ScandinaviaFascinated By Finland

Traveling by train from Helsinki, it’s only an overnight trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. In the other direction, ferries depart the Finnish capital late afternoon to reach Stockholm the next morning.

An Arctic buffer between Russia and Scandinavia, Finland is a four-season wonderland where the expanse of forests and lakes and more forests are punctuated by towns full of people who are genuinely pleased to welcome visitors — anytime of year.

The Finns long ago adjusted to their location at the top of the globe, so no matter what time of year you visit, there will be some appealing activities. Most everything, including museums and galleries, are open year-round, and there is as much to do in the depths of winter as there is during the gloriously long days of summer.

Land Of Snow And Sun

Winter sports enthusiasts may think they’ve reached heaven; the Finnish winter generates enough ice and snow to be a playground for every conceivable winter sport and activity. Winter north of the Arctic Circle is a cold, bracing convergence of long twilight and quiet landscapes. The snow starts falling in November, and skiing continues until June in Lapland, although it’s best in February, typically the coldest month.

Although the Finns embrace and enjoy their winter rather than retreat from it, the peak season for tourism continues to be the warmer months, either in summer or anytime from May until September. Summers are sunny and pleasantly warm considering the northern latitude, with July temperatures typically between 55°F and 71°F in the south and only slightly less up north.

During the time of the midnight sun, coastal regions are a sailing and fishing paradise. Inland, the largest unspoiled wilderness in Europe draws thousands of trekkers every year. In the south, Helsinki is a paradise for lovers of art and architecture.

Festivities Galore

Midsummer’s Day (Juhannus) is the most important annual event for Finns. People leave cities and towns for summer cottages to celebrate the longest day of the year with bonfires and plenty of booze to fuel the enthusiastic partying. Finland makes the most of its summer solstice with the knowledge that winter is ahead.

For cultural events, the Pori Jazz Festival in July is one of the country’s most popular festivals, but the Savonlinna Opera Festival, held at the medieval Olavinnlinna Castle, is probably best known outside of Finland.

While the cities of Finland offer plenty to do and see, some of the best festivals are also the most remote: Check out chamber music in Kuhmo, or folk music in Kaustinen near Kokkola. There are big rock festivals during the Midsummer weekend, and big annual events, such as Ruisrock, the longest-running of rock festivals, at Turku in July.

On the lighter side, check out the Sleepyhead Day, where the laziest person in the towns of Naantali and Hanko is thrown into the sea. Probably the strangest organized event is the annual wife-carrying contest held every July in tiny Sonkajärvi. In the cities or out in the villages, visitors are expected to join the fun.

Parks And Palaces

Lemmonjoki, the largest national park in Finland, offers some of the most challenging and interesting trekking in Lapland, where visitors can cross desolate wilderness, rivers, arctic landscape and the Ravadasköngäs waterfall. The steep slopes of the Lemmenjoki River, where people still try their luck panning for gold, provide excellent vantage points from which to see the magnificent Ravadasköngäs waterfall.

In the beautiful Savonlinna lakes area, Olavinlinna Castle is probably the best preserved medieval castle in northern Europe. Founded in 1475, it was built to protect the Swedish-Finnish empire, but Russians occupied the castle early in the 18th century, adding the jaunty red towers and a yellow house inside its walls.

Another gem, the Valamo monastery is Finland’s only Orthodox monastery. The Red Army annexed the original monastery during World War II, and the newest church was consecrated in 1977. Like all good monks, the clergy at Valamo produce their own wine — from a mix of crowberries, raspberries, strawberries and black currants.

Four-Season Destination

Visitors will also want to explore Finland’s history, which can be traced back more than 10,000 years to the thaw of the last Ice Age. More recently, the country was part of the Swedish empire for 600 years, although there were constant battles with Russia, which prevailed in 1809 incorporating Finland into the Russian Empire as a Grand Duchy. That lasted for about a century until the Russian Revolution when Finland was able to declare independence. World War II was a rough time for Finland, when the country alternately battled the Soviets and the Germans.

Today, Finland is a modern Nordic country, a member of the European Union with a high standard of living and an advanced economy. The Euro is the currency and Finnish and Swedish are the official languages, although English speakers are rarely hard to find.

Helsinki’s famous Kauppatori Market Square is a colorful way to begin exploration of Finland’s capital. Sample fresh berries, try on fur hats, and browse such specialties as reindeer and canned bear meat. It’s only a short ferry transit to Suomenlinna Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site founded in 1748 and built on six islands.

Whether you visit during long days of summer, vibrant with arts festivals, or during the deep winter, Finland is four-season destination of extraordinary natural beauty and remarkable cultural appeal. Pristine lakes and vast forests provide a peaceful retreat, and friendly people, excellent services, superb accommodations, and modern facilities make travel a pleasure.

For Port Profiles, Shore Excursions and What To Do In Port, click on the destinations below.