Why You Should Go to Finland

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 to 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 I always look out 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.

First Impressions

We arrived in Helsinki after a flight from Tromsö, 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 rockers reinforced my notion that Finland is a paradise for good, loud rock music; part of our reason for visiting was to go to the Ruisrock festival in Turku (the Ruisrock link includes a story about having several people convinced that I’m a rock star who performed at the festival).

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It’s early evening – soon, this park will be jammed with people on blankets hanging out.

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?

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Helsinki could give Portland a few lessons in weird.

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.

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Finland has cool architecture a-plenty

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 Linnanmaki 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.
  • Try sahti. It’s a traditional Finnish beer that’s hard to find … and slightly hard to pronounce. Here’s everything you need to know about sahti.
  • 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.
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Nuuksion National Park an easy combination of train and bus travel from Helsinki.

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.

Other Details

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.

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Turku is a maritime city you’ll love … if you like strolling along rivers, walking on tree-shaded paths and meeting people.

Tourism Versus Travel – And My Struggle to Not be a Jerk

Your backpack can be your best friend - or your worst enemy.
I like beautiful destinations – but I work for them.

One of my ongoing travel problems is getting off my high horse – especially about types of travel. This writer seems to go through the same struggle:

When choosing your destination, you need to decide: are you traveling for leisure or culture? I define leisure travel as relaxed and quite a bit like home, but with either service or beauty influencing the destination (ex. beach, cruise, resort, etc). Cultural travel (my kind of travel) is where you set off in hopes to learn, truly experience and open yourself up to a whole new culture and way of life. If you’ve chosen leisure, unfortunately I will have to stop you here, because I don’t think I’ll have much to offer you as far as travel tips that you can’t easily find on some corporate-owned, high-dollar, travel website. While leisure travel is fine and there’s nothing wrong with it, I don’t have much experience sitting on my ass while locals wait on me, so I can’t really pretend to be an authority on the subject. (Emphasis mine)

"Beauty of the destination" is a huge influence on my travel destinations. You could say that Brandon argues that traveling for a destination’s beauty is inherently less valid than traveling to visit a bunch of historic museums. Or that a beach always has more intrinsic eye-candy value than a lava field. But I don’t think that’s what he means. I think he’s traveled enough that he realizes reaching beautiful destinations can involve serious work.

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Cruises are not really my bag. But … I could be kinder to those who like them.

I think he just didn’t thrust the point home all the way. What I read is that he grapples with the same thoughts about "travelers" versus "tourists" that make me act like a jerk sometimes. I’ve lost count of how many cruise ship passengers and "guided-from-arrival gate-to-wheels up" tour groups I’ve snickered at when I travel.

And I have to stop that. The travel industry is symbiotic: Every traveler of every type is part of a network that creates opportunities for us all to find the experience we seek. I’m glad not everyone wants to eat boiled silkworm larvae; watch a soccer game in a driving Icelandic rain; camp north of the Arctic Circle; or swim into a cave filled with human sacrificial remains. It would get awfully crowded, wouldn’t it?

There are people who just want to escape, clear their mind, recharge their batteries. A beach isn’t a travel destination that will make me happy. But others find solace and renewal in the sand. I get it. The way I travel can be arduous, and I understand why a glacier, a volcano or a cave isn’t a destination for everyone. And I grok why some might want a different dose.

I have no lofty goal when I travel. I just want to do something cool, something different from my everyday life. Call it whatever you choose. No matter what label you tag on me, I’ll enjoy myself doing what I like. You do the same, OK?

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Sky Harbor – 5 Reasons to Step up for Air New Zealand

An Air New Zealand 777 in Shanghai, where the air looks like Phoenix during a summer haboob. (Follash, via Wikimedia Commons)

Air New Zealand wants more flights to the U.S. Denver and Houston appear to have inside track, according to Aviation Week.

Keep in mind, United Airlines pulled the plug on flights from Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. And Denver has done a nice job of snagging intercontinental travel.

What we have here is an opportunity. Air New Zealand – the flag carrier of a country that loves leisure travel – is telling airlines “come and get us … we’re ready, even before we get our new 787s.” And let’s remember: Phoenix Sky Harbor doesn’t need to fill an Air New Zealand 777 with Phoenicians to succeed – it needs to draw enough people from the region … an entirely feasible goal.

This is another opportunity for an airport like Phoenix Sky Harbor International to step up. Air New Zealand is confident that flights from cities from other than Los Angeles and San Francisco are viable. Sky Harbor should step into the void – especially since Denver told Aviation Week “We haven’t talked to Air New Zealand.”

You see, Sky Harbor has a few benefits that Denver and Houston don’t. Let’s take a look, shall we?

1. Better Weather

Phoenix Sky Harbor has better flying weather than either. The only time Phoenix has much potential for weather-related delays is in the very narrow scope of the summer monsoon season. So you have a better chance of on-time flights. These benevolent weather conditions are also good for flights that would connect flyers from the region to flights bound for New Zealand.

And let’s remember: Winter here is summer in New Zealand. So Americans will take the chance to escape winter weather and bask in the super-mild New Zealand summer. An airport like Denver means de-icing, which means increased costs and flight delays. Ever seen an aircraft de-ice in Phoenix?

Queenstown would be just two flights away if Air New Zealand and Phoenix could team up.

2. Convenience

Sky Harbor’s footprint is relatively small, and it will only shrink when the new Sky Train opens in early 2013. So no matter what airline brings New Zealand-bound travelers, they will be able to get to their Air New Zealand flight easily.

3. Lower Operating Costs

If you’ve been to Los Angeles International Airport, you’ve probably noticed the fancy-fication of the Tom Bradley International Terminal. Somebody has to pay for that – often, that means airlines as part of a charge to use the facility. Brett Snyder, aka Cranky Flier, writes that “costs per enplanement at the airport will rise from $12 today to ‘only’ $17 somewhere around 2016.” Sky Harbor’s own website boasts that its enplanement costs rank in the bottom 20 percent of the nation’s airports: “Airline costs will increase an average of 5 percent per year over 10 years resulting in the cost per enplaned passenger increasing from almost $5 now to between $7 and $8 by 2016.” These figures are per passenger.

Air New Zealand Pacific Economy 777-300ER cabin
The nice-looking interior of an Air New Zealand Triple 7.
For the record, Denver is more than $12 per enplaned passenger.

4. Shorter Lines

Again, travelers used to LAX will smile and nod here: Customs at LAX is a miserable snaking line of humanity. It’s an unwelcome “welcome home”. And imagine being a visiting Kiwi who encounters this after a flight from laid-back New Zealand; you’ll be ready to get back on the Air New Zealand flight that brought you. The far-more-homey Sky Harbor can do better. It already does.

5. Teaming up for Visiting Tourists

A flight from Sky Harbor to New Zealand is a chance to bring Kiwis to Phoenix, too. And they are avid travelers. It’s a great opportunity to create some itineraries and deals to get Kiwis to see the best of the Southwest.

And it would be a great experience for the Arizona Office of Tourism. As a country, New Zealand does a magnificent job of making travel easy for visitors. Its network of “iSites” are a great resource for visitors – for first-hand local advice and booking in equal amounts. An exchange of ideas could benefit Arizona with an influx of concepts that could make our state more welcoming for foreign visitors.

This adds up to opportunity. If Phoenix has the foresight and fortitude, it could be on the shortlist for flights from Air New Zealand. And it can start acting like the big city that it is.

Special thanks to my man Chris in Denver for the heads-up on this news. He was lookin’ out for me while I was in Scandinavia.

Rogue Columnist, German Tourists, Direct Flights and Jan’s Junket

More intercontinental flights to Phoenix Sky Harbor would be nice, but they're not the only way Germans come to Arizona. (Darren Koch via Wikimedia Commons)

Rogue Columnist, one of my favorite bloggers, has a post about Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s junket to Germany. Local media have only been able to get a partial list of the manifest for Jan’s Germany Junketsm, and she has not disclosed a budget for the two-week trip.

As usual, Jon Talton (the Rogue’s real name) accurately skewers the silliness and waste. But he misses his mark on the impact of German tourists on Arizona:

"As for tourism — forget it. Germans who want American sun go to Miami. Unless the state could lure or underwrite direct flights to Germany and France, it will never be a big player in this field."

I pointed out to him, as a first-generation German-American, that German loves Arizona. They love Old West kitsch, Cruise America camper vans, the Grand Canyon.

Jon concedes that Germans do love the Old West, but stays put on his assumptions that no direct flights from Germany equals little tourism.

Not so.

Germans don’t travel like Americans. They don’t don’t come only to visit Arizona. Lufthansa had a daily flight here at one point – but a single daily flight means you only have one departure and arrival time, versus multiple departures and arrivals at other intercontinental hubs like Los Angeles or New York. And Germans want to see a big slice of the country using their much heftier slice of vacation time. So why take a direct flight into an overgrown regional airport like Phoenix Sky Harbor when they could hit an intercontinental hub city and then drive into Arizona?

And German tourists love driving. If you see a Cruise America camper, I’d bet there’s a 1 in 5 chance there’s a German at the wheel.

The direct flights just don’t matter as much as Jon thinks. Germans come to Arizona. They spend money. They enjoy themselves. The direct flights are a separate issue – I think they’d benefit Arizona travelers more than visitors from Germany.