by Guy Kelly, The Telegraph, February 9, 2018
You have to take your hat off to the Lappish in winter. Not literally, of course, that would be suicidal. But lend them some respect. Every morning between early October and April – despite enduring temperatures that can turn their eyelashes crisp; despite being suffocated under every kind of snow imaginable and several kinds that aren’t; and despite not having enough daylight to see their own children over breakfast – the people of Finland’s northernmost region get up, head outside, and get on with it.
It’s certainly a lot more than other species manage. Like the bears. The bears can’t hack it at all. Nor can the bats or the frogs. Exercising what some would deem great sense, all those creatures look around at the start of autumn, shiver, think, ‘Oh, f*** this,’ then curl up in a ball and sleep until well after Lent. Mosquitoes, such ubiquitous little bastards all summer, do the honourable thing and die. Even the region’s symbolic bird, the bluethroat – an Old World flycatcher that looks like a robin in Braveheart costume – would rather winter in Morocco or India or Iberia than stick around in Lapland. And, really, can you blame them?
That was a question I paused to think about as I looked up at the Gatwick departures board at 7am recently. I was wearing more clothing than I’d ever owned, and standing beside my girlfriend, Hattie, who was somehow wearing more. Everybody else was eyeing southbound flights to easy warmer climes. But who wants easy, when you can have freezing? We had resolved to go on a different holiday this time, and there ours was, halfway down the board: the newly-opened route from London to Ivalo, a village 145 miles north of the Arctic Circle. We had a week in Lapland in January. Lovely.
‘Please, ladies and gentlemen, put your scarves and hats on before you leave. Close your jackets. It is very cold and very, very, very windy out there. We are serious. It is so windy and cold. This is the Arctic, OK? You are in Finland now.’
It was very nice that the Finnair hostess was looking out for us, but signs we’d reached the far, far north had been coming for a while. We had just landed on what seemed to be sheet ice, at an airport that loomed out of nowhere, having flown for the last half an hour over beautiful, latte-smooth white nothing punctuated only by the occasional thicket of conifers. From the air, it looked like shaving foam spread over three-day stubble. From the ground it looked like all the best travel destinations look on arrival: another planet entirely.
But they had a point about the wind. The cackling Arctic gales slapped even the Finns when we stepped off the plane. ‘How do you live here?’ we asked our driver, a smiley man with icicles dangling from the exhaust of his Skoda. It was 3pm and dark. ‘Oh, we just get used to it,’ he said, before driving on in silence. So that’s how.
Let’s be clear about what Lapland is, for anyone who considers it either mythical or invented by a tourist board to rip off British parents. Lapland is by far the largest of Finland’s 19 regions: the population of Portsmouth spread over the area of Portugal. There are more reindeer than people, but all the reindeer are owned; surprisingly, it’s Europe’s richest gold-mining region; and no, sorry, Santa Claus does not live there. I will elaborate on the latter, but in order to give young children a chance to set fire to their laptops before the spoiler, here is your two sentence warning.
Sweden, incidentally, also has a Lapland. The region was split over the two countries for centuries, and there are pockets of modern Norway and Russia which could be informally included under the geographical banner at a push, too. But it’s Finnish Lapland we know, and that’s chiefly because of Christmas.
OK, ready? Tourism workers in Lapland promise there’s an ancient folk tale about the (technically Turkish, but whatever) Santa Claus living in Korvatunturi, a fell region on their Russian border, but no outsiders knew that until a local radio host announced it in 1927. The idea caught on. Three decades later, Eleanor Roosevelt visited Lapland’s capital, Rovaniemi, to inspect the rebuild job after it had been levelled by the war, and allegedly asked to see where Santa Claus lives. Panicked, the Finns built a cabin and called it ‘Santa’s Village’. Eleanor was impressed, and an industry was born. Now, more than half a million people visit the sprawling attraction every year. It is by a long, long way the main reason tourists come to Finland, which is a bit like going to France and only visiting Disneyland.
By the grace of God, we were in Lapland long after the final toddler had vanished. The driver deposited us in Saariselkä, half an hour south of Ivalo, where we spent three days – if ‘days’ is even the right term when the sun yawns awake at elevenses and ghosts you again by 3pm – acquainting ourselves with life in the Arctic Circle.
We checked into Star Arctic Hotel, a brand new clutch of angular little cabins with massive windows to view the Northern Lights, perched on a hill around a central restaurant. The rooms all had the chic, minimal design flair familiar to Sweden and Denmark, but with a very Finnish touch of imminent peril. In our case, a near-vertical staircase with varnished footholds just big enough to fit three toes, sideways. Dinner was a ‘Lapland platter’ – raw pickled fish, reindeer meat, traditional leipäjuusto cheese, two kinds of fish eggs and a mushroom flatbread – followed by whitefish caught in the nearby Lake Inari, Arctic Ocean king crab, and a local gin martini. It was all surprising, and all excellent.
Some 19 hours later, the long, mid-morning dawn revealed a blanched landscape waist-deep in still-building snow. Cloud cover meant we’d missed any aurora activity, but the sunrise was still an LSD-trip of oranges, pinks and greens rising at improbable angles and speeds. Carried on the wind, a permanent wisp of powder blew around at ankle-height as we walked to breakfast. It did for us what dry ice did for popstars in the late 90s.
The Finns have a marvellous word – kalsarikännit – which literally translates as ‘sitting at home and drinking alone in your underwear’. But it probably doesn’t get a lot of use in Lapland, where sitting by the fire is earned by outdoor activities. We did the lot in Saariselkä: ‘reindeer safari’, ‘husky safari’, ‘snowmobile safari’... Nobody quite knew why a Swahili word – safari – simply described everything, but I liked it.
Going out meant getting dressed, which is a Herculean task in the Arctic. Every item of clothing has a family of increasingly thinner siblings: mittens go over gloves, thermals go under shirts which go under jumpers which go under bigger jumpers; trousers unpeel forever. The result is an absurd Russian doll effect, in which you are rendered a tiny seedling swaddled in 24 Mountain Warehouse-branded exoskeletons. In the bone-stirring cold of -22C, though, you need them all.
There was a safari for everyone, assuming you’re someone who wants to slide through the woods at speed. Huskies are sweet but they’re also swivel-eyed lunatics when given the go-ahead. Reindeer, on the other hand, couldn’t give a damn about you and your holiday. They’re funny things. They have massive gimlet eyes that change colour from gold to blue with the seasons, and do everything at their own pace. One dragged us in a sleigh through the postcard-white pine and spruce woods while our guide, Joiku, an indigenous Sami man, walked ahead, chuckling at his own jokes.
The Sami are a protected people found all over northern Finland, Sweden, Russia and Norway, and number around 10,000 in Lapland. They have their own language, culture, folklore and a fantastic ceremonial costume called a gàkti – a bright primary-coloured tunic worn with a huge belt and jewellery. From looking at a Sami man’s dress, you can tell where he’s from, the size of his reindeer herd, even his marital status.
The snowmobile safari has the most going for it. Machines don’t defecate in your face quite like huskies and reindeer do, for one, and snowmobiles allow you to probe deep into the forest and over the fells, especially in darkness. There, the weaker trees had been petrified in unbecoming shapes, as if winter was the last thing they were expecting this year. The only fauna not clotted with snow was the snag: dead, but still standing, trees the Finns call ‘kelo’. It is a prized building material. Moving through the forest, we reached a clearing far from any life, switched our engines off and said nothing. It was the purest silence I have ever experienced. Once you get used to it, the crunch of a single bootstep on fresh snow sounds like somebody eating burnt toast directly in your ear canal.
We broke the silence the next day by sampling the night life. At the town’s inn, a car park ‘Winter Olympics’ was to be held in the evening. Locals and tourists signed up without knowing what was involved, and received a number they had to safety-pin to themselves before the games began. Hattie fixed hers to her fleece. At the next table, a gargantuan Sami man forced his through his ear lobe.
‘Was your ear already pierced?’ we asked. ‘No,’ came the grumbled reply. The Finnish sense of humour is arid, but I don’t think that’s what this was.
The first event began an hour later when a drunk husky guide poured petrol on some tree stumps, set them on fire, hit ‘play’ on some ABBA, and announced the rules in English. Two at a time, he said, you will run three laps around the flaming tree stumps, then pick up some water balloons and attempt to knock bottles off a wall with them. After five throws, you repeat the process.
Travel is about forging memories. Exquisitely, Hattie was drawn against the huge Sami. The sight of her – terrified, tiny, tottering, pissed – being chased around a blazing, ice-covered carpark by an 18-stone indigenous man with a self-inflicted piercing while ‘Mamma Mia’ played is not something I will soon forget. (She beat him, incidentally, but he did complete the entire course with a lit cigarette between his teeth, so credit where it’s due.)
One event was enough for us, it being -18C and all, but when we left the pub two hours later, an old lady and a small boy, strangers before that night, were propelling themselves across the carpark on tea trays while the crowd cheered. It isn’t always obvious, but they do like a laugh in Lapland.
Leaving Saariselkä, we were careful to avoid reindeer on the carriageway. They like to gather on main roads at night and lick the salt grit. I suppose if your diet consists solely of lichen, you have to jazz it up sometimes. Three hours later we arrived in the resort town of Levi. By Lappish standards it is a bustling metropolis: full of skiers, package groups and Northern Light-chasers. Really it was a tiny village.
Finland isn’t exactly mountainous, but it’s lumpy in places, and the Levi’s downhill ski slopes are world class. We looked at them from afar, having decided to try cross-county skiing for the first time instead. It turned out to be a masterstroke. Once you’ve got the hang of propelling yourself forward – either with a skating motion or a thrust of the hips – in cross-country, you can head off where you like, up or down hill. Everybody knows that the worst aspect of regular skiing is the awful, smug Hugos you find on the slopes. Strap on a long pair of cross-country skis, on the other hand, and you could be alone in the woods, burning 900 calories an hour, with only the wolves for company.
We rested the muscles we didn’t know we had in a preposterous lodge in some woods outside town. There was a sauna, six fireplaces and huge, floor-to-ceiling windows facing unblemished white woodland, on which fresh snow still fell. It made the walls look like one of those stock-wallpapers you get on a new laptop.
A few hours later we were collected in the middle of the night, though our clocks said 8am, by a no-nonsense local named Jukka, who took us ice fishing on one of Finland’s 187,888 lakes. The ice was 90cm thick, enough to drive a tank on, but with a giant corkscrew we quickly bored two holes and dangled a maggot on a rod in. Nothing bit, so after 25 minutes in -25C we called mercy and headed into a log cabin with a roaring fire. Ice fishing is a favourite pastime in the Arctic, Jukka explained. At one annual competition, thousands of men gather from all over the country to fish for a full day, drinking vodka to keep warm. The record catch from that event is two fish. ‘Well, it’s really more about the drinking,’ he said unnecessarily. Recreational fishermen are the same world over.
Jukka and his wife, Riikka, were archetypal Finns: hardy all-action types who, once thawed by a lot of time and small talk, laughed easily. They are a remarkably practical people. Pluck a random Finn and she will most likely be able to build a kayak, catch a salmon, stalk a deer, identify 34 varieties of berries, strip an engine, unstrip an engine, raise a dozen beautiful clones and drink you under the table.
Riikka took us snowshoeing that afternoon. It was the best activity of the week. You attach your hiking boots to plastic tennis racket-shaped things, then yomp off through waist-high snow and into the wilderness. Tread lightly and you can creep about with ease; slam your foot down and the snow is kept away from your legs. It was invented 6,000 years ago by people who noticed that animals – the snowshoe hare is a species found all over Canada – were a little nippier than us over deep powder, and now allows hikers year-round action.
Scientifically, there is no better place to exhaust yourself than Lapland, which is lucky. Levi, or at least a fell very near it, has the cleanest air in the inhabited world. It’s a record it shares with Hafnarfjordur in Iceland and Te Anau in New Zealand, and you could taste it. Hattie certainly could. She is a lifelong, dedicated asthma sufferer who currently hits an inhaler three times every night before bed. She didn’t need it once in Finland.
By the time our final evening came, we still hadn’t seen the Northern Lights. Tourists come from all over the world to witness aurora, which should be visible several nights a week for most of the year. It is, though, weather-dependent, and not everybody is lucky.
The uncertainty turns everybody a little bonkers. Middle-aged British men, in the way that only they can, obsess over the ‘KP’ (geomagnetic conditions) rating every day. Locals told us about one group of Japanese tourists who kicked up such a fuss when cloud denied them their bucket-list moment that the police had to be called. Some Australians we met planned on chartering a plane to guarantee sight of the phenomena. We weren’t quite that bothered, having missed them all week, but by checking into a quite magical glass igloo for the night, our odds were better than they’d ever been. On top of that, it was a rare clear sky.
‘Did you see the Northern Lights?’ the receptionist would cheerfully ask us the next morning. ‘They were very visible at 11pm, everybody in the restaurant rushed outside!’
We missed them. We were in a different, windowless, raucous restaurant enjoying Rudolph cooked a dozen different ways, mashed potato that consisted of ‘one kilo of beautiful potato, three kilos of butter’, hunks of fresh salmon and too much red wine. We barely cared about aurora after that, and still don’t. It gives us an excuse to come back, I suppose. And besides, returning to the igloo that night, we bedded down under a star-smothered sky and watched meteors fizz around above us instead.
You have to take your hat off to the Lappish in winter. They know a secret, and after a week, we knew it too. Migration and hibernation are cop-outs. Despite it all, if you look winter square in the eye, fill your lungs and hurl yourself into it, as they do every day, the wonders it reveals outshine anything summer has to offer.
On the plane, I looked back down at the white nothingness for a final time. Visiting Lapland isn’t a taste of another planet at all. It’s a reminder of the magnificence of ours.
Regent Holidays (www.regent-holidays.co.uk; 020 7666 1244) tailor-make holidays to Levi and Ivalo starting from £987 pp for three nights, staying at the Star Arctic Hotel in Ivalo, including flights and transfers. The new Gatwick to Ivalo route is operated twice a week on Thursdays and Sundays with fares starting from £229 return (www.finnair.com).