I went to the Finnish capital of Helsinki for a couple of days but it seemed to be closed. Well, to be more precise, all the shops, cafes, pubs and offices were closed. The parks and surrounding countryside were hives of activity as the Finns celebrated the mid-summer solstice.

But it's a line I've wanted to use since that supercilious pom Clement Freud paid a visit here 28 years ago and told the BBC he found it hard to comment on New Zealand "because when I was there it seemed to be shut".

And it seems a fair call because not only was the city in much the same state as Auckland was at the weekends, but also Helsinki was the end of the line for us, the final stop on a 9107km train journey across the width of Asia and Europe - just as I imagine New Zealand was the end of the world for old Clem.

Even on a busy day I imagine clean, orderly, modern Helsinki would be a vivid contrast to frantic, grubby, exciting Beijing where our journey started nearly a month before.

It's a remarkably peaceful city to stroll around with plenty of leafy parks, malls and squares dotted among the office blocks.

But Helsinki's greatest asset is that it is on a peninsula so nowhere is far from the sea. There's an almost endless waterfront lined with fishing boats and open air fish and vegetable markets, seaside walkways and streamlined ferries to other ports on the Baltic Sea, pretty fountains and ocean-going yachts.

As in most parts of Europe the most impressive buildings are churches. Looming high above the fishing boats and yachts is the red-brick shape of the Russian Orthodox Uspensky Cathedral. And dominating the city's lovely central square is the equally impressive Lutheran Cathedral.

If you were looking for action, though, Helsinki this weekend was not the place to be. It was hard enough locating somewhere to eat let alone finding entertainment.

By all accounts the real fun was going on in the countryside where all the locals had migrated to celebrate the midnight sun in traditional fashion by dancing - sometimes naked, or so it was whispered to us - round bonfires.

Sadly we couldn't get to any of those rural bonfires but for anyone stuck in the city there was a giant bonfire and dance on Seurasaari Island which for most of the year serves as Helsinki's open air folk museum.

Although the city had seemed empty, by 10pm the park was already packed with people, many in traditional costume and all of them out for a good time.

There were bonfires blazing on rafts in the sea, masses of stalls selling all sorts of goodies - the tastiest were the sardines cooked in a giant frypan - and much enthusiastic dancing around a giant stage in the trees.

At 3am, which seemed long after it was time for an ageing tourist to go home, the locals were still going strong and showed every sign of dancing through the night.

No wonder all the businesses decided it was easier to close ... they probably wouldn't have had any staff anyway.

CHECKLIST
Helsinki by air
Singapore Airlines flies 16 times a week from New Zealand direct to Singapore. From Singapore, passengers can choose from 14 weekly flights to Frankfurt or three weekly flights to Copenhagen. Travel to Helsinki is with partner airlines Lufthansa or SAS. For the latest fares and for further information visit Singapore Air.
St Petersburg by train
Perth-based Travel Directors runs regular tours from Beijing to Helsinki by train, entitled Beyond the Trans-Siberian, including time in China, Mongolia and Russia. Tours are almost fully inclusive and cost A$10,847 (just over $13,000).

Further information
Email info@traveldirectors.com.au or visit The Travel Directors. Alternatively, contact Travel Directors' New Zealand representatives, Go Holidays or phone 0800 464646.

* Jim Eagles' trip was assisted by Singapore Airlines and Travel Directors.