Getting Our Bearings in Helsinki


The trip is over; and we’re back in the US.
I am adding onto the original teaser I posted on 24 June.
If you previously left a comment on this post, don’t be surprised to see it attached.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014
Helsinki, Finland
Temps: Hi 59F (15C) / Lo 43F (6C)

It was a drizzly day in Helsinki, but that didn’t stop us from wandering around and figuring out what’s what.  Our goal was to get our bearings around the city; we accomplished that!

Our aching feet can attest that the city is very walkable.  If only I had my pedometer to measure just how many miles we put on our feet today; I’m guessing about 6 miles (9.6 km)!

We weren’t the only ones enjoying one of Helsinki’s sidewalk cafés today ;-)               

We woke up at 6:00a, looked out the window and saw the overcast skies.  Since we had decided this was going to be an easy day, we pulled the curtains closed again and went back to sleep.  The next time we woke up it was 9:00a.  It was still overcast and the pavement outside was wet … must have rained at some point.  The good news — it was only 50F (10C) and the high was forecasted to go up just a few more degrees.  Loving these temps after the hot, sweltering days in Turkey!

We took our time getting ready for the day ahead.  Breakfast in the room from the foodstuff we picked up from K-Market yesterday; and then Mui made sandwiches for lunch, which he packed in inexpensive plastic containers … also from K-Market.  It will be nice not having squished sandwiches for a change ;-)

Sandwich, dessert, napkins, and Wetones … all tidily packed away in individual containers.

It was 11:30a when we left the hotel under a light drizzle; nothing worth opening an umbrella for.  The walk was just over a mile (1.7 km) — an easy one on wide, paved sidewalks designed to accommodate pedestrians and bikers in dedicated, marked lanes.

Estimating we walked at least 6 miles (9.6 km) in our meanderings today.

Our first stop once we reached the heart of the city was Café Esplanad [esplanade] — one of the many sidewalk cafés overlooking the very popular Esplanadin Puisto [Esplanade Park] — in concept, not unlike the Mall in Washington, DC.  Despite the light drizzle, we opted to take a seat outside.  Protected by the awning, we sipped our hot beverages while we watched passersby.  Gulls, perched on the light poles lining the street, took every opportunity to swoop down on leftovers, but they left us in peace.

Don’t look for ‘personal space’ if you take a seat at a sidewalk café …

… to sip a cappuccino, or in my case, a hot chocolate topped with mounds of whipped cream.

Next, we walked the short distance down Pohjoisesplanadi to the Tourist Information Center (TIC) located at the intersection with Unionsgatan.  Couldn’t have asked for a better place to pick up brochures and get our questions answered about the logistics for some of the side trips we have in mind.

In addition to a sticks & bricks tourist information center, youngsters man
a nearby kiosk where they are available to answer questions.

The forecast called for the drizzle to end around noon.  And in fact the rain stopped and blue patches started to break through the clouds by 1:00p.  We took advantage of the break to wander around Kauppatori, the central market square that overlooks the South Harbor, just about catty-corner from the TIC.  The place was choc-a-block with tents from which vendors were selling everything from souvenirs and handicrafts, to flowers and plants, to fresh fruits and vegetables.  There were numerous tent stalls where food was being cooked — salmon, herring, calamari, as well as a mix of vegetables, and salmon chowder.  The smells were tantalizing, but we weren’t hungry yet, so we moved on … but not before filing “have lunch at Market Square” in the “to-do-before-we-leave-Helsinki box” in Mui’s brain — he keeps track of dining opportunities ;-)

Not all of the vendors sell their goods from tents; some sell from boats.

Leaving Market Square behind, we walked through the old market hall — filled with casual eateries — and headed to the Makasiini Terminal.  Located in the South Harbor, this terminal services the express ships that ply the waters between Helsinki and Tallinn, Estonia.  From the companies that sail this route, we had already narrowed our selection to Linda Line.  We knew that there was a 40% discount off the €70/person
(~ $95) round-trip fare if tickets were purchased a day in advance.  Imagine our surprise when the ticket agent told us they were running a special promo for €29/person (~ $39) round-trip.  Of course we wanted to jump on the special pricing, which was less than the one way fare.  The only problem — we didn’t know which day we wanted to go.  So, we excused ourselves to discuss our plans.

Nope, this isn’t the ticket vending machine in the terminal … it’s the umbrella vending machine!

We think better on a full stomach, so we found a table on the quay and sat down to chew over dates as we chewed our sandwiches ;-)  By the time lunch was over, we had a date for our proposed trip across the Gulf of Finland.  And a few minutes later, we had tickets in hand to make the trip.  But that’s for another day.

The view from our lunch spot.
Helsinki’s famed Uspenski Cathedral is on the left; the Finnair Sky Wheel on the
right is the city’s latest attraction — having opened in May of this year, it has a
VIP gondola that has a glass floor and leather seating, which you can opt to ride
for €195; the price includes Veuve Clicquot champagne!  Even at €12/person
for a regular gondola it’s too spendy IMHO, so I think we’ll skip it.

On our way back, we strolled through Market Square where an ice cream kiosk beckoned us.  Making my selection, I took my cone over to a bollard near the water, leaving Mui to place his order and pay for our sweet treats.  There were signs all around with warnings to watch out for the gulls, which make every effort to steal ice cream from unsuspecting people.  I managed to hang on to my scoop; but Mui was not so lucky.  The look on his face when one of the birds swooped in and pushed the scoop of ice cream off the cone was priceless.  Alas neither one of us was expecting it, so I have neither a photo nor a video … but we will recollect it with a smile whenever we think of today ;-)


By this time, my feet were killing me, so we returned to the hotel for a change of footwear.  We took the HKL [Helsingin Kaupungin Liikenne … Helsinki City Transport] tram (#10) and got off at Hesperian Puisto, the same stop where the FinnAir City Bus dropped us off yesterday.  Very handy.  At €3/person (~ $4.10) the fare was a little pricey for a 15-minute ride, but I gladly paid it as I was in no shape to walk even the shortest distance.  The good news — the ticket was good for an hour, so we used it to return downtown once I had changed into a pair of comfortable sandals.

Though the tram is an older model, it is well maintained.

While I was changing my shoes, Mui was asking the ladies at the hotel’s front desk for recommendations on shoe stores.  The consensus was that we would find comfortable walking shoes at Aleksi 13, a department store on Aleksanterinkatu [Alexander Street] … and yes, the 13 refers to the number of the building in which the store is located.  We checked out a few other stores on our way there, but none of them had the kind of walking shoes I was looking for.  Anyway, I did find a nice pair at Aleksi 13.  And guess what?  The clerk who waited on us turned out to be the sister of the desk clerk who recommended the store.  We knew she worked here, but who would have guessed that of all the store clerks, she’d be the one to help us … small world.

New shoes from Alexi 13 - Helsinki, Finland.24 Jun 2014

Newly shod; I’m ready for more walking!

Since we were in the vicinity anyway, we decided to stroll down the length of Esplanadin Puisto [Esplanade Park], referred to by the locals as Espa.  Since it’s establishment in 1812, the park has been a favorite place to come for a stroll; meet friends for a chat; have an ice cream cone — beware the pesky gulls; maybe have a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, or a bite to eat at the Kappeli Restaurant; listen to music performed by local bands; or just enjoy the blooms that add color to the grounds.  Entranced by the flowers, I focused my camera on them, but there are plenty of other photographs from around the park in the link above.




Purple Cleome


JL Runeberg Monument


JL Runeberg Monument

(The Runeberg monument is Helsinki’s first public monument.  It honors Finland’s national poet.)

Zacharias Topelius Monument


Zacharias Topelius Monument

(Zachrias Topelius was a Swedish-speaking Finnish author, journalist, historian, and
rector of the University of Helsinki who wrote novels related to Finnish history in Swedish.)

We wandered around a bit more, checked out menus at a few of the restaurants downtown.  Deciding we weren’t really hungry, slowly we began the mile-long trek back to the Crowne Plaza.

Walk and bike sidewalks divided into lanes.  What a great idea!

Perusing the information we collected from the TIC today seemed like a good idea, so that’s how we spent our evening.  Now, plans in place, we can call it a day.  A nice day is forecasted for tomorrow, so I see lots of walking in our future ;-)

Travel Day Ends With Shopping in Helsinki


The trip is over; and we’re back in the US.
I am adding onto the original teaser I posted on 23 June;
if you previously left a comment on this post, don’t be surprised to see it attached.

Monday, 23 June 2014
Crowne Plaza Hotel — Helsinki, Finland
Temps: Hi 57F (14C) / Lo 45F (7C)

Welcome to Helsinki, Finland … and the next segment of our 2014 summer vacation travels.  Today’s high was only 57F (14C) here.  What a nice change from the sweltering temps that ranged into 93F (34C) in İzmir this past week.  With temperatures like this, we will surely be out and about, exploring at least some of what Helsinki has to offer.

Our day started in İzmir.  We were up at 6:00a for a 7:30a departure to the İzmir Adnan Menderes Airport (ADB) for our flight to İstanbul.  Murat was kind enough to give us a ride.  Half an hour later, we were bidding him adieu and going through the first security checkpoint — most airports in Turkey have x-ray machines just inside the terminal doors for an initial screening of personal belongings, carry-on and checked bags, and passengers.

TK2313 is waiting to whisk us from İzmİr to İstanbul.

Check-in is usually a breeze at ADB, but it took us a little longer today … we wanted our bags checked all the way through to Helsinki.  We weren’t sure this was going to be possible since our connecting flight to İstanbul was on a separate ticket, but no harm in asking.  Did Turkish Airlines (THY) accommodate us?  Yes, they did!  And it made our travel day that much easier.

We had enough time to grab a bite at Tadında Anadolu before boarding for TK2313 was called at 9:30a.  The flight to İstanbul was aboard an Airbus A330-200/300, the same kind of equipment that brought us from the US to Turkey nearly a month ago.  The 55 minutes that we were in the air were uneventful and went by in a flurry of snack service activity.  By 11:00a, we were on the ground at İstanbul Atatürk Airport — the crossroads for the majority of international flights in and out of Turkey.

Since the aircraft was continuing on to Europe, it pulled up to an international jetway.  Cool; won’t have to make the trek over from the domestic terminal.  Nope … we were deplaned via the jetway stairs to the tarmac and onto busses that took us to the domestic terminal.  Bummer!  Oh well … familiar with the airport, we easily found our way to the international terminal.

An hour from İzmİr to İstanbul; and another three hours to Helsinki = an easy travel day.

A quick stop at a THY counter to confirm our exit row seats on the Helsinki flight … a short queue to get our passports stamped at immigration … a no-frisking-needed pass through the security checkpoint … a couple of expensive cold beverages at one of the cafés — 24 TL ($11) for two gazoz [a Turkish soft drink] … a bar or two of chocolate from Duty Free — one a birthday gift for a friend, so don’t think we were shopping just for ourselves ;-)  And that’s how we killed the two hours before boarding was called for TK1763 to Helsinki.

The aircraft that brought us to Helsinki was an Airbus A-320-200.  Our exit row seats 10 D/E were comfortable and with enough legroom that Mui didn’t mind sitting in a middle seat.  Once the plane pushed back at 2:10p, a cabin attendant came through the cabin with the traditional lokum [Turkish Delight] service we’ve come to expect on all THY international flights — long or short.  Nice touch!

Lokum … a sweet start to our flight.

The three-hour flight was uneventful.  The meal service gave us a choice between grilled chicken breast with parmesan polenta and sautéed vegetables, or fillet of salmon with vegetables and mashed potatoes — we both got the salmon.  The meal included hummus and a spicy tomato/black olive dip as appetizers, and a nougat mousse as dessert.  The food was much improved from our TransAtlantic flight from DC, but still sub-par based on previous experience on THY flights.

We were wheels down at the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport at 5:45p — despite the 45-minute delay taking off from İstanbul, only 20 minutes past our scheduled ETA.  It took us a bit of time to get through immigration since only two kiosks were open for non-EU passport holders.  Once through customs, Mui took the bags with our Arctic gear over to the Hilton Airport Hotel for storage until we return to join our Quark group next Monday.  That done, we walked over to the bus stop to catch the next bus into Helsinki.

The Hilton Airport Hotel, hidden behind the FinnAir building, is an easy walk from Terminal 2.

Having just two checked bags with us made it easier to hop on the FinnAir City Bus — at €6.30/person
(~ $8.50) definitely the cheaper option … taxi fare would have been about €45 (~ $72) for the ½-hour ride.

The FinnAir City Bus is a convenient way of getting into the city from the airport.

The FinnAir buses run every 20 minutes.  We hopped on the 7:00p bus.  On the route in and out of the city, if requested, the driver drops passengers off at designated stops, each of which has a name as well as a number that passengers can reference from the onboard display — very convenient and efficient.

We knew from contacting the Hotelli Crowne Plaza Helsinki prior to our trip that we needed to get off at the Hesperian Puisto [Hesperia Park] stop, about 500 feet (150 m) from the hotel.  The park, which overlooks Töölönlahti [Töölö Bay] looks like a lovely, green oasis where one can commune with nature.  If our sightseeing plans afford us any free time, we just might go for a walk around the bay one day.

We booked the Crowne Plaza by bidding through Priceline; got a great deal on it, too — about 65% off the direct-booking rate.  We were especially excited when we saw the name of the hotel that accepted our bid as Quark had us at the Crowne Plaza for the pre-voyage hotel stay that was included in our expedition package.  Then, Quark switched to the Airport Hilton to accommodate the early departure of the charter flight to the embarkation port.  At first we were bummed, but it didn’t take us long to realize that a city hotel — walking distance into downtown Helsinki and convenient to public transportation — would be more conducive to our sightseeing plans … and well worth having to take the FinnAir City Bus back to the airport to join our Quark group at the end of our pre-expedition stay in the city.

The Crowne Plaza is better situated for our sightseeing purposes than the
Airport Hilton; and it’s an easy ride from the airport aboard the FinnAir City Bus.
The inset on the left shows the route the FinnAir bus takes from the airport.
The inset on the right shows our hotel in relation to the airport and downtown Helsinki.

The front desk was able to honor our request for a quiet room — away from vending machines and elevators, and without a connecting door to an adjacent room.  We ended up with a room at the end of a short hallway, overlooking a small park behind the property instead of Mannerheimintie, the very busy main thoroughfare that passes in front of the hotel.

Room 625 … quiet and comfortable.

Once settled into the room, we did what we usually do after arriving at a new-to-us place for a longish-term stay … we asked the hotel to direct us to the nearest local market to shop for snacks, fresh fruits, and the makings for breakfast and lunch sandwiches.  We were given two options — K-Market and Alepa; both just a couple blocks from the hotel.  We opted to shop at K-Market today, but will also give Alepa a try when we need to replenish our foodstuff.

Ready to pick up some groceries from a local store.

We’re most excited about the Skyr we found in the refrigerated section of the market.  We became addicted to this dairy product that is not dissimilar from fruit-flavored yogurt when we were in Iceland last year.  Didn’t think we’d find it anywhere else, so we were delighted to see it on the shelf.

Skyr .. peanut butter and strawberry jam for PB&J sandwiches … tomato and butter
for cheese sandwiches … just some of today’s grocery purchases.  Disregard
the bag of nuts in the fridge; they were in the stocked mini-bar in the room!

Groceries put away … bags unpacked … a quick snack in the room in lieu of dinner.  Now we’re ready to have a quiet evening of R&R.  We plan to take it easy tomorrow.  We have a list of things to do, places to see; but our plans are fluid and we’ll take each day as it comes.

Teaser: Eminently Walkable … and Bikeable

Monday, 14 July
Helsinki, Finland

And not only do we have the aching feet to prove it, we have a picture too!

No wheels for us, so we stuck to our side of the marked sidewalks as we roamed around Helsinki today.  Sidewalks like the one pictured here are found all over the city … and everyone obeys the signage!

Not a divided highway … but a divided sidewalk!

Tomorrow, we begin the first leg of our trip back to the US!

Teaser: Seurasaaren Ulkomuseo

Sunday, 13 July
Helsinki, Finland

Taking advantage of a lovely post-expedition day in Helsinki, we spent the afternoon at Seurasaaren Ulkomuseo [Seurasaari Open-Air Museum] … located on a beautiful, forested island just a few miles from the heart of the city.

The Bell Tower of Karunan Kirkko [Karuna Church]

Tomorrow is the last ‘fun’ day of our summer vacation.

Teaser: At the Top of the World

Sunday, 6 July
Geographic North Pole — 90° North

At 4:29a (GMT +2) on 6 July 2014, the Russian nuclear icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy [50 Years of Victory] attained the North Pole … the 103rd surface vessel to do so … with Two to Travel aboard.

Attaining the Geographic North Pole was the ultimate Arctic Adventure, but being aboard an icebreaker for the experience was a highlight in and of itself.

Words fail me!

Two to Travel’s Ultimate Arctic Experience!

[Our fantastic adventure is over, and we are back in Helsinki, Finland …
more to come when we return home around the middle of July!]