Whilst the beginning of April isn’t the traditional time of year for Brits to visit Lapland, we thought we’d better make the most of being in Finland and head up north to pester their reindeer, huskies and Christmas elves while we had the chance. As students, we had the option of joining an organised group tour leaving from Helsinki, but as the times didn’t quite work out and the cost seemed high, we decided to organise it all ourselves. This took a little while but by combining Airbnb, a train, some buses and a flight, we were able to put together a 6-day trip for about half the price. We decided to wait until arriving to book any activities, which worked out well for us but probably wouldn’t be a good idea in peak tourist season.
We took the overnight train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, which is the capital of Finnish Lapland and “the official home of Santa Claus.” We decided not to pay for sleeper cabins but the train wasn’t busy and we slept pretty comfortably across 2 seats each. I woke up at about 7am to the sight of thick snow, coniferous forest and the occasional little red or yellow wooden house flashing past the window. 3 hours later, we were in Rovaniemi station.
Walking to our host’s apartment, we noticed 3 things:
- How well the roads and pavements were cleared of snow, and everything appeared to be carrying on as normal (this would be unthinkable in the UK, where 2cm of snow is considered a natural disaster.) Obviously, April snow has nothing on earlier winter snow in Lapland.
- How poorly everything else was cleared of snow – we passed several sad-looking, half-buried benches.
- That Rovaniemi, like Helsinki, has an abundance of karaoke bars. The Finnish love for karaoke remains a mystery to me, as most Finns will not return a smile on the street but will apparently sing their heart out to strangers in a bar. I can only assume that alcohol plays a vital part in this transformation.
One of the first things we did in Rovaniemi was visit the Arktikum, a museum and science centre by the river. We have a collective inability to get through museums quickly so spent 4 hours there, and really enjoyed it. The exhibits cover various aspects of life inside the Arctic Circle, from the diet of indigenous populations to the international co-operation of scientists who are trying to preserve the Arctic’s biodiversity. It also has a room where you can lie down and watch an animation of the Northern Lights across the ceiling, which is both relaxing and slightly trippy – don’t go in there if you’re tired/hungover as you will fall asleep and probably start dreaming about the green Arctic fox that prances through the animation.
We had resolved to look for the Northern Lights every night, having been told that we had just missed the best time of year to see them. So on our first evening, we put on so many layers that we could barely move and packed our bags with cold beer and hot soup, and walked out onto the frozen river. We walked about 2km away from the lights of the Ounasjoen silta road bridge, heading northwest on the ice towards the darkest part of the sky. Our timing wasn’t great, as it took about an hour before the sun even finished setting and longer before the sky was properly dark. We settled down on some tyres on an island in the middle of the ice and waited.
After over 2 hours of waiting and doing star jumps to keep warm, I suddenly shouted “THERE!” and grabbed Livvy, who thought I’d seen a bear/wolf/ghost/murderer and panicked until she realised that I was pointing at the sky. Our luck was amazing – the aurora took up most of the sky and seemed really close to us. It was yellowish-white and formed tall, rippling curtains. We weren’t sure what to expect when we went out, so didn’t know until later that we had actually seen the Lights when they were very strong.
Unfortunately, the Northern Lights refuse to come out on photos taken by a lowly iPhone 5S, so I have none to show off – you’ll just have to believe me.
The next day, we went to Ounasvaara, which is a hill covered with forest that has a couple of signposted nature trails running through it that are suitable for casual hikers. We followed the ‘winter walking trail’ from a starting point near the Jätkänkynttilä bridge, until we reached the top of the ski resort. In order to rent ski equipment, we had to get down to the bottom of the hill, so we walked/slid/tumbled our way down to the base of the resort and were able to rent equipment and get a 2 hour lift pass for about €45 each. The snow was perfect for skiing and the sun was out, so we had a really good time. There aren’t very many slopes at Ounasvaara but enough for a few hours of downhill skiing, as well as a Snow Park for freestyle skiers and lots of cross-country track. After the ski break, we continued our hike and saw very few other people on the way. The snow either side of the path was up to our waists in places and full of animal prints, so it still felt like a winter wonderland even in April.
That evening we found out that you don’t get lucky twice with the Northern Lights, but our guide for the evening took us out of the city to a frozen lake, where we sat on reindeer hides and cooked sausages over a fire, and it was fun so we didn’t mind.
As going to Rovaniemi without meeting Santa Claus is like going to Las Vegas without setting foot in a casino, we suppressed the horror of being surrounded by Christmas cheer in April and took the bus to Santa Claus Village. We weren’t overly impressed with the village itself, which seemed to be mostly souvenir shops and restaurants, but Santa was surprisingly well-informed about the Helsinki vet school so we enjoyed our chat with him. He also reassured us that Rudolf’s red nose wasn’t due to a cold or any other medical issue, in case anyone was wondering. The best thing about chatting with Santa is that it’s totally free unless you want to buy a picture – hooray for free touristy things!
The two things that we were determined to see in Lapland were reindeer and working husky dogs. Soon after we arrived in Rovaniemi, we went to the Lapland Welcome office and were able to book a safari for a couple of days later. Previous research told us that the price was very reasonable, for Rovaniemi at least; we paid €150 each for a long ride on a sleigh attached to a snowmobile, a brief reindeer sleigh ride, a chance to feed the reindeer and chat to the farmer about his work, lunch in the forest, a husky sled ride, some husky cuddles and a tour of the Arctic Circle Husky Park. It was the highlight of our whole Lapland trip – we learnt loads about how reindeer are farmed and how some are trained to pull sleighs, and about how huskies learn to pull sleds and where they go after they can no longer keep up with the rest of the pack. Everyone we met who worked with the animals seemed to be both realistic and affectionate towards them, which is always a great attitude to have. Most importantly, we got to cuddle lots of huskies, who were all friendly and loved the attention.
The second part of our trip was in Ivalo, in the Inari region. It took 4 hours by bus to get from Rovaniemi to the village, which is 300km further north and well within the Arctic Circle. The morning after we arrived, we got the bus to Saariselkä, another Inari village that fills with tourists in winter. Fighting through snow and getting lost more than once, we finally found our way to the entrance to the Urho Kekkonen National Park. We began following one of the hiking trails, but because we were the first to be walking there that morning, the snow was untouched and we had to plough through it. The only other hiker in sight was a smart German lady who waited behind whenever we paused as she wanted to keep using our footprints as a path.
We veered off the walking trail in order to follow signs up to the summit of Kaunispää, a hill from which you can see as far as Russia. Again, we got lost more than once, mainly because we weren’t really sure where we were going, but the views during the way up were spectacular and we were able to have a drink and a snack in the restaurant at the top to recover. On the way down, we grabbed a couple of plastic toboggans from the bottom of the run and did a bit of tobogganing (we weren’t very good at it, which the athletic Finns cross-country skiing past us definitely noticed.)
After a heart-sinking moment when we thought we’d missed the bus (they only come every 4 hours), we successfully made our way back to Ivalo and rewarded ourselves with a meal at Bistro & Cafe Ivalo, one of the village’s very few restaurants. I had a pizza with smoked reindeer, blue cheese and peaches. It sounds very wrong, but it worked well for reasons that I cannot explain.
Our final adventure in Lapland was a trip to Wild Spirit Park, an animal park in the forest where the owner, Tiina, keeps huskies as well as wild boars, raccoon dogs and Arctic foxes. The latter two species are fur farm rescues, and the huskies are working sled dogs – Tiina runs safaris all year round.
That evening, we got a taxi to Ivalo Airport (buses run from Saariselkä to Ivalo Aiport but not from Ivalo to Ivalo Airport, mysteriously), which was predictably tiny and cute, and flew home to Helsinki, where our studies were waiting.