Helsinki: Frozen Beauty

From cryother­apy to cool de­sign bou­tiques, spend time chill­ing out in the Fin­nish cap­i­tal

Business Traveler (USA) - - CONTENT - By Tamsin Cocks

There’s a crazy Scan­di­na­vian tra­di­tion known as ice swim­ming, which in­volves peo­ple sub­merg­ing them­selves in frozen lakes. Un­ap­peal­ing as it sounds, ad­vo­cates claim it has wide-rang­ing health ben­e­fits, from im­prov­ing cir­cu­la­tion to boost­ing en­ergy, and the cus­tom is en­joy­ing some­thing of a re­nais­sance in Fin­land. Luck­ily for me, my guides had ar­ranged an ex­pe­ri­ence of this cul­tural ini­ti­a­tion dur­ing a trip to Helsinki. And so, on a bit­ter, driz­zly af­ter­noon in April, I stood shiv­er­ing in a swim­suit by the par­tially frozen Baltic Sea. The first ten­ta­tive steps felt de­cep­tively warm – my limbs too numb from the sting­ing rain to reg­is­ter the tem­per­a­ture. But as the icy wa­ter cov­ered my chest, the shock of cold left me gasp­ing for breath. I flailed about for a few un­gainly sec­onds be­fore scram­bling back up the lad­der as fast as my stu­pe­fied limbs would carry me.

Ad­mit­tedly, as I ex­ited the wa­ter a surge of adren­a­line fol­lowed, leav­ing me feel­ing in­vig­o­rated and seem­ingly im­mune to the out­side air. Nev­er­the­less, the sec­ond half of the rit­ual is in­fin­itely more ap­peal­ing: a dash into the warm em­brace of a tra­di­tional Fin­nish sauna. Icy droplets evap­o­rated from our skin trans­form­ing the hot, dry air into a hu­mid, steamy en­vi­ron­ment as we lan­guished grate­fully in the heat.

Af­ter the ini­tial gush of warmth, how­ever,“re­lax­ing”in 176-de­gree F heat quickly be­comes some­thing of an en­durance test for the unini­ti­ated. Af­ter a ten-minute ef­fort, I grate­fully emerged to the rel­a­tively cool an­techam­ber for a chilled cider and a chat.

Sauna is a huge part of daily life for Finns; a typ­i­cal ses­sion lasts up to two hours, dip­ping in and out of the heat, and while nu­dity is nor­mal in same-sex en­vi­ron­ments, Finns won’t be of­fended if you choose to re­main cov­ered.

Our guides had cho­sen a unique lo­ca­tion for our ice swim­ming and sauna de­but: Uu­nisaari Is­land, ac­ces­si­ble via a short ferry ride in sum­mer or bridge in the win­ter. Along with a restau­rant, there are two saunas, a beach­front and jetty with a per­ma­nent ice hole through­out win­ter, plus a fab­u­lous 8-10 per­son out­door Jacuzzi with pic­turesque views of Helsinki’s coast­line (prices start from $330 for 10 peo­ple for two hours; uu­nisaari.com).

An al­ter­na­tive venue for in­di­vid­u­als or smaller groups is the newly opened Löyly pub­lic sauna, a strik­ing mod­ern struc­ture

oc­cu­py­ing a beau­ti­ful spot on Helsinki’s wa­ter­front com­pris­ing two mixed saunas, a large deck ter­race and restau­rant. A two-hour book­ing costs $21 per per­son (loy­ly­helsinki.fi).

Mean­while, a dif­fer­ent kind of deep-freeze – cryother­apy treat­ment – is of­fered at Haikko Manor & Spa. The“Su­per Cold Treat­ment”sees open-minded health and beauty seek­ers sub­ject them­selves to a three-minute blast of su­per-frozen air (around -185 de­grees F) in­side a large sil­ver cham­ber. Any longer and you’d be fac­ing hy­pother­mia and death, but in short blasts the ex­treme cold is used to tar­get aches and pains, im­prove sleep and re­store en­ergy. The spa also of­fers saunas and well­ness pools, in­clud­ing a bub­ble bench, an­i­mated rain show­ers and a cold well. (A day pass to the sauna and gym costs $33 per adult,“Su­per Cold Treat­ment”$42 per per­son; haikko.fi/en/haikko-spa).

Haikko Manor it­self is a beau­ti­ful, cen­turies-old lake­side chalet with an Im­pe­rial Rus­sian her­itage, set about 40 min­utes from the city cen­ter. Large rooms in the main building are quaintly old-fash­ioned, with four-poster beds and hand-cro­cheted wall hang­ings dat­ing to the 19th cen­tury. Each one comes with a bal­cony, pro­vid­ing breath­tak­ing views over the lake and alpine forests, where hik­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties abound and water­sports take place in the warmer sum­mer months (overnight rates for a Clas­sic Dou­ble Manor room start from $218; haikko.fi/en).

The Manor is lo­cated just out­side Por­voo, the won­der­fully pre­served“me­dieval Helsinki,”first es­tab­lished in 1380. The an­cient town is pop­u­lated by mul­ti­col­ored wooden struc­tures that line the banks of the Por­voon­joki River in pic­ture-per­fect splen­dor.

Wan­der­ing around the cob­bled streets is a bit like step­ping into the set of a Fin­nish pe­riod drama, but most of the build­ings have been con­verted into mod­ern bou­tiques, restau­rants and cafés, which make for a lovely day ex­plor­ing. From the in­de­pen­dent choco­latiers to the old-school chil­dren’s toy store, the un­usual shops draw plenty of lo­cal Helsinki-ites for day trips. As the sec­ond-old­est town in Fin­land, Por­voo also holds many se­crets about Fin­land’s his­tor­i­cal back­ground un­der both Swedish and Rus­sian rule – the coun­try only gained in­de­pen­dence in 1917, so ex­pect big cel­e­bra­tions for the cen­te­nary next year.

Back in the main city, Helsinki proves to be quite small by world cap­i­tal stan­dards, though el­e­gant and beau­ti­ful. En­joy an over­view of the main sites by hop­ping aboard the 90-minute Panorama sight­see­ing bus, which de­parts from Es­planade Park at 11:00 AM and 1:00 PM ($34 per ticket). The au­dio-guided tour weaves through the city’s main at­trac­tions, start­ing at the re­splen­dent Se­nate Square, the old­est part of the city, fea­tur­ing iconic Helsinki Cathe­dral, a statue of Alexan­der II and the neo­clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­ture of the Govern­ment Palace and Univer­sity of Helsinki.

From there, the tour skirts some of the cap­i­tal’s fa­mous coast­line; high­lights in­clude the South Har­bour, which of­fers daily cruises to Swe­den’s Stock­holm and Tallin in Es­to­nia, as well as the in­hab­ited sea fortress of Suomen­linna – one of the most pop­u­lar tourist ex­cur­sions for those in­ter­ested in Helsinki’s his­tory.

Cap­i­tal of De­sign

How­ever, ar­guably the city’s best sell­ing point is its in­her­ent, un­der­stated cool­ness. Just like the Finns, who are a laid-back, prac­ti­cal peo­ple, the city’s unique fla­vor emerges through its cul­tural man­i­fes­ta­tions. Un­sur­pris­ingly, Helsinki was named De­sign Cap­i­tal of the World in 2012, and a dis­tinc­tively Fin­nish de­sign aes­thetic con­tin­ues to per­me­ate all as­pects of so­ci­ety.

Quirky ar­chi­tec­tural ex­am­ples in­clude the Kampii Chapel, or Chapel of Si­lence, built on busy Narinkka Square to give peo­ple a mo­ment of calm. The strik­ing hull-shaped struc­ture – made

of light wood – is a Lutheran chapel, but ev­ery­one is wel­come to seek respite in the tran­quil sanc­tu­ary. Even more un­usual is the T em pp eli auk io “Rock” Church, hewn from solid stone. The com­bi­na­tion of ex­posed rocky walls and a gi­ant cir­cu­lar cop­per dome ceil­ing with sky­lights is beau­ti­ful and bizarre.

The strong de­sign men­tal­ity has also fos­tered fan­tas­tic shop­ping op­por­tu­ni­ties. From lux­ury goods at the iconic Stock­mann depart­ment store (the “Har­rods of Helsinki”) to fash­ion bou­tiques and beau­ti­ful house­wares stores, there’s plenty to keep even the most jaded shop­pers en­thralled. Iit­tala beck­ons to those look­ing for time­less crock­ery with an un­mis­tak­able Fin­nish aes­thetic. A “quick look in­side” in­evitably turned into a half-hour shop­ping ses­sion; I fell in love with the “Tans si” mys­tic al for­est-themed din­ner set de­sign by artist Klaus Haa­paniemi – I wasn’t the only one who left the store clutch­ing parcels (iit­tala.com).

While fur­ni­ture might not be top of your va­ca­tion sou­venirs list, it’s still worth wan­der­ing around Artek to be in­spired by the sim­ple, prac­ti­cal de­signs, mod­ern sil­hou­ettes and quirky soft fur­nish­ings (artek.fi). Fash­ion lovers must also visit the cen­tral Marimekko bou­tique, whose bold pat­terns and bright color pal­ette have made it Fin­land’s most in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned fash­ion brand.

Aside from the big play­ers, the De­sign District is dot­ted with around 200 in­de­pen­dent out­lets, rang­ing from jew­elry bou­tiques to art gal­leries and mu­se­ums. Some com­bine mul­ti­ple el­e­ments; Lokal is a self-de­fined “con­cept store, home to in­de­pen­dent Fin­nish art, de­sign and crafts, ”with ro­tat­ing ex­hi­bi­tions and a café at the back (lokalhelsinki.com).

Fin­nish Wel­come

If your taste runs more to gas­tro­nomic ad­ven­ture, try the Nordicin­spired fla­vors of the Miche­lin-starred Olo restau­rant. The airy court­yard venue in the cen­ter of town has an un­usual in­side-out feel, with a soar­ing glass roof and in­door bal­conies. It at­tracts a cool crowd and has an un­pre­ten­tious am­bi­ence. Sea­sonal tast­ing menus show off the nat­u­ral, clean fla­vors of Fin­land’s land­scape. Ex­pect fresh, sim­ple dishes such as radish and dill salad, pike perch with sour cu­cum­ber and arc­tic char with new pota­toes. The pair­ing menu starts from $345 per per­son (olo-rav­in­tola.fi/ en).

Then there’s Savotta, a charm­ingly nos­tal­gic Fin­nish restau­rant housed in a 250-year-old building. Down­stairs, the rus­tic in­te­rior evokes an old log­ging cabin (savotta), com­plete with cos­tumed staff and tra­di­tional folk mu­sic piped through the low, wooden ceil­ings. The menu is a smor­gas­bord of un­usual Scan­di­na­vian fla­vors, from bear salami and rein­deer tongue to Baltic her­ring and blue­berry pie. Dur­ing the sum­mer months, try to bag one of the al­fresco ta­bles of­fer­ing gor­geous views di­rectly onto Se­nate Square. Set menus with wine start from around $77 per per­son (rav­in­to­lasavotta.fi/ en).

There are plenty of great hos­pi­tal­ity of­fer­ings, in­clud­ing Ho­tel Lilla Roberts, a de­light­ful new place that opened in Au­gust 2015 on a quiet side street just a stone’s throw from the city cen­ter. The stylish new prop­erty from Kämp Col­lec­tion Ho­tels is cen­tered on the idea of “hygge”– a Nordic ex­pres­sion that re­fers to a warm, friendly at­mos­phere. The 130-room prop­erty, a for­mer po­lice bar­racks, com­bines a whim­si­cal mod­ern style with his­tor­i­cal charm. The lobby boasts a roar­ing log fire and eclec­tic fur­ni­ture, and rooms are lav­ishly dec­o­rated with stylish soft fur­nish­ings and art deco bath­rooms. Next door, the ho­tel’s Krog Roba restau­rant con­tin­ues the unique style with lux­u­ri­ous fab­rics and dra­matic light­ing. (Rates for the Lux cat­e­gory start from $250 per night; lil­laroberts.com).

For a more “Scandi-cool”feel, Ho­tel Indigo Helsinki Boule­vard – part of IHG’s up­scale bou­tique brand – is an­other cen­tral op­tion. The ho­tel chan­nels the city’s clean, min­i­mal­ist style, with 120 in­di­vid­u­al­ized gue­strooms fea­tur­ing muted tones, graphic sten­cils and er­gonomic fur­ni­ture. Its Body Mind and Soul stu­dio of­fers com­pli­men­tary 24-hour ac­cess to ho­tel guests, with a fit­ness cen­ter and male/fe­male saunas. It’s also an LEED-cer­ti­fied ho­tel, with fea­tures like elec­tric car-charg­ing points. (Su­pe­rior room rates start from $199; helsinki-boule­vard.hotelindigo.com/ en). BT

Above and right: Helsinki Cathe­dral and wa­ter­front; and the du­bi­ous plea­sures of ice swim­ming

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