Recently I was given the opportunity, through Steppes Travel, to take a familiarisation trip to Finnish Lapland – of course, I leapt at the chance! Having never been anywhere colder than England during winter, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, never mind what I should have packed.
Still slightly clueless, last Saturday I boarded a Finnair flight from London to Rovaniemi, with a very short stop in Helsinki. My first views of Finland from the plane were exactly how I had imagined the country to look: vast stretches of fir forests, dotted with traditional, red, wooden houses.
The trip was hosted by VisitFinland, and upon landing at Rovaniemi Airport I met with Riitta as well as four other representatives from various travel operators.
Rovaniemi is the ‘official home of Santa Claus’, and the airport certainly didn’t disappoint with ample amounts of Christmassy kitsch. You can visit the big fella himself at any time of year; he bases himself at the Santa Claus Village, only two kilometres from the airport.
Unfortunately, we were on a short deadline, so quickly met with our local agents for the weekend and continued our journey to the hotel.
Baggage Reclaim at Rovaniemi Airport (in March!)
We were based in a small village called Luosto, roughly two hours’ drive from Rovaniemi. Surrounded by the Pyhä National Park, and located just inside the Arctic Circle, Luosto is quiet, non-touristy and perfect for exploring the many nearby attractions. Our hotel, the Santa’s Hotel Aurora, was stunning – a perfect mixture of boutique, traditional and comfortable. On check in, we were given a mobile phone, as well as our room key. This was so that the hotel could wake us during the night, if the Northern Lights made an appearance.
My first night was spent in one of the hotel’s brand-new glass rooms – the bedroom walls were glass from floor to ceiling, giving the chance of full sky views, should the Northern Lights have appeared (-they didn’t). Although the room was beautiful and the (thankfully, private) bathroom, with its huge rain shower was definitely to my liking, the vulnerability made it feel a little like I was sleeping in a luxury conservatory, and I found myself waking several times throughout the night.
A Glass Room at Santa’s Hotel Aurora
My second night was spent in one of the more traditional rooms, which was warm, spacious and dark. One thing I loved about Finnish culture was the saunas (pronounced ‘sour-na’ in Finland). My room for the second night had one, and I believe most hotels used by domestic travellers do so, too. Riitta told me that when she was growing up, it was more common for a house to have a sauna than a bathroom! It is customary for Finns to take at least one or two saunas a week, and these are often followed by a cold shower or a swim in a nearby lake. The stories about Finns jumping into ice holes after a sauna are also true!
On our first evening we were taken to the resident activities organisation, Lapland Safaris, and kitted out with our own snow suit, snow boots and balaclava/helmet combos. Boarding a snowmobile-led sleigh, we travelled in darkness through deserted forests to a traditional kota. The kota is similar to a tipi, but more sturdy, and ours was covered in snow. Inside, we met our personal chef for the evening, who used the huge fire in the centre of the kota to demonstrate and cook a traditional Sami meal for us. This started with a wild mushroom soup, which had to be cooked inside a bread bun to keep it hot. Afterwards, we were served an ice glass full of fish eggs – a delicacy in Finland. The main course was salmon, cooked over the fire using wooden pegs to pin it to a piece of wood and served with root vegetables and potatoes. Desert was simple, but delicious – a mixture of frozen berries, covered with hot caramel sauce.
Inside a Sami Kota
The following day was packed with activities, including husky-dog sledging, snowmobiling, digging in an amethyst mine and snow-shoeing through the forests, all of which I will write about in later posts.
I loved every second of my very short stay in Luosto; the scenery was stunning, the atmosphere was magical and the Finnish people were extremely warm and hospitable.