’Tis the season to travel


What are the world’s best places to spend the holidays? Finnair Blue Wings writers share sneak peeks into their favorite destinations. 

Like a local in Helsinki

Helsinki (photo above) is a great host for friends and families wanting to enjoy the peace and quiet but with an added twist.

Apart from old-style activities it’s worth trying something a bit out of the ordinary – like skinny dipping by candlelight. The grand old Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall organizes a serene swimming session every year. Another fun event is the popular Christmas Sauna at the Bock House courtyard near Senate Square.

There are lots of friendly little cafés and shops to pop into. Try Café Kokko on Kalevankatu for tasty raw cakes and other Christmas treats and be inspired by the selection of vintage furniture and homeware at the Roomage store next to it. 

Visit the LOKAL concept shop on Annankatu for art, photography, and design or one of the city’s many creative Christmas markets. The biggest one is held at the Cable Factory, where more than 150 local artists sell their handcrafted jewelry, accessories and homeware.

Text by Laura Iisalo

Laura Iisalo is a Helsinki-based writer and photographer who loves Christmas. She runs a website called Creating Helsinki and is currently working on a book about the local people and lifestyle.

Sand and Santa in the Caribbean

With 280 beaches, tons of tropical rainforest and temperatures hovering around 30 degrees Celsius, the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe may not seem like the ideal place to get into the Christmas mood. Yet it is.

The people of “Gwada” absolutely love this time of the year, and will do anything to create a bit of winter magic in the middle of their eternal summer.

In late November, residents start decorating their houses with twinkling lights and in December you’ll see Christmas choirs performing in churches and at street markets. A few days before Christmas Eve I even witnessed Santa Claus arriving on a jet ski to the beach. 

From December 1−25 the island is full of musical parties, called Chanté Nwel (“Christmas singing”) in the local Creole language. You will hear bands playing classic songs like ‘Silent Night’, but with an unusually fast beat.

All in all Guadeloupe has way more Christmas spirit than I ever thought possible.

Text and photo by Mirva Lempiäinen

Mirva Lempiäinen is a US-educated Finnish freelance journalist who divides her time between New York and the French-Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.

Beam me to Berlin

Starting from the end of November through to Boxing Day, there are at least 60 Christmas markets scattered across Berlin catering to every imaginable taste, age, and budget. 

Nothing says ‘Frohe Weihnachten’ quite like a steaming mug of Feuerzangenbowle (rum-laced flaming punch) under the magical floodlights of Charlottenburg Palace or beneath the domes of the French and German cathedrals at the Weihnachts-Zauber Market in Gendarmenmarkt Square.

Bohos in trendy Prenzlauer Berg meanwhile congregate at the Scandinavian-themed Lucia Christmas Market in the courtyard of Kulturbrauerei. 

The ever-unpredictable Berlin – with its iconic historical sights, great eats, village-like atmosphere and intense party scene – is the holiday destination that won’t leave anyone cold.

Text and photo by Silja Kudel

Sydney-born Silja Kudel is a freelance writer who loves dancing at Clärchens Ballhaus, prowling the galleries of Neukölln, and eating ethnic in Kreuzberg.

A neon noel in Hong Kong

The combination of holiday festivals and celebrations alongside the over-the-top decorations and festive atmosphere in Hong Kong is guaranteed to make even the biggest humbug excited for the big day.

WinterFest is ever popular with both tourists and locals alike, with its variety of special Christmas displays and events. WinterFest kicks off in early December and runs up until the New Year’s countdown on January 1st.

Disneyland also hosts Christmas-themed entertainment, the Hong Kong Ballet stages festive fixture The Nutcracker, the Hong Kong Philharmonic performs selections of classic Christmas pieces, and major hotels and restaurants present gourmet Christmas dinners.

Add year-round ingredients like the all-night food halls, bustling markets, and endless stores and galleries to browse, the double-decker trams and bright red taxis, and you’re guaranteed to pause not a moment, and to return home with your head spinning a riotous blur of colors.

Text by Ben West
Photo by iStock

Ben West is a London-based journalist who has written articles for publications such as The Times, Telegraph, Guardian, and Independent, as well as some books on travel.

Wild winter break in the Florida Keys

For someone craving a break from the chilly north, temperatures in the low 20s Celsius range sound just about right. 

While The Keys are much easier to access than the Caribbean, these 1,700 coral islands offer comparable natural gorgeousness along with a slightly wacky culture all their own.

Our group of three families rented a large house on Big Pine Key, and there was plenty for everyone to do – from sandcastle building to extreme sports, art galleries, bookshops and seedy portside bars to some of North America’s best Cuban cuisine and seafood.

We also hiked the nature preserves, watched outdoor nature films at night, and strolled along the old Seven Mile Bridge, which Ernest Hemingway fondly wrote about. His eccentric mansion in Key West at the island chain’s southernmost tip is definitely worth checking out. 

Key West, which is still a haven for writers, artists and rainbow culture, boasts a New Year’s Eve celebration unlike any other, wrapping up a month of festivities. 

Text by Wif Stenger
Photo by Sinimaria Kangas

American-Finnish broadcaster, writer, and translator Wif Stenger lives west of Helsinki on the Porkkala peninsula.

Vancouver’s multicultural charm

In recent years I’ve developed a better appreciation and understanding of Vancouver’s Asian character – more than 40 percent of the population is of Asian origin – a fact that I took for granted while growing up there.

Though not all Asians celebrate Christmas, the festive spirit is alive and well in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown, especially in the lead up to Chinese New Year (February 8 in 2016).

Regardless of the time of year, stop into Bao Bei brasserie on Keefer Street in Chinatown for a scrumptious mix of Shanghai, Taiwan, and Vietnamese cuisines.

During the festive season the Bright Nights festival lights up Stanley Park, which provides impressive views of the sea, mountains, and city. Other family-friendly seasonal musts include the Circle Craft Christmas Market on Granville Island.

For skiers, the North Shore Mountains are a 45-minute drive from the downtown core, and about 125 kilometers north along the Sea to Sky Highway lies Whistler Blackcomb, one of the world’s top ski resorts.

Text by Katja Pantzar
Photo by iStock

Writer and journalist Katja Pantzar is based in Helsinki. Her fondest memories of growing up in Vancouver include learning to ski at Whistler and attending grade school with 41 different nationalities.


A Canterbury Carol

When I was a teenager in south-east England I wrote poems for the school magazine. Included was a piece called Christmas in Canterbury. Surprisingly, much hasn’t changed in the intervening 40-odd years.

My poem starts from the platform on one of the Cathedral towers, overlooking frosty rooftops, and describes the bustle of the Christmas shoppers in the streets, the sound of carols played by Salvation Army bands, the haze of coffee bars.

The older parts of Canterbury, clustered around the dominant Cathedral, retain their authentic historic character. Stone churches and city walls, timber-beamed pubs, houses with crazily-angled ancient doors and windows, and Roman roads all survive. 

But the Cathedral is the focal point, especially at Christmas. This magnificent Gothic edifice is saturated in English history.

Christmas carol services are held in the Cathedral almost daily in December, while Christmas trees and a nativity scene complete the festive seasonal ambience.

Text and photo by Tim Bird

Journalist and photographer Tim Bird now spends most of his Christmases in Finland but has never quite shaken off his English roots.

Main photo by Visit Finland/Kimmo Brandt

A longer version of this article was originally published in Finnair's Blue Wings magazine (December 2015)

Published December 8, 2015

Category: Local features