Hot and cold adventures in Helsinki

Plunge into an icy pool, warm up in a sauna or take a walk in the woods in the Finnish capital

It is with some apprehension that I step into the "cryo-cabin", a metallic-blue cylinder just big enough for one person, for my super-cold spa treatment.

Cryotherapy that dips to a temperature of minus 120 deg C is the draw at the historic Haikko Manor (www.haikko.fi) on the outskirts of Helsinki, the capital of Finland.

For a moment, it seems ludicrous to appear in front of people I have just met - a bunch of uninitiated journalists - in my mismatched garb of swimsuit, mittens, warm socks and a beanie.

Also, this is not something that I, a fan of beach holidays, would have signed up for. But it turns out to be one of the frosty delights - along with dips into nippy seawater and wintry walks - that I relish during our three-day trip in chilly October.

ICY PLUNGE

In my cryo-chamber, tendrils of frosty air curl in a misty cloud around my head, creating the illusion that I am floating in a boiling cauldron.

    • GETTING THERE

      Finnair (www.finnair.com) began operating the A350 XWB or "extra wide body" aircraft from Singapore to Helsinki on Oct 17. There are a few Nordic touches on the flight, including in-flight meals that feature ingredients such as arctic char and reindeer.

      Mood lighting inspired by the Northern lights play on the cabin ceiling as the plane lands.

      The Airbus plane also has an enhanced air filtering system that results in noticeably fresher cabin air.

      There is a bathroom reserved for women in Business Class and it is stocked with fancier toiletries, including face masks and dry shampoo.

      The direct flight takes about 12 hours and there are five flights a week between Singapore and Helsinki.

      TIPS

      • 2017 is the year to go to Finland, especially for those who still can't get over SG50. The country is celebrating the centenary of its independence after centuries of colonisation by Russia and Sweden. There will be more than 1,700 programmes all over the country, including concerts, festivals and sporting events (suomifinland100.fi/?lang=en).

      • Summer and winter are peak times for travel to Finland and each season has its charm. Summer is mild at about 25 deg C and you can witness the midnight sun, when the sun does not set for 24 hours. Many also come for the snow and stop by Helsinki on their way north to see the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, in December.

      • If you plan on shopping, schedule a short trip or a stopover on weekdays, as many shops are closed from Saturday afternoon and on Sunday.

      • If on a stopover, take advantage of StopOver Finland's travel tips, which can help you craft itineraries lasting between five hours and five days in Finland. For more information, go to www.visitfinland.com/stopover.

I gasp and do (ineffective) little jigs in the limited space of the cylinder, as prickles spread from my legs to my arms and neck. Imagine chilly air from your freezer blowing over you, just a dozen times stronger.

Cryotherapy, which originated in Japan in the late 1970s, is said to slow ageing, relieve pain and inflammation in the joints, and even aid weight loss. While it was intended as a clinical treatment for conditions such as arthritis, others began using it to boost athletic performance and health.

In our Finnish spa, the prescribed three minutes in the freezing chamber feels like an eternity.

Two minutes and 54 seconds later, I bail and ask to be released from the cryo-cabin's icy grasp.

Does cyrotherapy perk me up, improve my blood circulation or make my skin baby-smooth as promised? I am too numb with cold to know.

Still quivering, I step into the steamy sauna area and sink gratefully into a jacuzzi warmed to a feverish 38 deg C.

Bliss, for one who has just travelled from the tropical climes of Singapore to the mediaeval town of Porvoo, a drive of 30 minutes from Helsinki.

About an hour and various steam baths and saunas later, I, by now a molten human puddle, decide on a whim to jump into a cold pool (12 deg C) and start the cycle afresh.

It is an unexpectedly invigorating ritual.

After years of watching people hurtle from steamy saunas to icy lakes on television and YouTube, I finally "get" why the Finnish like it both hot and cold.

The exhilaration of plunging into the super-cold chamber or an icy pool is preceded by palpitations of anticipation; then, skin prickling and rigid with cold, you luxuriate in the warm embrace of the sauna.

The combined effect makes me so relaxed that I am nodding off over my dinner even without having had much to drink.

It is also a great way to meet the normally reserved Finns.

In every other steamy room we enter, they offer to gently educate us in the ways of the sauna: Like how it was the only Finnish word to enter the English language; the differences between a traditional sauna and a stove-fed smoke sauna; that Finnish women used to give birth in saunas; or how to make the room even hotter - the way they like it.

In a traditional sauna, simply splash water on the hot stones to send a plume of steam over the room with a satisfying sizzle.

DIP IN THE SEA

They even have a name for this steam - loyly - incidentally also the name of a hip, new sauna that opened in Helsinki in May. Back in the capital city, Loyly (www.loylyhelsinki.fi) is a public sauna on the Helsinki coast.

The convenience of having saunas in their homes means that the number of public saunas have dwindled, but Loyly has made going to the sauna, once again, a communal experience for city dwellers, with a trendy touch.

It is also a visual treat - an eco-friendly modern architectural gem, fabricated with 4,000 precision-cut pinewood planks, sprawls like a wooden sea star on the edge of the Baltic Sea. If a building can exude relaxation, this one does.

I am told that in the summer, the many wooden decks are filled with Finns enjoying the sun in 20 to 25 deg C weather. But when I visit in the autumn, it is closer to 4 deg C.

While we walk the cobbled streets of Helsinki bundled in down coats and thick scarves, somehow, we manage to brave the biting cold in bikinis and one-piece bathing suits here.

Emerging from the sauna room right onto an open, wooden deck, we jump into the steely sea water like it is a swimming pool: We scamper in our bathing suits, arms folded into our bodies against the wind, down the wooden steps to the ocean.

There is a short climb down a ladder and, splash, our sauna-steamed bodies are immersed in 9 deg C water.

Pins and needles run up my legs to my neck, an icy wave crests over my head and I taste the briny sea, which, surprisingly, is not that salty for sea water.

Back in the sauna, we are laid out again like limp rags on wooden decks. The piney scent of wood smoke fills our lungs as we laugh at our audacity.

Then the searing heat, radiating from an imposing black stove, evaporates all stiffness and numbness from our limbs.

After two rounds of this oddly refreshing ritual, our host declares us "honorary Finns". We make it official with a round of beer and cider, downed while still in swimsuits and towels, around a log fire.

The experience at Loyly offers a glimpse into Finnish culture as it combines many of the things Finland is known for - an obsession with saunas, great design with a minimalist aesthetic and a window to nature.

Today, saunas can be found everywhere in Finland - there are 3.3 million saunas for a country of 5.4 million Finns. You can also find them on cruise ships, at the Helskinki airport lounge and even on a ferris wheel - the "SkySauna" is a pinewood sauna cabin on the SkyWheel Helsinki.

The city offers European tourist stops such as cathedrals, museums, shopping and food markets, with a Nordic touch, but the definitive Finnish experience has to be the sauna.

And it seems to me that saunas calm not just the body, but also the spirit. It erases most of my jetlag and I sink into deep, dreamless sleep from my first night in Porvoo to my last night out of Helsinki on the airplane.

It is gratifying, but also salubrious, and anything but flashy.

WALK IN THE WOODS

This is part of a thread that strings together my experiences in Helsinki - the distillation of pleasure and beauty from simplicity. Meals, made with fresh, local produce, are tasty and unpretentious; designers extol function and express their disdain for the caprice of fashion; and despite the cold, Finns enjoy the outdoors and have an inborn respect for nature.

One morning, we make friends with a Finnish forest on the isle of Emasalo near Porvoo.

Our guide from adventure lodge Seikkailulaakso (www.seikkailulaakso.com) encourages us to quiet our minds and learn from the forest, which simply "is".

As we traipse among birches, spruces and pines, we stretch our fingers to touch the springy moss, taste blueberries and lingonberries from under our feet, and feel the craggy surface of massive rocks stranded by glaciers from the ice age.

More used to sweaty hikes in riotous tropical forests, I relish the emerald moss that cushions our every step and the calm that the stately trees impose.

To heighten the experience, we close our eyes to enjoy the forest through our other senses and are told to wander off on our own for a bit (eyes open).

I end up in a grove of conifers, where tiny birds are flitting overhead and all I hear is the wind whistling in the trees.

Breathing the crisp, cool air and dwarfed by ageless trees, I feel content in a forest that seems timeless and endless.

Like so many other experiences here, it is just a walk in the woods and much more.

• The writer was hosted by Finnair and StopOver Finland.


Food, shopping wonderland
 

Besides saunas and nature rambles, there are sights around Helsinki that are favourites with tourists, such as the Helsinki Cathedral, the Design Museum and the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Visit Finland has a well-designed website with information about most of the attractions (www.visitfinland.com).

Some standouts on our itinerary:

SHOP DESIGNER

As you walk around the city centre of Helsinki, look out for shops with stickers indicating that they are part of the Helsinki design district (designdistrict.fi/en).

There are more than 200 design-focused outlets along 25 streets, including stores for fashion, jewellery and homeware, cafes, hotels and design studios.

A handy map of the district can be found online and at any tourist information centre.

For gifts, try TRE (www.worldoftre.com), a new lifestyle and fashion store focused on Nordic design, or Lokal, which stocks products and works by independent Finnish designers.

For fashion, Minna Parikka's quirky bunny-eared loafers and sneakers have most of the women in our group hopping with excitement.

If you like glassware, visit the Iittala flagship store, which first opened in the 1950s. The brand is a Finnish classic.

EAT FRESH

The staple at each restaurant we dine at is fresh, seasonal Nordic and Finnish produce.

In October, when I visit, that includes unctuous Arctic char, Baltic herring, cloudberries and root vegetables such as parsnip and celeriac.

We have tasty sapas - a Finnish take on tapas at Restaurant Juuri (juuri.fi/en), which excels at fresh takes on traditional Finnish flavours.

Trout ceviche, pickled herring with potato cream and grilled celeriac whet our appetite for the main meal at Juuri, a regular entry on the Michelin Guide to Helsinki.

One of our best meals is at Vinkelli, a new eatery run by food industry veterans, which has classically good food and service.

For local produce, including (to our surprise) canned bear meat, the Helsinki Market Hall has been operating since 1889.

No, I did not get any bear meat. But there are other less exotic, but tasty items that you can purchase, including lingonberry jams, artisanal cheeses and salty liquorice.

Salty liquorice, popular in the Nordic countries and Netherlands, is an acquired taste.

TOUCH HISTORY

The Helsinki City Museum, which opened in May, is a new addition to the city's museum scene (www.helsinginkaupunginmuseo.fi/en).

It is a lovely museum for anyone and there is also a child-friendly wing.

The museum tells the people's history of Helsinki - the way they lived, the music they listened to, the food they ate - through interactive exhibits such as a virtual reality "time machine" and replicas of rooms from the past which you can sit in.

There is even a room harbouring the smell of Helsinki, where you can breathe in specially formulated perfumes with the scent of spring or construction.

The Smell of Helsinki exhibit is on till Jan 15.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 25, 2016, with the headline 'Hot and cold in Helsinki'. Print Edition | Subscribe