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Footloose in Helsinki

Saunas Can Warm Up Guests to Hardy Finland

December 04, 1988|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

HELSINKI, Finland — Finns are a hardy lot, never more so than when they walk from the 212-degree dry heat of their beloved saunas to plunge into a lake through a hole in the ice. It gets the circulation going full tilt again, with the heart doing a Scandinavian flutter.

In days gone by the sauna was part of the pirtti , the living room and perhaps only room of a peasant home. Today there are considerably more than half a million saunas in Finland, almost one for every 10 Finns.

Helsinki is the largest city, yet even the smallest hotels have their saunas, usually electrically heated. Or grab a bus to a nearby island where the Finnish Sauna Society will give you the ancient version: log fires, hot stones on the stove, smoke room, bone-chilling water, the washerwoman giving you a thorough scrubbing.

But the best part comes after you've finished this Spartan ordeal and are swaddled in soft toweling, and are served brown bread and butter along with a chilled beer. It just may be the best food you've ever tasted.

We have a lot to learn about life's basics from these sturdy Scandinavians.

To here: Finnair will fly you nonstop, Pan Am with a change in New York and SAS and Air France with home-country stops.

How long/how much? Give Helsinki two or three days, another for a boat trip to the island of Suomenlinna. Lodging is moderate to expensive, mostly the latter, while fine dining can be at reasonable cost.

A few fast facts: The Finnmark recently traded at 4.39 to the dollar, almost 23 cents each. June through September is the best time for a visit if you're looking for reasonably comfortable weather, with spring and late autumn a bit too nippy for temperate-loving types.

Tram-bus-metro rides are $1.35, a Helsinki Card for $13.60 giving you any ground transportation (including a sightseeing tour by bus), free boat trips and admittance to more than 50 sights and museums.

Getting settled in: Martta Hottelli (Uudenmaankatu 24; $81 to $97 B&B double) is a small one we've known for 25 years, and it gets better all the time. A short walk from town center, the Martta has perhaps the friendliest desk folks in Helsinki, all speaking perfect English. Bedrooms are attractive, with natural woods and fabrics, TVs and colorful and traditional rugs.

The breakfast-luncheon room is a cheerful spot, with some tables on the balcony. Martta does a typical Finnish hotel breakfast of juice, cereal, eggs, cold meats, marvelous breads and coffee. Lunch here at $6 brings folks from nearby offices.

Hottelli Hospiz (Vuorikatu 17; $88-$125 double B&B) is another mid-town place, this one a fine study in Finnish modern from top to bottom. The same great breakfasts, with lunch a self-service exercise and dinner more formal. Less expensive bedrooms are a bit smaller but still comfortable.

Helka (Pohjoinen Rautatiekatu 23; $100-$123 B&B double) is a medium-size hotel, like the Hospiz, and is also at mid-city. It's contemporary in design and offers meals, the requisite sauna, plus whirlpools.

Regional food and drink: Vital, vigorous and virile are the words for Finnish cooking, just as they are for the traditional sauna. Look for reindeer and elk steaks, roast and grilled pork, smoked herring, plenty of perch, deep-water fish, delectable crayfish in season and the most flavorful potatoes and carrots you can imagine.

While fresh leafy vegetables are not prevalent in Finland, zillions of mushroom and berry types end up on the table. And the Finns have their version of smorgasbord, voileipapoyta , which is a mouthful in itself. Koff is a good beer, while Mahla is a drink made of birch sap and vodka; it's said to aid indigestion and a number of other ills. Have one with the Finnish word for skoal: kippis!

Good dining: Piekka (Mannerheimintie 68) prides itself on authentic Finnish cuisine, and even the decor has that admirable simplicity. As an appetizer we had thin slices of bear steak, a traditional village dish.

Pike perch (a pike's form with perch coloring) was served in a creamy mustard sauce, while fillets of reindeer and elk were on the game menu, both flavored beautifully with juniper berries. Ptarmigan, a northern bird that changes coloring with the seasons, was superb in a buckthorn berry sauce.

Holvari (Yrjonkatu 15) is a cellar restaurant that specializes in wild mushroom dishes: chanterelles, parasols, boletus, morels and numerous others, all seasonal. The Russians introduced eastern Finland to the mushroom, so it's in keeping that Holvari has Russian dishes on the menu, including blini with caviar and such fare.

Marskin Kellari (Mannerheimintie 10), an attractive cellar restaurant on the main street, is just opposite the Stockmann department store, a city landmark. You'll find a broad menu of such items as whitefish braised in leek cream sauce, flounder stuffed with morels, grilled pork and stuffed cabbage rolls, a bow to the nearby Soviet Union. A typical lunch here is about $9.50.

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