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Ship hop Saari seems to be the hardest word

I totally have September, the Earth Wind & Fire song, going round in my head now. That’s because I’m writing here about what Helen and I got up to on the 1st September 2019, in Helsinki. Never was a cloudy day...

Having crashed out so early on Saturday evening, it was no surprise to me that I woke up so ludicrously early - about 0245. I’ve never been a particularly heavy sleeper so typically wake up after 4-6 hours, regardless of when I go to bed. But, I mean, for fucks sake - 0245 here is 0045 back in the UK! This isn’t ideal. Nonetheless, I stayed awake listening to podcasts and then watching wrestling, because that’s what I do.

Once Helen woke up a plan was formed. We would shower and get dressed, eat muesli bars, then go island hopping. I bought day tickets from the JT Line website on my phone, and we went for a wander back to the waterfront. It was a thoroughly beautiful Sunday morning, not a cloud in the sky.

A few people were out for a morning swim.

We were in possession of a timetable for the boat, knowing that there was a 1045 to catch. This gave us enough time to find an ATM and hopefully have a quick look around the market, where every stall seemed to be selling something made from reindeer – be it clothing, rugs, or food.

Unfortunately, our choice of ATM found on Google maps was much further away than we thought, to the cruise ship terminal where the Silja vessel above had recently arrived, thus making our journey a literal uphill struggle against swarms of disembarking foot passengers. But money was withdrawn, and we made it back down to the ferries with about a minute to spare before it departed.

Immediately after departure we went past the M/S Viking Gabriella on the other side, which brought back memories: this is the exact ship me and my friends got when doing our crazy trip around Europe last summer. I keep swearing to Helen that I’ll take her on the Stockholm to Helsinki overnight cruise one of these days. I will, really I will.

Our first stop was the island of Lonna – pronounced Lonnnnnna, apparently. About 15 minutes ride across the gloriously flat waters, we get off on the small pier to which a disused train line runs.

I think it’s the smallest bona fide island I’ve ever been to. Can’t remember what its purpose used to be, but I know it’s something military. All the islands here are, pretty much. But these days Lonna is mostly visited because it has a restaurant, bar, cafe... and a sauna. Of course it has a sauna. Even Burger King in Helsinki has a sauna.

We get breakfast. Helen has some cheese and tomato and something waffle; I have reindeer with horseradish sauce on bread.

Reindeer is a really nice smoky meat, served in slices like salami but much more tender. Very nice. The horseradish wasn’t very strong though. I liked the island-brand plates.

Once finished we take a short walk around the place.

It’s not possible to take a long walk, after all - you can do the entire coast in under 10 minutes. The coastline is nice.

As is the visa back to Helsinki.

When we complete the circuit we ... see a boat leaving. Wait, what? I’m sure the timetable says we have 15 minutes to wait - but no, I got it wrong. There’s a half hour gap between these two boats, then 45 minutes for the rest of the day. Argh! So now we have 45 more minutes to kill on this tiny island. Bugger.

Back “inland” we slowly walk across the deserted terrace, noticing birds in the tree. Oh, hello, there are wagtails here. Tons of them, in fact. Let’s spend some time looking at wagtails.

Here, we are in sight of the jetty - and another boat comes in, much earlier than is timetabled. Hurrah! Time to move from Lonna and on to Vallisaari.

Vallisaari is a largely undeveloped island. It used to be a Russian military outpost, but beyond their old buildings there’s barely anything here. It is, however, the most biodiverse place in the whole of Helsinki. The internet has promised us over 1000 species of butterfly and moth, as well as badgers and woodpeckers and loads of other birds and stuff. Also dry toilets. It’s very big news that all the toilets here are dry toilets and there is no plumbing or sewage.

It’s important to stick to the paths, because there’s moderately real dangers around here. In fact the whole southern half of the island is off limits, and one of the reasons people stopped living here is an accident with explosives back in 1937 that killed a bunch of people. Along the trail there are periodic information signs, and some cartoon strips telling how life was back here. Kids used to love digging for explosives, apparently.

The derelict old houses and stuff near the jetty are pretty cool.

But, y’know, we’re here to see wildlife. Where’s the wildlife? Where’s the fields and forests and trees in which we’ll see loads of animals?

Aha! There’s some butterflies! Let’s spend half an hour or so taking countless photos of two butterflies!

They are very cool looking, to be fair. Anyway, onwards. We walk past a large pond, where the sign teaches us that residents used to swim and dive here in summer, and in winter ski and skate on it because it froze over. It looks thoroughly idyllic.

Keeping on, we start finding some of the old military buildings. There are explosives stores and the like, though nothing is particularly well labelled so we aren’t entirely sure what they are except a bit creepy, and a bit cool.

We’re not walking fast, but it’s an undulating enough landscape that it’s a bit strenuous. What’s more, there are occasionally flights of steps that you can climb up to get better views of stuff. Like on top of the huge Alexander Battery, the largest of all the military buildings. Helen can’t be bothered to ascend all that way so stays sat down the bottom, posting to instagram, while I go for a look-see. The view is totally worth it.

Near here there’s a map showing everything on the island.

Turns out the stretch we’d just walked was “home to thousands of butterflies” - we saw one - and coming was the Valley of Death. Wait, what? Like that Coolio lyric?

I’m genuinely disappointed by how few animals we see on Vallisaari, but perhaps we’ll see more on the other island. Across a small causeway is Kuninkaansaari (“saari” means “island”, in case you were wondering. You should all appreciate the sub-heading a bit more having learnt that).

Much to our surprise, just before the causeway there’s a shop, hot dog stand, and cafe bar with loads of seating outside. Huh. We’d been led to believe there was nothing of the sort here, yet suddenly there’s a bunch of people - like, 20 or so, but that’s more than we’d seen anywhere else on the island so far - and all this civilisation. Still only dry toilets though.

Also a place for mooring privately held boats. That would explain all the people at the cafe.

Over on Kuninkaansaari is basically more of the same - derelict military buildings, hilly gravel tracks, lots of trees, hardly any wildlife. There are a few more people on this bit including some annoyingly hyperactive children, one of whom regrets sprinting down a hill when later he has to climb a much longer, steeper one.

This cute sign appears, next to someone’s house. There is one private dwelling here, and a sign written by the owners explaining how they’ve lived here for 40-odd years and act as de facto guides and caretakers, but please respect their privacy and don’t walk through their garden. Indeed, today a lot of them are out having a barbecue and why not.

Weaving round and up hill to the last set of munitions stores, we’re met with a disappointing dead end and have to retrace our steps. We’re kinda done with this place now, and head back to the unexpected cafe bar for some expensive cheap lager in plastic glasses.

That wander had taken a pretty significant amount of time and number of steps, and this island pair isn’t even the big hitter attraction: the main deal is Suomenlinna, over the way. We’re back at the jetty with a long time to spare, which means at least we’re first. This turns out to be a good thing, because by the time the boat comes there are 50 or so people waiting to get on. Where the hell did they all come from?

It’s only 5 minutes across to Suomenlinna. I’ve been here before, on my previous trip to earn gold, and lots of memories came flooding back. They are bittersweet: I vividly recall how much I enjoyed walking around the entire set of islands, and how brutally hungover I was at the same time. This time around I am not hungover, and we’re not going to explore much.

Our reasons for not doing much here are: we’d already walked 20,000+ steps and were a bit knackered and hungry; there were LOADS of other people about; Helen wasn’t that arsed by yet more military gubbins; I’d been here before; there were no reports of interesting wildlife.

There is, however, a brewery. Fuck yeah. After a quick browse around the gift shop, we walked up the hill past the church and a couple of other cafes, down through the gate and to the cafe attached to the brewery.

To accompany our frankly delicious beer, we bought two slices of pizza. Unbeknownst to us, it was salmon pizza. Who puts salmon on pizza? The Finns, apparently. I reckon it works, but that’s a bit of a guess because to be honest it was a pretty nasty slice.

A man ran from left to right in front of us, with possibly the most ungainly gait I’ve ever seen. And across the way was a moody seagull.

Even after calories, neither of us had much appetite for seeing much more of the island so we walked back towards the jetty with only the briefest of detours via some old officer housing or something. As luck would have it, there was a boat already waiting and almost ready to set off as we arrived. Managing to get a couple of seats outdoors on the top deck, it was time to go back to Helsinki proper.

The return journey also stops at Lonna, which makes sense since it’s mostly marketed as a place to have lunch or an early dinner. Back at the market square, the market has just shut for the day. Around the corner there’s a nice looking tiered bar/restaurant place, but the middle floor - where real food is served - doesn’t open on Sundays. Damn. So we choose to head into town, where surely there’ll be somewhere to get real food.

The route involves going past two cathedrals. This is one of them.

Actually, just behind here there’s a bit of town where I remembered there’s this, like, strip of eateries and stuff next to the water. We explore, and all the ones that sell food are shut.

So, into the town centre we go, past the main cathedral. Hefty.

There are a few ludicrously expensive, even by Helsinki-and-the-sterling-exchange-rate standards, restaurants which we decide to skip. A lot of other places are closed. Eventually we find a kind of hidden away terrace which serves three sibling restaurants, enabling us to choose between TexMex, steaks, burgers, or pizza. Two chicken pedros, a beer and a wine please.

Chicken pedro turns out to be some kind of cold faux burrito, which a weird cheese sauce. I give myself hiccups by eating all of Helen’s jalapeños in one mouthful.

Having had enough of being on our feet, we head back to the hotel by tram. Tram #4 goes from here, directly in the centre of a main shopping street, and buying a ticket is easy from the machine. Rather than get off directly outside our hotel we go to the terminus, next to the supermarket, in which we buy a bit more beer, canned fizzy wine, some unsalted peanuts and cashews, and two day tickets for the transport network. Plans for Monday are afoot, see.

Back at the hotel, Helen is offended by how women need to get up earlier for their free sauna. Why do men get a lie-in? Bloody patriarchy.

Created By
Darren Foreman
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