Annette Cunningham steps out of her comfort zone, ditches the posh frocks and finds she actually enjoys the great outdoors
I’m the kind of girl who gets her holiday kicks from welding herself firmly into the cushioned seat of a pavement cafe seat and watching the world whizz by whilst quaffing fizz – preferably within a euro’s throw of an ancient building.
Therefore, my planned visit to Finland, renowned for its forests, lakes (over 180,000 of them) and great outdoor life might seem a tad out of my comfort zone.
Especially since I look undeniably better by candlelight but was travelling there at the time of year when it gets very slightly dusky around midnight – immediately before dawn begins to break.
And let’s not forget the rumours that you need to remortgage your house to buy a round of beers and that the Finns exist solely on pickled herring...
Really, what had I let myself in for?
My well-travelled friend, familiar with my five-day itinerary, peered inside my suitcase with undisguised horror. “Why on earth are you taking four dresses?” he exclaimed scornfully, whilst scowling at my sling-backs. “You're going fishing off an eco island for goodness sake.”
True, but as I was also squeezing in a couple of cities I considered them essentials and zipped my case up defiantly.
Following my flawless flight with Finnair it took a couple of minutes to work out what was so odd on the journey from Helsinki to first port of call, Kokta.
Then it struck me. At 6pm on a weekday the motorway was almost empty. It was blissfully surreal – and a tad spooky. (By the end of the week I had to stop myself waving excitedly at passengers of any approaching vehicle – after all, they became something of a novelty).
View from eco island Rakinkotka
After settling in at the comfortable and welcoming Original Sokos Hotel Seurahuone, and changing somewhat determinedly into a dress, I braced myself for my first Finnish culinary experience. And it was fabulous, as was everything I ate in Finland.
Unsurprisingly, I consumed an incredible amount of fish that week, beautifully fresh and cooked to perfection, in fact I ate an incredible amount of everything – verified by a six pound weight gain.
After dinner I joined my travel companions in search of a beer. We were stunned how empty the streets were – something we pondered often.
It’s not until you consider the stats (the UK covers approximately 243km2 with a population of 64 million, Finland 338km2 with just 5 million inhabitants) that you realise that the Finns positively rattle around by comparison.
We discovered a sports bar sufficiently busy enough to prevent us feeling isolated and busted the myth of beer selling at a comparative price to gold.
Maybe it's different in the capital but elsewhere prices were similar to home.
Glancing round the bar we became increasing aware of what a great looking nation the Finns are. So I positively swooned when one gorgeous specimen headed my way – although his chat-up line was slightly marred by a twinge of Klingon (Finnish is not the most romantic of languages).
The next morning we took in the beautiful urban parks and impressive street sculpture, both dotted around Kokta liberally.
Then a short boat trip to Kaunissaari, a small island inhabited by around 200 people in the summer (believe it or not, I got chatting to an Oxonian who’s settled happily there) and seven people all year round, which gave a flavour of life away from the rat race.
A fabulous community spirit exists and between them they run a shop, library and post office. Eating at the island’s impressive restaurant, Kaunissaaren Maja is recommended and it’s frequented regularly by mainland residents who enjoy sailing over for lunch.
Next on the agenda was Hamina, a pretty circular town consisting of beautifully preserved wooden buildings dating from 1720.
A charming accommodation option is renting an old converted outhouse nestled in one of the town’s quaint, idyllic courtyards.
Annette gets to grips with her supper
We discovered a fabulous eatery called Kamu, which lays out an impressive and delicious buffet (possibly solely responsible for two pounds of my weight gain), which is proud to employ people with disabilities.
Our last day and night provided a truly wonderful experience – a true taste of the best of Finland’s nature including a beach visit or cliff smoke sauna at Rakinkotka. We spent a day and night on this wonderful eco island which is home to a small wooden village than can accommodate up to 60 people and offers tailored activities to groups.
We chose fishing and loved every minute. And despite being squeamish about handling anything scaly I surprised myself by getting stuck into dealing with the haul back on land.
I returned besotted with the country and its people – next time I’ll avoid the somewhat sleepy cities and get energised in the splendour of Finland’s natural beauty. And yes, the dresses can stay at home.
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