Sinikka's snippets

Finland and travelling, a woman's life, cultures, languages, photography plus family recipes


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BLOC hotels – the UK mini hotel

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For my recent leisure and conference trip to Britain, I was happy to find a new hotel chain to check out. The BLOC hotel concept reminded me of the Hong Kong mini hotel we stayed at last summer. According to the hotel brochure, the founder of Bloc hotels was inspired by the so-called capsule hotels in Japan. This did worry me a bit before seeing the rooms but luckily, they were a decent size, and not at all claustrophobic as I had feared.

At the moment, there are only two hotels in the chain – one in Birmingham, and the other one at Gatwick airport – but more may be in the pipeline.  And as it happens, I stayed in both during my UK trip. The rooms turned out to be almost exactly identical, and I read that they are actually constructed elsewhere, and then stacked together with the exterior built around the ready-made “room boxes”. Basically, each room is a simple cube, with a “wet room” (i.e. joint toilet and shower) built in one corner. No wardrobes, no frills, which is just fine for me when I only stay for a few days. I’m quite comfortable with “living out of the suitcase” as it also saves the time and effort of constant packing. The hotel brochure describes their style as “pared-down chic”.  I must admit that the modern and minimalistic decor was quite pleasing to my Scandinavian eye and soul. However, maybe they’d taken the ‘bloc’ idea a bit too far, with everything in a square shape, from the lights and stools, to shower knobs and even minuscule soaps in the bathroom! Made me smile, though.

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The king-size beds were luxurious for a solo traveller, and very comfy indeed. What’s more, I enjoyed catching up with British TV programmes on the HD LED screen integrated in the wall at the foot of the bed, and even the free wi-fi worked like a dream. No breakfast facilities but vending machines for small snacks at the reception. BLOC hotels hadn’t quite gone to all the lengths of the Hong Kong one with a spacious and interesting lobby area but the reception was quite fine, and efficient, nothing to complain about. And as icing on the cake, quite affordable prices, too!

The only downside I could mention was the wet room arrangement, fascinatingly described as “a monsoon-drench shower wet room”. No separate shower cabinet, just the shower on the wall, which meant that afterwards, the whole toilet area (floor, walls, seats, the lot) was soaking wet. Took some planning not to keep getting your feet, socks and clothes wet!

BIRMINGHAM BLOC – Caroline street

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Very nicely located in the old Jewellery quarter, and only a 15-20-minute walk to the centre of town. There are enough cafés, restaurants and pubs in the vicinity to cater for all your needs. I actually found a wonderful breakfast place, advertised on the traveller’s map provided by the hotel. As a bonus, showing the Bloc hotel key card gave you a 10 % discount, too. I liked to so much that I ended up having breakfast at Saint Kitchen every morning during my stay in Birmingham!

The Jewellery quarter still showcases beautiful Georgian houses, and the streets are nice and quiet.

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At the end of the street, lovely St. Paul’s square with the church.

Some of the restaurant nearby were quite popular in the evenings!

Some of the restaurants nearby were quite popular in the evenings!

I opted for the slightly dearer room with a window, and was really happy about that choice. I loved seeing the view, and the sunrise in the mornings when it wasn’t grey and cloudy.

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View from my window in the evening

View from my window in the evening

And sunrise in the morning

And sunrise in the morning

All in all, a very pleasant stay. Good, friendly service, and everything worked. Would definitely stay again!

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GATWICK AIRPORT BLOC – South terminal

Very easy to find, with clear sign-posting, soon after the exit from the Gatwick Express trains from London. The same familiar square light fitments at the reception, which was, however, much smaller as all the airport facilities are at your disposal, just behind these walls. In fact, I felt a bit like Tom Hanks in ‘The Terminal’, going for my evening meal, snack shopping and breakfast around the airport.

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A windowless room this time, which did make it feel slightly boxier, but luckily not too disturbing!

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For once, I could sleep properly before a flight, and feel relaxed and rested in the morning. I totally enjoyed the ease of having breakfast and checking-in just a few steps from the hotel. Quite interesting, too, watching the planes take off outside the window at the end of the room corridor. I can warmly recommend this reasonably priced hotel for anyone travelling to and from Gatwick airport.

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The mini hotel concept

Mini hotels, cubile hotels, bloc hotels – whatever they are called in different parts of the world. Not really new, I’m sure, but new for me.

I had read about the tiny, almost coffin-life, Japanese cubicle hotels before, but never stayed in one. It’s no wonder this concept comes from the populous Asian tourist destinations, with not too much space to build on. From my limited experience in Asia, I’ve noticed that people spend a lot of time outside their tiny homes. They eat out, they go to parks to do yoga or thai chi, and spend their evenings in the vast night markets. There is simply more public than private space in many Asian metropolises.

My first experience in such a hotel was in Hong Kong last summer. We stayed in Mini Hotel Central, in the Soho district on Hong Kong island. The “mini” meant that the room was only big enough to fit a double bed in, leaving just a tiny aisle on one side, to access the shower and toilet. Just the basics that you would need to sleep while travelling. You might think it feels almost claustrophobic, but interestingly not. As you can see in the picture below, the toilet/shower space has fairly big windows to give light and add to the space. All in all, quite a cute arrangement.

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Rather than the personal room space, what the Hong Kong hotel had invested in was the lounge and reception area downstairs. There was a quirky, yet curiously pleasing collection of different furniture to sit on, and computers for customers to use as well.

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Like many other visitors, we also ended up spending more time sitting down there than cramped in the little room upstairs. The hotel didn’t have any breakfast facilities but provided vending machines downstairs. This was understandable as the South East Asian way of living is eating out, so there is a never-ending choice of various restaurants and coffee and tea shops, one more delicious than the other.

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Would recommend this hotel to anybody who wants just a place to lay their head for the night, and good value for money.


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Romantic mini-break in the south

For couples of any age, a romantic weekend getaway every now and then is a must, in order to relax and have some carefree time together. Working weeks are busy, with often so many chores and duties to attend to that by the evening, you just crash into bed, exhausted. Conversation gets reduced to quick ‘how are you’s’ and a few rushed daily anecdotes or fixing schedules and car sharing. You know, how it is – running your daily life is almost like an extreme sport, as one Finnish columnist wrote the other day.

Somebody (Mr Google or Facebook?) must have guessed my thoughts, and sent the offer of a weekend mini-break for two to my news feed. I literally jumped at the chance! Even better that hubby had never been to Hanko, the southernmost town of Finland.

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The deal included one night at a hotel, breakfast included, and a bottle of bubbly waiting in the room, plus a 3-course meal at a seaside fish restaurant. Continuing the evening at a local pub with live music was also recommended.

And so, off we jolly well went last Saturday morning, full of anticipation. It was only a 1.5-hour drive, along quiet country roads. To boost our enthusiasm, even the sun was out, although the lovely early spring weather of earlier in the week had changed back to chilly wintry winds.

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THE TOWN

Hanko is a small seaside town with just under 10,000 inhabitants, about half of whom speak Finnish and the other half Swedish, making the town truly bilingual. It’s a summer town, really, so even at the weekend in late March, the streets were quiet, and the atmosphere idyllically sleepy. The town is best known for its history as a swinging spa resort in the late 19th – early 20th century. The many picturesque wooden villas in all their pastel colours and lacy decorations date from around the same period, and give an oldey-worldey, nicely nostalgic, feel to the place even today. It’s easy to imagine summer visitors – among them prominent political figures, wealthy Russians, the Finnish elite, and artists – flocking these streets in the past. We were sorry to see some of the magnificent villas deserted, at different stages of decay. Hope somebody will be able to afford to restore them soon!

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First and foremost, it’s the sea and, for Finland quite rare, sandy beaches that give the town its character. Being the southernmost tip of the country has made Hanko a strategic military area all through the history of our country. Interestingly, it was also from Hanko port that some quarter of a million aspiring Finns left, on steam ships, for a better life in America, Canada or Australia at the turn of the 20th century. During our stay, the beaches were still deserted, the water cold and the rocks covered in wintertime green moss. Nevertheless, the gorgeous glitter on the blue sea in the spring sunshine made me giddy with dreams of summer. Should perhaps come back then, to see all the sailing boats and yachts in the harbour and the open-air terraces of the cafés and restaurants.

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Worth mentioning is also the very professionally designed Hanko website, which provides a wealth of useful info also in English.

HOTEL BULEVARD

We were accommodated at Hotel Bulevard, only a few steps from the seafront. We only found out on the day of arrival that it is actually a converted old police station! Quite funny as we’d stayed in a converted prison hotel in Helsinki just last year.

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Some rooms were in the actual cells of the old station but ours was upstairs, possibly one that used be an office. A nice detail is that most of the rooms are named after famous Finnish designers, and the interiors get their inspiration from each artist’s work. Our spacious room was dedicated to designer Birger Kaipiainen, who had designed the wallpaper, with his signature style birds on it. In addition to the bedroom, our abode had a small separate ante-room plus a bathroom with a shower. Quite a retro feel in the whole place, and very quiet and peaceful all through the weekend.

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The buffet breakfast was typically Scandinavian, quite alright. However, it was the bowler hat light fitments in the breakfast room, aptly named ‘The Commissar’, that especially took my interest.

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A big plus was the friendly and personal service, in particular for the chance of having a “private” sauna heated for us in the afternoon. It really was a lovely addition to a romantic couple’s weekend, in particular as we were quite frozen after walking around exploring the town in the icy sea wind.

Can fully recommend this hotel. It’s interesting, clean, good value, centrally located – and they even rent bikes in summer, which would be ideal for getting around in such a small town.

PUB GRÖNAN

Not far from our hotel, in the same street, we spotted the evening venue, Pub Grönan, during our afternoon walk. Couldn’t resist checking it out straight away. Quite special, Anglo-American ambience welcomed us inside. Must say, the black leather sofa in front of the music stage looked especially inviting! Later found out on their website that the inspiration for the pub had struck two Finnish guys during their road trip in the US, crossing the Rattlesnake River somewhere in Arizona. No wonder then! There would have been a Swedish troubadour performing that night but the fresh sea air must have taken the better of us, and we had to forego the night out in the pub.

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RESTAURANT ‘PÅ KROKEN’

In the evening, it was time for dinner in the restaurant ‘På Kroken’, which is Swedish and means ‘on the hook’. It is a cosy little fish and seafood restaurant right by the sea, on the other side of the railway tracks, in Hanko village. Our hotel landlord kindly offered us a lift there, and we arrived just in time to enjoy the pinkish hues of the sunset in the horizon.

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Most of the fish served is local, and smoked on the premises. The abundant archipelago buffet is served in a boat in the middle of the room, and consists of one delicacy after another. Hubby’s absolute favourite was the pastrami spiced smoked salmon.

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I opted for ‘blinis’ as a starter. They are Russian-style yeasted pancakes made of buckwheat flour. At ‘På Kroken’ they were served with a variety of fish roes, chopped onion, sour cream, mushroom salad, and gherkins. Unbelievably scrumptious!

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Super service all through the evening, delicious food, great atmosphere, good selection of wines and beers and interesting, rustic decor! We enjoyed all the dishes so much that could hardly manage dessert at all.  Their menu is definitely worth checking out! Apart from the restaurant, there is also a fish shop, and a café that serves, for example, their popular salmon soup with the special, dark, malty archipelago bread. Hmm, a revisit in summer is getting even more tempting!

GREAT STAY

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How about the romance then? In the words of very wise Bridget Jones: “a mini-break means true love”. A weekend away is really worth it! It even got us, after being married 25 years, bold enough to walk barefoot on the empty, sandy beach, holding hands like teenagers. What a giggle, though, as otherwise we still had to wear winter gear! Was it the bubbly, or the sea wind and the spring sun? No matter, probably a combo of everything.  Yet, all in all, having pampered ourselves, and devoted some undivided attention and quality time to being together, we came home happy, rested and relaxed.

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Weekend in jail

Attending a friend’s 50th birthday party in Helsinki on Saturday, gave us a welcome short break to stay in the capital for the night. I had heard about the Katajanokka Prison Hotel from a friend earlier, and it certainly sounded worth a try. Not cheap but not the dearest either, bearing in mind the fairly elevated Helsinki hotel prices.

Entering inside the red brick walls felt ominous, to say the least. And soon enough, we were LITERALLY behind bars!

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And the same quite authentic prison atmosphere continued inside the building. Beyond the reception, the corridor was almost exactly as you might have expected it to be when the prison still housed inmates, as late as the early 2000s. I expected the doors open any minute, to let the prisoners out for a walk! The refurbishment was well done, respecting the history of the building. We had chosen the cheapest and smallest possible room, without a bathtub, but found it very comfortable and fully equipped with an iron, and ironing board, hairdryer, minibar and free wi-fi. A nice touch was the kettle and tea and coffee provided in the room plus free wi-fi, which are rare in Finnish hotels. Even if small, somehow the height of the room made it seem airy and comfortable. And the out of reach windows high on the wall let my imagination run wild, conjuring up plots of escape.

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We definitely had a good night’s sleep, and didn’t hear a peep from anywhere, possibly thanks to the extra thick prison walls. One word of warning, though – do close the curtains as the shadows on the walls from the night lights outside can be rather spooky!  However, in the morning it is good to open them again to enjoy the first light streaming through the pink curtains. Breakfast was served downstairs in the windowless, candle-lit basement. They still use the old metal plates and mugs but the breakfast itself was a full Scandinavian-style buffet with something for many different tastes. Especially nice was the selection of different jams in rustic glass jars, and the open kitchen with the chef  waiting to fry your eggs on demand.

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In the restaurant area, you can also visit an original isolation cell and a group cell from the 19th century. Anyone staying in them definitely didn’t enjoy any mod cons or creature comforts! It was nice to see that the prison theme was utilised in different parts of the hotel. For example, using one of the city bikes provided at the entrance, made you ‘a runaway’, and at the reception, you could buy theme-related souvenirs, such as mugs or even pairs of hand cuffs. All in all, this commercialisation of the theme was done in good taste, not forced down your throat, in my opinion.

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I can warmly recommend this hotel to anyone interested in something other than your regular hotel chains. The icing on the cake is the location in the charming neighbourhood of Katajanokka, a small island, separated from mainland Helsinki by a narrow canal. Weather permitting, it’s a good idea to walk around the island along the seaside path. Not only can Katajanokka boast with a lot of beautiful Jugend-style architecture, but it is also home to the Finnish foreign ministry in an originally Russian army building, and the huge Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral. We were lucky, and took a leisurely stroll back to the railway station. Managed to get some more vitamin D for the winter in the gorgeous autumn sunshine!

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