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National parks, natural wonders, Santa Claus and snow – Lapland does winter better than anywhere else on the planet. Here are the best places to go and make the most of it.
Hear the words “magical” and “Lapland” and your mind goes straight to flying reindeer, doesn’t it? But it shouldn’t. First, because reindeer are best enjoyed on the ground and, second, because the true magic of this part of the world goes far beyond delivering presents once a year. For this is the land where you can witness, and even hunt, one of nature’s most beautiful creations – the Northern Lights. This is the land where non-flying reindeer can be met, stroked and strapped to your sleigh. Where huskies will happily haul you across the snow and ice. Where skiers and snowboarders find slopes as good as anywhere in the world. Where pursuits such as climbing, fishing, swimming and karting become a hundred times more exciting thanks to Lapland’s omnipresent prefix that supersizes the fun every time – ice.
It’s tempting, when visiting the official hometown of Santa Claus, to think of the capital of Lapland as just for Christmas. But the beauty of Santa Claus Village, 8km (5mi) north of Rovaniemi, is that here, even Christmas is not just for Christmas. You can meet the big guy in March if you fancy. Or pop into Santa Claus Office, or Post Office, or Christmas House, SantaPark, Mrs Santa Claus Cottage, Santa Claus Secret Forest… The list goes on.
Lapland’s second most popular reason to visit is not available all year round, but is even more awesome than the man with the beard, unless you’re under the age of seven, in which case not even cosmic firework shows can compete. The aurora borealis – or Northern Lights – can be seen from late August to mid-April; they are endlessly photographed but, as anyone who has seen them will tell you, no camera can do them justice. To add to the excitement, you can’t be sure where and when they will appear. But you can go hunting for them by car, snowmobile (engine or husky driven) or even reindeer, so the journey is almost as exciting as the natural wonder itself. Almost.
With something so spectacular on the doorstep, suitably special places to stay have sprung up offering you the best chance to enjoy the lights while relaxing in bed or having a bath. From glass igloos to ecolodges and treehouse hotels – wherever you stay it’s most likely designed to give you a glimpse of the glorious surroundings.
Whether or not you decide to draft in reindeer to assist in your aurora adventure, spending some time in the company of Lapland’s most famous animal (sorry, huskies, you know it’s true) is a must. There are sleigh rides galore, naturally, but for a taste of authenticity, you can visit a reindeer farm and meet reindeer herders who spend their lives with these beautiful animals. If you time your trip right, you can even join a reindeer drive.
Rovaniemi is a pretty big place, so there’s plenty to do here among the population of 63,000 – Santa Barbara, in California, has 90,000 residents, for comparison – without heading out of town. Museums, pools, bowling alleys, shops, restaurants, parks – it’s a fully functioning urban environment where you can visit the theatre in the evening, sleep in a hotel made of snow and explore the Arctic Circle in the morning.
If you’ve heard of Levi, it’s probably because it is known as arguably Lapland’s finest ski resort. It has extensive runs, snow certainty, uncrowded slopes and exceptional beauty. The town also has great restaurants and cosy bars – everything you could want from your après. There is, however, far more to it than your typical ski holiday.
You could, if you like the idea of a dog-drawn sled, take a husky safari across the glorious landscapes of the Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park, including the Aakenustunturi fell. Or travel through the countryside and tiny villages north of Levi to the lakes, where you can learn the tricks and trade of ice fishermen and, hopefully, catch a perch or two.
If you’d prefer to pretend to be a fish rather than catching one, then that’s available too. Pop on an Arctic rescue suit and you won’t feel the cold at all as you float in the calm waters of a frozen lake, breathing some of the clearest air on earth, while enjoying views of snow-topped trees.
Or, if you’re an eternal worrier, why not prepare for that oh-so likely scenario of finding yourself stuck in a snowy wilderness, mid snowstorm, by building an igloo on the ice of Levi Lake? With expert help, your structure will stay put for years to come and you can even sign it with a “Barry woz ‘ere” – if your name is Barry, otherwise use your own name, obviously – before enjoying a warm drink inside your handiwork. If you don’t fancy building one yourself, then Levi Igloos has a variety of private rooms from which to watch the Northern Lights. The glass-topped igloos are the perfect place to get cosy and enjoy the spectacle.
Another ski resort with strong claims to being Lapland’s finest is Ruka. Like Levi, it has extensive slopes to suit all levels of skier. Reindeer and husky experiences are on offer here, too, or you can opt for horses if you prefer to explore astride a more familiar beast of burden.
If you like your adventures to get adrenaline pumping through your body, then Ruka is a wise choice. Ice climbing, for example: has anything ever sounded as incredible as ice climbing?
“Oh, I had a great time in Lapland, terrific snow and managed to squeeze in a little ice climbing too,” said the coolest holidaymaker ever.
The good news is, you don’t need any experience to have a go at slamming your pickaxes and pointy blade shoes into the ice mountain, thanks to expert help and safety measures galore. As a bonus, once you’ve reached the top, you can have a go at abseiling back down again. There’s also ice-karting, which is essentially go-karting on ice and, therefore, much more fun; or winter fat biking that’ll see you whizzing along snowy trails on a specially designed electric bike.
For a taste of authentic Finnish Lapland, this far north Arctic travel destination is home to two of the country’s biggest and most beautiful national parks, as well as a vibrant local culture.
This is the homeland of the Sami – Europe’s only recognised indigenous people – with a population of around 10,000 in Finland. Inari, the heart of Sami culture, is home to the Sami Museum, Cultural Centre and Parliament. A visit to the museum offers exhibitions that provide insight into the relationship between Sami and northern nature. The cultural centre is designed to help the Sami preserve their culture, language and self-government while also improving living conditions.
While it is certainly the best place to get an understanding of the indigenous population, the area also offers activities such as skiing and biking. In the winter, Urho Kekkonen National Park provides unrivalled cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, while Lemmenjoki National Park runs guided river trips and the chance to pay off your holiday and then some with gold panning. It is also a prime spot for birdwatching, ice fishing, a Sami supper experience and Finland’s longest toboggan ride.
Lapland’s most southerly spot, Kemi, boasts a variety of unique attractions. Most notable, thanks to its location on Bothnian Bay, is the opportunity to sail through a frozen sea – the hardest kind of sea to sail through. From December to April the water freezes, so you can hop on to Icebreaker Sampo, something of a moving museum having much of its original ’60s character retained. Despite its age, Sampo still smashes its way through the ice water like a boss, while also housing some rather delicious restaurants.
Away from the water, staying in a castle made of snow should be on everyone’s bucket list, and this is the place to do it. SnowCastle of Kemi is built every year, offering visitors the chance to enjoy the SnowRestaurant, SnowHotel rooms and even the serene SnowChapel.
You can also spend the night in unique Seaside Glass Villas, with incredible views of the northern sky, which at times is like no other. Do stay here, you won’t regret it.
Finland is ready to welcome travellers as soon as the time is right. Head to visitfinland.com to start planning your trip to this magnificent country.