Lapland beyond the Northern Lights

Published on: Monday, December 17, 2012

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Lapland and the Northern Lights is one of those lifetime trips on everyone's travel wishlist. And with 2013 announced as one of the best years in over a decade to see the lights, now is a fantastic time to go. But is there more to Lapland than this weather-dependent natural phenomenon? Coralie Modschiedler finds out.

It’s almost midnight and it’s finally my turn to drive the snowmobile. As we make our way back to Rovaniemi, driving along the frozen river at speeds of up to 60kph (37mph), I can feel my adrenaline kicking in. It’s pitch black and there is still no sign of the Northern Lights. But the thrill of driving a snowmobile through the Arctic night in snow-blanketed surroundings has overcome me. I doubt I’ll be getting any sleep tonight; I’m way too excited.

THRILLS IN THE WILDERNESS

Snowmobiling is just one of many thrilling winter activities you can, and should, try in Lapland. From Rovaniemi – Lapland’s capital in northern Finland – you can drive 30 minutes in any direction and easily find yourself in complete wilderness, surrounded only by snow-covered pine trees and expanses of twinkling white land. What is also striking in this part of the world is the peace and quiet. It’s so silent here you can actually hear yourself think.

Ice fishing was the other highlight of my day. You need patience and warm clothes, but the experience of drilling a hole through the 30cm-thick ice of a frozen lake and waiting to hopefully catch your lunch is surprisingly exhilarating. After just a couple of days in Lapland, my stressful London city life seems a world away. I haven’t felt this relaxed in a very long time.

I’m slightly jealous of my fishing buddy Carol who managed to catch a beautiful rainbow trout which we later cooked over a campfire. Simply seasoned with salt and pepper, it was delicious. We also had superb wild Finnish salmon, prepared by the talented chef at Bear’s Den, a cosy lakeside lodge with a lovely atmosphere and traditional Lappish feel. Caught in the nearby Torne River and cooked for two hours and a half over a log fire, that salmon was the best I have ever eaten.

ANIMAL ENCOUNTERS

Two of the things I was most looking forward to when I signed up for this trip were the husky sled ride and the reindeer safari. For that, we drive north through snow-covered forests to Pyhä-Luosto, in the heart of Finnish Lapland. We’re hoping to spot the Northern Lights at our aurora borealis-themed hotel tonight (complete with north-facing rooms and an ‘aurora alarm’ system to notify guests when the sky is filled with the green lights!). But first, we head to the Arctic Husky Farm where frenzied barks greet us. The lively husky dogs are bursting with energy; they’re so eager to get going that they can’t stop running around in excitement. The farm has about 90 Alaskan huskies and 20 Siberian huskies, all so cute you want to bring one home. The ones with piercing blue eyes are especially mesmerising.

As we set off in the wilderness, the huskies pull the sled with incredible force and rapidly reach speeds of 50kph (31mph). When I’m sitting in the sled, it’s pretty exciting, but when it’s my turn to ‘drive’, controlling the sled turns out to be more physically demanding than I expected. I literally have to stand on the brake constantly to slow down the six over-excited dogs who keep on trying to overtake the sled in front of us. I still love it, even though I’m sure my arms won’t thank me in the morning.

The reindeer safari that follows – organised by Kopara – is a more leisurely ride. As the daylight slowly disappears, your mind too wanders through the forest. There’s something magical about gliding through Lappish snowlands at twilight. The blue glow, the luminous snow and the silence. You’re transported to another dimension, a fantasy land.

ANOTHER WORLD

As the ride comes to an end, Anssi the reindeer herder takes us to a kota (traditional wooden hut) for a hot drink around a log fire. Sitting on wooden stools covered with reindeer fur, we listen in awe as Anssi shares his story and his passion for reindeer herding, Finland’s oldest tradition. He tells us he chose this path and decided against living and working in a big city like Helsinki. Working in a stressful office environment and spending less time with his family for the sake of a career is not what he wants in life. It’s not about the money, he says. He has made his choice. And suddenly it dawns on me whether I have made mine.

That night, we didn’t see the lights. It was our last night. But it didn’t matter. I had got out so much more than I expected from this trip. Adrenaline-pumping experiences, meeting fantastic and inspiring people and taking the time to reflect on my own life turned my Arctic adventure into an unforgettable experience. Sometimes, travel is about so much more than ticking countries off a list or taking time off work. It’s about learning more about yourself and remembering what it is you want in life. I still want to see the Northern Lights one day – but that’s just one of many reasons I want to go back to Lapland.

THE DETAILS

Bring: Thermal underwear, fleece/cotton trousers and tops, warm jumper, ski trousers, winter jacket, woollen socks, snow boots and gloves/mittens.

Buy: Cloudberry jam or dried reindeer meat – shop in supermarkets or at the airport for the best prices. If you’re prepared to spend a little more, bring home some Marimekko or Pentik homeware, a reindeer hide (€80), or buy a traditional Sámi wooden cup (kuksa) or knife (€59).

Eat: Lappish food is surprisingly delicious, with ingredients sourced from the forests, lakes and rivers. Typical winter fare includes reindeer meat, wild salmon, trout, whitefish, mushroom soup, lingon berries and cloudberries. If you’re eating out, try the excellent Nili Restaurant (voted best restaurant in Finland at the 2012 Taste of Finland) and the visually stunning Snowland ice restaurant in Rovaniemi; try Restaurant Kerttuli in Luosto.

Drink: The Finns don’t produce their own wine but they do make some good berry liquors as well as a clear spirit known as koskenkorva (Finnish vodka) – perfect to keep warm when ice fishing!

Stay: In Rovaniemi, a convenient hotel is City Hotel, with prices starting at €144 per night for a double room. In Luosto, Aurora Chalet, has north-facing rooms with their own saunas and fireplaces. Prices start at €160 per night for a standard double room and €170 per night for a standard double room with a fireplace.

Chasing the Northern Lights: The shorter the day and the colder, the better. The lights can be seen from late September to early April, with October-November and February-March considered optimum periods. My tip is: don’t come to Lapland expecting to see the Northern Lights. Plan your trip around other activities and if you see the lights, consider it a bonus.

Getting there: Return flights from London Heathrow to Rovaniemi via Helsinki with Finnair start from £192 per person.

Best time to go: For winter thrills and a chance to see the Northern Lights, the best time to go is between October and April.

For more information on Finnish Lapland, visit our Finland Travel Guide and the official Lapland – The North of Finland website.