September 13th, 2012


How I Spent My Birthday (or at least the long weekend before it)

I have, as usual, a ton of catching up to do. Let’s start with Labor Day weekend, which I spent going to Helsinki.

Why? I always go away for my birthday, the timing allowed the use of a deeply discounted business class fare (which earns additional mileage, including the all important Premier Qualifying Miles), and I’d never been to Finland before. I should note that my personal rule of thumb for travel is that I like to be somewhere a minimum of three times as long as the flying time. This trip just qualified.

The complication came the day I left, since my routing was via Frankfurt and Lufthansa flight attendants staged a major strike. The IAD-FRA flight was one of the few that wasn’t cancelled, but it was delayed long enough that I would have missed my connection. This was easily resolved with a phone call to United and a switch to their flight. The call took longer than it needed to, since they had to call Lufthansa and spent 15 or so minutes on hold to regain control of the ticket. But it worked fine.

The actual flight was excellent. UA’s lie-flat business class seats are reasonable. Their food is decent as airline food goes and their entertainment selection includes a wide enough selection to satisfy me. I watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel since I had fallen asleep halfway through it on a previous trip and missed some critical points. It is definitely my type of movie, with the humor based on the characters and their interactions. I also watched a couple of episodes of The Big Bang Theory. Immigration at FRA was quick and, after a quick stop at an ATM, I settled in at the lounge for some coffee and crossword puzzle time. The LH leg from FRA to HEL was adequate, though unimpressive.

It was easy enough to find the Finnair bus from the airport to the city, which had a stop conveniently across the street from the Crowne Plaza. I’d booked that hotel because I got a very good price on it. The location is not bad, about a 10 minute walk from the center. It was okay, but a bit dated. My biggest annoyance was that the heat was operated by a dial, not a thermostat that would have let me enter an actual temperature. (This is, of course, decidedly a first world problem.)

I immediately set out to do a walking tour I had downloaded from Frommer’s. That covered much of the central area of the city. Some of the highlights were Senate Square, the Lutheran Cathedral, the House of Scientific Studies, and the National Theatre. It was an excellent route, but the weather, which started out drizzly, got rainier and windier as time went on. That cut into my enjoyment of Kaisaniemi Park, in particular. On a fine sunny day, I would have spent a lot of time meandering through the botanical gardens there, but I finished the walk and took refuge by browsing through a supermarket. (I should note that looking at supermarkets is another of my personal travel rules. I like to see what’s on sale and what it costs. My unsurprising conclusion was that Finns like smoked fish and cheese and crackerbread a lot.)

I had arranged to get together with aliceinfinland Saturday evening. We started out with Irish coffee in the rooftop bar of the Hotel Torni, which has a fine view over the city (or, at least, of the pouring rain.) We moved on to dinner at Lappi, which specializes in the regional cooking of Lapland. The whitefish I had was excellent and the accompanying mashed potatoes were interestingly flavored with a little smoked salmon. The atmosphere was slightly rustic and very conducive to conversation. She also provided me with a number of sightseeing tips.

aliceinfinland also hosted a Sunday brunch at the house she has lived in for over a decade and is in the process of moving from (to take a job in England). The excursion provided a fine opportunity for lively conversation, as well as letting me see a traditional Finnish wooden house. After brunch, I went to the Hakaniemi Market, which is an attractive fruit and vegetable (and, to a lesser extent, souvenir) market. I walked south from there to the Market Square, before turning to Esplanadi to follow a walking tour of the Design District, which I had printed out from the tourist office website. The weather was lovely, by the way – clear and crisp – and this was a touristy enough area that a lot of shops were open on Sunday. I am not much of a shopper, but I am a good browser and I felt that a peek into the flagship store of Marimekko (the famous Finnish textile company) was semi-obligatory. I was actually slightly tempted by some clothing there, but the price tags dissuaded me. The most interesting sites along the route were associated with the World Design Capital activities and I want to particularly note an assortment of park benches near the Design Museum.

I stopped for dinner at Sea Horse, where I had a particularly notable pike perch with mushroom sauce. I treated myself to dessert, too – iced cranberries with hot caramel sauce. The contrast of cold tart berries and hot sweet sauce was intriguing and delicious. I walked that off by following the font walk of the World Design Capital. This was a walking route that highlighted fonts on various signs and was, frankly, a bit disappointing. It did, however, take me near the Old Church Park, which had an excellent assortment of yarn bombed trees. (Again, that was World Design Capital related.)

I have a minor competition with a friend regarding World Heritage sites, so a visit to Suomenlinna Sea Fortress was essential. It was cost effective to buy a one-day transit pass for 7 euros, which included trams and the ferry (from the Market Square) to Suomenlinna. On the island, you can explore fairly readily on your own by meandering the paths and reading the info signs along the main one. The fortress is impressive, especially if you walk along some of the outlying paths that take you past cannons embedded in the surrounding dunes and, eventually, to the King’s Gate. It was certainly worth the better part of a day. While there, I also checked out the Toy Museum, which is reasonably good. And I ate a late lunch at Cafe Chapman, which was cheap, but not especially impressive. All in all, this made for an excellent excursion.

I should have had much of Tuesday to do a little more exploration, but Lufthansa flight attendants had announced another strike. I noticed that the 8:05 a..m. flight to Frankfurt was still operating and, given the risk of my afternoon flight getting cancelled by the strike (which did, indeed, happen), I thought it best to get to the airport early and switch. This proved more complicated than it should have been since Lufthansa has no actual staff at HEL and the contract employees use a different system (apparently owned by SAS) which was keeping them from finding my reservation, despite my giving them the LH confirmation number. In the end, I was successful but only at the gate and only about 15 minutes before the flight when the one supervisor who had a clue showed up.

I left my flight home (on United) intact, so had plenty of time to spend in Frankfurt. The city is a short train ride from the airport. I’ll note than an all-day local rail pass is actually cheaper than a round-trip ticket to and from the airport, so that’s what I did. I stashed my bag in a locker at the train station, had lunch, and walked around for a couple of hours. I did contemplate going to Goethe’s House, but didn’t think it was worth 7 euros. The weather was nice and a good walk is better than trying to get rebooked due to a strike, so I think I made the right decision. And my UA flight home was extremely pleasant, although they only offered me ice cream for dessert and not birthday cake! I particularly appreciate the classic movies selection they have now, which let me watch The Godfather again. (I had seen it when it first came out, but that was a long time ago.) I’d normally have watched another movie, but I’d been up early so opted for a nap instead.

Immigration at IAD was as speedy as always (about 5 minutes), with a slightly longer line for Customs. I was still home early enough not to be too exhausted the rest of the week. All in all, it was a worthwhile trip and a decent way to ease the pain of getting older.