Exploring a Land of Steam and Snow
"So what if they have sub-zero weather," I told my husband. "Between the winter sports, the saunas and the vodka there's no way I'm going to freeze."
And so, with this in mind, I set off for a winter vacation in Lapland, Finland.
Cold it may be, but the lure of Finland in winter is the outdoors. Whether it's by reindeer or dog sled, snowmobile, skis, snow shoes or kick sled, almost everyone travels out in the open air.
And what open air! Miles of pristine snow banks look like thick, luxurious feather beds. Fir trees groan under heavy coatings of new snow. And every now and then you find a log cabin nestled into the snow with an inviting stream of smoke shooting out of its chimney. It's peaceful, it's quiet and it's a welcome relief from the daily hustle and bustle.
Mind you, all this peace and quiet doesn't mean it's boring.
The Finns know how to have a good time, and there are plenty of pubs, dance clubs and karaoke bars for an evening's entertainment. But the main reason to venture north in the winter is to experience the outdoors.
I landed in Helsinki on Sunday morning, and my plane for northern Finland didn't leave until afternoon. Not to worry, the Finns are a practical people and hotels near the airport rent 'day rooms' to transient passengers. First stop? The sauna, where else?
It is a fact that Finns are mad about saunas (there is one sauna for every 4.5 people), and they will hop into one at a moment's notice. I, for one, don't blame them, as I found it amazingly rejuvenating to alternate between toasting myself in the cedar-lined sauna and dipping into the icy swimming pool. After this routine and a three-hour nap, I felt ready for anything.
From Helsinki, a two hour plane ride took me and several traveling companions to Kittild, located well above the Arctic Circle in the heart of Lapland. Kittild is the nearest airport serving Yllds where I would be staying. One of a number of regions geared for active winter travelers, Yllds is named for the region's tallest fell (2,355 feet) and prides itself on its skiing, guaranteeing snow all the way through May. I was there in mid-March and was blessed with plenty of snow, clear skies, 12 hours of sunlight and nippy but bearable temperatures (mostly mid-teens to low thirties Farenheit).
A 45-minute mini bus trip took us to the Hotel Ylldskaltio in Dkdslompolo, a tourist center set amongst forested hills and bare-topped fells. Much to our delight, each room at the hotel had its own saunaa tiny wood-platformed room occupying a corner of the bathroom.
I dumped my luggage and popped into the steamy room for a quick sweat. I'm not sure how it works, but a sauna, followed by a bracing cold shower, does wonders for jet lag.
Since the main draw of the area is outdoor activities, Yllds has plenty of services. For those not traveling on a package tour, places like Yllds Holiday Service in downtown Dkdslompolo can arrange anything from ice fishing to a dog-sled safari. They also rent all kinds of equipment and provide guide service.
In Lapland there are less than 200,000 people and at least that many reindeer. So, one of the musts on a trip to northern Finland is a stop at a reindeer farm. Invariably this includes a run around a track in a reindeer-drawn sled. Reindeer seem to have a mind of their own, however. Even though I was given a rope to slow or stop the beast, clearly, the reindeer was in control.
Unfortunately, Laplanders hardly ever dress in traditional garb any more, but our hosts at the reindeer farm had donned their finery for our benefit. The lovely outfits, with their deep blues and reds and intricate embroidery, added to the authenticity of being served coffee and sugar donuts in a traditional Lapp-hut (which looks like a Native American teepee).
Next it was time to try mushing. Depending on how much time and ability you have, dog sledding can be anything from a five-minute ride in a guided two-person sled to a 12-day drive-your-own-team safari. For the adventurous, an overnight dog sled trip is a unique experience. There is nothing quite like gliding across the pristine, white, snowy countryside, being pulled by a team of born-to-run doggies. All you can hear is the schussing of the sled runners and the breeze through the trees. Accommodations are basic, however, and consist of wilderness huts without electricity or showers.
If these animal-driven modes of transportation sound too slow, there are always snowmobiles. Zipping over the snowy terrain in these runnered motorcycle-like vehicles can be quite exciting, particularly if you encounter any bumps or ice.
The reason most travelers go to Yllds, however, is for the skiing. With 33 slopes and 19 ski lifts in the area, Yllds proclaims itself the biggest downhill ski center in Finland. And, thanks to the region's seven fells, Yllds has some of the longest (approximately 1 1/2 miles) and steepest (about 1,500 feet) slopes in the country.
Where Yllds truly shines, however, is when it comes to cross-country skiing. A 155-mile network of ski trails snake around the area, with 18 miles illuminated for skiing at night or in the murky winter months. Most of the tracks are wide enough to accommodate skiers on both sides with a middle track for skate-skiing.
One of the nicest parts of cross-country skiing in Finland is the refreshment stops. All along the trails there are ski cafis, Lapp-huts and lean-to shelters. The cafis, warm cozy cottages with roaring fires, serve hot drinks and snacks. You can only get there on skis (they snowmobile supplies in), and there is a real feeling of camaraderie among fellow skiers.
The lean-tos and Lapp-huts are open for anyone to use, complete with fire area, but you must pack in your own refreshments. On a guided snow-shoe expedition we were treated to strong, hot coffee brewed by our guide, Oli, over an open fire at a shelter just off the trail.
Having tried all the winter sports northern Finland had to offer, we headed to the city of Kemi for a look at the world's largest snow castle and a swim in the frozen Baltic Sea.
Kemi, a thriving port and industrial center located just below the Arctic Circle, built the first snow castle in 1996 as a way to promote winter tourism. It worked, because last year the castle had 273,000 visitors in its seven-week season.
This winter wonder was built from approximately 55,000 cubic feet of snow and covered about a 50,000 square foot area. The walls were five feet thick, with an average height of 13 feet. Even the telephone booths were carved out of an ice wall, and an art gallery displayed sculptures wrought from both ice and steel.
Couples looking for a unique wedding experience said their "I dos" inside the icy walls of the snow castle's ecumenical church. After the ceremony, guests repaired to an ice restaurant where they sat around ice block tables on ice benches covered in reindeer skins while they sipped champagne and ate reindeer stew.
Our last northern Finland adventure definitely qualified as the most bizarre. After being suited up in a padded jump suits, Arctic boots and motorcycle helmets, we set off over the frozen Baltic Sea on snowmobiles. It was an hour's ride to a Russian icebreaker called Sampo, where we would have dinner and take a dip in the frozen Baltic.
The wind was fierce, and the snow was blowing its way into a white-out. Were it not for our guide and the posts marking the trail, goodness knows where we might have wound up.
Just about the time we were about to give up hope of ever seeing anything but swirling snow, a huge ship loomed in the distance. Leaving our snowmobiles, we followed the guide as he trudged through the snow flurries toward the huge ship, which was crunching through the thick ice.
After a quick tour of the ship, we were ready to try the ultimate in nutty things to do on a winter trip to Finlandtake a plunge into the Baltic. Needless to say, this requires something more than a string bikini. In fact, everyone suited up in unisex orange rubber survival suits that made us look like orange versions of the Michelin tire guy.
We stumbled down the gangplank and plopped into the water, newly exposed by the ice breaker. Totally buoyant and warm, we bobbed around like rubber ducks bouncing into our neighbors and large pieces of ice.
Silly? Well, maybe, but what a memorable ending to a winter adventure in Lapland.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication