Sunday, August 25, 2013

Summer Vacation Part 3 (California and Finland)

The 3rd and final leg of my summer holiday started the same day I returned from Greece.  We arrived back to Helsinki at 3 am and I grabbed a few hours of sleep before jumping back on a plane heading towards Los Angeles.  This part of the trip involved some business in Los Angeles and Las Vegas for my employer, followed by a quick visit home to the San Francisco Bay Area.   I was excited again to return to my home state, even though I needed to work during the first part of the week.

Misson Inn, Riverside, Ca
No need to get into details of the business portion of the trip, however I was quite amazed at the hotel that I stayed at while in Riverside, California.  I stayed at the historic Mission Inn hotel which made my stay feel a bit more like a vacation than a business trip.  The Mission Inn was built in the Spanish Mission style just over a 100 years ago and has been visited by many famous dignitaries and important folks through out its history. Albert Einstein, Emelia Earhart, Teddy Roosevelt among many presidents stayed here.  Ronald and Nancy Reagan had their honeymoon there as well. The hotel was palatial and in addition to the interesting Spanish style architecture, it had 2 bars, 4 restaurants, a swimming pool and various staircases, nooks, crannies and meeting rooms.  It is definitely one of the most impressive hotels I have ever stayed at and for $125 per night for a large room (about 95€), it was an absolute steal from what I am used to in Europe.  So, in between work sessions I was able to indulge in awesome food and swim a bit in the pool and soak in some California sun.

Grand staircase, Mission Inn
At the end of the week, I drove over to Venice beach from Riverside, strategically trying to get on the freeways during light commute hours, which is almost impossible in Los Angeles.  The traffic in Los Angeles and its surrounding areas is an absolute nightmare and even worse for someone coming from calm and efficient Finland.  However, with that said I made decent time from Riverside to Venice beach.  I hadn't been down to the famous Venice beach area since I was a small child and I had no idea of the motley characters that now call it home.  There is the famous Muscle beach which was a showcase to the muscled celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Joe Weider among others.  As I walked down the beachfront, I noticed jugglers, entertainers, freaks, a man playing guitar on skates, various merchants, aggressive dudes trying to sell their new rap CD's, among other characters.  It reminded me a bit of the old Telegraph Avenue area in Berkeley as a beach community in Los Angeles.  A lunch near the water, hanging out a bit near the beach and strolling down the beach front and I was ready to go back to the airport and head back home (San Francisco, CA).  I always enjoy a trip back home to relax and catch up a bit with family and friends.  However, as always time seems to fly and my short stay at home was over and I was again at the airport and boarding an airplane back to Helsinki.

The Saimaa
My wife already had plans to visit her grandmother who lives in the North Karelia area of Finland and driving there takes around 4 hours from Helsinki/Espoo.  I have been to this area several times in the past and have always enjoyed it.  The drive takes you directly through the Finnish lake land region which features the great Saimaa lake among other natural sites.  We would spend an afternoon visiting her grandmother before driving over to a campground in the Punkaharju ridge area.  This gorgeous area features views of the Saimaa and a drive across a high ridge that splits one of the lakes in half.  This was our first camping experience in Finland and it was nice, the facilities had everything one could ask for including clean showers, restaurants and activities.  The next day we visited the famous city of Savonlinna which features the best preserved castle in all of Finland as well as a lively market at the lakefront.  It was another beautiful, sunny day in Finland to stroll around, take in some views and enjoy our surroundings.  The long drive back home included passing through the center of the Saimaa and stopping for lunch in the lake port city of Puumala.  Puumala is a neat little city that is right in the heart of the lake region and features a nice harbor for the boats that seem to come and go all day long.  Then we continued the journey through the lake region taking in the views along the way and then back home to Espoo.  It was the wonderful end to a long summer Holiday. I can say that this summer was definitely one of the most memorable in a long time and the weather in Finland cooperated.

Punkaharju ridge

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Summer vacation part 2 (Greece)

After the first portion of our summer vacation we spent a few nice sunny days in Finland with a few of my cousins from the United States and later got ready for the main highlight of the summer, a trip to the Island of Crete.  Greece had been on my wish list for many, many years and for some reason we had never made it down there.  There are so many possibilities in Greece and various Islands to explore, it was overwhelming just trying to decide on the best itinerary for a one week trip.  After doing our research on the Greek mainland and many of the Islands, we decided on the largest of the Greek Islands (Crete).

Crete offers so much variety for the visitor and it seemed like the best choice for a family with younger children.  Sure there are more romantic smaller Islands to explore as well as the main land with it's distinct culture and many archaeological wonders like the Parthenon.  With the Greek crisis still going on we had no interest in going to Athens for now and wanted to avoid the smaller, touristy Islands like Mykonos, Naxos or Santorini.  Crete features a bit of everything, gorgeous beaches, special Cretan food and wine, many archaeological ruins from the Minoan era and gorgeous canyons and mountains.  Our family stayed at a Scandinavian sponsored resort near the city of Chania.  The resort had a mix of Swedes, Finns, Norwegians and Danes.  I think I was the only American in the entire resort and our kids were probably the only children who spoke English.  That wasn't a problem and the Greek staff was very friendly and curious about our mixed Finnish/American family.

During the week we visited two of the most well known beaches on the Island (Elafonisi and Phalasarna).  We also journeyed half way across the Island to visit the famous Minoan ruins of Knossos which feature ruins of a civilization that dates back as far as 3400 BC!  It was amazing to think about a civilization even older than the Greek and Roman periods while I was walking around their ancient city with my family.  We also spent a few days exploring the famous city of Chania which features a wonderful old town and Venetian port from the 16th century. However, perhaps the best part of the trip was just relaxing around the sandy beaches and swimming pool while soaking in the sun and enjoying the wonderful Greek food and drink.  In comparison to Finland where it costs roughly 100 euros for our family (4 total) to enjoy a decent dinner with food and drinks, it was about half of that or 50 euros total.  I am still going through Greek salad burnout now, but while there I was thoroughly enjoying those tasty fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and Feta cheese in the classic Greek salad.  The week was very special and raced by quickly, but the pleasant memories are forever burned into my mind.  Crete is a special place and I definitely plan on returning to Greece in the future.

Stayed tuned for the final portion of our summer vacation, part 3 which will be featured in my next blog post! 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Summer vacation part I (Estonia & Latvia)

There is nothing I love more about living in Finland than the long summer breaks.  Many people, including our family, take the entire month of July off (plus or minus a week).  It means lots of long sunny days, adventures and travel.  Our family appreciates both adventure and relaxation and we decided to kick off our summer vacation with a ferry/car trip across the Gulf of Finland to Estonia and Latvia.  These two Baltic countries are in close proximity and since they are relatively cheaper than Finland, they make a nice getaway.

Kuressaare Castle
We started by driving from the capital city of Tallinn to the island of Saaremaa in the Northwest corner of the country.  This easy drive included a 30 minute ferry ride to get to Saaremaa.  Before arriving at the hotel we explored the Kaali meteorite crater.  This 110 meter wide crater is estimated to be 4000 years old.  I can only imagine the power of this crater when it hit the earth and created a impact comparable to the Hiroshima bomb.  Next stop on the Estonia tour was our hotel located in the idyllic city of Kuressaare.  The hotel was very nice and located right next to the bay and the Kuressaare castle.  This little city, the capital of Saaremaa county, dates back to the 13th century.  Our family enjoyed the brief stay in this region of Estonia before packing up and driving down to Latvia.

Kaali Meteorite Crater
My wife and I have been to Tallinn, Estonia several times because of the close proximity to Finland, but never had ventured further.  Latvia is the next country in line and it is only a 4-5 hour drive from the top of Estonia to the border. All 3 of the Baltic countries are tiny in comparison to major European countries and are easily navigated through by car.  We stayed in Latvia for a brief visit to the capital city of Riga and a few surrounding cities.  Riga is a very nice city situated on a river and like Tallinn also features an old and new town.  What makes Riga unique is that it features art nouveau and 19th century wooden architecture.  The historic center is a UNESCO world heritage site and the European cultural capital of 2014.  Riga seems to be pointed in the right direction these last several years.  However with that said, Riga is still not in the European monetary community as they are still using their local currency.  While gasoline was significantly cheaper than in Estonia and Finland, I didn't think overall prices were that much less.  At least not in the capital area.

Riga, Latvia
After Riga, we would begin our drive back to Estonia and spend our final day of this journey in the capital city of Tallinn.  During our drive back to Tallinn from Riga, we encountered an large parade of cars that were headed North at fast speeds with police following at the rear and front.  We wondered what famous dignitary could be driving with so many cars following?  My wife was driving behind them and kept following at speeds of about 120 km/h (75 mph).  Finally after an hour or so as we approached the Estonian border, the policeman at the rear stopped in front of us and told us to wait 5 minutes before proceeding.  Then as the Latvian police car drove back away from us, we noticed the other police pointing his finger and scolding us.  I guess we must have followed them too closely and they were not too happy about that.  Finally, we were on our way and passing the Estonian border back to Tallinn.  The next day in Tallinn we would see the German president's wife having lunch with the Estonian president's wife and finally figured out that the German president, Joachim Gauck, had been visiting the Baltic countries.  Next time we know to be careful when following a 15 car entourage.  :)  The visit to Tallinn was fun as I always enjoy this bustling little medieval city just 2 hours via ferry from Helsinki, Finland.  It used to be a cheap paradise for Finns coming to save a little cash, but today prices have risen and it is also in the European community. Other places we visited in Tallinn were the very interesting KGB spy museum in the Hotel Viru and the Maritime museum at Seaplane harbor.

Trailing German President Gauck from Latvia to Estonia
Overall, we had a very nice time for leg # 1 of our summer vacation.  Summer trip leg #2 to be continued in part #2.  Stay tuned!