Greece may be going through some economic turmoil, but Athens…
I arrived in Helsinki via Finnair, early on a Saturday night. Despite checking weather reports, the Arctic chill proved a bracing surprise. The city was quietly blanketed under a thick duvet of snow. It was beautiful, disarming and very, very cold.
Boldly, I ventured out to find a restaurant. It wasn’t the climate for random meandering, but insane perseverance led me to Kokomo Tikibar & Room. There were more appealing options, but Helsinki isn’t a city for those on a budget. I pressed my frozen nose to many a restaurant window, but couldn’t face splashing €28 on a plate of pasta. Kokomo had the air of a student novelty bar, with kitschy bamboo décor and giddy clientele. While a burger and glass of wine cost the guts of €30, it felt like a lucky find.
Thankfully, the highly central, cute and stylish Hotel Indigo is close to a number of LGBT venues. My first stop was Mann’s Street, on the first floor of a building that felt like a 1920s office block. The film noirish entrance was where the romance ended, as the bar proved an oddly cheerless venue.
The crowd were older, bearish and friendly, but no amount of enthusiastic karaoke from the punters could hide the bar’s lack of character and awkward layout. On the upside, I heard a barn storming rendition of Unchained Melody.
DTM (Don’t Tell Mother) is celebrated as one of the largest clubs in Scandinavia and is best described as Finland’s G.A.Y. It’s quite plush, attracts a young, mixed crowd and doesn’t get swinging ‘til after midnight.
The girls were very hip and cute, making me wish I were a teenage lesbian millionaire- the drinks were quite expensive. In contrast to London, the clientele seemed refreshingly free of drugs, untroubled and cheery.
My favourite bar in Helsinki was G Lounge Skybar & Club, a rooftop venue with panoramic city views, DJs and slick cocktails. Chic and slightly uptight, it’s a place to get dressed up for.
By day, Helsinki is a highly civilised and stylish city. Shopping at Finlayson, a long-established textile manufacturer brought the biggest thrill due to their Tom of Finland range. I scooped up an oven mitt, napkins and a ‘Ready Man’ Pillow Cover. Obviously.
On the eastern side of the city’s peninsula lies Kallio, the hipster heart of Helsinki. Lunch at Sandro, a Moroccan fusion restaurant proved delicious, cosmopolitan and reassuringly healthy.
Fancy a camp and kitsch hot chocolate and cake? Head to the friendly, bijou and very gay Bear Park Café, perhaps while perusing the district’s sex shops and vintage clothing stores.
Reindeer and red wine
After Helsinki, I flew north to Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland. The city might lack aesthetic charm, but the real jewel is the unspoiled nature which surrounds it. Over lunch at Ravintola Roka, Salla of Visit Rovaniemi gave me a snappy, colourful history of Lapland over reindeer carpaccio and warming bottle of red wine.
This hipster bistro is possibly the best place to eat in the city. Soup broth made with fresh salmon caught by the chef? Incredible.
Ice, ice, baby
Arriving at the Arctic Snow Hotel proved surreal, thrilling and challenging. It was -36 outside, so one has to fling fashion to the wind and focus on survival. Hot-pants and a vest aren’t gonna cut it. We were supplied with thermal dungarees, boots, balaclavas and mittens- and by golly, they were essential.
The Snowhotel is a cross between a magical art installation and a glittering feat of engineering. Entirely carved from ice, it’s like Narnia on steroids. Not quite brave enough to kip on a bed of ice, instead, we stayed in one of the charming glass igloos.
Like a luxury Wendy house, the wooden ‘igloos’ come with a glass roof and an Aurora Alarm which sounds if the Northern Lights appear. The idea behind this concept is that one can lie in bed, gazing up at the stars and experience nature’s disco show without the shivering fear of frostbite.
Sadly, Lady Nature didn’t deliver her light show for yours truly, but I did get to experience the thrill of standing naked in the snow after a scorching sauna and a bellyful of vodka. The following day, frosted cobwebs were blown away when we embarked on a snowmobile safari.
Riding one of these machines is not for the faint hearted; strength, skill and a cavalier demeanour are de rigeur. Hammering over snowy plains, hitting speeds of 70mph was utterly terrifying and very thrilling. Despite ample training from Arctic Lifestyle, I was still surprised to be alive at the end of it all.
At Kontataniemi Reindeer farm, we petted the animals and listened to traditional stories round a camp fire. Following these curious larks, we enjoyed a lunch of braised reindeer, mashed potatoes and hot berry juice.
Admittedly, this wasn’t an enterprise that would appeal to vegans. Our next venture was a husky driven sled ride. This required more skill and endurance than expected.
The ‘driver’ has to balance on two narrow, wooden runners at the back, while the other ‘musher’ sits in a rickety sled, clinging on for dear life. One cannot underestimate the enthusiasm of the dogs, nor the relative discomfort of the experience.
Husky sledding is a hard-core sport and demands stamina. Despite such challenges, I cried with laughter throughout. I was paired up with DJ Agustín Cascales who whimpered with terror as the dogs howled with excitement and I laughed into the chilly night.
After the white-knuckle forest safari, we visited the kennels and got the chance to cuddle little husky puppies. Reflecting on this experience, months later, still makes my heart flutter.
We enjoyed a one-night stay at Beana Laponia Hotel, a remote luxury lodge located on the corner of two Arctic rivers. They don’t allow children, have an al fresco Jacuzzi and some of the rooms have an en suite sauna. I could have stayed there for weeks.
Date with Santa
Ironically, it was so cold (-39) that toboganning at the Ounasvaaara ski resort proved impossible. Instead, we went to Santa Claus Village. Yes, I met the big man himself.
‘I don’t believe in you,’ I murmured while sat in his slightly tacky grotto. ‘That’s because you’re a naughty boy,’ he whispered through his beard. Touché, I thought, while waiting for my €40 photo with the smart ass.
I may be too old for whimpering at the feet of Santa, but my inner child squealed with delight on seeing the massive ice slide in Snowman World. Using an inflatable tube, one hurtles down the imposing slope it at an alarming rate before arriving at the bottom, frozen, thrilled and panting. I did it three times in a row.
Fun in Finland
As a sun-loving, beach-hugging disco gay, Finland has always been largely off my radar. This trip proved once again, that narrow ambitions are a crime to one’s spirit and wisdom. In Rovaniemi, I was so overwhelmed with new information and experiences that my ‘self’ evaporated. It was liberating, educational and truly mind-blowing.
Oh, and in case you didn’t know, in summer, it doesn’t get dark in Finland, even at midnight, so be sure to bring your sunglasses.
This was first published on Gay Star News in 2015