When people ask me my favorite place in all my travels, Finland is always right at the top of the list. We visited Finland for a weightlifting competition in Rovaniemi. None of us had considered Finland and certainly hadn't heard of Rovaniemi. We didn't know what to expect. Finland has a bit of a je ne sais quoi. I can never quite put my finger on what makes it special and magical, but the food, climate, and atmosphere come together to make Finland a country worth visiting.
After a slightly arduous journey to Rovaniemi (Raleigh > JFK > Reykjavik > Helsinki > Rovaniemi), we settled in to a cabin at the SantaSport resort, where the weightlifting competition was held. We had a two-bedroom cabin, complete with a Finnish sauna. Side note: Finnish saunas are the best and only way to sauna. It's a massive part of Finnish culture for health and camaraderie.
In our research leading up to our trip, we discovered Rovaniemi is the official home of Santa Claus and frequently called Santa Claus Village. Hence, the SantaSport Resort. At the top of the hill where our cabin was, we discovered the Sky Ounasvaara Hotel. Our visit was mid-September, a perfect time of year to still have plenty of daylight as well as see the Aurora Borealis at night. Each night, we'd visit the viewing deck on the roof of the Sky Ounasvaara and stay out until 2 or 3 in the morning to catch the Northern Lights.
While Dad was doing weightlifting type things (snooze-fest if you're not a weightlifter), Mom, the hubby, and I headed to the Arktikum one day. The Arktikum is a museum in Rovaniemi dedicated to educating and preserving Lappish culture. Lapland is known for its reindeer herding and the museum strives to protect the herders and their way of life through education and outreach. There is also an excellent park and walking path along the river by the Arktikum, which makes for an excellent afternoon stroll.
In addition the amazing food (hint: go read the other posts if you want to drool), we visited Santa Claus, where he spends most of his time when he's not overseeing toy production in the North Pole.
And yes, we met Santa.
And yes, he asked us what we wanted for Christmas.
A short flight from Rovaniemi is Helsinki. Most of the time, cities aren't my favorite place because most tend to be the same. However, Helsinki is unique and quirky (just like yours truly) and it's definitely not the same as other European and capitol cities around the world. The main downtown area is filled with great boutiques and shops, excellent burger joints and restaurants. There are some incredible churches to visit and the harbor is truly a sight to behold. Right along the marina, you can find some of the best, most delicious street food. Freshly caught salmon grilled right in front of you and enjoyed in a small little tent next to the water. It was a bit gray and chilly during our marina-side meal, but it's still the best salmon I've ever eaten.
Pro-Tip: It helps to have local knowledge of any city, and Helsinki is no exception. I have a friend living in Helsinki and she gave me some pointers on where to eat and what to do during our short stay. We also go to meet for coffee after not seeing each other for nearly eight years! Hi Amie!
After a long day visiting Suomenlinna, a former fort and small village located a short ferry ride from the city, we planned to head to our hotel. As we were rounding a corner to snap a picture of a statue, the hubby noticed a man standing in front of an Irish pub smoking.
Hubby: "Babe, that guy looks like Stefan from Top Chef."
Me, glancing quickly, then whispering: "Omigod you're right! He totally does look like…. Oh no. He knows we're looking at him."
Guy: "Hey, it's me, Stefan!"
Hubby and I exchange rapid glances.
Me: "I am so sorry! We thought you looked just like Stefan from Top Chef and it really is you! We just couldn't believe it!"
Stefan: "Well, I heard the American accent and saw you whispering, so I figured you knew me from the show and I'd introduce myself! Come on in and have a drink!!"
Several hours and several beers later, we left the Boston-themed Irish pub. While my parents stayed in that evening to rest and relax, the hubby and I took up Stefan on his suggestion to visit his restaurant, Stefan's Steakhouse in Helsinki. As expected from Finland, Stefan's did not disappoint. Our coursed meal finished with a nutella crème brulee, which I still think about today.
Y'all, I'm thinking food plays an important role in my life and my life choices…
While it was disappointing to leave Finland, our journey continue to Russia, which was another amazing country to visit. So, while Iceland, Sweden, and Norway tend to get a lot of hype and marketing thrown their way (and for good reasons!), Finland is a charming country nestled in Scandinavia. It's well worth a special visit and a must-visit if you "just happen to be in the area." I'm still not sure what makes Finland so magical, but I feel strongly that everyone should try to visit.