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.



Ski Resort Series: Mount Norquay

Mount Norquay was the last ski resort we visited while in the Rockies. It’s the smallest of the three and I’d heard it is quite steep, so we decided to leave it until last in case we wanted to re-do one of the others instead. Although, really I knew we’d end up going because I wanted to be able to say I’d skied all of the Big 3.

Norquay may be the smallest, but it’s the closest to Banff town. You don’t even need to get on the highway, it’s just a 15 minute drive along switchbacks up to the base of the mountain. Because it’s smaller, it seems like Norquay has tried to diversify itself and it also has night skiing and snow tubing. I ended up liking it a lot more than I thought I would! Dare I say I maybe even preferred it over the infamous Lake Louise? It may have been because we got really good conditions at Norquay – about 10-15cm of fresh powder the night before – so I felt a little more adventurous with the soft powder base.


There’s only 2 big lifts at Norquay and 2 smaller lifts. The North American lift is located on the front of the mountain and is almost entirely black runs. Like I said, Norquay is a pretty steep mountain and there were a lot of moguls on it when we visited, so we opted not to ski that lift at all. Instead we made our way over towards the far lift, which is called Mystic, and had a great day skiing over there!


If you don’t like steep runs, then I definitely wouldn’t recommend this mountain. Even the blue runs were quite steep, but the fresh powder helped. We did pretty much every run on the Mystic side of the mountain and had a great time working on our mogul skiing skills. There are a few black runs down the centre of the lift with a lot of moguls, but since there was so much powder, which makes for gentle falls, we decided to give them a try. I don’t mind moguls at all, but I definitely like having good conditions for them.


Later in the day we did a few runs on the Spirit Chair as well, which I really liked even though it has shorter runs. It was the best visibility day we had all week, so there were beautiful views of the surrounding mountains throughout the day (though still limited blue sky).

We decided not to stick around for night skiing because it’s really only the small cascade chair that is lit. I definitely wouldn’t recommend going and paying for night skiing because it’s so limited, but if you already have a day pass it would be fun to stick around for it!


Instead we decided to go snow tubing because it was included in our pass. Tubing was fun, but I think they sell too many tickets, so it’s a really long wait to take the magic carpet up to the top. The first run wasn’t too bad, but more and more people kept showing up and since the tickets hadn’t cost anything, we decided to move on after 3 runs.

So even though Norquay is the smallest of the three, I still think it’s worth visiting, and thanks to the excellent conditions, we ended up having a great time!


Ski Resort Series: Lake Louise

Lake Louise was undoubtedly the most popular of the Banff resorts when we visited. I suspect it draws the most tourists because of its association with the famous lake, as well as it also attracts a lot of locals to its open alpine skiing and back bowls. Plus, the awesome views of the surrounding mountains don’t hurt!

Lake Louise is about a 45 minute drive from Banff, so it is the furthest, though I regularly drive 2 hours to Whistler each way in a single day, so I didn’t find the drive too bad. There are some accommodations in Lake Louise if you’re just there to ski and want to stay nearby, but then I think your restaurant choices would be a lot more limited than if you stayed in Banff.


Of the three resorts, I found Lake Louise had the most confusing parking. Norquay and Sunshine have straightforward massive lots, but Lake Louise has several smaller lots and several sections of the lot are allocated specifically for VIPs or pay parking. Clearly we weren’t VIPs and we didn’t want to pay, so we ended up parking in the road parking – it wasn’t a long walk to the resort, but the longest of the 3 resorts and we were annoyed to walk past the huge empty VIP lot right next to the lodge.

Lake Louise had a pretty different set-up than Sunshine. At Sunshine, I found a lot of the lifts went to the same locations but had different bases from which to board at the bottom. Whereas at Lake Louise, a lot of the lifts left from the same central area at the bottom and went to different parts of the mountain, which I think is a bit preferable. The main difference is that the Lake Louise base is at the same elevation as the highway, whereas at Sunshine you take a gondola up to the base and at Norquay you drive several switchbacks up the mountain. As a result, I found the ski conditions at Lake Louise were unfortunately, the worst of the 3 mountains.


It’s partially because of the weather and timing of when we visited that we didn’t get any powder, but overall, I found Louise to be icier because it’s a lower elevation mountain. I also found the runs to be more confusing because it’s a lot of alpine, so there’s not really any discernible runs in a lot of locations. In some ways I really liked that because you could really ski wherever you wanted, but it also made it hard to figure out where you were and we ended up going down a few more advanced runs because we got lost. Not that big a deal, but since it was an icy day, it wasn’t the best conditions for challenging yourself.

So it was a bit of a rough start as we figured out the mountain, but we did still have a good time. We started off on Glacier chair and did a few runs on the Top of the World chair before going up Summit chair once to see the view from the highest point. I liked this area, but it’s where we kept making mistakes and ended up down a gully a few times. One of the biggest attractions at Lake Louise is the back bowls, which is pretty much just all free black run skiing. My biggest regret is that we didn’t ski the back bowl in the morning when we had fresh legs and decent visibility. We were a little bit intimidated by it and there’s so much to explore, so we decided to save it for later.


After a few runs up at the top we switched over to the Grizzly gondola and explored around some of the bottom part of the mountain. Lake Louise is deceivingly large. Sunshine Village felt large because the lifts are spread out and there’s so many different areas, whereas Lake Louise is more concentrated, but still has a lot of runs, many of which I think are longer than at Sunshine. We didn’t do as many runs in the morning, mostly because it was just taking us longer to do each run.

We had decided to buy lunch at Lake Louise, which was a good decision because packed lunches aren’t allowed in the Lodge of Ten Peaks (though you can eat them at Whiskeyjack Lodge). The nice thing about Louise was that there were several lodges, I don’t know how busy it was over at Temple Lodge, but we found Lodge of Ten Peaks to be a lot less crowded than at Sunshine.


In the afternoon we made our way over towards the backside of the mountain to get the areas we hadn’t yet explored. We did a few runs on Ptarmigan chair and a few on Larch chair. I ended up really liking the Larch area, likely because it had some easier runs, or maybe because they are more well defined. I think I would really like Lake Louise if I got to ski it more often, but because I only had one day, I wanted to get a lot a variety and in the alpine, I guess I felt like I was just skiing the same thing run after run. It’s why it’s nice to have more than one day at a ski resort, because you get to try everything on the first day, and then return to areas you liked or try things you missed on the second day.

Emily wasn’t really keen to do the back bowls at all, but like Goat Mountain at Sunshine, I still really wanted to tackle every part of the mountain, so I convinced her to do one run with me. We got to scope it out a bit more on the Paradise chair, which runs up the back of the mountain, and I think on a good powder day I would be pretty comfortable skiing in the back bowl (at least in the area under Paradise chair, which is black diamonds as opposed to double blacks). Unfortunately, our mistake was waiting too late in the day. We took the one easy run down the back bowl, but it had really bad flat light when we did it and we felt like we were skiing blind, so we weren’t inclined to try a second run, hence why I say I wish we’d done it in the morning.


Anyways, sometimes you live and learn. We still ended up having a great time at Lake Louise and surprisingly Emily liked it more than me. I can’t really pinpoint why, but of the three, Lake Louise was probably my least favourite. I may get slammed for that because not a lot of people seem to like Norquay, so I’m inclined to blame the weather on this occasion (we got some great powder at Norquay). In any case, I won’t be too quick to judge it and I would definitely return to try it again and properly ski the back bowl. Overall I think it might just be the vibe that I got from Lake Louise. It was more crowded and seemed a bit more elitist than the others, so I’d be just as happy to ski at Sunshine or Norquay as well. Either way, it’s definitely an iconic resort.