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Exploring Helsinki’s Archipelago by Kayak

The idea of an archipelago in a Nordic country used to bring to mind thoughts of Volvos inching down roads made of ice, red wooden saunas barely peeking out of the snow, and hovercrafting. I guess that’s not surprising, since all of my experiences in the Nordics up until this summer were at the height of winter.

Bridge at the Bay

Not exactly icy winter weather…

The Helsinki archipelago in summer couldn’t be more different to the wintry world of my memories. It’s a vivid place with blues and greens that have seemingly been painted all around; it’s a place that teems with life and is filled with the squawking of birds.

The best thing about this archipelago, made up of more than 300 different islands, is that it’s hardly a stone’s throw away from the centre of Helsinki. Matteo, who was to be my guide for my day in the islands, picked me up in the city centre and dropped me on the tree-lined shores of the Baltic Sea thirty minutes later. It wasn’t very far at all, but it felt a world away from the crowded Helsinki Day celebrations of the day before.

Natura Viva Kayaks

The Natura Viva paddling centre in Vuosaari.

Natura Viva, the company that Matteo guides for, is based on these shores in Vuosaari. Their paddling centre offers both self-guided rentals and kayak tours. I had booked the guided experience to make sure I saw some of the highlights of the islands, since it was unlikely I would find them on my own; however, once I arrived and saw how the whitecaps being whipped up around the paddling centre, I was also very happy to find out that the guided tours have the option of starting in a much more secluded bay nearby.

Pre-Launch Kayaks

Our kayaks loaded up and ready to go.

Since we started in the bay, the beginning of the trip was calm and gave me plenty of time both stretch out my arms and take everything in. While we did paddle past a marina and Helsinki’s best beach, the highlight was the natural beauty (as is the case across the entire country). Occasional red buildings peeped out of the wooded shoreline, and dead ahead of us islands started to speckle the horizon.

As the shoreline dropped away and we set course for one of the larger islands, the going got steadily rougher. Luckily, the easy start and my previous paddling experience meant the waves washing over my kayak’s nose didn’t faze me. It was actually really good fun, and it made me feel like I was actually working to earn a stop on the island, rather than just passively coming along for the ride.

Me Paddling

Paddling in the bay.

The island we were aiming for — and where we eventually pulled into a small, rocky bay — was called Kalliosaari, which translates to “rock island.” Like many Nordic names, it got to the point very quickly! After a short scramble through the forest, we found a wide rocky outcrop with a panoramic view of the archipelago. It was a perfect spot for lunch.

Lunch Spot

Our lunch spot on Kalliosaari.

What I wasn’t expecting to be part of lunch was a shot of sea buckthorn juice. I had never heard of sea buckthorn, but apparently it is one of the new “super fruit” fads. Its high concentration of vitamin C (300-1600 mg/100 g for those that know details like that about their food) makes it about 4x more concentrated than in any other fruit, including cranberries and oranges.

While this fruit is called the “Holy Fruit of the Himalayas” because the Tibetans have included it in their diet for centuries, it grows in a number of cold climates. As it is native to the archipelago area, Matteo couldn’t let me visit the area and not try it.

Sea Buckthorn Juice

Looking more convinced about drinking sea buckthorn than I felt.

I sipped at the shot tentatively, not at all convinced by Matteo saying it should be drinkable. I was surprised to find that I actually quite enjoyed the taste. I can imagine that it would have been mouth-puckeringly sour had it not had heaps of sugar mixed in — and that’s the catch, since the sugar makes it drinkable but also much less healthy. As it was, though, I happily asked for seconds. I did draw the line when I later saw sea buckthorn Lapponia liqueur available in the airport duty free shop though!

Reinvigorated by the restorative, miraculous qualities of the super fruit (okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration), we got back in our kayaks and charted a slightly different course home.

Island Harbour

Our harbour on Kalliosaari, the ‘rock island.’

A few of the tiny islands that we passed had big signs that Matteo translated as saying people were not allowed on them during certain months. These islands have been set aside for birds to breed on without human interference, and they certainly seemed to have quite a population! I can imagine that bird watchers would have a field day sitting in their boats and watching the birds swoop and play.

Now, while this certainly wasn’t the Arctic environment that I’d been in during my last archipelago experience (hovercrafting through the Luleå archipelago in Swedish Lapland), the water that I was regularly getting splashed with wasn’t exactly warm. So when Matteo offered to let me try a barrel roll, I laughed it off, not realising that he would then flip his own kayak. He righted it quick smart, but it wasn’t fast enough to stop him from being thoroughly drenched. I definitely was not jealous!


Paddling through the archipelago.

Soon enough, we were back in the bay, our paddles dipping into perfect reflections of the forest around us. My arms were sore, but for an “adventure activity,” it had been strangely relaxing.

That was a feeling I would experience again and again as I travelled across Finland; just being out in nature, surrounded by soaring trees and the utter silence of it all, was relaxing regardless of the physical effort it had required to get there. The special part of the Helsinki kayak with Natura Viva, though, was the fact that I could immerse myself in nature only kilometres from the centre of the country’s largest city.

Have you been to Helsinki? Did you know you could escape the city so easily to go kayaking?

My trip with Natura Viva was sponsored by Visit Helsinki, but all opinions stated in this post are my own. The photos of me in this post were taken by Natura Viva but are being used with permission. Natura Viva offers guided tours (from 1/2 day to week-long) as well as self-guided options from their paddling centre. The trip I did — Helsinki by Kayak — costs €67pp and lasts 3hrs (4-5hrs with transport). They also offer free “garbage” trips to nearby islands in exchange for helping to clean up the island once there.

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