19 March 2018.
We were a little hesitant when it came time to board the plane to Finnish Lapland.
As two travellers who have chased summer for the longest time, actively seeking out a life of endless sun, sand and, most importantly warmth, we couldn’t quite fathom what it would be like to spend our days at -30°C with very few hours of daylight with which to explore.
Soaring over Kitilla, a tiny outpost in the north of Finland, an expanse of spiky trees dusted with shimmering snow sprawled beneath us and the sky blazed a deep blush pink. With the winter solstice just two days earlier, it would be days before we’d see the friendly glow peeking over the horizon.
We had anticipated a bleak wilderness above the Arctic circle, an unwelcoming scene of intense, inescapable cold.
Instead what we discovered was a place of unfathomable beauty, enhanced in every way by the icy conditions.
Our numbered hours of daylight were awash with frozen trees, shimmering lakes and the delicious crackle of first steps through virgin snow. Our faces filled with the childlike delight of setting foot in a true winter wonderland in every sense of the word, an ever-present blanket of thick snow affording an enchanting silence.
The long nights passed by curled up beside a crackling fire, thawing fingers and toes that had succumbed to the frigid cold, with a true Finnish sauna a welcome daily ritual and one lucky glimpse of the much-anticipated aurora dancing overhead.
Of course, the harsh conditions seep into every aspect of daily life up here, but they are embraced rather than viewed as a burden. And as a visitor, with the correct preparation, the icy temperatures quickly became an afterthought to the raw beauty of Lapland in winter; an endless scene of rugged frozen landscapes painted a startling white.
While Lapland in winter is a place full of opportunities for getting up close with nature, it’s also somewhere that you don’t have to do something extraordinary to be able to appreciate it.
As much as we loved the activities that filled our days, it was often the simple and unexpected idiosyncrasies of life in wintery Lapland that brought a smile to our face – the vibrant glow of sunrise that painted the sky at 11:30 a.m., the unseen droplets of moisture that froze our eyelashes and nostrils, and the ubiquitous presence of sleds used for everything from carting the kids around town to carrying your groceries.
Ultimately, a winter holiday in Lapland will be a cold one, but don’t let that put you off.
These are the best things to do in Finnish Lapland in winter from just about any hub in the region.
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We both have very different experiences when it comes to snow sports.
More than a decade ago, Freya swept down the gentle blue runs of Australia’s ski slopes, while for Chris, a winter trip to the Alps was a yearly adrenalin-fuelled event that more often than not landed him in hospital.
On our first amble through the charming town of Äkäslompolo where we would be based during our trip, we quickly realised that the local sport of choice is something entirely different. Cross-country skiing, when done correctly, is an elegant combination of swift glides and moving poles and the expert Finns make it look oh so easy.
Locking into our skis and stepping into the prepared rails we began our trip across the snowy wilderness. Far less agile than those we had been watching, our technique was made up of hesitant slides that propelled us eagerly forwards mingled with awkward stumbles, flailing arms and a hasty glance left and right to check no one was watching this utter butchering of such a graceful sport.
But, little by little, we began to get the hang of it.
Gliding somewhat nimbly through the frosted landscapes, each satisfying zing of poles leaving snow a friendly reminder that we were, in fact, still upright and moving in the right direction.
Cross-country skiing is one of the best things to do in Lapland and has the benefit of allowing you to cover far greater distances across the wintery landscapes than simply walking. Plus, when you get the hang of it, it’s actually a rather fun way to get around.
As a much-loved pastime in Lapland, you’ll also find that almost every trail is served by a cosy skiing hut where you can escape from the cold and find a warm plate of food and drink.
Finland’s densest network of cross-country skiing trails lies in Ylläs, but you’ll find kilometres of perfectly groomed tracks that weave through forests and across frozen lakes just about anywhere in the country.
If like us, the technique doesn’t quite click on your first day, there is ample room for others to overtake, just be sure to follow the correct etiquette guidelines to avoid any unnecessary collisions. The most important rules are to choose a course suited to your abilities, always stick to the right, don’t stop in the middle of the tracks, especially on downhill stretches, and only use the pistes for skiing, not hiking or snowshoeing.
Having done the rounds at various European Christmas markets before touching down in Lapland, we were well acquainted with the much-loved Glühwein, but in Finland, we discovered a worthy rival – Glögi.
Fun to say and even more delicious to drink, this belly-warming concoction of berry juice (or sometimes apple) infused with Christmassy spices of cinnamon, cloves and cardamom is the perfect way to defrost after a day of adventuring in the sub-zero outdoors. The non-alcoholic version of this mulled wine is sold piping hot from just about anywhere.
We didn’t get to try much of the Finnish cuisine, but a glass of delicious Glögi was welcomed as a daily treat.
If you’ve come to Lapland in search of something a little more thrilling than simply wandering through fairytale forests blanketed in snow, an exhilarating day out on the snowmobile is just the ticket.
Whipping along snowy mountain trails at 70km/h, flying over frozen lakes and weaving nimbly between trees that loom in the gleam of your headlight, snowmobiling in Lapland is certainly an experience that will leave adrenalin coursing through your veins.
Designated tracks around town are well used by locals but travelling at speed allows you to cover great distances in a short space of time and you’ll soon find yourself on the rarely used trails of the upper fells.
Snowmobiling safaris are one of the most popular Lapland activities and tours can be organised through all main towns. From Äkäslompolo, we organised a full day trip through Destination Lapland which covered 65km of beautiful forest leading to a gorge, followed by a hearty stew in the wilderness camp before returning via the upper countryside. Check prices and availability here for safari options in Ylläs and Rovaniemi.
For anyone who has ever owned or cared for dogs, you’ll know that a mere mention of the word ‘walk’ is enough to send them into a tizzy. Imagine the hysteria that ensues when a group of energetic huskies are eagerly awaiting their afternoon run; a frenzy of excited barks and jumping about in their eagerness to just get going.
Once readied on our sled, Chris steering on the back and Freya bundled up in the front, we were off. Raucous yaps replaced by the soft tread of featherlight footsteps as we raced onward through the whitened landscapes.
Gliding silently through the forest with our team of enthusiastic four-legged friends at the helm and the final glimmer of daylight fading over the treetops was the absolute highlight of our visit to Lapland.
Admittedly, this was a part of our itinerary that we had grappled with. The dog sledding industry does, after all, have a rather awful reputation in many parts of the world, Scandinavia included. But after spending the afternoon with the pups, we felt it was quite clear that they genuinely love it!
Of course, that’s not to say you shouldn’t carefully question the company you choose for a husky safari. Often, the things that call dog sledding into question are the things that we as tourists don’t see – how well the dogs are cared for behind the scenes, their living conditions when they’re not running and the culling practices when dogs become too old or unwell to run anymore.
This article gives a solid overview of things to consider when it comes to dog sledding and the questions you should be asking before settling on a company. Research is key!
Boasting snow-covered mountains for nearly half the year, Lapland is a great place to hit the slopes when the warmth of spring has cast off the snow from elsewhere in Europe.
You’ll find over 100 ski resorts dotted through Finland with slopes suited to both beginners and daredevils. Backcountry snow sports are also accessible after heavy snow.
The ethereal green glow of the aurora borealis twirling overhead is a bucket list item for many, and Lapland is one of the best places in the world to catch the show.
Requiring a tricky combination of clear skies and strong solar flares, seeing the northern lights dancing overhead is never guaranteed, but with so few hours of daylight, little light pollution and a number of perfect vantage points, conditions way up here in the Arctic circle are about as perfect as you could hope for.
Image courtesy of PixaBay
On a clear night with relatively low solar storm activity, we were fortunate enough to see the lights whirl overhead, though for us they were colourless to the naked eyes, like silent wisps of cloud evaporating before our eyes.
We’d recommend going out for a look anytime you have a cloudless night sky or consider joining a northern lights tour. Guides can keep an eye on the forecast and take you to a prime viewing spot for the conditions. Check prices for a northern lights tour here.
Want to improve your photography skills? Don’t miss our beginner’s guide on how to photograph the northern lights.
Having stopped in the surreal forests of the upper fells during our snowmobile safari, we knew we would have to return on foot for a closer look.
Donning our snowshoes, we lumbered off through soft thigh-deep snow to investigate, climbing higher through forests of frosted pine and finally emerging at the edge of the tree line amongst a sea of otherworldly characters that pepper the barren highlands.
Besieged by the harshest conditions, way up here the trees stand disfigured into hulking troll-like beasts clumped in snow and ice. A curious sight unlike anything we’d seen before.
Though a little awkward to start with, snowshoes allow you to access areas away from the groomed trails without falling deep into the snow. In Lapland, you’ll find a number of designated snowshoe trails but the shoes also enable you to forge your own path through the wilderness to get a little more off the beaten path.
With so few hours of light available Lapland in winter, the bright hours were crammed with activity; setting off around mid-morning in the looming glow of daylight and arriving home by early afternoon when the landscapes were plunged into darkness.
Arriving to our cosy log cabin every evening and curling up before a roaring fire, a warming glass of glögi in hand, was the perfect way to wind down and relax after an adventurous day in the frigid hinterlands.
A chance to thaw numb fingers and toes, dry beanies caked in frost and allow warmth to seep back into our bones. And then, of course, came one of our favourite Finnish traditions…
No trip to Finland would be complete without a traditional Finnish sauna.
Not only is a sauna an integral part of the Finnish way of life and a key part of their national identity, we quickly discovered it to be an essential part of our evening routine. The activities we had thrown ourselves into with enthusiasm had left us with a suite of ridiculous ailments and aching muscles that, until now, we hadn’t known existed.
We’d never have expected that sweating profusely in a tiny room in temperatures close to 90°C could feel quite so good, but we can happily confirm that the Finns are definitely onto something.
Following the intense heat, the experience is traditionally completed by a rapid burst of cold – a roll in the snow, a dip in an icy lake or simply a cold shower – before repeating the whole affair two or three times. It’s a remarkably invigorating way to end an action-packed day.
Though we found it hard to tear ourselves away from our wonderfully cosy log cabin, a night in a glass-roofed Arctic hotel is an experience you can only have in Lapland.
Falling asleep or dining beneath a star-studded sky or the ethereal aurora is definitely something we’d be willing to sign up for.
This iconic style of accommodation in Lapland has been growing in popularity over recent years and you can now find a number of properties scattered through the region, generally set away from any other civilisation to increase your chances of seeing the northern lights. Of course, the experience doesn’t come cheap.
Find your perfect Lapland accommodation now!