A Dip in the Baltic Sea

It wasn’t that cold while we were visiting Helsinki, around -6 degrees, but apparently we’re wimps after living in Vancouver and it was quite cold being outside all day. So on our second full day we decided to shake things up a bit and start with a visit to the Winter Garden, which is actually housed in a greenhouse. I was fully expecting to pay entrance for the garden since it’s indoors, but we were thrilled to discover that it’s actually a city space that’s free to visit! You don’t need a lot of time to see the whole thing, but it was a nice green activity on a cold day.


Plus it’s near the Helsinki Aquarium, so we decided to visit that afterwards. Katie didn’t even know Helsinki had an aquarium, but it came up in my google search, and being married to a biologist, we have a bit of a tendency to visit aquariums whenever possible. We’ve also been to the SeaLife aquariums in Portugal and New Zealand on previous vacations (and of course, Vancouver Aquarium, our personal favourite). The Helsinki SeaLife was a lot bigger than I was expecting; it wasn’t unique to the sealife in the region, but still made for a fun visit. Great if you have kids!

We still had a bit of time to kill before Katie finished classes, so we decided to go skating! There are several free ice skating rinks around the city and we hit up the one at the Tapiola metro station. We had to pay to rent skates, but if you bring your own, you can use the rink for free. There’s a large area that’s great for beginners, and then a big loop skate going around the lot. I don’t really go skating a lot, but I’ve come to really love it over the past few years! We warmed up with hot chocolate before meeting up with Katie to go to Kiasma, an art museum in downtown Helsinki.


The Kiasma had a special exhibit on Markus Copper that Katie wanted to see. He’s a Finnish artist that seemed to specialize in art that makes people feel uncomfortable. He definitely succeeded, a little too much in that his art made me feel too uncomfortable and I had to tap out. It was a bit of a marriage of mechanics, engineering, and sound, but with a bit too much focus on torture and destruction for my liking, although the engineering of his work was definitely impressive. Katie loved it and did the whole exhibit, but Seth and I popped out a did another exhibit they had on Lapland instead. The exhibit usually lives up north in Rovaniemi and features work by all kinds of Lappish artists. It was still a bit weird (I admit, I’m not that cultured), but I preferred it.


On our last day in Helsinki, we finally got some sun and had the full Finnish experience by going to the sauna. Sauna is huge here and Katie recommended Loyly, which is located right on the water. We went early to get a proper seafood lunch (we had Pike Perch and it was delicious) and then spent an hour at the sauna. It’s a public sauna, so they have it set up with a shared area and 2 large saunas. It was a bit of a trial by fire entry to sauna starting with the public sauna though. The Finns prefer their sauna REALLY hot and it was a bit of an adjustment for me. At first I’d be okay with it, but every time someone would pour water on the rocks I’d feel like I was choking and have to leave for a minute. Not to be deterred though, we did it several more times after that and it grew on me a lot! The public sauna was actually a wood sauna, so I didn’t like the smoke, whereas all the other saunas we did were electric.


But my favourite part of Loyly is that it’s right next to the sea and they have it set up so that you can go outside and do a proper dunk in the cold salt water! So of course we had to do it. It was -12 degrees on the day we visited and the water was -0.6 degrees and just starting to become slushy and frozen. It’s actually not that bad when you’re doing it right after sauna (because you have lots of body heat) and you can immediately go back to the sauna after, so I ended up jumping in the Baltic Sea 3 times! But it’s definitely a totally different experience for the people that walk to the Sea, swim, and then have to get out and get dressed while still being cold. I’m not ready for that yet, but the cold water therapy while doing sauna was actually really lovely.


We spent a bit more time exploring the city after that and went to the Kamppi area of town to see the library. As a book nerd, I love libraries and this might possibly be the coolest library I’ve ever been to! Lots of libraries have really neat architecture (I’m a big fan of the Vancouver library for example, and even the MUN library), but not only did this library have cool architecture, it was just a really cool contemporary space. The bottom floor had reception and a café/restaurant, and some larger event spaces with big windows and high ceilings. The middle floor was the least interesting to look at, but had the coolest amenities. The center of the floor was just a big tiered hangout space where people could meet or study and they had all kinds of break-out rooms focused on creativity.


There were sewing stations where you could rent a sewing machine for the day; there were instruments to rent and recording spaces you could use; there were VR and video gaming rooms; there was a huge 3D printer you could make use of; and tons of bookable rooms for collaborating. In short, it’s everything I think a modern library should be. It was really all about meeting the needs of the community and providing access to things the average person might not have otherwise. And it is clearly appreciated because the space was packed with people! Then finally, the top floor housed the books, another small café, and lots more hangout and study/reading space. It was just one giant room, with floor to ceiling windows and a profile that matched the external architecture. It didn’t have as many books as I expected if I’m being honest, but again, I think it was focused on being modern and mostly housed contemporary texts instead of academic ones. Personally I appreciated this – there’s always going to be universities for that purpose and I liked that this library kept in line with its theme of primarily being a community space.


Snowy Adventures in Helsinki

Even though this blog is mostly focused on hiking and adventures, I initially started it 13 years ago as a travel blog! After a long pandemic, it’s exciting to finally have some travel adventures to write about. My last major trip was to New Zealand for my honeymoon just before the pandemic, so I’ve been excited to start traveling again. My cousin Katie is studying new media art in Helsinki, so I decided to book a trip to visit her in early 2022. I ended up cancelling that trip because of the Omicron outbreak, but I decided to make another attempt at it this year, and fortunately, this time it was successful!


Seth and I planned the trip for two weeks at the end of February, starting in Helsinki. The last time I was in Europe was 10 years ago when I lived in the UK for a year in 2012, and I forgot how fun it is to travel there. The last time I visited I was flying from the East Coast of Canada, so I had a lot further to go from Vancouver. We flew through Chicago and Stockholm, and it was a pretty rough flight over. Our flight was late leaving Vancouver and we had less than an hour to transfer when we arrived in Chicago. In most circumstances this would be plenty of time, but we were dismayed to learn that our flight to Stockholm was in another terminal and required us to transfer by bus and go through security again in order to make our flight. Security was extremely busy and after much running through the airport, we made it just in time for the final boarding call.


Fortunately, things went a lot smoother in Stockholm and we immediately indulged ourselves on the plentiful selection of pastries that seem to be available all over Europe. I tried as many as I could while we there and I’ve come to the conclusion that almond croissants are my favourite. Seth is more partial to the cinnamon buns. We flew through the night to get to Stockholm, but we didn’t sleep because of the time difference. It was a beautiful day in Stockholm when we arrived, with green grass, blue skies, and sun… not that we left the airport to enjoy it.


We had one final flight across the Baltic to Helsinki. It’s only about a 40 minute flight and as we approached Finland, the sun disappeared into the clouds and thick layer of mist lay over Finland. We only got our first glimpse just before landing in a snow covered wonderland. When I checked in with Katie before the trip, she told me it had been very warm and that Helsinki had no snow, but apparently we brought it with us because it snowed for 3 days straight after we landed. Everyone assured us Helsinki is much more beautiful in the snow and we enjoyed watching the snow settle on the trees and a think layer of sea-ice freeze over the Baltic.

Katie lives slightly outside Helsinki in a community called Espoo, where she’s going to school at Aalto University. Helsinki is well connected by bus and train though, so we didn’t have any problem getting around (except at the end of the trip when the buses went on strike!). We arrived at her place around 1pm, which is 3am Vancouver time, but we forced ourselves to stay awake to try and adjust to the jetlag as quickly as possible. It made for a long tiring day, but we didn’t regret it the next day.


We figured the easiest way to fight the exhaustion was to keep moving, so Katie took us out to explore Helsinki. We went for a little walk around her neighbourhood and were immediately introduced to how the Finns feel about cold therapy. Katie lives by the water and pointed out a dock that the locals frequently swim from year round. We were only there for about 10 minutes and saw a half dozen people coming in and out of the water. I like a good cold dunk, but it takes a special kind of person to get undressed in the freezing cold, get in the water, and then have to get dry and re-dressed… also in the freezing cold.

We jumped on the metro to make our way to downtown Helsinki. It was all a bit of a blur, but we visited the rail station and some of the large cathedrals that dominate the Helsinki skyline. I admit, Helsinki is not the first place I think of when I picture Europe, but it still felt very European. It’s not as iconic as London or Paris, but there’s lots of old and interesting architecture and I really liked how the city is nestled along the Baltic. We opted for an early supper along the water at a pizza restaurant, which was delicious, but the point at which we both started crashing. So we ended up returning to Katie’s and we were both asleep before 8am. Seth’s head hit the pillow at 7:30pm and I swear he was asleep in less than 30 seconds!


We woke up early the next morning to a beautiful sunrise. Our first full day was much less tiring, but no less eventful. Katie had classes, so we entertained ourselves by finding some more pastries in which to indulge and continuing our exploration of the downtown. Suomenlinna came highly recommended, so we decided to visit. It’s a small island located 15 minutes out of downtown Helsinki by ferry. It’s home to a small community of less than 1000 people and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s a lot of history associated with this island, so I’ll do my best to summarize (my first attempt on Instagram was corrected by the official Suomenlinna account, whoops!).


Finland was originally part of the Kingdom of Sweden, which is why a lot of people in Finland still speak Swedish and you see Finnish, Swedish, and English on most signs. Suomenlinna was a military fortress constructed by Sweden in the mid 1700’s, and originally went by the name of Sveaborg, to protect against invasion from Russia. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful and the fortress was ceded to the Russians in the early 1800’s. It was held by the Russian’s until 1917, when Finland declared independence and Russia willingly departed the fortress and the country. It was renamed Suomenlinna by Finland.


It’s very well preserved and fun to visit a fortress that’s actually seen a bit of action throughout the years. I believe it’s Helsinki’s most popular tourist attraction and was especially beautiful in the snow. Unfortunately there are no guided walking tours in the off season (only on Saturdays) so we visited the museum first and then proceeded to walk around the entire island, exploring the stone walls and cannons and making a visit to King’s Bridge. In the evening, Katie showed us around her university campus and all the cool creative projects that are underway in the art building, and we finished the night with some Nepalese food.


Skiing the Alps in Austria

As I mentioned in my previous entry, I had the opportunity in December to ski the Alps. This has been on my bucket list for a while and I wanted to take the chance to do it before moving back home. My Dad came over for a week before Christmas and we decided to hit up Austria for a little snow adventure!

In the interest of time, we decided to skip Vienna and flew into Salzburg instead. Salzburg is located right on the Austrian-German border and is surrounded by mountains. It was made famous by The Sound of Music, which was set and filmed there. It’s also the birthplace of Mozart and has some of the most delicious chocolates, which are called Mozartkrugel. In the spirit of Christmas, we spent most of our time exploring the Christmas Markets. I liked London’s Christmas Markets, but Austria’s Christmas Markets were just incredible! Everywhere I looked, I was surrounded by tasty treats, homemade ornaments, candles, chocolates, and jewelry. We tried out a few traditional foods and stocked up on chocolates.

Salzburg Christmas Market

Salzburg Christmas Market

From Salzburg, we took the train to Ischgl, which is the ski resort where we spent the majority of the trip. Ischgl is unlike any ski resort I have ever been to (which really isn’t that many actually). In order to get there, you have to drive right into the Alps for about an hour. The ski town lies in the valley and in order to get to the slopes, you have to take a gondola up into the mountains. From there, there’s 43 lifts and 240km worth of ski trails going up and down the surrounding peaks. We discovered that the peaks of the mountain range actually form the Austrian-Swiss border and that when we were skiing down one side it was the Austrian Alps, while the other side was the Swiss Alps. It was amazing!

Skiing Ischgl

Skiing Ischgl

The first day we skied, it was pretty overcast and snowed a lot, but the second day was sunny with blue skies and unveiled a completely new world to us. On cloudless days, you can see the peaks of the Alps for miles around! It is an incredible view and completely took our breath away when we reached the top of the lift. I felt that no matter where we skied we were guaranteed to have an amazing view. We skied for three full days; even though my legs were really sore at the end, I loved every minute of it and I’m so glad I had the opportunity. Surprisingly, I also found the skiing really affordable, the daily lift pass is actually cheaper than a lift pass at White Hills back home.

View of the Alps

View of the Alps

We finished off the trip by stopping into Innsbruck. I visited Innsbruck briefly when I was in high school, but it’s quite a different scene in the winter. Innsbruck is very scenic with the mountains surrounding it, but I found it really cold and didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Salzburg. It’s definitely a colourful city though and there’s always lots of history to learn about! I think I would love to go back to Austria in the summer sometime to do some hiking and to experience the beautiful mountains and lakes in a different way.


Exploring Innsbruck

Exploring Innsbruck