Our day: Helsinki, Finland. High of 60° F; breezy and cool with occasional sprinkles (but not enough to want to carry a red Viking umbrella with me all around town). Helsinki City Tour (included). 9,990 steps, 4 miles. Tour was bus with photo stops at the Lutheran Cathedral, he Church in the Rock and the Sibelius memorial sculpture. Shuttle provided every 30 minutes between city and berth.
Finland looks like a beautiful country; I have a deck of playing cards with different Finnish sights on it so I should know. While we didn’t have oodles of port time here, it was enough to do some exploring as well as some first-of-the-trip shopping (the tweezers in Stockholm simply don’t count as recreational shopping).
Mom and I opted for the included Helsinki City Tour; a bus “panorama” with a bit of walking as well as the opportunity to leave the excursion at any time during the tour with the concomittant promise to take the shuttle back to the Star. This port is truly too far to walk to the most popular areas for exploration; a shuttle bus ran every 30 minutes from a spot a few blocks from the seafront outdoor market and back to the ship.
Our problem, though, was getting to the tour, not from it.
Mom had gone up to breakfast while I was still getting ready. I promised to meet her at the World Cafe before our tour gathered on the dock for the tour’s start. She’d left her room key in the electronic slot by the room’s door so I’d continue to have light while putting on the all-important face paint (and light is a good thing when you’re doing that; just trust me). I finished up, grabbed her room card plus my gear for the day (she already had hers) and headed up two decks.
The World Cafe has two sides. It was pretty packed with passsengers arranging omelettes, fruit and pickled herring on their plates (yep, just be glad you’re not their seat partner for the morning’s tours). But mom was not one of those passengers. At least not that I could see.
I strode purposely down the port-side aisle of the cafe, scanning each table for a sight of Mom. I couldn’t remember what she’d worn that day so I was simply looking for that familiar smile. I didn’t spot her so I continued up the starboard aisle. Nothing. Reverse the process and scan faces again. Nothing.
I made three loops around each side of the World Cafe. Time was running out as our tour’s meeting time drew closer. I slid a croissant on a small plate as well as small china bowl of fresh mixed fruit pieces (I love the dishes and the variety of “just right” serving acccessories on the Star). Positioning myself at the furthest backtable, I continued scanning for Mom as I quickly ate. Mom was still MIA.
We finally did connect up and make it to our Helsinki tour, but it took two trips for each of us up to our stateroom on Deck 5 and we were late for our tour time; don’t worry if that happens to you, though; just head off the ship and you’ll likely find another bus labeled with your tour name. Give them your ticket and hop on.
- TIP: Pre-arrange a shipboard location (with seating, in case you’re there a while) where you will meet up with your travel partner in case you miss each other at restaurants or heading to a tour or… Be specific about the location. Do this early in the trip and I guarantee you it’ll save steps up the stairways and angst searching for someone when the countdown clock for an excursion is ticking down.
On to our tour of Helsinki…
Our tour guide for Helsinki wasn’t up the calibre we’d grown to appreciate on Viking’s river cruise; we hoped it wasn’t a harbinger of future excursions (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t). She was Estonian and a specialist in Spanish (she’d lived in Cuba, likely under Estonia’s Soviet era–but I didn’t ask her). You become accustomed to guides who don’t speak perfect English, but her accent and language usage was pretty tough to listen to and learn from. As the various walking/photo stops added up, more and more passengers opted to leave the tour bus and wander on their own, returning on a later Viking-provided shuttle.
We joined the less-than-thrilled passengers and left the tour bus after the Sibelius sculpture as it headed back to the middle of town; maybe the guide got better after that, but we didn’t wait to find out.
[My summary of the tour: The Church in the Rock is interesting–we were lucky enough to be there when a pianist was playing–but with the noisy crowds, the atmosphere was definitely not one of worship or serenity, even though it is a “working” church. The Jean Sibelius sculpture is a collection of steel pipes, suspended well off the ground. I get that it is supposed to represente (perhaps?) the pipes of an organ, but it really wasn’t a “gotta see this” type of site. I think if the guide had told us more about Sibelius and his significance to the Finnish culture/pride, it might have been more meaningful. I didn’t get a real “feel” for Finland from the guide–perhaps because she is Estonian?]
Helsinki’s downtown is clean and seems prosperous, if the crowds were any indication. We stepped into Stockman’s for a while, the largest department store in Finland. It was near lunch time and the basement (where the deli, groceries and a small cafe are) was filled with locals, women pushing strollers and people on lunch break. I like to buy Mark a chocolate bar from the various counties I visit (small, easy to bring home–and he shares ’em so it’s like giving the gift that gives back) and Stockman’s basement was the perfect place to buy one.
Next we wandered down the shopping district where the Marrimekko flagship store is; Marimekko is a Finish design company formed in 1951; they specialize in bold, bright patterns that became especially popular in the 1960s. It was fun to see these assertive colors and designs in their land of birth.
Spring is just coloring Finland in blossoms and downtown Helsinki was punctuated with flower beds with blooms of all colors. Mom and I took the chance to stop for a quick coffee at Cafe Kapelli, where 19th century Helsinki intellectuals evidently gathered for conversation and sustenance. If the ornate glass cafe was good enough for them, it was good enough for us, too.
Market Square is at the edge of the harbor in Helsinki; it’s a popular tourist stop, too, but perhaps because of its fresh sea air and location, it doesn’t feel so very tourist-y. Stalls under pop-up awnings display Finish foodtreats (I heard the salmon soup was a deliciously wonderful) and hand-crafted items (as well as some not-so-handcrafted items). I spotted a lovely wool cap and spoke with the man whose wife had knitted it; they used to raise the sheep, too, but now buy the fleece for their knitted creations. It’s cold in these parts, so I bought it; but I had to try all of them on first (well, except the green one).
When we got back on the shuttle bus to the Star (ask carefully about the location, it’s not really visible from any of the “main” thoroughfares), a passenger had two fragrant bundles of lily of the valley blossoms. It’s the Finnish flower and the little white blossoms nodded happily in her arms as we rode the bus back to our floating home. I want some lily of the valley for our stateroom, too. What a sweet remembrance of Helsinki!