You Like the Smell of a Forest, and Wouldn’t Mind a Taste
My first sip of sahti was like tasting liquid forest — pine, wind, cool air — thanks to its main flavoring ingredients of juniper and rye. The small pour had barely any carbonation.
The bartender served it in a silver vessel that looked like a cross between a ladle and a cup. It’s dark and has a very homebrew look to it. You brewers out there know what I mean!
Oh, it’s also about 8 percent ABV.
Because Fake Sahti Isn’t Even Close
I’ve tasted several sahti-inspired ales in the U.S., including Samuel Adams Norse Legend or Dogfish Head Sah’Tea. They’re barely distinguishable from a brown ale — boring. To be fair, the brewers don’t label them as authentic versions.
And that’s the cool thing about travel: It gives you a chance to taste things you’ll never encounter at home.
You Can Brew Your Own Sahti
Live somewhere with access to juniper? Then you brew your own. This recipe is promising if a bit large; some recipes don’t scale down well, but experimentation is part of the homebrewing fun. And of course, trying the real stuff will give you a better bench mark to judge your brew.Â
Also, the story that goes along with the recipe is pretty cool. It’s definitely less scientific and sterile than commercial brewers in the U.S.!
An Extra Hint
I confused a lot of bartenders by asking for "sah-tea." It’s pronounced "sock-tea," like tea brewed in a sock. You can also add a bit of gravel to the "k" syllable. Yes, this seems like a small detail. But it can make the difference in finding this elusive beverage. Some even seemed annoyed by the mispronunciation once they realized what I meant.Â
I can’t even tell you how many times I hear American travelers go on about Spain, Italy, France and England. You’ll hear about culture, history, museums and food (a little less so with England on that last one!). But I can’t say I’ve ever heard an American traveler all wound up about the idea of a trip toÂ Finland.
And I just don’t get it.
Finland – and also Iceland and Norway – have a certain sense of community spirit that’s hard to define. But that spirit makes Finland an incredibly fun place to travel. And then you have the scenery, the events, the food, the public transit and the shopping. I’m not ordinarily a big shopper. But IÂ always look outÂ for things that will interest others, and I can tell you that any fashionista with an eye for one-of-a-kind items from small, independent designers will love Finland.
Let me share some information that gives you an idea of why you should go to Finland.
We arrived in HelsinkiÂ after a flight from TromsÃ¶, Norway via Oslo aboard Norwegian Air Shuttle. I sat across the aisle from a young female rock band, one member of which got startled when my wife accidentally launched a gob of sanitizer directly onto her lap (pressurization, yo). Sharing a plane with young rockersÂ reinforced my notionÂ that Finland is a paradise for good, loud rock music; part of our reason for visiting was to go to the Ruisrock festival in TurkuÂ (the Ruisrock link includes a story about having several people convinced that I’m a rock star who performed at the festival).
I was a little surprised that the rail line from the airport to the city center was still under construction during our visit (it may be ready now, though). The bus ride was still pleasant, and I thought more than a few times of Minnesota as we cruised along through rolling plains and evergreen trees.
Downtown Helsinki, though, was all cool Old World architecture alongside sleek but welcoming new architecture. It’s a blend Finland wears well, just like so many other countries in the region.
First example of the community spirit I mentioned earlier – we asked a young Finnish woman for directions, and she walked us to within a few steps of our hotel and told us all about herself as we walked.
What’s So Cool About Finland?
If American travelers knew what I do about Finland, it would be a huge, up-and-coming destination. It’s just that awesome. Let me break it down:
Absolutely Vibrant During Summer – Finland comes alive in the summer, with music festivals spanning nearly every genre practically every weekend somewhere in the country. Also, there’s a nightly tradition in the cities -- people fill up a cooler, grab a blanket, head to the nearest park and hang out with their friends and neighbors in the post-dinner hours. I imagine winter is a little less social, but I’d bet it’s still a picture-perfect scene of a holiday season.
Getting Around is Super Easy – Whether you walk, bicycle or take a train, the transit options are affordable and easy to navigate. Our two-hour trip on the VR train to Turku was a marvel of comfort and efficiency. We also used a combination of train and bus travel to enjoy a day hiking at the Nuuksion Koulu. Every leg of the trip went off without a hitch. And cyclists – be prepared for an astounding bicycle infrastructure.
History and Fun – We also took a quick boat trip out to Suomenlinna, where we spent a day enjoying the island’s history and sites -- be prepared for some gusty Baltic winds, though. I also got to try some bear sausage. Back in Helsinki, we took an evening trip out to the LinnanmakiÂ amusement park.
Things to Know
You might be tempted to call Finland a Scandinavian country. Resist the urge. Refer to it as a Nordic country instead.
Also, Finland uses the Euro. That’s part of the reason its prices aren’t quite as high as Norway.
If you’re a beer connoisseur, let’s just say Finland hasn’t quite hopped into the craft-beer movement just yet. There are a few places to get good brews, but you’ll mostly see fizzy, watery, pale-yellow lagers.
Finland in a Word: Liveable
I could very easily see living in Finland, even with its winters. There seems to be a work-life balance that allows the country to prosper, but it exudes a "work to live, not live to work" outlook. That’s healthy. The country’s fixation on sauna (pronounce it “sah-oo-nah”) is another healthy element, along with well-marked hiking trails serves by huts. Finland is the place to be for backpackers and cross-country skiers.
My total time in Finland was about nine days – enough to convince me that you should go to Finland – split between Turku and Helsinki. Turku is built around a river, and it is so incredibly relaxed and pleasant that you might never realize that many of the world’s behemoth cruise ships are built there. As for Helsinki -- I could easily use a few weeks to dive into all that it offers. I’d love a chance to learn more about its heavy metal scene and to get out into the surrounding natural areas.
There’s no way I’ll commute by bike in present-day Arizona. A post at the Architecture Travel Writer blog made me think about why it’s not one of my transportation alternatives.
Fellow blogger Nichole talked to Phoenix city planner Joseph Perez about improving bike commuting options. His ideas (bike shares, smartphone apps, consultants and developer input, to name a few) show why Phoenix lags Â in the movement to commute by bike.
You’ll notice my lengthier-than-typical comment about an open state of war between motorists and bike commuters. My view comes from my past attempts to commute by bike. Here’s what I faced:
Disappearing bike lanes – I’d be in a great lane for a mile or two. And then it would disappear. Transportation alternatives need routes users can count on.
Debris-strewn bike lanes – Dirtiness and grit that love puncturing tubes.
Openly hostile motorists – I’ve had people throw stuff at me, yell at me, cut in front of me and try to bump me with their mirror. Other cyclists will say the same.
Clueless motorists – Some motorists think it’s a good idea to blare their horn as they approach cyclists from behind (hint: we can hear their engines). Then there are others who get to a four-way stop first, hesitate and give the "after you" wave. Guess what? The safest place for cyclists is behind you. Obey the law and the four-way stop protocol – your misguided "politeness" doesn’t help.
Other bicyclists – The "don’t give a shit about rules or good sense" variety puttering against traffic, ignoring traffic flow and just general being self-centered jerks. These riders deserve a special place in hell – they make drivers paint all of us with the same brush. They make cycling lose political clout among theÂ transportation alternatives.
Too many near misses put me back in my car. Not the heat, not the lack of bike parking, not the scarcity of showers in most commercial buildings. It was the motorists – the antagonism, or just the casual disregard for a cyclist’s safety over their convenience.
What would get me to commute by bike as one of my Â transportation alternativesÂ again? Physically separating bike lanes from roadways as much as possible. The canal bike paths are a great start – Step One would be to widen them. Next, get some physically separated connectors to the canal.
The bike infrastructure in Helsinki, Finland, and its below-grade bike superhighways provide the perfect example. The U.S. is decades away from Finland’s harmonious relationship between motorists and cyclists -- but we can at least separate bike lanes.
Apps and consultants are half-measures to make it look like Phoenix city officials take seriously the need to commute by bike. None will make a true difference – and they’re not meant to. Phoenix revolves around car culture and sprawl – and looking like it’s trying to change while not actually doing so. City officials seem to have no clue about one fairly easy change that could make its streets more pedestrian friendly – how can we count on them to be any better with bike commutingÂ if they can’t implement scramble crosswalks? I offer a vote of no confidence on bike commuting to current and past administrations.
I expect naysayers to sputter “but, but, we can’t.” People, this is nothing next to light rail. It would take a fraction of the time and money. It could happen … if we approach it with a “how?” attitude. There’s a way to do it if we can overcome the lack of political will.
If you want to see other interesting ideas to make it more feasible to commute by bike, check out the Copenhagenize blog.
Angry motorists beware – some of those cycling commuters are cops
An awesome trip is rarely an accident. It’s a combination of preparation, planning and flexibility. You start with a game plan and leave holes for spontaneity. Let me show you how it’s done, using my recent trip to the Nordic countries as an example.
Pick Your Destination(s)
I’ve wanted to visit the Nordic countries for quite awhile. The music (the heavier side of it), the food, the culture and the scenery all appealed to me. I also haven’t been to any part of Europe since I was a wee tyke. But I wanted to avoid the well-trod destinations most American travelers choose. Based on our activities (see below), we decided to arrive and leave via Stockholm, Sweden.
You probably have reasons for your choice of destination. Fair enough – but pick up guide books and read some quality travel blogs to get a handle on other activities and ideas you haven’t considered. I like a guidebook for multiple ideas on accommodations and food.
Recently, though, I’ve downgraded the credence I previously placed in guidebooks for activities. Especially with hiking. I question whether guidebook writers do even a quarter of what they write about. Hit the blogs for the first-hand perspectives and photographic evidence of any activities you find in the blog. You’ll be far better prepared.
Figure out 2-3 Key Activities
I’d always wanted to go to a European music festival. I figured out what was scheduled around Finland and Sweden since they’re the bases of some of my favorite bands. Another part of the mix: Sarah and I have a fairly new tradition of running a race (10K or half marathon) when we travel. We scoured the Web for dates of running races and music festivals.
We scored huge by finding the Midnight Sun Run in Tromso, Norway. And I came up with the Ruisrock festival in Turku, Finland, and the Bessegen hike at Jotunheimen National Park, Norway. Everything else on the trip revolved around those three high points. We had several days between each to go for side trips.
Watch for Airfare Deals
Chances are, airfare will be your biggest single expense. So do everything that’s reasonable to shrink it. One of my favorite techniques is to sign up for the newsletters of airlines that serve the region you want to visit. For instance, if you want to hit Finland, sign up for any newsletters from Finnair, SAS or Norwegian Air Shuttle. That’s how you’ll get tipped off first to fare sales.
And give a thorough check of the websites. That’s how you’ll find out about great packages that let you assemble a package deal of flights. The Qantas Aussie Pass is a perfect example – it lets you arrange several flights around the continent for a far better price than booking individually.
During my trip to Finland, I gave Turku too little time. I even stowed my big SLR camera, relying instead on a little point-and-shoot to give some impressions. If I go again, Turku gets more time … even at Helsinki’s expense. It’s a compact, walkable city – and warmer than anywhere else I’ve been in the Nordic countries.
The Aura River makes it scenic … you’ll find paths on both sides of the river (in many places). It’s an easy way to find restaurants, museums and parks.
The moment I arrived in Finland, I was trying to find out where to find sahti, a traditional local beer.
Just about every bartender looked at me like I’m a mental patient on the lam because I asked for sahti. I struck out everywhere.
At Panimoravintola Koulu in Turku, my question riled the barkeep the most. Then the expat Italian barkeeper at Alvar clued me in.
Looking for Sahti in All the Wrong Places
First, I mispronounced “sahti.” The right pronunciation sounds like “sock tea,” as in tea brewed in a sock. But you give the “ck” a bit of gravel to it, a kind of Hebrew slant on the syllable.
Second, I expected Finland was proud of its traditional brew. It’s made out of cool stuff like juniper and rye. It hits pretty hard. What’s not to love?
Well, Finland isn’t rooted in the past. They favor a good kebab, apparently, to a reindeer repast. And they prefer large amounts of whiz-colored lager to earthy-brown brews served in a small silver cup. It’s the stuff a Finn’s mothball-scented grandpa drinks, not the young and hip.
I don’t qualify as young, and I am too metal to be hip. But a guy my age asking where to drink sahti is an oddity. It’s also a bit of an under-the-radar quaff, almost like a moonshine. It tends to be small-batch stuff that the big brewers eschew.
I Finally Found Where to Drink Sahti
Back in Helsinki, I found sahti – the Lammin Sahti Oy brand – in a kitschy farm setting at Zetor near the city center. And my orderÂ yet again surprised the bartender: I explained that trying local/regional food and drink is part of the reason I travel. I guess not many foreigners know about sahti.
A few moments later, I had a small silver vessel – a cross between a ladle and a cup. The sahti was dark brown and opaque. I took a sip.
And found that sahti tastes exactly like the forest smells. It reminded me of pine trees, wind, cool air. It’s strong, but not absurdly so – probably 8-10 percent ABV. There’s little carbonation, but I didn’t mind the flatness.
Why Isn’t Sahti a Big Deal?
The sahti-influenced ales – Samuel Adams Norse Legend or Dogfish Head Sah’Tea, to name a few – are not even in the ballpark. They’re alright, but they are far different from what you’ll get in Finland. You’ll probably like the real stuff better.
If you’re an exotic beer fan, don’t show up in Finland unprepared like I did. I assumed sahti would flow like wine. Do your research. Google “sahti in Finland” in a bunch of different ways. And make your game plan, and figure out what else to do while you search for sahti.
It’s a warm summer weekend inÂ Turku, Finland. I just stepped off the VR train from Helsinki to check outÂ Ruisrock. This is a swift, convenient, punctual train trip that I’ve never seen equaled in the U.S. – for some reason, we’re a nation that hasn’t grasped the benefits of high-speed rail travel.
Now, it’s time to wander Turku. We have a good eight hours to kill before we head to Ruis Salo, the island that hosts Ruisrock. Today’s lineup ranges fromÂ NightwishÂ – the day’s headlining band and Finland’s best-known musical export – to Children of Bodom, Apocalyptica and The Cardigans.
When it comes to theme parks, Helsinki is no Orlando. It offers just one amusement park called LinnanmÃ¤ki (“Castle Hill,” in English). About 1.2 million visited LinnanmÃ¤ki in 2007 – that’s roughly the number of people in line for Space Mountain at any given time.Â But an amusement park doesn’t need to be a sprawling city-state to be fun. Here’s what you need to know about LinnanmÃ¤ki amusement park and why I think it’s so cool.
1. It’s walking distance from the Helsinki central train station. Call it a nice 30-minute walk along a pedestrian/bike path that runs alongside the train tracks (don’t worry, Finnish trains are very quiet).
2. You can ride until you’re dizzy for less than 24 Euros. Just get there after 7 p.m. for an evening pass that includes unlimited rides. You might score an even better deal if LinnanmÃ¤ki still offers discounts if you sign up for a loyalty card (the employees hooked us up with this advice).
3. The lines are short, so you can walk from ride to ride, just hopping between roller coasters at will. And this was in summertime, which should be high season.
4. There are six roller coasters among its 43 rides. You’ll find some splashy water rides, so beware on a chilly day! My favorite ride was Salama, a bizarre spinning roller coaster. I’d never been on roller coasters where you might face backward or sideways by spinning vertically, no matter where the coaster was pointed.
5. LinnanmÃ¤ki has the best amusement park food ever. We found Cuisine World Kattila, which had six cuisines from around the world. But it seems LinnanmÃ¤ki put a Finnish spin on much of it: For instance, I can’t imagine my late Grandpa Tony making his meatballs out of reindeer – but that’s what I had. They were delicious sprinkled with mint. And the server cracked me up by repeatedly calling them reindeer balls (now that, my friends, is the difference between speaking English very well and being fluent!).
6. The nonprofit organizationÂ Lasten PÃ¤ivÃ¤n SÃ¤Ã¤tiÃ¶ (Children’s Day Foundation) ownsÂ LinnanmÃ¤ki. Adds a nice bit of feel-good to your plunge down the log flume, doesn’t it?
Getting around is part of the fun of a visit to Norway and Finland. Our trip gave us a chance to check out just about every mode of transportation and many brands, from United Airlines to the Gjene ferry. Here’s the wrap-up:
1 leg on US Airways (Phoenix to Chicago)
1 leg on Scandinavian Airlines (Chicago to Stockholm Arlanda)
7 legs on Norwegian Air Shuttle (Arlanda, Oslo, Tromso, Bergen, Helsinki – see my review)
2 legs on United Airlines (Stockholm to Newark, Newark to Phoenix)
Norwegian Air Shuttle is the surprise of the bunch; nice planes, good service, good on-time performance and a very nice bit of regional flair.
The VR train was less of a surprise since European rail service has a good reputation. The VR exceeded our expectations, though. Watch for a full review here.
United Airlines wasn’t much of a revelation overall. But somehow, I got us seats in Economy Plus for the flight from Newark to Phoenix. That extra few inches of legroom was a nice surprise. If you have a few extra bucks or enough air miles for the upgrade, I’d highly recommend United Airlines Economy Plus. I was more than a bit surprised by the satellite TV in every seat. Had I not been hip-deep in a re-read of A Song of Ice and Fire, I would’ve thrown out $7 for the 4+-hour flight … especially since Goal TV is one of the stations. United Airlines seems to be in the middle of some real improvements for domestic flights.
Scandinavia is less than a month away. Well, same for Finland, which is really a Nordic country. No matter what you call this trip, it’s time to mentally pack my bags for a trip through Sweden, Finland, Norway and possibly a bit of Estonia.
We like camping and hiking when we travel, which adds challenges people who go on laid-back beach vacations won’t ever encounter. So, what’s on the packing list for Scandinavia? Pretty much the same stuff I brought to Iceland with a few new additions …
Cook stove (MSR Whisperlite International) – I’ll never go on a camping vacation without it after seeing a French family whip up a gourmet meal with one -- while I choked down a cold military MRE pack. It sounds like bottles and fuel are readily available in Scandinavia. There’s no reason to eat bad when you travel!
t-shirts and underwear (tasc Performance) – I wind up wearing the same stuff for many days. The bamboo blend of the tasc Performance gear resists funky stench. And it’s super-comfortable. tasc sent me some of its latest bamboo/merino wool blends to test out above the Arctic circle. It’s not on the tasc website yet, but you can check here for other tasc goodies. Watch for a full review later. I expect they’ll be great for hiking and camping.
Shirts (Kuhl Breakaway Cafe) – These follow the "no stink allowed" theme. They’re made from something called Coffeenna, which incorporates recycled coffee grounds to beat the stink. Also comfortable to the max. I flogged them without mercy in the humidity of Asia and stayed fresh the whole while. A perfect travel shirt.
I’ll also bring a few packets of freeze-dried foods to get us started. But we may switch to canned stuff once we’re on the ground … I imagine all sorts of canned fish products in Scandinavia. Lutefisk, anyone?
And my travel pillow stays home this time. I’ll bring an inflatable pillow instead, and use a stuff sack as either a pillowcase or a second pillow. I might also skip my infamous hat and just roll with a decent stocking cap instead. But that should do it for the big Scandinavia trip.