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As an Arctic buffer between Russia and Scandinavia, Finland is a four-season wonderland where its expanse of forests and lakes are punctuated by towns that are genuinely pleased to welcome visitors — anytime of year. Traveling by train from Helsinki, it’s only an overnight trip to St. Petersburg. In the other direction, ferries depart the Finnish capital in late afternoon to reach Stockholm the next morning. The Finns long ago adjusted to their location at the top of the globe so, no matter what time of year you visit, there will be some appealing activities. Most everything, including museums and galleries, are open year-round, and there is as much to do in the depths of winter as there is during the gloriously long days of summer.
Land of Snow and Sun
The Port of Helsinki
Although the Finns embrace and enjoy the winter rather than retreat from it, the peak season for tourism continues to be the warmer months, anytime from May until September. Summers are sunny and pleasantly warm considering the northern latitude, with July temperatures typically between 55 and 71 degrees in the south and only slightly less up north.
During the time of the midnight sun, coastal regions are a sailing and fishing paradise. Inland, the largest unspoiled wilderness inEurope draws thousands of trekkers every year. In the south, Helsinki is a paradise for lovers of art and architecture.
Midsummer’s Day (Juhannus) is the most important annual event for Finns. People leave cities and towns for summer cottages to celebrate the longest day of the year with bonfires and plenty of alcohol to fuel the enthusiastic partying.
For cultural events, the Pori Jazz Festival in July is one of the country’s most popular festivals, but the Savonlinna Opera Festival, held at the medieval Olavinlinna Castle, is probably the best-known outside of Finland.
While cities offer plenty to do and see, some of the best festivals are also the most remote. Clients should check out chamber music in Kuhmo or folk music in Kaustinen near Kokkola. There are large music festivals during the Midsummer weekend as well as annual events, including Ruisrock, one of the longest-running music festivals in the world, at Turku in July.
On the lighter side, clients might get a kick out of Sleepyhead Day, where the laziest person in the towns of Naantali and Hanko is thrown into the sea. Probably the strangest organized event is the annual wife-carrying contest held every July in tiny Sonkajarvi. Whether in the cities or the villages, visitors are expected to join in the fun.
Parks and Palaces
Lemmenjoki, the largest national park in Finland, offers some of the most challenging and interesting trekking in Lapland, where visitors can cross desolate wilderness, rivers, the Arctic landscape and the Ravadaskongas waterfall. The steep slopes of the Lemmenjoki River, where people still try their luck panning for gold, provide excellent vantage points from which to see the magnificent Ravadaskongas waterfall.
In the beautiful Savonlinna lakes area, Olavinlinna Castle is probably the best preserved medieval castle in northern Europe. Founded in 1475, it was built to protect the Swedish-Finnish empire, but Russians occupied the castle early in the 18th century, adding the jaunty red towers and a yellow house inside its walls.
Another gem, the Monastery of New Valamo, is Finland’s only Orthodox monastery. The Red Army annexed the original monastery during World War II, and the newest church was consecrated in 1977. Like all good monks, the clergy at Valamo produce their own wine from a mix of crowberries, raspberries, strawberries and black currants.
Visitors might also want to explore Finland’s history, which can be traced back more than 10,000 years to the thaw of the last Ice Age. More recently, the country was part of the Swedish empire for 600 years, although there were constant battles with Russia, which prevailed in 1809 incorporating Finland into the Russian Empire as a Grand Duchy. That lasted for about a century until the Russian Revolution when Finland was able to declare independence. World War II was a rough time for Finland, when the country alternately battled the Soviets and the Germans.
Today, Finland is a modern Nordic country, a member of the European Union with a high standard of living and an advanced economy. The euro is the currency, and Finnish and Swedish are the official languages, although English speakers are easy to find.
Helsinki’s famous Kauppatori Market Square is a colorful way to begin exploration of Finland’s capital. Sample fresh berries, try on fur hats and browse such specialties as reindeer and canned bear meat. It’s only a short ferry transit to Suomenlinna Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site founded in 1748 and built on six islands.
Whether your clients visit Finland during the long days of summer or during the deep winter, Finland is a four-season destination of extraordinary natural beauty and remarkable cultural appeal. Pristine lakes and vast forests provide a peaceful retreat and friendly people, excellent services, superb accommodations and modern facilities make travel here a true gem.
The Winter’s Tale: Scandinavian American (ScanAm) World Tours offers three Finland-specific itineraries. The first involves a five-day Igloo stay at Hotel Kakslauttanen, which includes dog sledding and reindeer excursions. On another itinerary, called The Winter’s Tale, guests travel through Finland’s Lapland to dog sled, ski and cruise to a rendezvous with Santa for a six-day period. ScanAm’s three-day Polar Safari Adventure includes an icebreaker cruise and a safari above the Arctic Circle. The tours take place from December to April, and prices begin at $1,900, based on double occupancy. www.scandanaviantravel.com
Arctic Circle Impressions: Scantours’ Arctic Circle Impressions tour begins in Santa’s hometown of Rovaniemi, where travelers will stay at the Sokos Hotel Vaakuna for the next four days. Optional safari excursions take the ready and willing to Santa Claus’ Village, the Rauna Wildlife Park where they can spot lynx, wolverine and moose among 57 other species or to an amethyst mine where visitors can dig for the precious plum-colored stones. There are a total of nine different excursions available to clients before they fly to Helsinki for the last three days of the trip. Daily departures begin in December and continue through April. Prices begin at $1,350, based on double occupancy and excluding safari excursions. www.scantours.net
Scenic Finland: The Finland Travel Bureau’s Scenic Finland tour begins in the medieval town of Porvoo and takes travelers on a whirlwind ride for the next six days. Highlights include Olavinlinna, ventures into the Finlandic wilderness, stops at the Retretti Museum and a visit to Rovaniemi. The seven-day tour starts on the southern shore and ends on the Arctic circle. The tour includes meals and excursion and entrance fees. Departure dates and detailed pricing will be available in summer of next year. www.ftb.net
Turku & Archipelago Experience: Helsinki Expert is offering a daytrip to Finland’s Archipelago. The eight-hour tour stops for lunch at the restaurant Pohjakulma for a taste of its famous traditional Archipelago menu and then continues to Turku, Finland’s official Christmas City, for a guided tour of the town and its historic cathedral. After the tour, travelers are free to wander about the river city on their own. The tours run on Sundays until Dec. 21 and rates start at $126 per person. www.helsinkiexpert.fi
Oct. 12-Dec. 16: Jarvenpaa Sibelius Festival. The International Sibelius Singing Competition will bring vocalists from the entire Nordic and Baltic region to compete for a prize fund of approximately $29,000 in the name of world-renowned Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. www.jarvenpaa.fi/sibeliusviikot
Oct. 23-26: International Choral, Espoo. The theme for this year’s festival is children and youth choirs. Over the course of four days, choirs from around the world will perform in the concert halls and churches of Espoo, the second largest city in Finland. www.kuoroespoo.fi
Oct. 30-Nov. 2: Tampere Jazz Happening. This four-day lineup features jazz artists from around the world including Japan, Zambia and, of course, Finland, among others. This year’s performances will mark the 27th year of the Jazz Happening showcasing modern jazz and female power and Afro jazz. www.tampere.fi/musicfestivals/jazz
Nov. 1–2: Kymi Grand Fair. This annual fair is held in the Kotka Sports Hall in Ruonala celebrating the Finnish tradition of trading in the marketplace. Finnish handiworks and pastries abound among many other goods.
Nov. 20-Jan. 6: Christmas Weeks in Kotka and Kolmikulma. To celebrate Christmas festivities, the town of Kolmikulma turns into a Christmas market with handmade Finnish arts and crafts, knitwear, woodwork and baked goods. Although the market may be brief, Kotka will play host to an array of Christmas concerts and events through January. www.kotka.fi
Dec. 13-14: Christmas Fair of Bygone Days. Lohja celebrates the spirit of Old St. Nick by remembering the spirit of Christmas past. Finnish goods are sold in more than 130 booths set up around Lohja’s Church of St. Lawrence and music, dance and children’s plays are just some of the many events.
Apr. 4-5: Yukigassen International Snow Battle Contest. Three periods, 270 snowballs and one victor dictate this two day battle in Kemijarven. Fourteen players go head to head in a specially made snow arena in a capture-the-flag-esque scenario. With three different categories to register in — Competition, Hobbyists and Children — everyone can get in on the action.
Apr. 24-May 1: Ice Fishing Competition Week. This unique competition is organized by local villages and sports club and is held at lakes and rivers in Karesuvanto and heading south to Ropinsalmi.
The Next Big Wildlife-Watching DestinationFinland is fast-becoming a wildlife-watching destination for tourists, especially in the northeastern region of Kainuu. Bears are one of the most popular animals to observe, as are birds, rare flying squirrels and wolverines. Wildlife watching season begins in late April when bears leave their dens after winter hibernation and ends in late fall. When not out observing animals in their natural habitats, clients can also hike, fish, camp and canoe.
Wild Taiga, a group of 45 small tourism enterprises, is one of the most popular spots for wildlife watching and outdoor adventures and is located in the Kajaani region of Kainuu. It was recently given an award for excellence by the European Commission project Destinations of Excellence. www.wildtaiga.fi
The Best of the BestNow through the end of October, agents and clients are alike are encouraged to vote for Helsinki’s best travel destinations and service on the Best of Helsinki Awards Web site. Categories include Best City Break Highlight, Best Winter Experience, Best Nordic Oddity, Best Family Resort & Fun and Best Meeting Experience. All participants are eligible to enter monthly prize drawings and each category features five different nominees. This year, for the first time, voters may also write in their favorites who may not be included in the official list of nominees. www.bestofhelsinki.fi/2008
Chez DominiqueThis Helsinki eatery has been named Restaurant of the Year by the Finnish Gastronomic Society and was added to the The S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for 2008. www.chezdominique.fi
Linnansaari National ParkLinnansaari National Park provides insight into Finland’s dedicated nature conservation efforts as one of the country’s 35 national parks. It was established to preserve Finland’s Lakeland landscape and it consists of more than 130 islands, making it a perfect destination for boating or kayaking. www.outdoors.fi/linnansaarinp
SnowCastle of KemiThe SnowCastle of Kemi is exactly that — a snow castle with its very own SnowRestaurant and SnowHotel. The entire complex is made of ice and is seasonal, only operating from the end of January through April. www.snowcastle.net
Old Church of PetajavesiThe Old Church of Petajavesi was built in 1763 and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. The church is a memorial to Nordic wooden architecture and has remained remarkably well-preserved. www.petajavesi.fi
Old St. NickFinland is regarded as the home of Old St. Nick, more widely known as Santa Claus. The Santa Village was founded in Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle in 1985 and includes Santa Claus’ Office and Santa Claus’ Main Post Office as well as a reindeer park. www.santaclausvillage.info
The Sauna at Hotel KakslauttanenRelaxing and rejuvenating in saunas is one of Finland’s favorite pastimes and Hotel Kakslauttanen, located in northern Finland, is home to the largest smoke sauna in the world with a 70 person capacity. Smoke saunas are uniquely constructed without chimneys and require more skill, effort and time to create heat, but yield better results according to true sauna connoisseurs. If things get too steamy for clients, they can also retreat to the hotel’s Igloo Village, located just outside. www.kakslautten.fi
Naantali Spa HotelNaantali Spa Hotel is offering a New Year’s package to usher in 2009. With a minimum two-night stay, guests can enjoy a complimentary buffet or an a la carte dinner at one of its three restaurants on New Year’s Eve. Guests also receive daily breakfast and unlimited use of the property’s sauna, pool and fitness complex. New Years package rates begin at $286 for two nights, based on double occupancy. www.naantalispa.fi/english
Hilton Helsinki Strand, Hilton Helsinki Kalastajatorppa and Hilton Helsinki Vantaa-AirportThe three Hilton Helsinki hotels are offering a romance package that includes an early check-in, in-room sparkling wine or apple cider upon arrival, a full breakfast for two either in-room or at the couple’s hotel restaurant of choice and full access to the hotel health club, pool and whirlpool spa. The package is available until Dec. 31, and rates begin at $368, based on double occupancy. www.hilton.com
Hotel Kamp, HelsinkiHotel Kamp in Helsinki is offering its Taste of Luxury vacation package where travelers enjoying a three-night stay will receive a free fourth night and full daily breakfast. Hotel Kamp’s 179 rooms are newly refurbished, but still retain a 19th-century feel. While at the hotel, guests can frequent its wine bar and cigar lounge after indulging in a local specialty — a plate of Reindeer chops with chocolate flavored sauce. The offer is valid from November to March. www.hotelkamp.fi
Pori Jazz Festivalwww.porijazz.fi
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