Getting steamy in the great outdoors of Helsinki
A new city sauna and campsite suspended between trees could make Helsinki the best outdoorsy capital in Europe. Sarah Marshall combines concrete and countryside on a weekend break
FOR a population so adeptly conditioned to cold weather, Finns are surprisingly good at taking the heat. Tossing a large ladle of water over hot coals, a glistening, tattooed Nordic grins gleefully as our dark, charcoal-stained smoke sauna transforms into an angry furnace.
As steam singes my nostrils and beads of sweat form rivulets in every fleshy fold, I bolt for the door and wonder if Brit basting is all part of the entertainment.
There are 3.3m saunas in Finland, more than one for every other person, but the majority are private. Helsinki's new Loyly (a term used to describe the steam that rises when you throw water on the sauna's rocks) represents a return to public, social spaces.
The wooden, steep sloped structure, with a seaside bar terrace and open-air rooftop lounge, is also part of the Helsinki's drive to embrace outdoor spaces and bask in the long, warm days of short but sweet summers.
Elsewhere, a car park has been transformed into a pool complex and a new law has been passed allowing businesses to turn parking spaces outside buildings into temporary summer terraces.
Subsequently, an apparently quiet capital is now outwardly effervescing with life.
Thankfully, I prevent my own blood bubbling so vigorously by retreating to Loyly's second, more sedate sauna, where horizontal pine slats act like Venetian blinds, revealing near naked bodies descending a step ladder into the sea.
Closer to town, next to the port and fried fish stalls of Market Square, the Helsinki Allas Pool is due to fully open later this month. Local residents and tourists are already making use of the dockside terrace, where filtered salt and fresh water swimming pools will be suspended in the harbour next to segregated saunas.
The idea for the complex, previously a tarmac car park, was first touted 10 years ago and has been partly financed by crowdfunding.
Although paddling in the shadow of cruise liners is off-putting, the central location will no doubt prove popular, and owners plan to have a reserve of rentable swimwear for spontaneous sauna goers.
Along with cruise ships, sightseeing ferries servicing Helsinki's archipelago also leave from the port. Newly opened to the public this year is Vallisaari island, a 20-minute journey away.
Once occupied by Russia and later used as a military base, it's now a nature refuge. I follow gently rising trails to lookout points and watch sailing boats weave through islands, etching spirals on a duck egg blue watery canvas.
Strict regulations govern Vallisaari, which is off limits from 10pm to 6am, although there is talk of opening a Tentsile hotel on the island next year.
The gravity defying, British-made Tentsile Tree Tents, which appear to levitate above ground and are suspended between three trees, have developed a cult following in Finland, and adventure tour companies currently use them in nearby Nuuksio National Park.
Dominated by forest-covered valleys and deep rocky gorges, the park, which is a 45-minute drive from Helsinki, is busy with campers on a hot weekend in July.
According to the traditional Finnish legal concept of Everyman's Right, general public have the right to roam freely through wilderness areas.
Only campfire sites are restricted, although stores of free firewood make them appealingly convenient to use.
We hike alongside sparkling, tree-lined lakes filled with lilies, clambering over moss-covered granite boulders in the dark forest canopy, as shards of light skip across glistening red toadstools.
"The elves have been playing here," laughs my guide Miki from Arctos Adventures, pointing to the disorderly mass of strewn stones.
Using thick pads to protect the trees, Miki sets up our tents next to the bathwater-warm Lake Kolmoislampi, while I wander off in search of blueberries.
"It's very Finnish to explore the forest alone and have an internal dialogue," explains Miki, and I enjoy every meditative minute of picking plump berries and staining my fingers purple in the process.
By midnight, it's still not completely dark. This is, after all, a Scandi summer.
Above me, wisps of treetops form charcoal scribbles in the sky, and in the distance I hear skinny dippers squeal as they splash in the lake.
Climbing into the Tentsile requires a big heave and a belly flop, but once inside, it's like sleeping in a spacious, supportive hammock.
Air coolly circulates around my body and there are no irritating pinecones digging into my back.
But it's not just the freedom of movement that lulls me to sleep. Out here, surrounded by trees and toadstools, anything is possible.
By nurturing nature on their doorstep, Helsinki's city dwellers have struck upon a truly fine way to live.
WHERE TO SLEEP
:: Hotel Lilla Roberts, lillaroberts.com
Built in 1909, this towering city centre building once functioned as a power plant and police station. Last year, it took on a more luxurious guise. An art deco undercurrent runs throughout the black lacquered and gleaming white interior, spruced up in the reception area-cum-lounge by a large resin stallion and light projection fireplace. The 130 bedrooms are more sober, while the Krog Roba restaurant serves an intriguing buffet breakfast of classics, alongside local rice-based Karelian pastries and honey mead in cosy surroundings. Doubles from 180 euros per night with breakfast.
WHERE TO DRINK
:: A21 cocktail bar, a21.fi/en
Glass windows have replaced thick curtains at this former sex shop-turned-clandestine drinking den, which serves some of the most experimental cocktails in the city. Order trip-down-memory-lane tipples inspired by different decades, or carefully crafted Nordic twists on classics, such as a berry-based Sex In The Forest. A fun flow chart menu will also help you choose a range of concoctions from the Gin Laboratory, featuring some brands distilled in Finland. Parking spaces outside have been transformed into a temporary summer terrace, open until 10pm. Continue drinking indoors until 2am on weekends.
WHERE TO EAT
:: Juuri, juuri.fi/en/
Opened 13 years ago, this popular, laid-back restaurant recently extended seating into a basement area to cope with demand. The menu is a small but authentic showcase of Finnish cuisine, with the bite-size sapas being a highlight. These small Finnish starters include a velvet-soft organic pork neck, with beetroot, slithers of whitefish and fragrant elderflower. There are 12 different options which can be ordered as a platter for the table (13.50 euros per person).
:: Sarah Marshall was a guest of the Finnish Tourist Board. Visit Visitfinland.com
:: Camp in the air overnight at Nuuksio National Park, from 158 euros per person, including Tenstile Connect, backpack and sleeping back, vegetarian bento boxes and marshmallows, local guide and safety equipment. Visit Arctosadventures.com
:: Norwegian (Norwegian.com/uk; 0330 828 0854) flies direct to Helsinki from London Gatwick 13 times a week from £49.90 one way, with free Wi-Fi on board.