Helsinki in winter. Cold, icy, flat. And an ideal choice for a snowboard trip. No, really. The Arctic Circle resorts are all well and good for reindeer sledding and skidooing and gazing up at the Northern Lights, but they are also bitterly below zero, and windy, and boast limited entertainment. Helsinki, however, just three hours from the UK, is a bustling cosmopolitan city, brimming with youthful vigour.
Helsinki is also an unsung epicentre of the snowboarding world, and we're here to investigate. We've brought Laura Hill along: selected by Orange in 2005 as the future of British snowboarding. We're the punters, she's the pro. If Helsinki can keep us all happy, we're onto a winner.
We stay in the centre of the city. So nice, this hiatus from the tyranny of the ski village. Our hotel is busy with couples on city breaks, and travelling businessmen from Scandinavia and beyond.
On our first afternoon, we chill in town. We take coffee in Kiasma, the stylish museum of contemporary art. We pick up slick homewares in the Kamppi shopping mall, and stroll past bright Marimekko stores and a grand Russian cathedral to stare out at the luminous frozen harbour.
The next morning, we're still not in any rush. Where we're headed, the lifts don't start running until 1pm. Boots in backpacks, boards in hand, we take the hotel lift in the company of business suits and briefcases, then stroll to Helsinki Central station, lining up at the ticket counter with commuters.
Our train journey takes 23 like-clockwork minutes, with a transfer to a bus for the final 10. We're joined at stops along the way by teenagers in baggy pants, boards like staffs in their hands. They cluster together, bobble-hatted heads bent over video cameras, revisiting past exploits. There's no raucous behaviour; just the quiet clucking of Finns in studied conversation.
Down a residential back street, the bus pulls into a car park."Welcome to Talma," reads the sign. "Altitude: 5,500cm."
We're here. Barely bigger than a dry slope, kept frosty by snow cannons, this nipple on the edge of Finland's capital city has produced more pro snowboarders than any resort in the Alps. Iikka Bäckström, Jukka Erätuli, Joni Malmi, Jussi Oksanen, Heikki Sorsa... too many more to list here.
At first impression, it's hard to tell how all this talent came about. There's not much to the place. A spacious broad nursery slope leads to the main attraction, a hillock almost entirely taken up by two terrain parks. Along with the jumps and jibs is a halfpipe, a vegetable patch-sized area of moguls, and a solitary intermediate slope. One hut houses ticket sales, a rental facility and a shop; next door is a cafeteria and bar.
Everything is run by the family who first saw potential in this little hill. "My grandad had some earthmoving equipment," says Jani, who takes care of marketing. "So we just thought, why not?" Now Uncle Vesa runs the shop; Eso, Jani's dad, is the CEO; and Aunt Hannele serves up candy, donuts, and strong Finnish coffee (kahve). The Finns are the world's heaviest coffee drinkers: perhaps that partially explains their ability to fly through the air with the greatest of ease?
"It is maybe sisu," says Jani, and pretty much every other Finn that we ask. Sisu is an important concept in a country that played underdog to Russia and Sweden for many years; a strength of character defined loosely for us as an overwhelming determination to overcome the odds, no matter what the cost.
Or perhaps it is just their training facility. Because once on the hillock, it quickly becomes apparent that Talma is many notches above a dryslope. Thanks to the limited space, jumps are relatively steep but short, with long, safe landings. From baby kickers to monster booters, it's a geometry that favours progression: you don't need much speed to clear these jumps, yet they give riders plenty of airtime.
I watch the future world leaders of snowboarding loop a freshly built line. There are only draglifts here, and nobody even bothers to unbuckle; in a single session, you can go for the same jump maybe 40 times. The lads hit the kicker, then a smaller jump, slide straight into the lift line, hop along to the poma, onto the lift, up, and off again. It's like watching a conveyor belt in a factory for flying Finns.
Except that a factory suggests tedium, and we spend three days on this hillock with never an inkling of boredom. Laura works on her spins with the Finns. I hit the smallest ever step-up with a gang of under-10s, emerging unscathed. We ride until 8pm under fluorescent lights, returning to the city to eat in stylish pan-Asian restaurants, sip cocktails, accompany Laura on a trek to slide some urban handrails, and miss the best of Helsinki's nightlife because our bodies are too knackered from riding so hard.
On our last day, a Saturday, Talma is packed. In the pipe a group of thirtysomethings in anoraks are messing about (ie riding better than most current pros), the old vanguard of the Finnish invasion at play. They've been to the biggest, steepest and deepest, but still rank Helsinki's hillock up there with the best. We're inclined to agree. Powder keg it's not, but you don't have to be a Finn to appreciate Talma's diminutive charms – though it does help if you like to fly.
Traveller's guide to Helsinki
The writer travelled with Finnair (0870 241 4411; www.finnair.co.uk), which flies to Helsinki from Heathrow and Manchester, in partnership with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). Helsinki is now also served from Stansted by Blue 1 (0870 60 727 727; www.blue1.com), part of the SAS group. Free ski buses to Talma depart two to four times daily from Kerava train station; the schedule is posted in English on the Talma website (www.talmaski.fi).
Sokos Hotel Helsinki, Kluuvikatu 8, Helsinki (00 358 20 1234 601; www.sokoshotels.fi). Doubles from ¿€112 (£80), which includes buffet breakfast.
Lift tickets at Talma (00 358 92 745410; www.talmaski.fi) start at just ¿€14 (£10) for an hour; a five hour weekday evening pass is ¿€16 (£11), and a weekend day pass ¿€23 (£16). Gear rental (including clothes) is high quality and inexpensive. Check the website for opening times, which vary according to the season; occasionally unseasonably high temperatures can stop play.
Finnish Tourist Board (020-7365 2512; www.visitfinland.com)