This is part 2 of the Arctic Circle adventure story. If you haven't read it yet, you should probably start back at part 1.

December 16, 2022 Friday

We were sad to leave the awesomeness that is the Blue Lagoon, but ready for our next stop: Helsinki. The hotel got us a car to take us to the airport, and we fastened our seatbelts and I watched Iceland disappear from view. Norway then Sweden eventually emerged, and from my window seat I observed the desolate northern half of these countries wondering what it must be like to just drop to earth at that point and walk among the snow encrusted pine trees. Then we descended into Helsinki.

Helsinki is in the southern part of the country and is a port city in the Gulf of Finland. Directly across the Gulf is Estonia and Denmark, and I had seen ferry trips to Tallinn Estonia when I was looking up things to do in Helsinki. We’d only be in Helsinki for maybe a day and a half. So my list included street markets, checking out the streets all lit up for Christmas and the famous Fazer Chocolate Café.

Aleksander Street did not disappoint. This is where the shopping is largely done, and at the end of the street in Senate Square we spotted what looked like market stalls. We’d learned that there is a weekend Christmas market and we decided we’d check it out the next day when it was open.

BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music visited Aleksander Street in Helsinki at Christmas

Whenever I see something in another country that has the same name as a friend or family member, I take a picture of it and send it to them. So I sent a picture of Aleksander Street to my nephew, Alex.

BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music visited Aleksander Street in Helsinki at Christmas time.

After dinner we found the Fazer Café, just off of Aleksander Street. This café has been here since 1891. There was even a sign on a few of the tables that said the marble at those tables was part of the original counter. They have every manner of chocolate dessert, but the one we zeroed in on was the Geisha. Imagine a chocolate and hazelnut truffle, roughly the size of the palm of your hand, coated in a exceptionally shiny chocolate ganache and garnished with flowers. We learned later that they make geisha bars, and I proceeded to eat approximately 7,823 of them in the days that followed.

The Geisha, in all her glory.

BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music enjoyed The Geisha in the Fazer Cafe in Helsinki

December 17, 2022 Saturday

The streets were abuzz on Saturday in Helsinki. We explored the multi story Stockmann department store, as Todd was looking for some shoes that fell between his Sketcher sneakers and the aggressively insulated winter boots I’d bought him from REI before we left. We had found a pair at a sporting goods store that had spikes in the soles, which would be great for navigating ice. We went back to the room so he could change his shoes into his new ones when he promptly slipped on the wood floor in the room. Because the spikes aren’t designed to be worn indoors. So then I went back to the sporting goods store to return the shoes.

When we were walking around on Aleksander Street we noticed the streetcars going by. We bought a pass on the app and boarded the streetcar to where ever it was going. We got out in a neighborhood that is an island just east of Helsinki proper, Katajanokka. We got off the streetcar and followed the street to the water and looked out over the Gulf of Finland, the water matching the gray overcast sky.

BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music visited Helsinki Finland

BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music enjoyed visiting Helsinki Finland

We boarded and exited the streetcar whenever we wanted to check something out. We went to the Esplanade where we bought a cup of glogi, which is the traditional Finnish Christmas drink. It’s a juice made of currants and lingonberries, and then they add spices like cinnamon sticks, anise, etc. I am resisting the urge to google how to make it and add some vodka to have at home.

This is the Esplanade where we bought the glogi.

BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music loved visiting Helsinki Finland

We took the streetcar to another marketplace, when I realized that the hat I bought from the 66 North store at the Blue Lagoon had fallen out of my pocket. I had to buy a new one and bought one at this market with Moomin characters on it. Moomin is the Finnish equivalent of the Peanuts cartoon we have in America. I also purchased a Christmas ornament of a Viking, which I was very excited about. I put it on our tree when I got home and then a day later I found the remains of it in Phin’s mouth.

I really loved the aimless day we spent exploring. We just hopped on streetcars, got out when we saw something cool, then got back on to go look at something else until it got dark. Then we went to the Christmas market in Senate Square—and this was absolutely a highlight of being in Helsinki at Christmas time. Many of the stalls had items made by local artisans. We bought a set of metal dice to add a layer of aggression to our Yahtzee games. We found a woman who hand mixes watercolors and we bought a palette for Todd’s mom who is an artist. We bought chocolates and a few other gifts to bring home. But mostly we just wandered the aisles of stalls, we watched children sledding down the massive stairs that lead up to the Senate. And then of course we ended the night at the Fazer Café deciding whether to get the geisha again or to try something new.

BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music loved visiting the Christmas Market in Helsink Finland
BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music loved visiting the Christmas Market in Helsinki Finland

Kids were sledding down the stairs at the senate building.

BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music loved visiting the Christmas Market in Helsinki

December 18, 2022 Sunday

I am a bit of a picky eater. It’s true. I call myself a recovering vegetarian and never got the taste for beef back. I mostly subsist on chicken, white fish, shrimp, scallops, and I loathe onions. Sometimes this makes traveling to other countries difficult. Sure, I will taste most things, but I definitely know I don’t like the stronger flavored fish like salmon. When I was a vegetarian often meals that I didn't cook included eggplant, which I also do not like. (Remind me to tell you some other time about the time when Todd and I were first going out and he'd cooked me eggplant parmesan not knowing I didn’t like it.) We weren’t sure what I’d be able to eat at Kakslauttanen. It’s way up north in Finland, an 8 hour drive I’d seen on Google maps on that weekend we had booked everything. So it seemed we would need to pack a few things to eat because who knew what food would be available in such a remote locale. Todd had seen online that they served things like reindeer and elk—which I know I wouldn’t eat. So we stopped in a supermarket in Helsinki on the way to the airport.

I love going to airports in foreign countries. The closest I come to that experience in the US is going to Aldi. I don’t often shop at Aldi, instead preferring Rhode Island based Dave’s Market in an effort to support Rhode Island businesses. But Aldi has the vibe of a European supermarket. It’s smaller, and it often has random things you wouldn’t find in a supermarket—like that time they had patio umbrellas next to the off brand mayonnaise and cereal. (And also, no other mayonnaise should exist other than Hellman’s. See above, picky.) I wanted to hurry through this supermarket, trying to navigate the aisles with signs in Finnish. My aim was to grab things that wouldn’t spoil that I could eat for the next few days. I grabbed a few apples, nuts, dried fruit, granola/yogurt bars, crackers and a tub of cheese that I later learned was vegan cheese after I opened it all when we arrived at Kakslauttanen. Thankfully I ended up not eating may of those things, though I do love those cheese cracker twist things. I ended up eating all of those over the few days we were there.

In America we just bag up our apples and bring them to the register. They have those little stickers with the numbers on them so the cashier can ring up the correct type of apple as it is weighed. In Finland they don’t do it that way. I had to return to the produce section and weigh the apples and print a label from the scale, and stick the label onto the bag.

We landed in Ivalo. As the plane was on approach, I kept my eyes glued out the window as I always do when we land somewhere new, just to get my first glimpse of the new place. The landscape was covered in snow and the large sturdy pine trees were also clumped with snow. I could see where a river had frozen and the snow covered it. As the plane descended further, I spotted two dog teams on one of the frozen rivers, each with six dogs dragging a sled. We had booked the dog sled ride as our last excursion and it was so exciting to see people down there actually running a dog sled.

The plane landed and didn’t go to the gate with the retractable jetway. The Ivalo airport is rather small (when we would leave in a few days we noticed that the woman who checked us into the flight donned an orange vest and then took up the station checking our boarding passes at the gate to work another role in our departure process.) So, with such a small airport there aren’t those retractable jetways. They wheeled the staircase up to the side of the plane.

“They’re going to make us go outside,” I turned to Todd. At this point I had no idea how cold it would be outside. My down filled long North Face puffy coat was in my suitcase currently getting pulled from the cargo hold of the plane. I was wearing a long wool sweater that I bought in Iceland the last time we were there, but not long johns as I didn’t want to overheat in the plane. Todd stepped out of the plane first with our GoPro camera. When I came out after him he asked me what my first impression of northern Finland was. I definitely felt the cold, but it wasn’t quite as painful as I was expecting. I paused for a few seconds at the top of the stairs and tried to glimpse as much of the landscape as I could. Flat, snow covered and pine trees were all around. It was desolate, isolated, and I oddly felt at home in it. A gust picked up and knocked my breath out of my mouth and we made our way down the stairs. I hugged my arms close to my body as we made our way into the terminal.

I people watched at the baggage claim, there were lots of families presumably going to Santa’s village. There was even a plane I could see through the window that had “Santa’s Lapland” written down the side of it which was probably some elaborate tour organization that does a ton of business this time of year. I watched a British family, two parents and three children. Two of the children were just hanging out while the other was climbing all over everything and bouncing off the walls. The parents tried to corral this kid with the others “Jamie! Jamie! Stop doing that!” Every family has that one kid.

We got our suitcases from the belt and made our way to the exit where we would find our shuttle to Kakslauttanen. There were shuttles for a variety of different vacation destinations, like Santa’s Lapland for example. Jamie’s family ended up standing next to the man holding the Kakslauttanen sign. Jamie and his family were in our shuttle and it continued. “Jamie! Jamie! Jamie! Please stop!” When we were out of their ear shot Todd whispered to me “I hate Uncle Jamie!” one of our favorite lines from one of our very favorite Christmas movies Love, Actually. We ended up encountering Jamie’s family at the planetarium show at Kakslauttanen. They were actually seated in our row. As we got up to leave after the show ended Jamie shimmied his way on his stomach down all the rows of seats in front of us and finally stood at the very end. There were at least a dozen rows of chairs in front of us. All the while his brother and sister were beside their parents and all we could hear was “Jamie! Jamie! Please stop doing that!” I turned to Todd and muttered “I hate Uncle Jamie.”

It's also worth nothing that this far north in Finland the daylight is very limited. “Sunrise” was around 10:30 in the morning and “sunset” was at 2:30. And I put those words in quotes because the sun doesn’t actually rise up over the horizon that far north. It’s basically twilight for the entire day. By the time we’d landed it was still “daylight” but once we arrived at Kakslauttanen it was dark as night.

The resort felt like a college campus. We were handed a map and told where to go to get to our igloo. We splurged and got the larger igloo that sleeps four and has a bathroom in it (a cubby containing a toilet and sink on one side and a cubby for the shower on the other.) The smaller igloos that only sleep two don’t have their own bathroom. The splurge was largely driven by “What if we have to pee in the middle of the night?” Well, then we’d have to gear up in winter gear and trudge through the snow to the communal shower/bathroom facility.

When we were checking in the concept of the northern lights alarm was explained to us. Every igloo and cabin at Kakslauttanen is fitted with an alarm that will sound if northern lights were present. I spotted the device on the window sill that encircled the igloo, it had a speaker and a black button you could push to turn it off.

We made our way, in the dark, to the igloo village. There were 6 streets of igloos and 6 igloos on each street. Ours, G39, was the last one on the 5th street. It is a clear glass dome, with frosted glass over the bathroom part, and the idea is that we’d be able to see the stars and the northern lights from bed. There were two twin beds pushed together in the center off the igloo, and two other ones on each side. We used one of the extra beds to lay out our winter gear as we took it off when we came back to the igloo each day, and on the other one we kept our suitcases. There isn’t much space in these igloos and I wondered how 4 people would stay in there and where the heck would they put their suitcases. For privacy there was a curtain that went about chest high. I looked out our window at the people in the neighboring igloo to see how much of them I could see above the curtain—so then I’d know how much of me they could see. I knew I’d have to duck down a bit if I were to be topless.

BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music stayed in a glass igloo at Kakslauttanen Finland
BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music stayed in a glass igloo at Kakslauttanen Finland
BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music stayed in a glass igloo at Kakslauttanen Finland

We had an afternoon to chill out in the igloo before we had to be back at the main hall for dinner. We got our gear organized and then settled in to stream a Christmas movie: The Holiday with Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet, a favorite in our Christmas movie rotation.

After the movie we donned our boots, coats, hats and gloves and made our way in the dark back to the main building for dinner. We ordered a few drinks and checked out the buffet. It kind of reminded me of the food they’d serve in the dining hall in college, but on a way smaller scale. There wasn’t much for fresh veggies, as they’d be logistically hard to get there. The food was very basic, fish or meat, potatoes, bread, dessert. They had an option to special order from chicken nuggets and fries as well, which we did at lunch time a few times to have with the soup they set out for lunch. They also had snacks like chips, candy and soda that you could buy at the counter. They had geisha bars! And in that week I ate lots of them.

We struck up conversations with other guests sitting nearby, getting a feel for which excursions were the best. Over the course of the time there we also struck up conversations with the people behind the front desk. Many were from countries other than Finland, and Todd and I quickly became interested in how these people from places as far from India ended up working at a glass igloo resort 180 miles north of the Arctic Circle. We learned that this is how the hospitality business is. These people take jobs in other countries that last a few months and then move on to another. One of the women we talked to told us how she worked on cruise ships. Her boyfriend was working on one in Australia at that time and she was in Finland. I wondered how they manage to make that relationship work. She just shrugged and said “you just do.”

After dinner we made our way back, take a left after the lit up metal reindeer statue, then take a right into the igloo village. Then take a left at the next to last street and walked all the way to igloo 39 at the end.

BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music stayed in a glass igloo at Kakslauttanen Finland

Read the next installment of my Arctic Circle Adventure, part 3, here.

BJ Knapp is the author of Beside the Music, available for purchase here. Please sign up for the Backstage with BJ Knapp mailing list to get updates on events, signings, dog pictures and so much more.