TRAVEL MADE AU­THEN­TIC

MER­CURE HO­TELS TAKE GUESTS OFF THE BEATEN TRACK AND LET THEM DIS­COVER A NEW CITY IN A TO­TALLY AU­THEN­TIC WAY. EV­ERY­THING FROM DE­SIGN TO FOOD IS CARE­FULLY CRAFTED TO SHOW­CASE THE LO­CAL FLAVOUR AND HELP TRAV­ELLERS EX­PE­RI­ENCE WHAT MAKES A PLACE UNIQUE.

DestinAsian - - DISPATCHES -

Stay­ing true to that prom­ise, Mer­cure ho­tels in Bangkok make each neigh­bour­hood’s his­tory and hid­den sto­ries accessible, cre­at­ing a mem­o­rable stay in Thai­land’s mag­i­cal cap­i­tal. With ex­cel­lent ac­cess to trans­porta­tion and within walk­ing dis­tance to the city’s best shop­ping, Mer­cure Bangkok

Siam’s cen­tral lo­ca­tion is per­fect for on-the-move guests. And it has an­other ad­van­tage for the ac­tive set: the nearby Lumpini Park. As the sun rises, the place is buzzing as old friends prac­tice tai chi, play board games, and chat over break­fast. Of­fice work­ers start their day with a jog around the lake or an aer­o­bics class set to boom­ing dance hits. From yoga to bas­ket­ball to weight lift­ing, the park re­ally has some­thing for ev­ery­one. Newly ren­o­vated, Mer­cure Bangkok Sukhumvit 11 fea­tures spa­cious and con­tem­po­rary rooms, cre­ative din­ing op­tions, and a breath­tak­ing rooftop swim­ming pool. It’s a taste of mod­ern Bangkok liv­ing, but also of­fers guests a glimpse of the past a few min­utes away at the Jim Thomp­son House. An in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tive, ar­chi­tect and art col­lec­tor, Jim Thomp­son re­vi­talised the Thai silk in­dus­try be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing mys­te­ri­ously while on a hike in Malaysia. To­day, his charm­ing wooden Thai-style home is a slice of Bangkok life in the 1960s that also show­cases the crafts­man­ship of lo­cal silk weavers.

Last Oc­to­ber,

ahead of this year’s cen­te­nary of Fin­nish in­de­pen­dence, Fin­nair made Sin­ga­pore its 13th Asian des­ti­na­tion with daily ser­vices to and from Helsinki. As on its Hong Kong and Bangkok routes, the air­line uses new-gen­er­a­tion Air­bus A350s, with roomy seats, the lat­est on­board tech­nol­ogy, Marimekko-de­signed toi­letry kits, and North­ern Lights–in­spired mood light­ing. And with a flight time of about 11 hours and 30 min­utes, it’s also billed as the fastest way to get be­tween Sin­ga­pore and Europe, pair­ing well with ef­fi­cient lay­overs in Helsinki for con­nec­tions to ma­jor hubs like Lon­don, Paris, and Am­s­ter­dam. Trav­el­ers look­ing to ex­tend their next Euro­pean va­ca­tion have an even more per­sua­sive in­cen­tive in the form of Fin­nair’s free stopover pro­gram, which gives pas­sen­gers fly­ing via Helsinki the op­tion of spend­ing up to five days in Fin­land at no ex­tra cost. And there’s a lot to see. Read on for just one way to make the most of a four-night so­journ.

Your first stop af­ter dis­em­bark­ing the air­port train at Helsinki Cen­tral Rail­way Sta­tion? Klaus

K ( 358-20/770-4700; klaushotel.com; dou­bles from

US$270), a buzzy ho­tel with in­te­ri­ors in­spired by the Kal­e­vala, Fin­land’s na­tional epic. Sit­u­ated on the edge of the De­sign District and a short walk from his­toric Es­planadi Park, it’s an ideal base for a cou­ple nights’ stay.

A rel­a­tively young cap­i­tal by Euro­pean stan­dards, Helsinki packs a lot of build­ing styles— neo­clas­si­cal, art nou­veau, Nordic clas­si­cism, func­tion­al­ist, post­mod­ern—into its com­pact and em­i­nently walk­a­ble down­town area, mak­ing an ar­chi­tec­tural tour the first or­der of the day. Within a six-block ra­dius of the ho­tel alone, look for the Al­var Aalto–de­signed Aca­demic Bookstore, the green-domed Helsinki Cathe­dral, and the Chapel of Si­lence, a cur­va­ceous tim­ber refuge in Narinkka Square built as part of the city’s 2012 World De­sign Cap­i­tal pro­gram.

Down by the har­bor, poke around the tented kiosks at Mar­ket Square (rein­deer pelts, Sami hand­i­crafts, and cloud­berry pre­serves are among the of­fer­ings) be­fore duck­ing into the Old Mar

ket Hall ( van­hakaup­pa­halli.fi) for lunch. Filled with bak­ers, wine mer­chants, cheese shops, and deli out­lets, the 19th-cen­tury brick build­ing is also home to Story ( 358-10/666-8458; res­tau­rant

story.fi), an airy Nordic café serv­ing tooth­some clas­sics like creamy lo­hikeitto (salmon soup).

Next, do what the Finns do and head to a sauna. Try Löyly ( 358-9/6128-6550; loy­ly­helsinki

.fi), an an­gu­lar sea­side struc­ture clad in wooden slats that opened last year in the for­mer in­dus­trial area of Her­ne­saari. Fa­cil­i­ties here in­clude a tra­di­tional smoke sauna and an over­wa­ter deck from which you can slip into the chilly Baltic Sea.

Hop on a tram back into town for a drink at the Solo Sokos Ho­tel Torni’s rooftop Atel­jee Bar ( 358-20/123-4604; sokosho­tels.fi). Ac­cessed via a spi­ral stair­case, it serves up strong mo­ji­tos and an all-en­com­pass­ing view over Helsinki.

On day two, start the morn­ing with the lo­cal-lean­ing break­fast buffet at Klaus K (think smoked trout and ven­dace, mush­room-and-ap­ple salad, sour­dough flat­bread, bar­ley por­ridge) be­fore re­turn­ing to the har­bor for an is­land­hop­ping tour with wa­ter-bus op­er­a­tor JT-Line ( jt-line.fi). There are more than 300 is­lands in the Helsinki Ar­chi­pel­ago, some of which have only re­cently been open to the pub­lic, like Val­lisaari, a for­mer mu­ni­tions depot turned park with walk­ing trails that take you past mead­ows, forests, and long-aban­doned bunkers and ar­tillery bat­ter­ies. Across a nar­row chan­nel is Suomen­linna ( suomen­linna.fi), an 18th-cen­tury is­land fortress and UNESCO World Her­itage site. At­trac­tions in­clude huge granite ram­parts, can­non em­place-

ments, one of the old­est op­er­a­tional dry docks in Europe, and the stu­dios of res­i­dent ar­ti­sans.

When the tourist throngs be­come too much, hop over for lunch to the much smaller Lonna ( lonna.fi), an­other for­mer mil­i­tary sta­tion—it was used to de­mag­ne­tize ships as a pro­tec­tion against mines dur­ing and af­ter World War II— that re­opened in 2014 as a recre­ational is­land. Now, there’s a de­signer-built sauna and a res­tau­rant where you can dine on up­dated is­land cui­sine (sea buck­thorn with browned but­ter, Arc­tic char with yo­gurt) within eye­shot of the old de­mag­ne­tiz­ing ma­chin­ery.

Spend the rest of the af­ter­noon ex­plor­ing the De­sign District ( de­signdis­trict.fi), a neigh­bor­hood as­so­ci­a­tion of gal­leries, shops, and cul­tural venues. One stand­out is the De­sign Mu­seum ( de­sign­mu­seum.fi), where you can ad­mire ev­ery­thing from Elsa Arokallio chairs and Kaj Franck table­ware to Fiskars scis­sors and thou­sands of other Fin­nish de­sign ob­jects. Just a block away, SPIS ( 358-45/305-1211; spis .fi) is a tiny new-Nordic res­tau­rant whose 18 seats be­lie an over­size culi­nary am­bi­tion. Im­pec­ca­bly paired with re­gional wines, the six-course sea­sonal tast­ing menu could in­clude scal­lop on parsnip puree with laven­der foam, wild pars­ley root with buck­wheat sprouts and herbed mayo, and lamb shank ragout, each dish per­son­ally pre­sented by one of the three chefs.

TURKU

A two-hour train ride west of Helsinki at the mouth of the Aura River, Turku (or Åbo in Swedish) is the old­est city in Fin­land, founded in the 13th cen­tury as the cap­i­tal of what was then a prov­ince of Swe­den. Hav­ing burned down mul­ti­ple times over the cen­turies— most spec­tac­u­larly in 1827—and suf­fered from thought­less re­de­vel­op­ment in the 1960s through ’80s, there isn’t much to at­tract the her­itage buff. But there is Turku Cathe­dral, a hand­some Ro­manesque-Gothic mon­u­ment first con­se­crated in 1300, and Turku Cas­tle ( tu­run­linna.fi), one of the largest sur­viv­ing me­dieval fortresses in Scan­di­navia. And for a glimpse of how lower-class Turku-ites lived back in the day when their city was built pri­mar­ily of wood, visit the Lu­ostar­in­mäki Hand­i­crafts Mu­seum ( turku.fi/ka­sity­olais­museo), an en­tire neigh­bor­hood of 18th- and 19th-cen­tury tim­ber houses done up with pe­riod furnishings.

Strolling along Turku’s tree-lined river­front, you’ll fi nd the city’s best ho­tel, the Radis­son Blu Ma­rina Palace ( 358-20/1234-4710; radis­son­blu

.com; dou­bles from US$198), and any num­ber of cheery side­walk cafés. Def­i­nitely worth a visit is Aboa Ve­tus & Ars Nova ( aboave­tusarsnova.fi), which oc­cu­pies a baroque man­sion and mod­ern ex­ten­sion on the left bank of the Aura. True to its name, which means “Old Turku and New Art,” the mu­seum com­bines a sub­ter­ranean arche­o­log­i­cal site of me­dieval streets and ar­ti­facts un­earthed dur­ing the con­struc­tion of the ex­ten­sion in the 1990s, with an ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of 20th-cen­tury art, in­clud­ing works by Pi­casso, Warhol, David Hock­ney, and Fin­nish sur­re­al­ist Niko­lai Le­hto. Next Stop? Din­ner at Res­tau­rant

Smör (358-2/536-9444; smor.fi), where sea­sonal Nordic dishes—cheese-and-as­para­gus tartlets, smoked rain­bow trout in but­ter­milk sauce—are served in a vaulted stone cel­lar.

NAUVO AND THE AR­CHI­PEL­AGO SEA

Small and quiet it may be, but Turku is a ver­i­ta­ble metropo­lis com­pared to Nauvo, the gate­way to the thou­sands of is­lands and sker­ries in south­west­ern Fin­land’s Ar­chi­pel­ago Sea. An 80-minute bus ride (in­clud­ing a brief ferry cross­ing) de­posits you at Nauvo’s vil­lage cen­ter, just steps away from a new four-bed­room B&B called Köp­mans ( 358-40/643-4430; kop­mans.fi; dou­bles from US$142). For­mer light­ing de­signer at Helsinki’s Fin­nish Na­tional Theatre Henri Talvi­tie and his wife Ri­itta make for charm­ing hosts and can set you up with guides to ex­plore the sur­round­ing area. Op­tions in­clude an hour’s walk along a re­cently des­ig­nated trail through wet­lands and for­est to the top of a granite rise crowned by a Bronze Age burial mound, to a bik­ing tour of nearby Seili Is­land ( na­tion­al­parks

.fi/en/seili), a one­time leper colony and in­sane asy­lum turned her­itage site and pro­tected habi­tat for os­preys, seals, and other wildlife.

Back in Nauvo, the res­tau­rant at Köp­mans serves a mean pike burger on rye-and-malt bread, but a bet­ter bet for din­ner is Res­tau­rant

L’Es­cale ( lescale.fi). Set in a for­mer boathouse on the vil­lage’s yacht-filled har­bor, it’s a hub of the is­land’s so­cial scene come sum­mer, with an im­pres­sive wine list and hearty ar­chi­pel­ago cui­sine pre­pared with a French twist; try the smokedap­ple-glazed pork belly with lin­gonberry coleslaw. For a taste of laid-back is­land life, Fin­nish­style, it can’t be beat.

Lumpini Park

Jim Thomp­son House

Be­low, from left: The pul­pit of the wooden church on Seili Is­land; wait­ing for the wa­ter­bus on Val­lisaari, one of many is­lands off Helsinki.

Op­po­site: Over­look­ing the year-old Al­las Sea Pool in Helsinki’s South Har­bor.

Get­ting There

From its Helsinki hub, Fin­nair ( fin­nair.com) flies to 15 cities in Asia, in­clud­ing Sin­ga­pore, Bangkok, and Hong Kong. For in­for­ma­tion about stopover pack­ages, visit fin­land­tours.fi.

An av­enue of old lin­den trees on Val­lisaari. Left: A room at Köp­mans B&B in Nauvo.

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