The first way I share stories from the places I visit is through social media and lately Instagram has been my favorite platform. Using a single image along with a short story, my goal is to make these countries, regions and cities come alive as if you were traveling alongside me. My most recent trip took me to two countries I hadn’t visited before: Finland and Estonia. The travel experiences were fun, exciting and educational and the overall trip was so positive, I wanted to share those photos and stories that I shared on Instagram with you here as well.
Snowmobiling around Ranua, Finland
I started my trip in Finnish Lapland, the northernmost region of the country. On the first day I joined some friends in a snowmobile adventure through the forests and frozen bogs around Ranua on a day when the high temperature was around -25 degrees Celsius. “But it’s a dry -25,” my guide reassured me as I suited up in 5 layers of clothes. This is the part of the temperature scales where C and F converge, so everyone should have a pretty good idea of just how very cold it was. Actually, with the wind rushing past me on the snowmobile the feeling was much more like -40, but at that point it doesn’t really matter. That’s part of the beauty of this part of Finland though – it’s why people visit, to experience the beauty of winter in one of its purest forms. Rushing along frozen bogs and virgin forests covered with a new layer of snow was just as beautiful as I had hoped it would be. With nothing manmade for kilometers in any direction, it’s as close as you can get to understanding the natural soul of this country in the perfect season. I’ve never seen a country embrace winter like Finland, but everyone I’ve met here loves it. Not only do they love it, they take pride in it. They know it’s cold, but they also know that with those temperatures comes some very special moments, like the one I had sitting out in the middle of nowhere just listening to the sound of my own breath and not much else. Looking all around me I was stunned that I was in such a remarkable place, surely one of the most purely gorgeous landscapes anywhere in the world, even if you can only see it a few hours a day. This time of year the sun isn’t out for long, but once it is the forests and frozen lakes erupt in crystalline brilliance. Who knew there could be so much color in such a seemingly barren place?
Bear Hill Husky, Roveniemi Finland
As the owner of three Siberian Huskies it’s always with mixed feelings that I approach dog sled experiences. On the one hand I love being around dogs almost more than anything else but part of me worries about whether or not the experience is an ethical one. With dog sledding the only real way to know is by visiting and almost right away I knew that Valentijne Beets’ company Bear Hill Husky was the real deal – no one cares THAT much about their dogs if they don’t treat them well. Located right outside of Roveniemi, Bear Hill has dozens of Alaskan Huskies in their kennel and it was 5 of these hard working dogs that took me out into the chilly woods of Finnish Lapland. I love dog sledding because of how quiet it is. Mushing through the snow, the dogs clearly love running more than anything else and the only noise is their fierce panting. It’s a beautiful way to be a part of nature without loud motors or anything else around. It’s also one of the best ways to experience the amazing landscapes in northern Finland without leaving a trace.
I’m a city guy. I live in a city, I like exploring cities when I travel and I feel most comfortable in them. They just make sense. But whenever I travel I also feel the call of natural landscapes in a way that I don’t at home. I think that’s one reason why I’ve so enjoyed spending some time in very north, very rural Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland. As rural an area as you’re likely to find anywhere in the world, a scant 180,000 people call this massive, 38,009 square mile region home. It’s a special place that captures the imaginations not only of Finns, but of people from around the world. It’s the official home of Santa Claus, plenty of reindeer, the indigenous Sami people and more outdoor activities than most people are able to do in a week. It’s untamed, unspoiled and to me endlessly fascinating. Life is different up here, a little less complicated and infinitely more beautiful. Winters are cold, no doubt there, but that’s part of the draw. You can experience winter here in a way you just can’t anywhere else. Over the last few days I’ve met Santa (he’s around 364 days a year), rode with huskies, went snowmobiling over frozen bogs and met many kind hearted and good natured people. I didn’t know much about Rovaniemi before first arriving, but in just a few short days it’s captured my heart. I love when that happens and believe me, it’s well worth a few extra layers of clothes to capture that feeling only if very briefly.
While in Lapland, I did something completely different from my normal style of travel. I spent the night in a remote cabin in the middle of nowhere Finnish Lapland with no electricity or running water. For a luxury traveler who usually cares about the thread count of my sheets, this was a major break from the norm. But you know what? It was amazing. When we arrived to the cabin it was -25 and dropping fast. My host started the fire right away and immediately I began to wonder, “What now?” As a guy who lives online it’s hard to imagine an evening without electricity or WiFi and I had no idea how we’d pass the time. I needn’t have worried though, I was to be indoctrinated into the proud Finnish tradition of a proper, wood fired sauna. If you’ve never tried the wood version of sauna you’re missing out and more than just a way to warm up, it was an entire cultural experience. Preparing for it, enjoying it, chatting with friends during it and cooling off by stepping outside in -30 degrees – it was all amazing and all made me fall in love with Finland even more. After a hearty venison stew, we went to bed and I enjoyed one of the most peaceful nights I’ve ever had. Active travel is great but sometimes it’s equally important to step back, disconnect and remember in the first place what makes travel so very special.
I was in Helsinki to attend a conference and as such, didn’t spend much time outside of meetings. On the last day though I spent the afternoon doing something that combines two things Finns really love – nature and design. Maybe because the country is blessed so many great natural escapes, but all of the locals I’ve met have been obsessed with the outdoors and getting back to nature. And just because you live in a big city like Helsinki that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the outdoors, which is how I found myself in Nuuksio National Park and the remarkable Finnish Nature Center Haltia in Espoo. Haltia is a new kind center that brings the highlights of Finnish nature under one roof. More than just learn about nature though, Haltia’s position in one of Finland’s 39 national parks means there’s plenty of things to do, even in the winter. After spending a couple hours hiking through snowy forests and over frozen lakes, the warm embrace of Haltia was the perfect way to warm up. It’s hard to talk about Finland and not mention amazing design. Known for its simplicity and functionality, Finland has excelled in creating everything from chairs to entire buildings that are unlike anything else in the world. Haltia’s design is inspired by the nature surrounding it, the wooden building sits overlooking a beautiful lake and is meant to look like a duck in its nest. Espoo and Nuuksio National Park is an easy 30 minutes from Helsinki and I definitely recommend it when you visit.
I got up early so I could take the 2 1/2 hour ferry ride from Helsinki to Tallinn in Estonia, a city I’ve wanted to see in person for a long time. In what is a rarity for European cities, Tallinn has never been razed which means visitors today can see a colorful and remarkably well preserved medieval city, which is also why the Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s that color which appealed to me the most, the bright buildings contrasted against the snow and ice of a very cold winter’s day. It’s one of Tallinn’s defining features and made me want to learn even more about this Baltic city.
My adventures in Estonia were brief, just a couple of days but I did manage to get out of the main city of Tallinn and visit some rural spots in Estonia from manors to snowy seaside beaches. Returning back into Tallinn though it was in the middle of a snowstorm, transforming an already gorgeous city into something right out of a fairy tale. Bundling up in the now-normal boots, gloves and thermals, I grabbed my camera and went walking through Tallinn’s amazing Old Town, nearly empty and completely silent – sounds muffled by the newly fallen snow. The colorful buildings and picture-perfect scenes make it easy to forget that Estonia isn’t a country lost in time, it’s modern, exciting and one of the most e-friendly countries in the world. Almost immediately after it gained independence in 1991, the country started the hard work of transforming itself into a modern country that’s better run than most in the world. Ultra-high-speed 4G mobile covers basically the whole country, WiFi is almost always free and is considered a human right, Skype had its start here and everyone does almost everything online, from telecommuting to voting and nearly every other aspect of modern life you can think of. But for many of us, those are just nice perks that complement the urban appeal of Tallinn itself, which I was thrilled to experience during a wonderfully snowy night. It was a perfect travel moment and one of those nights that while they may completely unplanned, they make trips the special experiences that we remember for the rest of our lives.
Baltic Sea Between Finland & Estonia
You can get to Tallinn in a variety of different ways, but one of the most popular is by ferry. The trip between Helsinki and Tallinn is a very easy two and a half hours and the experience was so much more fun and even luxurious than I thought it would be. Sailing with Eckerö Line on their massive ship the M/S Finlandia, this wasn’t your average ferry, it was a cruise ship in almost every sense of the word. Bars, restaurants, bands and lounges, the ship itself was the perfect and one of the most comfortable ways to get between these two Nordic capitals.
In the winter though the trip is made a little extra special by the stunning views along the way, even sea ice that at times can be quite thick. Built like a polar ice-cutter, the Finlandia sliced through these small chunks of ice with ease, creating visual masterpieces in the process. While it was chilly, it was also fun standing out on the top deck watching one city vanish and another one appear on the horizon. The ferry ride was as much a part of the Tallinn experience as all of those brightly colored buildings I loved, and is another great example of never knowing where or when you’ll find beauty in this world.