I had to say it: “Mush!!”
When you’re driving a sled pulled by a team of Siberian Huskies across the frozen landscape of Finland, you’ve just got to let it go.
My sense of exhilaration was as pure as the snow in the Arctic Circle – the dogs happily yelped as they lurched forward and pulled our two-person sled down a tree-lined trail. I leaned into turns, applied the foot brake when needed, and smiled the entire way.
The trek was the highlight of my many Nordic adventures during a recent trip to Finland. Texans can discover this fascinating and contemporary country thanks to a new nonstop Finnair flight from DFW to Helsinki.
Since my return, I’ve been uttering terms I’ve never used before: cloudberries, sea-to-sauna, glass-igloo hotel, and lunkero (an amazing gin-based cocktail). I’ve also been reflecting on Finland and Austin’s shared cultural connections, like entrepreneurial spirit, adventure experiences, and sustainable cuisine.
Howdy Helsinki, Finland
As soon as I arrived in Helsinki, I locked into the buzz of creative energy that pulsates throughout this cosmopolitan city. Design – from classic and contemporary architecture to public transportation and civic systems – is essential to the sense of place here,
I hopped the Metro rail to Loyly sauna. The stunning building, with its a faceted exterior of weathered pine, immediately caught my eye. I was glad I’d brought my bathing suit (some Finnish saunas are clothing optional) when I walked across the deck to the Baltic Sea for a pre-sauna dip. The water was 35 degrees!
The Finns have a wonderful word, sisu, to describe the inner strength and fortitude required to tackle a challenging task. I mustered my sisu and descended all the way into the chilly water. It took my breath away. After treading water for about 15 seconds, I briskly walked to the awaiting sauna. My legs felt like blocks of ice, but the sauna’s wooden walls embraced me in their warmth, providing an unparalleled feeling of relaxation. After a couple more Baltic dips and sauna trips, I stepped into the attached restaurant for a satisfying local lager and freshly-caught seared trout.
Just down the shoreline, I rekindled my sisu for another Baltic Sea adventure. For the Redrib Survival Suit Experience, I squeezed into an orange rubber drysuit designed for emergencies in Arctic waters and repurposed here as a recreational activity. The highlight was jumping through a thin layer of ice, a counterintuitive yet immensely satisfying activity. I laid back inside my warm floatation device and happily soaked up the sun while defying nature in the frigid water.
Terrestrial Attractions in Finland
Testing your inner fortitude isn’t the only thing to do in Helsinki. The architecture is mesmerizing, with plenty of Finnish flourishes and European design influences.
The most notable modern masterpiece is the Oodi Central Library. Its undulating roofline leads to a massive cantilevered overhang that draws visitors to its main entrance. Beyond books, patrons have free access to unimaginable services, including instrument rental, recording and video studios, graphic design rooms, and T-shirt printing machines. Austin musicians would love it.
Oodi stands on a prominent public square directly across from Helsinki’s Parliament House, and is deliberately positioned at the same level to emphasize Finnish equality. Incidentally, Parliament’s halls are graced by Finland’s Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, and a coalition of four party leaders – all women in their mid-30s.
A few blocks away, I encountered another architectural gem—the Amos Rex art museum. Housed in a 1936 building with round skylights connecting an outdoor plaza to the subterranean exhibit space, Amos Rex features provocative art from ancient cultures to post-impressionism.
As I strolled through downtown Helsinki toward Senate Square, I noticed the streets were immaculate, with no neglected buildings, wind-blown trash, or graffiti. I was almost missing Austin’s scruffy charm until I heard a street performer wailing “Careless Whisper” on his saxophone. It reverberated off the neoclassical walls of the square’s stunning 1830 Helsinki Cathedral and Government Palace, while pigeons perched on an 1894 bronze statue of Emperor Alexander II.
Afterward, I hopped on a ferry for a quick 15-minute ride to the island of Suomenlinna, home to a vast 18th-century sea fortress now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Representing three historic eras of military defense (Sweden, Russia, and Finland), the compound features nearly four miles of stone walls, several museums, and one of my favorite restaurants in Finland. Adlerfelt, located in a cozy 250-year-old home, offers seasonal cheeses, pickled herring, roasted lamb, and, most memorable of all, a warm cocktail of fresh blueberry schnapps and gin.
Another architectural marvel is the 1969 Temppeliaukio church, encased in solid bedrock with a nine-ton copper coil roof and magnificent acoustics. Nearby, the 2012 Kamppi Chapel looks like an enormous wooden bowl from the outside; inside, its minimal design aesthetic provides a true sense of serenity and comfort.
Consider hopping on a Finnair flight to Kittila (about $175 roundtrip) to experience Lapland. The Northern Lights alone are worth the effort, and frolicking with Huskies and reindeer make lifelong memories.
I home-based in Levi, a comfortable ski resort town that reminded me of Colorado (more Winter Park than Vail). Consider springing a little extra to stay at Levin Iglut, featuring glass igloos with bathrooms and kitchenettes. A bonus: I could see the magically nebulous green Northern Lights from my warm bed. The onsite restaurant offers exquisite local cuisine, including freshly harvested mushrooms and herring.
To truly experience the Northern Lights, book an evening with Arctic Frontier. Over the course of a few hours, I learned the basics of night photography, use a camera to capture amazing shots of the lights from a frozen lake, then warmed up afterward in a hota (hut), while enjoying traditional Finnish pastries and foraged berries. The cloudberries were as delightful as their name.
Rounding out my memorable Lapland experiences were visits to HaliPuu Forest for Arctic cocooning (a warm hammock in the pine trees) and a campfire barista’s delectable chai coffee, and the Samiland Exhibition dedicated to the Indigenous population’s cultural traditions. Also worth noting: Levi Resort offers picturesque and low-impact skiing, followed by an insane table-dancing party known as vinkkari.
My journey back to Austin wasn’t as exciting as the venture there. As I reclined in my airplane pod, I drifted off to sleep with happy memories of saunas, cloudberries, and Huskies racing through my head.
If You Go
Helsinki’s historic Hotel St. George is upscale without feeling stuffy, and its contemporary artwork, afternoon tea, and luxurious bedding provide comfort and tranquility.
Take a dip in the Baltic Sea, soak up a sauna, take an architectural tour, drive a dog sled, experience Arctic cocooning, and see the Northern Lights.
Eat & Drink:
Helsinki’s Adlerfelt, located in a cozy 250-year-old home, offers seasonal cheeses, pickled herring, and a warm cocktail of fresh blueberry schnapps and gin.
Finnair’s business class features intuitively designed pods for fully reclined sleeping to make the 10-hour flight virtually stress-free.