Make Your Next Trip Extraordinary

A glimpse of the northern lights captured by the traveler.

The first glimpse of an hour-long display of the northern lights. Photo: Traveler Michael Ruma

My wife said she’d like to see the aurora borealis and with Wendy’s help, we were quickly introduced to Leigh Landis. Never having visited Scandinavia, we leaned heavily on Leigh’s knowledge of the country’s landscape, culture, and food scene. Leigh quickly answered our call, listened carefully to our wants and needs, and created a delightful week of fun in Finland.

Getting to Finland involved a luxurious and efficient flight on FinnAir. Their business-class product was excellent, with superior service to U.S. air carriers. Landing in Finland during winter quickly introduces you to life in the Arctic. Cloudy, gray, and snow covered, we made our way to Hotel Maria, where we received a beautiful upgrade to a Serene Suite. Our room with muted gray walls and plush fabrics throughout created a calming atmosphere with classical piano playing softly on a perfectly integrated, audiophile-quality sound system built into a control panel operating the lights, blinds, and temperature settings. Opened at the beginning of 2024, the sparkling-new hotel provided a beautiful environment as our home base to explore the country’s capital.

Hello…Helsinki. Fortunately, we did not have to worry about managing any language barrier, as citizens in Finland generally speak three languages, Finnish, Swedish and English. On our first afternoon, we were met by a private guide who introduced us to the well-laid out and easily walkable city of Helsinki. We utilized the superior public tram system, visiting the Helsinki Cathedral, its main esplanade with glamorous shopping and dining, and the national library. Finland has one of the highest literacy rates in the world and it is no doubt seeing their citizens enjoy the incredible library, which acts as a social and educational hub for the community. Receiving a guide on the dining in Helsinki prior to arrival, we sampled several Finnish traditional dishes, including reindeer filet and smoked salmon soup at a traditional restaurant, Kuu.

The following day, after a scrumptious breakfast at the Hotel Maria, we ventured out to see the Fortress of Suomenlinna. Catching the first ferry at sunrise was a delight watching our ship cruise through an ice-filled bay. Built in the 18th century, Helsinki’s harbor fortress was an impressive demonstration of defensive architecture and a refreshing walk during the winter, which is undoubtedly gorgeous in the summer months. At the end of our morning walking tour, we enjoyed lunch at the Old Market Hall, the oldest food hall in Helsinki dating back to 1889. After visiting with numerous vendors, sampling reindeer jerky and a variety of cookies, we sat down at a fish vendor to try some fresh salmon sashimi and langoustine soup. In the afternoon, we retired to the hotel for a massage and our first experience with the Finnish sauna. The sauna layout at the Hotel Maria is decadent, with steam and dry sauna rooms along with a cold plunge pool and two different temperature hot tubs.

The next day, we hopped an easy flight to Rovaniemi, which lies directly on the latitude of the Arctic Circle. An efficient, private transfer brought us to the Arctic TreeHouse Hotel. Met with warm blueberry juice, we checked into our GlassHouse suite. Our room had a centrally located living room with an enclosed wood-burning stove along with two bathrooms, one of which had our very own dry sauna.

Advised to download the Aurora app, we learned about the KP index, which predicts the probability of witnessing the northern lights. Fortunately, after dinner at the hotel, a notification from the app informed us at 9pm the chance was high! A bit tired, but intent on seeing the natural phenomenon, we bundled up, hiked up a trail to a 50-foot observation tower specifically designed for viewing the lights. Finnish myths say the lights are caused when a fox runs across the arctic landscape whipping up snow from its tail, sparking the lights in the night sky. Regardless of the cause, we were blessed by an hour display of a gray hazy line emerging in the distance and evolving into a bright green glow right in front of our eyes. As we watched and photographed the sky, the lights blew around us along our walk back to our room. Thrilled and chilled by the experience, we stopped to show all the hotel staff our photos while warming up with a drink at the bar.

Our next two days were filled with other Arctic adventures, which included an exciting jaunt by snowmobile to learn how to ice fish on a frozen lake and then dog sledding on a snowy day in the beautiful and vast northern Finnish countryside. We concluded our trip with a train ride from Rovaniemi back to Helsinki. Unfortunately, the Finnish Aviation Union was on strike the day of our return flight, but we found the train ride to be quite enjoyable, catching up on some unread books and unwatched movies. Honestly, when we return to Finland, we plan on booking the overnight train which has comfortable sleeper cars with private bathroom and shower, which will certainly be a great adventure.

On our last day in Helsinki, we hit the esplanade and shopped at Iittala for classic glassware and Marimekko for stylish home goods. We splurged and dined at Restaurant Savoy on our last night, which was designed by architects Aino and Alvar Aalto who are famous for the iconic, birch wood, curved, 3-legged stool.

We would happily come back to Finland for a future visit either in the winter to take in the unique night sky, but this time much further north, or during the summer to take in the lively and sunny long days in Helsinki filled with so much to see, taste, and do.

Delighted by its vast country, small polite population, and compact capital, its seasonally focused food, and its matter-of-fact and kind people. We had such fun in Finland.

We spent a wonderful week in southern Norway in late June with the help of Leigh Landis.  Our trip, which we booked through the WOW List 2+ years ago, was originally scheduled for the summer 2020, but—like many other travelers—we had to put it on hold for two years, thanks to COVID. When Norway reopened earlier this year, we reached out to Leigh again and she immediately modified the itinerary to suit our new schedule.

Our trip started in Bergen, followed by a fjord cruise with an overnight in Balestrand, then on to Flam for the Flamsbana and the train to Oslo, where we spent several days. The hotels Leigh booked were all outstanding, her restaurant recommendations included lots of variety and different price points. Our tour guides in Bergen and Oslo were both excellent.

A couple of standout moments for us:
• Leigh encouraged us to break up our “Norway in a Nutshell” experience with an overnight at the historic Kviknes Hotel in Balestrand. We are so glad she did! Having free time to appreciate the tiny fjord town was a wonderful addition to the trip.
• The week before we were leaving, I read an article about the just-opened National Museum in Oslo. Even though it was last-minute and I knew it was hard to get tickets, I asked Leigh if we could add it to our itinerary, which she did.

A note regarding COVID: Since we are both vaccinated and boosted and wear our masks most of the time, we were not too concerned about COVID. I would note that very few locals wore masks since all restrictions in the country had been lifted.

I think Norway is the perfect destination for someone concerned about COVID right now. Many of the best activities are outdoors in nature and most restaurants have outdoor seating. Besides, it is a beautiful country with spectacular scenery. We will definitely go back since we only scratched the surface.

Bucket list, check, check!

Thanks to Leigh Landis, my daughter and I were fortunate enough to to the check off two activities on our bucket list for both a polar plunge and hunting for the Northern Lights during our recent trip to Norway. Leigh customized our trip to the Arctic to include both the quaint seaside city of Tromsø and the winter wonderland of Kirkenes. She was prompt to respond when I had questions/requests and she sent a very detailed itinerary complete with activity and restaurant suggestions, local contact information, and a very important packing list for our outdoor activities.

Our first three days in Tromsø were spent eating local reindeer, moose, and cod (the best I’ve ever had), visiting the Arctic Cathedral & tram to the top for stunning views of the city, and a trip outside of the city to ride/feed reindeer and learn about the indigenous Sami culture. The highlight of our time in Tromsø included a one of a kind spa experience aboard the refurbished Vulkana whaling boat complete with steam room, sauna with picture window, hot tub on deck followed by an optional “polar plunge”, and delicious lunch. Leigh’s recommendations for great restaurants/bars (Bardus was our favorite) and our hotel (Scandic Ishavshotel) were spot on and our drivers to/from airport were curious and on-time.

The next three nights we spent at the remote Snowhotel in Kirkenes where Mother Nature put on a spectacular display of the Northern Lights during our husky safari. We also feasted on GIANT king crab pulled directly from the Barent Sea after snowmobiling over the frozen fjord (I ate 5 legs alone). The Gamme cabins were warm & cozy with a fantastic view and the staff were friendly and very accommodating. We opted not to stay in the Snowhotel for the evening (made completely out of ice/snow) but we did walk through and admire the amazing artwork made from ice in each room. Don’t miss out on an after dinner drink at the Snow Bar where you can smash your glass made out of ice after your shot.

This is the 9th time that I have used a specialist from Wendy’s list to customize a vacation with very unique experiences. I look forward to many, many more!

Our journey to Stockholm and Copenhagen over the Thanksgiving holiday was terrific. There were four of us traveling, 2 of us chefs, so we wanted to learn, eat, see, eat some more and experience Scandinavian for the first time. Leigh was wonderful from the first interaction. She planned the perfect itinerary in each location, with excellent local guides, activities to showcase both cities, and with enough down time to explore on our own and enjoy the beginning of the Christmas season. One of our favorite excursions in Stockholm was on a boat exploring the archipelago. We loved seeing the homes decorated for Christmas along with hearing Swedish stories from our hosts, Captain Kjell and Ava. We were dropped on the dock of the Artipelag Museum and had a glorious afternoon walking through the forest and seeing the special museum exhibits. In Copenhagen, our guide Avril, kept us entertained with both current and historical stories about the royals. She also gave us an amazing overview of Danish art and life. Two things set this trip apart – first, the quality of the guides. We could have never found them on our own; we are so grateful to have met Asa, Ava and Avril (the true A team!). The second component was the perfect logistics. Multiple guides, drivers, pick ups, drop offs – all on time, professional and hospitable. Clearly Leigh’s planning did not miss a beat. Thank you for a really fantastic adventure.

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