archipelago region, a 90-minute drive west of the city through gently rolling hills and fields of strawberries and rye.
I’m carefully making my way along a boardwalk not much wider than a balance beam, strolling through the Teijo woods and trying to keep up with our guide, Krista Rantanen, an energetic Ph.D. cancer researcher and scientific consultant who has volunteered at the park for more than 20 years. To our left stretches Lake Hamari; sunlight filters through the canopy of birch and pine trees high above. It’s placid and postcard-gorgeous, and gives insight into the national passion for nature. “Finnish people enjoy silence and space around them,” explains Rantanen. “We feel nature to be relaxing and calming, healing even. These feelings go back to Finnish history, the mythology of the Nordics. During years of war, the forests offered protection and food, and in a way, they still do.”
Nearby, the village of Mathildedal, a former 19th-century ironworks, buzzes anew, as charming accommodations at rustic-chic, family-owned Hotel Mathildedal (luxe package $280 per night), waterside dining and people-watching at Ruukin Krouvi, artisanal sweets at Petris Chocolate, and a convivial nightlife scene at pub and music venue Terho have made this a must-visit destination in southwest Finland.
PAST MEETS FUTURE
Thirty miles east of Helsinki, inviting riverside town Porvoo offers a glimpse of historic village life. Nearly 800 years old, it’s the second-oldest settlement in Finland, and with its cobblestone streets, inviting shops, 15th-century cathedral and striking red-painted riverside warehouses, the lovingly preserved Old Town makes for an idyllic afternoon stroll. That focus on history is matched by an ambitiously forward-thinking perspective: Porvoo’s in-progress Skaftkärr development is set to be one of the nation’s most energy-efficient neighborhoods.
Nearby, stay in posh comfort at the historic Haikko Manor & Spa (deluxe suite rates from $400 per night), set on 35 acres that cascade down to the sea. The Manor’s classic furnishings and formal restaurant are complemented by a state-of-the- art spa offering of-the-moment services (think superfood facials and ultrasound body treatments), plus steam, smoke and infrared saunas and four by-request private seaside saunas—a perfectly Finnish way to end a Helsinki adventure in style.
With full-recline seating, cool design accents (Marimekko slippers, so chic) and superb service that includes white-tablecloth dining with custom tableware, business class service from award-winning Finnair (from $5,500) is the ultimate way to get into a Nordic frame of mind.
WHEN TO GO
Spring and summer bring mild temperatures and abundant daylight, culminating in Midsummerfest (June 22, 2019), a boisterous national celebration of the longest day of the year on which Finns light bonfires and retreat to family cottages along the country’s nearly 190,000 lakes.