I recently took a fabulous cruise with Norwegian to the Baltic Capitals and if you have followed my posts from the other ports, you will find this one much different. The last 4 port days were so magnificent but that ended for me when we arrived in Finland. I was sorely disappointed, other than getting that check for the “been there, done that” list. We were blessed with a beautiful sunshiny day though this was definitely the least interesting place on the cruise itinerary.
The excursion we chose for Helsinki was labeled “Porvoo- Town and Country,” and with NCL, the price was $119. We boarded buses and took a ride to Savijarvi Mansion, a horse farm, where the owner of the property dating back three generations greeted us with personal stories and warmth. She was a great hostess and it was a privilege to see her home, the property, horse training facilities and breeding grounds, and sample some delicious Finnish goodies. Laid out on the table for our indulgence were berries, homemade caramel sauce, tea, coffee, and a beautiful white cake that was a local favorite, also favored by my friend Jo and I.
Helsinki translates to “Daughter of the Baltic” and is the capital of Finland with a population shy of two million. It was founded by King Gustav Vasa of Sweden. The Finnish people thrive on the outdoor life, as much of their daily life is spent exercising, boating, and socializing. Produce is abundant and fishing is their main staple. October brings the herring market, a very popular event, where fishermen sell their foods and crafts.
We drove to the 15th century Church of St. Sigfrid in Sipoo for a quick visit and photo opportunity. The inside of the church was rather minimal in decoration, but interesting enough, the roof was made of wooden panes painted with tar to weatherproof them. Some say the tar smell adds to the essence. We knew in advance the church would be closed, since our excursion was on Sunday. A few WWII grave markers can be found in the front of the church. Personally, I feel this stop could have been skipped or time better spent elsewhere.
The highlight of the tour was to a picturesque countryside town called Porvoo, founded in 1346, and the second oldest town in Finland. The town is recognized as a favorite to artists. The Old Quarter’s cobblestone streets were lined with 16th century wooden houses, sprinkled with a few handicraft shops and restaurants, and the center of town is on top of a steep hillside. Porvoo Cathedral is one of the oldest churches in Helsinki, with parts dating to the 11th century. Due to the fact we were there on a Sunday before noon, most restaurants and shops were closed. I did find an adorable tea shop, Tee Ja Kahvihuone, on my way back to the bus, which was fashioned after a British tearoom, and had a wide array of drinks and pastries.
Our last stop was to the Sibelius Monument, a unique piece of artwork, made of 600 organ pipes welded together. The monument is located in a busy and beautiful park. Traveling back through town to our ship, the guide pointed out a few sites and you were free to get off the bus downtown and find your own transportation back to the ship, which no one chose to do.
On this excursion, our bus driver was confused and nearly got us stuck in the middle of the countryside on a winding private road on the way to the horse farm. Our tour guide was an older lady who was very unorganized and her facts were not relevant to the excursion. All in all, I found this to be one of the worst excursions I had taken in some twenty plus cruises. Some of my disappointment could have been avoided by changing the time of the excursion or by just not offering it at all, on a Sunday, since two out of three places we visited were closed. My friend and I went promptly to the shore excursions desk when we got back on the ship, and they refunded part of our money. I was impressed with NCL ‘s customer service, as they not only listened to my concerns, but they offered partial compensation for it. After the fact, I read reviews of Porvoo Town & Country; and it seemed many people suggested skipping Helsinki and just lounging on the cruiseship and recovering after the long tour days in Russia. If ever there again, I would just go to the downtown area and enjoy a cafe and scenery.
FYI: The city center of wooden houses in Porvoo is a UNESCO world heritage site.