'Wilderness Surrounds Us': Letting Go in Lapland

Finding silence in the snow
Finding silence in the snow | © shoults / Alamy Stock Photo
Lapland has been pigeonholed as a tourist attraction aimed at families – all sleigh rides and Santa. But with modern resorts such as Experience365 and Apukka offering activities including ice floating, wilderness exploration and traditional Finnish sauna steaming, this seasonal tinseltown might just prove to be a year-round wellness retreat for those yearning to step back into nature.

There’s something immensely satisfying about starting a fire in the traditional way. The strike of a flint into a curled nest of paraffin-soaked kindling, the sudden spark and the bright burst of flame that feels so much more elemental than anything that could spring from a lighter. It feels like an achievement in a way that clearing an inbox doesn’t; it feels powerful, especially when surrounded by the pitch darkness of a Finnish forest, the snow suddenly illuminated by the flame that you created from nothing.

It’s a feeling Noora Linna knows well. “It’s a whole different world in the forest,” she says. “You gain a peace of mind you can’t get anymore in the middle of modern society. The small, simple things, when you do them yourself – old handicrafts, building fires – you learn to appreciate them. Everything matters more and is more valuable when you put that effort into it.”

Noora is the programme manager and wilderness guide at Lapland resort Apukka; it’s her job to recount the Sami legends around a flickering fire, cut a path through the trees on a snowmobile and open up the forest to visitors seeking an escape from the mundanity of modern life. Over the last few years, she says, more and more people are looking to return to the old ways of living, even if just for a weekend. “I quite often use the words ‘last frontier’ when we talk about Apukka. It’s easy to get to, but the forest begins in our backyard.”

Sami and reindeer, Lapland, Finland © Nadia Isakova / Alamy Stock Photo

Though Lapland has become inextricably linked with Santa Claus (his face grins from every wall, magazine and gift shop at Rovaniemi Airport), modern resorts are targeting travellers who want to abandon smartphones and venture out into the snow. Apukka is one of them. Experience365, known for its ice-breaker cruises and SnowCastle, is another.

Susanna Koutonen, CEO of Experience365, believes that this remote area of Finland is perfectly placed to offer people the chance to escape the constant noise and notifications accepted as standard in modern life. “We like our own space, and we like silence,” she says. “I think Finland is one of the most silent countries, with the forests and the lakes and the distances between where we live. We were thinking about what we could offer to customers from all over the world who haven’t experienced that feeling of silence and calm, and we decided on the floating.”

The floating that Susanna refers to originates from the ice-breaker cruises, which put the town of Kemi on the map. When the 1960’s-era ship the Sampo crashes through the Gulf of Bothnia’s thick, layered ice, those on board don’t just admire the sea from the comfort of the deck. Instead, they don survival suits (which look more like something an astronaut might wear than swimwear) and plunge into the holes in the ice, floating on the newly-exposed water. Today, the resort offers the experience without the cruise, and at night. It may not sound idyllic, but after a few moments of drifting in the dark icy water, insulated against the cold, a strange sense of peace dawns. It’s almost meditative, reminiscent of a flotation tank; but rather than staring up at a plastic lid, your view is the star-strewn sky above Kemi.

Sampo Icebreaker in Kemi on Gulf of Bothnia, Baltic Sea © agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

“At first it might feel a little bit scary,” Susanna says, “but after a moment it’s relaxing. You don’t have to do anything but lie there and enjoy it. You need those moments to be quiet and calm, especially when life is so hectic.” On the other end of the heat spectrum, the saunas found all over Lapland provide a similar sense of stillness where for once, all you have to do is breathe. This focus on empty space, on silence, is just one example of how Lapland offers a retreat from a life of screens and stress.

Part of stepping away from modern life, even temporarily, involves honouring the history of the area and the land. “It’s a great place to experience the authentic Lapland,” Noora says of Apukka. “Wilderness surrounds us, and there is plenty of room to roam. We have an amazing history and a really cool story to tell; we want the story to carry through the stay for our guests.” Over a century ago, a tavern stood where Apukka is today; now, the owners are taking inspiration from the Finnish epic poetry Kalevala (1849), which recounts the country’s oral folklore, to design their summer programme. There’s an emphasis on traditional activities, from the husky sledding and the reindeer rides, to the old-fashioned sauna and the night hikes Noora takes guests on through the forests and hills.

Today we’re familiar with the benefits (both physical and environmental) of eating local, and in Lapland, the natural world isn’t left at the door. Finnish tables heave under the weight of foraged mushrooms, berries and moss. Here, Susanna explains, there are laws allowing anyone to gather ingredients without having to own the land. “It’s part of our culture; we use whatever is available.”

Noora agrees: “As long as you can recognise what you want to eat, you can find anything. I’ve bought one bag of blueberries in my life and it felt totally wrong!”

All the meat and fish on Experience365’s menu is sourced domestically and where possible, produce is local to Lapland. It even uses Lappish potatoes; smaller than the average spud, and shaped like a banana. “It’s part of your travel experience, to be able to taste local foods and eat how the people who live here eat,” Susanna says.

Of course, true disconnection remains elusive – even knee-deep in snow, miles into the forest, you can still get 4G. But taking a step into the wild, no matter how tentative, offers mental space and perhaps a degree of clarity you can’t find in the city. “The longer you stay in nature,” Noora says, “the more strongly you feel everything, experience everything and notice everything. For the first few days you might still be in your own thoughts – work, messages you’ve forgotten to reply to, modern life in general. And then your mind kind of lets go of all that. Almost without noticing, you start to notice the small things: the wind, the crispness of the air you feel on your cheek, the cold water as you’re crossing the stream. The very, very small things that in the modern world you wouldn’t have time to focus on.”

Snowy forest with tall pine trees and a reindeer during winter in Lapland, Finland © Maryam Farzanmehr / Alamy Stock Photo

Cassie was a guest of Visit Finland and easyJet, which flies to Rovaniemi from London Gatwick and Manchester from £58.98 per person, return including taxes. Cassie stayed in a Komsio Suite at Apukka Resort and in a Seaside Glass Villa at the SnowCastle Resort in Kemi.