If you want to say you can see Russia from your backyard, Finland's the place to do it.
But jokes aside, this is is one of the most vibrant and forward-thinking nations in the world, boasting more natural beauty than many other countries combined. It also happens to be the least populated nation in Europe, sort of the Wyoming of Nordic countries as well as one of the cleanest and safest.
While Angelenos flock to Europe every summer, you'd be well advised to consider travel plans this spring or even the fall. Why? In addition to astronomical summer prices -- you're looking to pay about $950 a person for a flight to Helsinki in July -- you'll be dealing with heat. Remember, every summer's getting warmer, thanks to climate change.
That means more time spent inside air-conditioned hotels and less time out enjoying the architecture, street artists and musicians, food vendors and overall culture of a city.
Don't visit before or even during April for, depending on your location, you may be treated to the legendary darkness for which this country is known. For in Northern Finland, the sun never rises above the horizon for 10 weeks. Southern Finland is lighter, but only provides about six hours of daylight in winter.
Where to stay
Visit any number of charming hotels or B&Bs in one of the country's 19 regions, which are called "maakunta" in Finnish or "landskap" in Swedish. Recommended lodging: Glo Hotel Art, near Helsinki, is set in a 1900s Art Nouveau castle, and its classic and colorful interiors boast comfy accommodations such as walk-in glass showers with removable massaging showerheads and touches such as his 'n her robes and a stuffed animal on the bed. The tram stop is just steps away. Click here for more options.
What to eat and where to find it
The food of Finland will be kind of what you expect of a country that lies along the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland and borders the Soviet Union to the west. This means lots of fish, of course, but not just any fish: check out the turbot roe, herring or the pike perk fish fillets. Adventurous and not squeamish? - Try the reindeer meat. Other recommendations include karjalanpiirakka, a rice or potato pastry, and the fish twist on the meatloaf, kalakukko.
Recommended restaurants include Cafe Regatta in the Taka-Töölö district for breakfast including some memorable cinnamon rolls; G.W. Sundmans, set in a restored 19th century mansion in the City Centre, which touts pure Scandinavian fare such as foie gras, sugar-cured salmon and fried sweetbreads; or if venturing out to the oldest city in Finland, Turku on the southwest coast, try Tinta, known for its prawn and scallop or salame piquante and marinated red onion pizzas, outdoor seating and swoonworthy ambiance.
Day trips out of the country
Westerners might not realize just how close Russia is to Finland (remember, only a purported 35 to 42 percent of us have passports), so you'll be delighted to realize you can get to St. Petersburg in just four hours. If you want to get to Moscow, it's about 13 hours away or a 15 to 16-hour train ride.
Rent a car through Finland Car Rental, or take a scenic train ride aboard the VR - Yhteisellä Matkalla for about 216,93 € one way. That comes to about $300.00 for adults traveling on a Sunday in First Class; Second Class will run you only 147,12 € or $203.00. Remember, exchange rates fluctuate and you should always check before you travel. Recommended sites are either Bloomberg's or the FT's current converters.
You might also want to take that same train elsewhere in Finland, especially to see Pori, a gorgeous city in the west, known for breathtaking architecture and beaches; or to connect with a boat heading into Sweden.
While it might not surprise you to learn Finland still hasn't legalized gay marriage -- after all, it does border Russia -- they are venturing out in some bold ways. A postal stamp series features homoerotic sketches of men in all manner of poses, and the current metal scene and pop music renaissance feature videos that would make your prim Finnish grandmother blush.
Fly into Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, which is where Finnair, Blue1 and Finncomm Airlines are based and sell air services both domestically and internationally. You can also consider Oulu Airport, the country's second largest, which is slightly south of the city.
For lodging in Pori, please click here.
For information about Finland's weather and months of darkness, please click here.
For additional information about Finland, please click here.