If you’re up for an interesting yet quiet Easter Break, head to Helsinki in Finland. It’s not usually the tourist destination of choice for Easter because a) it’s still cold, very cold and b) almost everything is closed (because it’s Easter, surprise surprise). But you can stay in a converted prison, which is pretty cool!
Despite these two inhibiting factors, and sought-after accommodation being in a prison, don’t let this deter you, this is in fact the perfect opportunity to explore as there are far less tourists, although bear in mind some places of interest / restaurants may be closed, so call in advance to check, especially if there are any ‘must-sees’ on your list and our choice of accommodation was, again, not your usual tourist choice…we stayed at Hotel Katajanokka, a former prison. Yes, some smart person had decided it would be a great idea to turn an old disused prison into a hotel and were doing extremely well by it.
We were greeted at the desk by a prison marm who checked us in and gave us some interesting history about the prison. Despite the little pillbox windows, rooms were extremely comfortable and not too cramped either. After a very, very restful sleep – those thick walls don’t let any of the outside sound through – it was time for breakfast; a classic buffet, laid out ‘prison style’ with old tin bowls to eat your muesli out of. But this wasn’t your usual prison fare; mountains of muesli surrounded by fruit, fresh brewed coffee or tea and fresh orange juice on tap. We almost felt like we were heading for a food coma, and the day had barely begun! Despite it’s quirkiness, the prison was smack bang in the centre of town. Meaning our first stop was the small yet grand Russian Orthodox church; Uspenski Cathedral, before heading off to the ferry port market and to buy day tickets to Suomenlina. Wandering the market, I discovered some very interesting traditional Finnish chocolate, with summer balm – a type of Finnish herb, infused into it.
The ferry ride over to Suomenlina is COLD, so it’s advised NOT to ride the top deck, unless you want to lose your nose to frostbite, in April! Suomenlina itself is pretty much deserted this time of year, except for the locals, making it easy to explore the whole island and get a real feeling for what is would be like to live here – very, very desolate. But with over 900 inhabitants spanning 4 generations; and facilities including a school, hospital, post office and waste disposal unit, it’s like a micro island community. Dormant rusting hulks of cranes show that this quiet island town was once an important machine port, and whilst some ship building does still occur on the island today, it’s mainly ship fixing. The seaward beaches of Suomenlina bristle with obsolete cannons, still pointing various heights skyward at now long-gone enemies. This is why they call it ‘fortress island’; a strategic point over the centuries to defend the mainland against invasion – as, for centuries, Finland has been fought over by the Russian and Swedish forces.
After freezing our nuts off waiting for a ferry back to the mainland from Suomenlina, it was now time to hunt down a traditional Finnish restaurant. We found Harald – first impressions imply a possible tourist trap – as you climb the stairs, plastic Viking hats and shields hang from the walls. But being greeted by such a friendly waiter at the top of the stairs, and noticing the Trip Adviser award of Excellence, we decided to stay, even just for a beer. Tar beer to be precise, smoky…yet satisfying. Then having seen the menu, it was impossible to say ‘no’ to the food, so we ended up having dinner…unfortunately they had run out of reindeer steak, *sigh*, but the tar smoked rare salmon steak was calling my name. And the creamy mushroom soup, so good we had two bowls…each.