Hotels We Love

It's Heaven in Helsinki at The Hotel Maria

by Cindy Chupack
The Garden Terrace at The Hotel Maria. Photo courtesy of The Hotel Maria.

If you don’t arrive in Helsinki by overnight train after a week in Finnish Lapland — where you need ski clothes to trek from your glass igloo to reception for a meal — you might not feel, as we did, that you have arrived in heaven when you enter The Hotel Maria. But this place is so beautiful, you might feel that way regardless.

I had traveled from Los Angeles to Finland with my 13-year-old daughter Olivia for her spring break in the hopes of checking a few longstanding items off my bucket list, including “take an overnight train,” “stay in an ice hotel,” and “see the northern lights.” I should add that Olivia told me seeing the northern lights was on her bucket list too. The fact that she has a bucket list at 13 makes me unsure if I’m the best mother in the world or the worst. Have I spoiled her or inspired her? Unclear, but I’ve definitely raised a trooper of a traveler, and I can’t imagine anyone I would have rather had with me.

At the beautiful Northern Lights Ranch in Kittilä we got lucky and saw a gorgeous display of northern lights from our hot tub (!), so it was hard to imagine topping that experience, but two nights at The Hotel Maria ran a close second: a storybook ending to an epic adventure.

Olivia conquers her bucket list. Photo by Cindy Chupack.

As soon as we arrived at Hotel Maria (one of Fathom’s Best New Hotels), we were greeted by friendly doormen eager to relieve us of our luggage. (That was a far cry from dragging our luggage in plastic sleds, as Olivia and I had learned to do in Lapland, wondering why they don’t make snow tires for rolling bags.)

From the street, the hotel looks grand, but you can’t grasp the scale and splendor until you enter and walk through its historic halls.

Located in the quiet, upscale Kruununhaka neighborhood, just blocks Senate Square, Helsinki Cathedral, the Presidential Palace, and the Old Market Hall, its four separate buildings set around a central courtyard date back to 1885. Originally built to house military offices, a club, and residential quarters for high-ranking military officials and their families, the buildings later served as Finnish ministerial offices.

Today, after three years of restoration and renovation blessed by the Finnish Heritage Agency, they are home to the hotel’s spa, bar, two restaurants, ballroom (opening this summer), chapel, small but beautifully curated boutique, 159 chandeliers, 117 high-ceilinged guest rooms, and 38 to-die-for suites.

The hotel is owned by three-time Olympic gold-medalist Samppa Lajunen, who won his gold medals for Finland in 2002 in Nordic Combined (cross-country skiing + ski jumping). His medals are on display in the lobby, but the hotel’s other gold standard — and the inspiration for the name — is the Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna, a royal of Nordic descent, known as Princess Dagmar of Denmark before marrying Emperor Alexander III of Russia. Apparently, she was quite a cosmopolitan and independent lady — and not only by late 1800s standards. I like to think of The Hotel Maria as a gorgeous clubhouse for the next generations of Marias, like myself and Olivia, in years to come.

The entrance. Photo courtesy of The Hotel Maria.
The concierge desk. Photo courtesy of The Hotel Maria.
Bar Maria. Photo courtesy of The Hotel Maria.
Bar Maria. Photo courtesy of The Hotel Maria.
The living room and chapel. Photo courtesy of The Hotel Maria.
A Hanna Heino sculpture. Photo by Cindy Chupack.

The hotel’s calming cream- and gray-toned interior design (echoed throughout its rooms and suites) is all of a piece, with furniture and lighting from RH, paintings by the Finnish artist Pia Feinik, and cream-colored abstract, organic clay sculptures by Finnish artist Hanna Heino. The furniture, lighting, and design felt both familiar and dreamlike to me, and when the hotel’s commercial director, Heli Mende, explained their collaboration with RH (aka Restoration Hardware), I realized why.

I have lusted over Restoration Hardware catalogs for as long as I can remember, always wondering, “Who has space for these gorgeous, oversized pieces?” The Hotel Maria does. Their head interior designer, Jana Sasko, along with Finnish firm Puroplan, worked with RH Interior Design to blend Finnish culture and American style (and scale) in a way that works so seamlessly in this storied space, I never wanted to leave.

Another thing that sets The Hotel Maria apart from other luxury hotels is that almost every room and suite is a slightly different size and shape, which is the happy result of respecting the bones — and even the wooden rafters — of these grand buildings.

Olivia and I had some of those ancient rafters in our Junior Spa Suite, which had a circular staircase from the bedroom to the bathroom. “Bathroom” doesn’t seem a worthy descriptor, as ours included a large private sauna, round ceramic tub, rain shower, television, and a bar cart.

A Junior Spa Suite, with rafters. Photo courtesy of The Hotel Maria.
A Junior Spa Suite, no rafters. Photo courtesy of The Hotel Maria.
Cindy's bathroom: the private sauna, the round tub. Photos by Cindy Chupack.
Olivia at home in her suite. Photo by Cindy Chupack.

One of the hotel’s most romantic options are the Maria Signature Suites, which have a fireplace, a four-poster bed, a living room, and a spa bathroom with original ornamented ceiling moldings. Then again, I could live happily ever after — with or without a romantic partner — in one of the floor-long Penthouse Suites, which come with the services of a private butler, floor-to-ceiling windows, a kitchenette, a dining room, a sauna, and a private terrace with a hot tub.

The Maria Spa. Photo courtesy of The Hotel Maria.
The Maria Spa pools. Photo courtesy of The Hotel Maria.
The Maria Spa sauna. Photo courtesy of The Hotel Maria.

The Maria Spa is an experience unto itself, with a huge, airy atrium, delightfully warm plunge pool, steam room, Finnish sauna, and cold plunge. The ultimate “Finnish wellness experience,” we learned, is to go from a hot sauna into ice cold waters — ideally a lake or ocean, but in a pinch, a cold plunge. I watched in amazement, as did Olivia (who didn’t meet the spa’s minimum age of 16, but they kindly made an exception) as a group of young Finnish women took turns climbing up and down a ladder into the cold plunge without a wince or a yelp. One of them stayed in so long, it seemed a little braggy. (Also a little inconsiderate, as others were post-sauna and waiting.)

When Olivia and I got up the nerve to try this ritual (when in Finland…), we were much less graceful, composed, and silent. The sauna/cold plunge experience, much like a night in an ice hotel (or in our case, the Arctic SnowHotel), is something you are happy to have done.

A much more pleasant experience? The breakfast buffet. I got the impression that beautiful and abundant breakfast buffets are as competitive in Finland as their World Sauna Championships, which ended in 2010 when a Russian man died after spending six minutes in a 110C/230F-degree sauna.

I learned a lot in Finland. Like, if you give your citizens free or affordable childcare, healthcare, and education, plus a generous maternity leave, government transparency, and a more equal distribution of opportunities and wealth, you, too, could be named the happiest country on earth for seven years running.

When in Finland, do not skip breakfast. Photo by Cindy Chupack.

But the most important thing I learned is that when in Finland at a breakfast buffet, do not leave without cutting yourself a slice of whatever warm bread they have wrapped in a cloth towel and topping it with whatever delicious jam or spread they have on offer, especially one called cloudberry. It tastes as light and delicious as it sounds.

I really wanted to try the hotel’s high-end restaurant, Lilja, for “the finest seasonal selection of premium ingredients prepared sustainably, from local wild-caught fish to reindeer sourced in Lapland to caviar from France.” So on our final night, while Olivia enjoyed Finnish junk food and Gossip Girl in the room, I met Heli and a British writer friend for the chef’s seven-course tasting menu and wine pairing.

This meal was decadent and delicious, although it felt more like 21 courses, because some of the courses were three courses. I’m still dreaming of bite-size lobster, peanut, and chestnut ravioli topped with Sturia Prestige caviar and of churro topped with Roscoff onion, parmesan, 50-year balsamic, and black truffle. Not only was that last one a supremely tasty and fancy churro, it included the reveal of a small bottle, from a beautiful wooden box, of what our sommelier called “the Rolls Royce of balsamic vinegars.”

Lilja restaurant. Photo courtesy of The Hotel Maria.
The finer points of very old vinegar. Photo by Cindy Chupack.

I wish I could poke fun at the preciousness of that claim, but in truth, that balsamic was familiar and dreamlike to me, too, because I was once on a strict diet that allowed very little in the way of condiments other than balsamic. Because I’ve had my share of wax-sealed 12- and 25-year bottles — the best of which can be sipped like port —I can safely say this rich, complex, 50-year aged balsamic was indeed the Rolls Royce.

Meanwhile, in our room, Olivia was enjoying a bag of deliciously salty and grainy chips that she’d discovered in Finland and deemed kind of like her beloved Sun Chips, but better. In fact, the first time she tasted one, she immediately began lamenting the fact that she might never find them again back in America.

That’s how I felt in Helsinki, coming home to Hotel Maria. I might never again be in a hotel that feels so peacefully perfect to me, but like the northern lights display (and a precious balsamic), I feel lucky and grateful that I got to experience it at all.

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