Back in October 2012 I was on the accessible beach in Tenerife and met a fellow wheelchair using blogger. We had a brief chat about travelling with a disability, exchanged contact details and headed off. With minimal contact, three years later Sanna emailed me from her homeland of Finland. She took the time out from her own blog to encourage me to apply for the Nordic Bloggers Experience.
The first thought, being the explorer I am, was that I’d never been to Scandinavia. Then I saw the average temperature in Finland for January! Finally I figured ‘why not’. You only live once right?
After completing my application form, Sanna and one of the other organisers Kathrin reached out to me. They said that whilst the travel fair and the blogging conference was accessible, the pre and post tours were not. So they kindly offered to specifically arrange an accessible tour for myself and my American blogging brother Cory Lee.
As the plans ticked along Cory Lee decided to travel there later for a different project, and at one point I was struggling to commit due to my work obligations. Fortunately I was able to drop some of my projects and embark on an excursion like no other I’d experienced before!
Kasia and I flew to Helsinki on Saturday 16th January 2016 with warm clothes and childlike excitement. Kathrin met us at the airport and showed us to our first hotel, Sokos Hotel Vaakuna. It was used at the summer Olympic games held in Helsinki back in 1952. Another fact we learnt was that for many years alcohol had been banned in Finland until those games. Scary thought!
With the roll-in shower looking good and my shower chair and hoist hired in from Respecta, we headed for food, wine and sleep. The next day our pre tour was to start!
Sanna arrived on the Sunday in far colder temperatures than we’d had 3 years earlier. We enjoyed typical Helsinki food and I was goaded into trying the reindeer before I would meet them the next day and potentially never want to eat one again. It was great to compare our countries, culture and experiences of having Spinal Muscular Atrophy. More on this in my Disability Horizons article, coming soon.
Afterwards we headed to a party arranged by the charities Seitti (a youth cooperation group) and Lihastautiliitto (a Finnish disability organisation for people with neuromuscular conditions). Here we met other disabled people, ate yet more food and tried out the Sauna in the accessible house of Invalidiliitto. I really enjoyed the heat and tranquillity of our sauna. It’s very much an important part of Finnish tradition.
On the Monday we took a big adapted bus for a husky-safari with a company called Matrocks Oy. We were joined again by disabled people from the charities we’d met the night before. The Husky-safari was 90 minutes drive away and run by Koira Kikka. It was the coldest day of the week in Helsinki, but even colder in our out of town destination. It hit -32 degrees!
After leaving the bus, bracing the cold, and navigating the snow in my wheelchair; I was soon lifted into the sledge. Kasia had to sit behind me and support my balance. Although we travelled 1km with these beautiful husky dogs pulling us through this magical scenery. I must say I was gradually worn down by the cold and this reduced the pure enjoyment of the sledding. However it all made the experience a unique and unforgettable one.
We then warmed up inside, watched educational videos and headed to Hotel Scandic Vierumäki for lunch. That night I went to bed early and despite the prolonged thawing process, I had wonderful dreams.
On our final day of the pre tour we met Happy Guide Helsinki and the knowledgeable Karri Korppi. Via the warmth of the taxi we went on a journey of architecture, culture, history and so much more. My favourite part of the trip was seeing how the city has developed and become the place we experienced that day.
Despite our pre tour finishing we had much more to come. We moved hotels to the Radisson Blue plaza (literally the other side of the train station from Sokos). All setup with an accessible room, we met the other travel bloggers returning from their pre tours. They were also literally from all over the world. We had parties full of music, networking, food and drinks. The days were filled with so much value too…
I’ve always worked on the disability side of blogging, media and travel. So to meet other professional bloggers was a real change of perspective. We had workshops on blogging as a business, working with companies, video making and Search Engine Optimization (SEO). These are the things that will empower me to empower my readers to travel more. So useful!
There was also a travel fair full of exhibitors. We saw keynote speeches about story telling and social media tools. One speaker really opened my eyes to Periscope. Keep your eyes peeled for some broadcasts I’m already planning to do on my trips this year.
On the final evening we headed to nearby Espoo and the beautiful nature. We had a tour of the museum before sitting down for our lumberjack dinner. Dressed in checked shirts we chatted about the week. The memories. The meaning. Before long we headed for one final drink and said our goodbyes.
For me this trip started out as a great way to visit somewhere new. With little knowledge of Finland our expectations were tamed. On reflection I loved so much about Helsinki. The cold weather was no problem, and the bright white snow was truly magical. Everyone we met was so friendly and caring. Every tourism and blogging activity was interesting and gave me so much. I’m sure others felt the same too.
The husky dog experience will of course live with me forever!
Hope everything is well for you. Keep me posted on any travels you’re planning and let me know if I can help Martyn