Let’s go to … Finland

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TRAVEL GAZETTE – FINLAND, Helsinki

According to officials at the Cyprus Embassy in Helsinki, an increasing number of Cypriots escaping from the baking summer sun in the Baltic region.

Nathan Morley dug out his warmest duffle coat and hiking boots and flew up to Finland last week to discover why this isolated nation at the tip of the EU is becoming more popular with travellers.

Surprisingly, Helsinki is just a four-hour journey from Cyprus, the flight was mostly filled with sun burnt Finns returning from their summer holidays, but dotted around the cabin I noticed a few local faces, either traveling up to Finland for business or pleasure.

Thankfully there is no resetting your watch on arrival as the time zone is the same as Cyprus and you don’t even have to change your euro currency – so far so good.

Waiting for my luggage at the super modern airport, I struck up a chat with fellow passenger Petros Michaelides; he is in Finland to see his girlfriend, who has been dating on and off for the past few years.

“She is actually from near Helsinki and works in a government department, and I am from Larnaca. We first met in 2005 and are still doing this long distance relationship, which is not as hard as it looks, especially with emails and texts,” he said.

Petros admits he is slowly starting to consider making a permanent move.

“Well this is my third trip since January. I can’t stand the winter here it is bitterly freezing, but the jobs are good, the money is better much than Cyprus, so I might do it. I don’t even need a work permit here since we joined the EU.”

Helsinki Railway Station
Helsinki Railway Station

A quick call to the Cyprus Embassy in Finland before setting off confirmed that the country is gaining popularity with Cypriot tourists, who are becoming increasing active travellers.

After passing through customs I took the quick taxi ride from the airport to Helsinki, which has been dubbed the “Pearl of the Baltic”, because of its impressive architecture, wide boulevards and beautiful harbour.

If you decide to visit this country, make time to see the main railway station designed by Eliel Saarinen, whose gothic grandeur inspired set designers creating Gotham City for the first Batman film.

Finland’s landscapes are a glorious variation on the themes of forest and water, where the comforts of modern life are never far away, after all this is the country which is home to NOKIA and billions of dollars worth of new technology business.

To gauge how popular this country has become, last year over 50,000 visitors came from India alone and tourism officials in Finland are now hoping that more Europeans may start to think of heading north when booking a vacation.

Before I arrived in Finland, I had arranged to head north to Vaasa, where authorities are preparing to promote an untouched area of the northern coast which has recently been awarded the status of UNESCO World Heritage Natural Site.

The area of Kvarken on the North West coast is attracting a large amount of interest because it is undergoing an unusual geological process, which is dramatically altering the very face of the region.

Unlike the Netherlands that reclaims land by dredging and dykes, Mother Nature is adding brand new land all the time at such and alarming rate that Finland and Sweden will join up in less than 2000 years.

What makes this place so special, and a possible future tourist hotspot, is that the continual uplift of land is joining islands and making the sea shallower across the entire region.

After a five hour train journey, I finally to meet Susanna Ollqvist from the Vaasa Forestry Department. We had been talking on the phone for weeks about this remarkable place. As we sat drinking strong Finnish coffee, she explained that the new land is literally popping up all the time.

“The land is rising about 8 mm every year, that’s about 100 cm’s every hundred years, so we are getting a lot of new land every year, about 100 hectares per annum,” she said.

In the period of a lifetime, areas that were under the sea have become land and small islands have joined with neighbouring rocks and islands as the sea steadily declines.

Kvarken now joins the likes of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone national park and the Grand Barrier Reef in Australia as a World Natural Heritage site, but its main problem will be to attract tourists, as actually getting to the location is not easy.

The regional governor Olav Jern was delighted to welcome a reporter from Cyprus into his office, “You came up here from Cyprus, to see this area? It’s amazing,” he remarked.

Jern, who is the driving force behind putting this region on the tourist map, explained that the fact the region now has world heritage status, means that tourism to the area will now be actively promoted both in Finland and abroad.

“The number of visitors has increased but it is still not a very high number. We want to adapt specially created tours for those people that are really interested in the World Heritage aspect of Kvarken,” he said.

However there is currently no advanced tourism policy, so getting out to the remote archipelago is tricky to organise and can be quite expensive.

Just to get out to the islands I needed to take a 45 minute journey from Vaasa, then its a 50 minute boat ride our to the Kvarken area.

Luckily a few charter boats were still running despite it being mid September.

As I boarded the small boat, the conditions were breezy and overcast but the views were priceless as we sped past countless islands, covered in lust green pine trees.

Hanna, who runs a cafe and hostel located on an abandoned coast guard station in the middle of the sea in Kvarken, said that this year around 3000 tourists had stopped by for a coffee.

“It’s gorgeous here; we have had visitors from England, Spain and France…infact from all over. You are the first Englishman from Cyprus I have ever met though!… We want to encourage people that love nature, but we would also like to encourage Finns to come here as well, as I don’t think many locals realize what beauty they are sitting on,” she said.

After three nights in a wooden cabin, eating freshly caught fish and listening to the news in “special English” on a small shortwave radio, made wonder if I had actually landed on another planet.

The peace is deafening and the beauty so remarkable, it is actually surreal; you could easily think that you had literally walked into a postcard.

After Kvarken, it was back to the railway station to make the long journey south and to a place that is a destination of pilgrimage for music lovers in general and admirers of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in particular.

Sibelius spent much of his life in a house named Ainola; it sits in a small forest an hour outside Helsinki. From the quaint Scandic exterior of his house, you would think that Hansel and Gretel are alive and well and hiding somewhere within.

In 1972, Sibelius daughters together with the Finnish Ministry of Education and the Sibelius Society established the Ainola Foundation in order to preserve Ainola as a monument of cultural history and to keep the house open to the public, which it has been since 1974.

Each region of this vast country has its distinct character, from the wilds of Lapland to the inspiring lakes of the East and the archipelagos of the South-West.

Finland is full of interesting contrasts, such as the four seasons, the midnight sun and the long winter nights…and it’s not as far away as you might think.

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