Whenever a long haul flight has a connection it's generally no more expensive to book it as two separate legs on the same ticket and enjoy a few days stopover in the connection city, so that's what I did. I did the exact same thing last year with an Emirates flight between Glasgow and Bangkok that had a connection in Dubai.
The way I look at stopping over on connections is that it's like taking an extra vacation somewhere but not having to pay for the flights. I surely would have taken trips to Dubai and Helsinki at some point anyway, but this way I did it without the expense of the flights.
Talking of expense - it's difficult to spend time in Finland without spewing loads of money. Nothing is cheap. Accommodation is of course the main expense, with just a standard Holiday Inn type hotel in the centre of Helsinki costing €155 per night. Bare in mind that the hotel where I'm currently living in in Bangkok costs €225 per month, so I wasn't about to spend a couple of months rent on a few nights vacation.
As usual, Airbnb came up trumps. I was able to rent a studio apartment in the bullseye centre of city for €66 per night - less than half the price of a hotel room in the same location. The apartment was pretty small, with a sofa that converted into a bed, but it was all very clean and new and perfect for someone travelling alone.
The benefit of staying in an apartment over a hotel isn't just the cost. Having a kitchen is nice. Being able to pour myself a bowl of muesli in the morning or make myself an omelette late at night is a lot more convenient and cheaper than eating out or room service.
Another big advantage, especially for an online poker player, is having a dedicated internet connection that I don't have to share with anyone. The owners of this apartment even provided me with a 4G 50Mbit portable router for free, so I was constantly connected to the internet everywhere I went in Helsinki.
Finnair Sky Wheel
I went out to explore Helsinki on foot during my first day. As I was staying in the very centre of the city everything was in walking distance. I was amazed at how clean and nice the city was and so much space with wide pavements and a lack of people. Basically the opposite of Bangkok. It was nice being able to walk down a street without having to navigate through hoards of people, food carts and motorbikes coming towards me at full speed.
I walked to the harbour area and came across the Finnair Sky Wheel that I didn't even know existed. I turned out that it had just opened a few days earlier, so that's why it wasn't in any travel guides or blogs.
It looked like a fun way to get a different perspective of the city so I decided to give it a spin.
The first orbit was fun, the second less so, and after that it was just boring. There's actually not to much to see and the sky wheel isn't that tall. The windows also have a weird blue tint (possibly a UV filter) that makes it difficult to take a decent photo.
At a cost of €12 it was not worth the money in my opinion. Better value was found close by though. I was served up a delicious salmon steak and vegetables for €10 at the harbour market nearby. In Helsinki any meal under €10 is a bargain, you pay close to that for a Big Mac meal.
Wherever I travel to in the world I like to try any unique local foods. The only thing unique about Finnish cuisine that I knew about was reindeer meat. It's popular in Lapland where it's considered an expensive delicacy.
Well I didn't take the journey to Lapland and I didn't spend a fortune either, but I did eat some reindeer meat.
Kotipizza, a Finnish pizzeria has a pizza called the Berlusconi (€11.50) with smoked reindeer as its main topping. The pizza was created as a response to controversial comments made by Italian prime minister Silvio Berlsuconi who said he had to "endure" Finnish food when visiting the country and followed it up but saying "There is absolutely no comparison between culatello (speciality ham) from Parma and smoked reindeer".
It was a mighty fine pizza. As for what the reindeer meat tasted like, well whenever someone eats some kind of unusual meat they usually say it "tastes like chicken". This didn't taste like chicken, it tasted quite unique, I'm not sure how to describe it actually, but it was nice.
"Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, had a very unique taste, and if you ever saw it, you'd want it with cheese and tomato paste. Oh Rudolph with your nose so bright, won't you hand me a fork tonight?" (thanks for that line Jen!)
With a stomach full of bread, cheese and Rudolph the Reindeer, I took a night time stroll to a beach that I discovered using Google Maps on my phone.
I headed for the yellow area near the sea, which had to be a beach, and it looked like there was a massive park that I had to walk through to get there. I got to the big green area and it was actually a cemetery. I started to walk through it anyway, thinking there would be a park on the other side. Well, it turns out that whole massive green area is just one large graveyard. I couldn't get out of it easily, every gate was padlocked shut and I'd walked too far to be bothered walking all the way back and finding a different route.
Getting stuck and lost in a cemetery late at night would have been a lot worse if it wasn't for the fact that night time in Helsinki has bright daylight during the summer. During my stay there it only got dark between 11pm and 4am and even then it wasn't black-dark, the sky was a beautiful dark blue.
I did manage to find an exit to the graveyard, thankfully, and made it to Helsinki's only beach. It was approaching 9pm at night but there were still a few people sitting on the beach, enjoying the sunshine ....
.... playing beach volleyball ....
.... and even a bloke on some ridiculously cool jet pack thing ....
Linnanmäki (Amusement Park)
If I visit a city and it has an amusement park, it's high on my list of things to do. Helsinki has Linnanmäki, which opened in 1950. That doesn't mean that the rides are ancient as the park has been constantly updated through the years. There are a lot of old rides still there but there's plenty of new thrill rides too.
The oldest ride was the wooden rollercoaster in the photo above. It was built in 1951. It didn't look very fast, about 60 km/h, but I had to ride it anyway because it's a part of history. Well done to them for keeping it maintained for 64 years. It was actually more thrilling than I expected because of the fact that it's all wooden and shaky - it makes it a bit scary.
The fastest ride was Ukko, which is a loop of 150 meters with 2 inversions. The speed hits 105 km/h.
I had a whole day of fun at Linnanmäki so I felt like I got value for my €37 unlimited-ride wristband. I left after 8pm and walked back to the centre of Helsinki. passing a lake and a park, in glorious warm sunshine. I remember how good I felt during that stroll. A massive dose of fun, exercise, fresh air and sunshine would put anyone in a good mood.
The fortress islands of Suomenlinna, where construction began in 1748, are a quick, cheap, 2km ride from the Helsinki harbour on a public transport ferry. The weather was glorious so it seemed like the perfect place to spend a day.
Many of the buildings on the island have been turned into museums or other attractions but even without visiting them I'd spent a few hours walking around exploring the forts.
I wished that I'd brought a picnic but fortunately there are restaurants and cafes on Suomenlinna. I had a nice salmon sandwich inside this submarine which has been converted into a museum and cafe.
I got talking to a local couple who were visiting the island. In Finland everyone speaks English with very high proficiency so it's easy to approach people with confidence.
They proudly explained that they can travel on the ferry to Suomenlinna for free with their transport card, because it's part of the public transport system. I told them that if I lived in Helsinki I would be visiting Suomenlinna all the time. "Yes, well the weather isn't exactly like this all the time" the guy said, "We have maybe two weeks per year that's as nice as this. This is the first time we've travelled here this year."
He did explain that the islands were magnificently beautiful when covered in snow, but I was quite happy to experience the summer version.
I didn't get off the island without a bit of drama though. I tried to walk closer to the flag in the photo above so that I could take a good photo of it. I walked on the grass and was physically attacked by a massive seagull. It probably thought that making it's nest on a fortress island would be the safest place, not expecting an invasion from a big daft Scotsman.
I like travelling to places on my own because it gives me a lot of freedom to do whatever I want, whenever I want to. I do try to make local friends though as I think that's the best way to experience any place you visit. When you hang out with locals you learn and experience things that you won't find in a travel guidebook.
I did manage to make a cute, blonde Finnish friend called Elina, but not until my last night in Helsinki. It was a shame because she told me that her family owns a cottage in the north of Finland that's next to a big lake and we could have taken a trip there and gone sailing and fishing.
She offered to drive me to the airport for my flight to Marbella the next day, but not before stopping by a mini-golf course to kick my ass. I played terrible....
.... but maybe I was doing it wrong?
Elina said that we still had plenty of time so we visited a nice restaurant for lunch before driving to the airport. On the journey to the airport it looked like we were cutting it fine, with just 15 minutes before check in was due to close for my flight. "Don't worry" she said, "we're just a few minutes away".
I started to relax and continued the conversation. She was telling me that she didn't know of any Scottish singers so I explained to her who the Proclaimers were and started singing their version of "King of the Road". I thought I sounded absolutely fantastic but she burst out into a fit of laughter.
"Stop it", I said, "it's not supposed to be funny! :(". She was laughing so hard that she slowed down and stopped the car right in the middle of the motorway, laughing her ass off, her sides splitting. "What the hell are you doing?" I gasped. "I'm going to miss my flight."
That was when learned the real reason why she was laughing. "I've run out of petrol" she said. "WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT????? You're just pulling my leg right? move!!!!" I asked. She kept laughing, but got her breath and told me that she really had run out of petrol. So there we were, stuck on the motorway, agonisingly close to the airport where check-in for the only flight to Malaga (for Marbella) was about to close.
We were still too far away for me to run with my heavy bags, so that wasn't an option. Elina said there was a petrol station further up the road so she started running. I stayed by her car which was blocking one of two lanes on the motorway, taking the death stare from drivers who were forced to slow down as they passed.
The pink dot in the background is Elina running. She was soon out of sight and time started ticking away. When there were less than 5 minutes before check-in was due to close I had given up hope. I couldn't see her running back, and even if see did appear in the distance there wouldn't be enough time for her to get back to the car, fill up the tank and drive to the airport.
I was already thinking about how much hassle and money this was going to cost me. I had a hotel and private shuttle service waiting for me in Spain that I'd paid for in advance, I'd have to spend an extra night in Helsinki and get another flight to Malaga the next day, if there was one - which was no guarantee, otherwise it was going to be difficult for me to get there in time to play the poker tournament.
As I was looking in the distance for Elina a taxi pulled up behind the car. "Brilliant", I thought, "here's a helpful taxi stopping to ask if need his help to get to the airport, when my suitcase is locked inside the boot of the car." But to my surprise Elina jumped out of the taxi with a can of petrol. Wow.
"No time to explain, let's just get this into the tank." she said. She proceeded to try to pour the petrol in without the funnel and it was leaking everywhere. I got her to attach the funnel and I held it in place as she was all panicked and shaking. The petrol still spilled all over my hands and splashed all over my jeans and hoodie. "That's enough", I said, "that'll do for now".
We got back in the car and started driving. Elina franticly told me what had happened at the petrol station. She got there and realised that she didn't have a container for the petrol, and the shop didn't sell any. Two men seen how distressed she was and helped her out. One found her a can for the petrol and the other was a taxi driver who offered to abort his break early to drive her back.
Elina dropped me off right at the front door to airport departures and I ran with my suitcase to the check-in desk. There were less than two minutes to go and I was absolutely stinking of petrol. Fortunately I found the desk quickly and there was no queue. The girl at the desk proceeded to check me in while I stood well back so that she wouldn't smell me. I obviously had a great excuse for turning up to an airport covered in a highly flammable liquid but there was simply no time for any questioning.
I received my boarding pass 28 seconds before check-in closed and turned around to see Elina who gave me a massive hug. She was apologising profusely but I asked her "Why are you sorry? You got me here on time, just like you said you would." :)
Looking back on it, after the way things turned out in Marbella, I wish I had missed the flight. So close!