Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Why take a boat to Sweden? Because it's that much fun!

Why take a boat to Stockholm? Flying will get you there quickly and often very affordably, but boat travel still has its perks...

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No frills airlines, services being continuously cut and ever increasing number of passengers have made sure there isn't much glamour left in travelling these days. In my own fantasy world (spinning with nostalgy) the golden era of travel was definitely that of the ocean liners, carefully packed trunks and 7-course-dinners. Ahhhh.....

Sure, those cheap airlines do come in handy - for instance travel between Helsinki and Stockholm has become a lot more convenient. The flight only takes about an hour and at best the tickets are only  €29. But especially if one is planning on staying for longer, boat travel still reigns supreme. 

I myself have been in an out of the archipelago and couldn't have been more happy with Viking Line's fleet. Here are reasons why you. too, should get on that boat.

No luggage limits

Luggage is always included in the ticket price, so for once there's no need to shove everything into one's carry on, the size of which the airlines just keep cutting back on, anyway. So, throw in one more show-stopping dress, those amazing(ly impractical) heels and every single one of those handbaga you just can't live without. 

No liquid allowance

One key factor that makes life worth living when travelling is the fact I don't need to 
- calculate every drop of lotion and liquid in a bid to decide which one I need more; hair spray or mouth wash? Dry shampoo or moisturizer? Such stupid questions. I'm a woman! I need them all! And then some!
- spend last hours before jetting off squeezing hair conditioner into miniature size tubesit then refuse to come out of.

No humiliating security circus

Now, this is something I just can't get enough of. I hate the security checks at the airport and the humiliating way you're expected to strip off your shoes, belt, accessories and all your jewellery (seriously - what are my pearl earrings or Hermès belt going to do to anybody?), parade the content of your handbag to every 12-year-old clerk on duty, fish out your electronics and zip lock-bagged cosmetics out of that compactly packed suitcase and make sure you remember to get your possessions, now laid out on 17 plastic trays for everyone to see, back too. 

Plus, for some reason I always find myself standing behing that one lone freak who doesn't understand any of the languages known to any of the staff and has somehow managed to live for the past 15 years completely oblivious to the fact that Hell will freeze over sooner than that Coke bottle at the bottom of his suitcase is allowed to make its way onto an airplane.




Instead, this is what you're in for when choosing a boat:

Convenience

Unlike airports, the ports are always located within walking distace from the city centre, so you instantly avoid spending an hour or so in a crowded bus to the airport... and back.


Quality

Depending on the vessel, the cruise can be surprisingly classy experience. My absolute favourite is MS Grace which operates between Turku and Stockholm and she has completely won me over. 

The spa, the sophisticated ambiance, Seamore Champagne Lounge's selection and wonderful staff, Restaurant Oscar... This is the closest you'll get to that ocean liner fantasy travel of mine - in Finland anyway.




Peace and quiet

Spending just a little bit more on a little bit better cabin is an investment that immediately pays itself back. The peace and quiet of one's cabin along with a well slept night are, after all, some of the most important things that contribute to a succesful trip. Boat travel offers, in any case, an accessible and affordable way for anyone to pamper themselves - a premium cabin is always hundreds of euros less than business class flight, for instance. 

And come on - a cabin with its own balcony where to toast with bubbly the staff has reserved in the minifridge of your cabin... who can think of a better way to travel?




Restaurants

Seeing how everything is conveniently located under one roof, the boat trip, with the beautiful sceneries of the archipelago,  is a great mini-break in itself.  An aperitif over here, followed by a something little over there and a main course in that restaurant... And there's no need to worry about weather changing in the middle of your restaurant-hopping either - every place is comfortably indoors and only minutes away from each other. 

And hey - in case you fall in love with the wines you've enjoyed during the dinner, you can buy them to take home with you, right at the restaurant. How's that for convenient?




Tax Free

I have already before raved about Viking Line's own wine import, which alone is a very good reason indeed to get on the boat. They have specialties unavailable in Finland and the selection is particularly good for topping up one's Champagne reserves.

Curated by Essi Avellan, the leading Champagne expert in Finland, the selection is not only interesting, but reasonably priced, too. The Champagne prices are quaranteed to be at least 25% cheaper than they are on shore. 

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve for instance (recently elected as the Champagne of the Year by Viinilehti, #1 wine magazine in Finland) for instance is yours for less than €30. And price for Dom Perignon 2006, released last autumn, is actually the lowest in the whole world (€107,95 compared to €159,90 it costs  in Finland)




My most recent trip took me to Stockholm onboard MS Gabriella, who recently went through an extensive renovation. It's not quite up to Grace's standards, but a huge improvement it is, nonetheless. 

The newly revamped restaurants alone are a great excuse to go check her out. 




I myself ate my way through the 7-course tasting menu at No Name restaurant echoing  the atmosphere of Nordic birch woods. In its summery freshness the menu was a total success.

Foundation lies in seasonal veggies and fish, but they also have a completely vegetarian alternative.




Original, beautiful, and oh, so good. The dreamily intense onion broth that millet risotto (bottom right hand corner) was served with still makes me sigh a bit. 




While I liked everything, what I particularly liked was the way the menu celebrates locally grown produce and lesser used parts of animals (the dish in top right hand corner for instance consists of duck gizzards!)




One of my favourites was potato ice cream (left hand bottom corner) -  every bit as wonderful as it was weird. 




If a tasting menu seems a bit too much, you should check out Bistrotek (specialized in seafood) or Grill, both of which I've checked out already before. 

Start your foodie feast with Bistrotek's grilled octopus escabeche served with romesco sauce (or Viking Line's legendary shellfish platter!) and continue with Grill's meaty delights prepared in an open plan kitchen. 

Try sirloin with their excellent chimichurri or melt in your mouth- tender Iberico pork.




My return trip was spent exploring MS Mariella, which, too, has gone through a culinary reincarnation. 

Restaurant Plate boasts a laid back industrial meets nautical-themed atmosphere and serves a tasting menu (7 or 9 courses), too (€42/ €49).




Service was even smoother than at No Name and the beverage pairings were downright superb. Points for mixing it up nicely by serving Champagne, wines, beer and cider. 

Blessed with ripe fruitiness, that Australian Wild Yeast Chardonnay (€16,90) was an absolute find. Make sure to pick up a bottle (or three!) on your way out.




While it might not look like much, one of the most spectacular dishes  on the menu can be seen in the right hand bottom corner. Wonderfully fluffy, savoury semolina porridge, spiked with some cold smoked reindeer. Blimey. And I don't even like semolina!




My wonderful waitress found time to talk to me about the sceneries and exchange opinions about the wine pairings, too, which made this lone traveller's dinner even more entertaining. 




PS. Don't forget that booking in advance means savings in restaurants as well!




Already prior to my trip I had downloaded a brand new Viking Line App, which proved useful. Not only does it allow its users to stay up to date on everything that's going on around the ship, it also means you can plan your tax free shopping list conveniently ahead. 




And boy, were there squeals of delight as I was studying different ship's selection...

First item to end in my basket was quite obviously this baby, which I fell head over heels in love with at Viking Line's Wine Cruise a couple of years back: Piper Heidsieck Rare Millessime 2002.  

Viking Line's tax free catalogie describes it as "monumental and glorious" and trust me, it is. My own reserves had been depleted, so I did pick up a couple of bottles. Since my last trip the price had gone down to €99, and it most certainly is worth the splurge, seeing how it's been sold out in many online shops already.

And who knows how many reasons to celebrate there are in the horizon... though this particular Champagne is so fabulous that opening a bottle is a celebration in itself. 





Another Champagne worth stocking is Henriot Rosé Millessime (€53,90). Toasty and aromatic, it has become one of my absolute favourite rosés. Don't worry if you can't get your hands on 2005, you'll be fine with 2008, too. Surprisingly versatile companion for culinary purposes as well.

Cat Blogger's favourite is the house's Demi Sec, which at €29,90 is good value for money.





Taittinger's Champagnes are known for their elegant lightness and they are always a good buy. Nocturne (€31,90) is smooth, flirty and fun and great choice for any party.




On MS Grace, you should not forego this Californian beauty. Michael David's 6th sense Syrah is incredible value for money (€14,90) and another gem that is not even available in Finland. 




Tax Free is a great place to go a little crazy for other reasons, too. For each €100 spent, you'll be awarded with a new cruise. So, go on - treat yourself!

As for the morning after, there's no better way to start the day than the generous breakfast buffet at the serene surroundings of Food Garden  (adults €17,50 pp, €16 when purchased in advance).  Perhaps with a glass of bubbly to start with...? 





And before you know it, it's time to take on Stockholm! A great city, especially in the summer. For my favourite addresses in the city, just click on here!


*  In collaboration with Viking Line

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Sunday, 26 June 2016

Mariehamn - home of happiness and eternal sunshine

Mariehamn, Åland seems just too good to be true. This is a place where  everyone's happy and sun always shines!

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Apple tree blossoms float in the air like snow flakes before slowly falling onto the lawn surrounding Mariehamn's wooden villas. Eery silence hangs over the summer afternoon - the only thing breaking through it is the muffled sound of a big band, cheerfully performing on the town square.

Everywhere you go, people greet you with a smile on their face. Finnish way of downplaying everything is literally a foreign concept here: everything is helt suveränt ("just awesome"). 

Welcome to Aland - home to 20 000 people, happiness and eternal sunshine. 





And I wasn't kidding with the sunshine: according to the locals there are more sunny days here than anywhere else in the mainland Finland. Oh, and those apple trees: a whopping 75% of Finland's apple production comes from here.






There's something so magically jovial about this place and it's impossible not to catch it. Steps take on a slower pace as if by themselves. Breaths become deeper. There's no rush anywhere.

Aland immediately wraps one into a comforting hug and whispers how nothing bad's going to happen to you. I thought this kind of places only existed in Elsa Beskow's books, but no. Here I am, witnessing it everywhere I look. 







As I wonder out loud if anybody ever commits any crimes here, I'm met with amused chuckles. No. There is no criminality. This is verified by both statistics and conversations with the locals. 

"I've never locked the door of my house, ever", assures Christian, himself a 17th generation Alandare. "And I always leave my car keys in the ignition. I mean, what's going to happen here? Everybody more or less knows each other!"





With only 11 000 inhabitants Mariehamn, the capital of Aland is tiny. Half of the population has a summer place somewhere else in the archipelago, so especially during summer weekends the town ressembles a ghost town. Albeit a ridiculously cute one at that.





Town's architecture has some serious eye candy in store - for blog's tour of her beautiful wooden villas just click here.






Lars Sonck is the architect also behind restaurant ÅSS Paviljongen, located near town's western harbour Länsisatama. 

The restaurant, also recommended by White Guide Nordic, is an excellent choice for a whole host of reasons: great cocktails, wonderful menu consisting of the best the archipelago has to offer (Herring! Shrimps! Gubbröra!!!) and excellent wine and beer pairings (3 course dinner without beverages around €55 pp)






Their terrace is one of the best places to observe archipelago's glorious sunsets.





Another restaurant definitely worth checking out is  Nautical, which the White Guide Nordic has ranked as #7 in the whole of Finland. 

(6-course tasting menu without beverages €75, lunch €15-27) 






One of the biggest attractions in Mariehamn is Pommern. This windjammer, built in 1903, made its last voyage in 1939 and now functions as a museum ship, located right next to ÅSS Paviljongen. 

Tickets (adults €10, chicldren under 17 €6) also grant admission to the closeby Maritime museum.






People of Mariehamn are rightfully proud of their beautiful town and very particuar about the atmosphere maintaining its original charm. Owing to this the only (tiny) shopping cetre the town has, was built outside the town centre.

The surrounding sea is one of the key attributes of Mariehamn's atmosphere. I do wonder... if I start writing Santa now, wishing for a boat of my own, could this year be the year he actually listens to me? 






For souvenir shopping you should head out to Merikortteli, the quarter consisting of restaured boat houses. Locally made arts and crafts for every taste (and budget). 







I suppose the closest thing to criminal activity here would be not sampling the islands' famous Aland pancake (for my recipe, just click the link).


For that, I recommend Bagarstugan, along with a minor fast as upon seeing all their goodies you are not going to want to stop just at the pancake...!






Oh, Åland - you're åwesome. And I can't wait to get back!

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Thursday, 23 June 2016

Mariehamn's wonderful villas

Aland's capital Mariehamn charms with its beautiful architecture - especially her gorgeous wooden villas.


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Hungry for romance? Lover of architecture? Then you're in for a treat. Aland's capital Mariehamn's is full of eye candy reminiscent of Hanko and Latvia's spa town of Jurmala.




Christianity arrived in Finland through thea archipelago and the first stone churches were built right here in Aland. Oldest remaining ones date back to 13th century.

For building material they used the local rock stone which gives them their typical red colour. Same stone explains the reddish streets.





First  plan for Mariehamn was designed by Swedish-born architect George Theodor Chiewitz in 1859. According to his initial suggestion the town was to be built entirely out of stone houses, but owing to its priciness in 1871 the town fathers okayed building of wooden villas, too. 





With population of about 11 000, Mariehamn's atmoshere is light and airy. Two boulevards cross each other and divide the town into four quarters. Initially the boulevards were designed as a percaution for potential fires.  The plots and houses located on them are big and the average living space per person is significantly larger here than it is on the mainland. 

The plots themselves border on tree-lined alleyways. They, too, were designed with the prevention or fire spreading in mind. 







There's no one unified architecture in Mariehamn, but two architects in particular have left their mark in town's style. First of them is Lars Sonc, one of the masters of National Romantic monuments. 

In Aland his most famous work is Navigation academy in Mariehamn, in the mainland he's known as the architecture behind the masterpieces that are Jean Sibelius's home Ainola, Tampere cathedral, Kallio church, the President's summer residence Kultaranta and the gorgeous hospital of Eira.





Mariehamn is full of that charm so familiar from South Western coast of Finland and small villages in South of Sweden. While I can't stand the words "cute" or  "adorable", everything here is simply so cute and adorable it seems to be physically impossible to be on a bad mood here.






The most glorious villas are located around the streets of Mariegatan and Södragatan.






Built towards the end of the 19th century, these Swiss-inspired wooden villas are the handiwork of Hilda Hongell. She was born right here in Mariehamn and went on to become the first academically trained female construction foreman in the country. 

Eventually however (as those times would have it...) she abandonded her career to become a housewife and mother. During her groundbreaking career she did design 105 buildings, out of which 44 still stand today.







Cute, right? Adorable, isn't she? You guys familiar with this chocolate box of a town? What are your personal favourites?

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