Travel review: The real winter wonderland in Lapland
If anybody had told me a few days earlier that I would be floating about in the icy waters of the sea as night was falling, I would have thought they had mistaken me for an extra in Titanic.
And yet there I was, wrapped up in a survival suit, bobbing about on my back and occasionally bumping into the edge of the ice sheet that stretched away for miles into the ocean. And it was wonderful.
Above me was the vastness of an Arctic sky, fringed here and there by pine trees. Below me the freezing depths of the sea itself, on which I was floating in gentle amazement. Around me, a frozen wonderland and the delighted giggles of those in the water near me.
Had I died and gone to a sub-zero heaven? No, I was in Lapland. And what an astonishing country it turned out to be.
We all know Lapland is where a certain gentleman by the name of S. Claus Esquire lives. And now I know why … when he is not packing up presents and washing chimney soot off his robes he is having a ton of fun outdoors.
There is so much for winter visitors of all ages to see and do. So where do you start?
The town of Kemi sits on the edge of the Gulf of Bothnia, which is frozen over for half of the year. A perfect way to appreciate this stark beauty is from your own villa on the edge of the Gulf. Imagine waking up and drawing the curtains aside from two whole walls of glass … and then just sitting there with a hot drink and soaking in the sight of a new Arctic day.
The glass villas are at the Snowcastle Resort, an amazing place where you can dine in luxury and pay a visit to the Ice Restaurant – a frozen fantasyland carved from ice where you can eat, drink, take amazing photos – and even whizz down a huge slide on a blanket … all at minus five degrees all year round!
In Kemi itself is Sea Lapland Safaris, where you can sign up for a quad bike adventure; riding through pristine forests shrouded in snow and dotted with the footprints of wild creatures. When it is time for a rest, it is to enjoy spicy warm berry juice around a roaring fire in a log teepee, with smoke swirling through the roof – before more high-octane adventure on the quad bikes.
An hour and a half north, on the edge of the Arctic Circle, is the beautiful Apukka Resort which sits on the edge of a vast frozen lake among thousands of acres of Finnish forest.
The choice of accommodation includes cabins cosily reminiscent of a pioneer's refuge in the wilderness; warm and log-scented with strokable furry covers and cushions – and an atrium for a bedroom.
After dinner in the Restaurant Aitta, which serves Nordic cuisine with a modern twist and uses locally produced ingredients, we went Aurora hunting – out into the forest in a 'snowtrain' hauled by a snowmobile, looking for the Northern Lights. But the works of nature know no timetable, so sightings can never be guaranteed.
We spent a very sociable evening round the fire in another huge teepee – where occasional mini-avalanches of snow down its sides as it warmed up made us jump at first – but the food, drink and conversation left us with a warm glow. Back, then, to gaze from my fur-covered bed at the Arctic sky.
Next day we met teams of joyously enthusiastic huskies who were taking us on a trek through the woodlands. With one 'driver' and one 'passenger' on each sled we tore off along the tracks, with the dogs straining eagerly at their harnesses and sometimes snatching a mouthful of snow as they ran. Afterwards we helped unharness the teams and met the mischievious husky puppies.
In Finland you do sauna. So I did sauna. In a room at 80 degrees of heat and then out to throw myself into a snowdrift. And then back into the heat and back out into the snow. I was told my face was glowing when we met for dinner later. I cannot say I was surprised.
That evening we went for a snowshoe trek to the top of a hill near Rovaniemi, where we sat round a roaring fire on little deerskin mats, toasted home-made cakes on sticks and drank hot chocolate. This is how people have survived and socialised in such remote environments for millennia and there was something very moving about sharing in that experience. Finns are so attuned to the great outdoors – and brilliantly skilled at making the best of surroundings many of us would find impossible. That is probably at the heart of their calm and resourceful personality.
There was time for more high-octane fun the next day when we took ski mobiles out for a trek round the tracks in the forest. Those machines can really move and the experience is terrific.
In sharp contrast to this was the last treat of the day, a reindeer safari. You sit on warm furs in a large sled pulled by the patient, handsome team of reindeer with their Sami handler in charge. The deers' breath clouds on the air; you see their furry muzzles only inches away and all you hear is the sound of their hooves clopping away and the slide of the runners on the snow. So tranquil – and afterwards you can feed these lovely beasts handsful of their favourite food, which is lichen. Santa would probably say: “That's the best way to end the day.”
Anna was a guest of Visit Finland (visitfinland.com) and easyJet (easyjet.com), which flies to Rovaniemi from London Gatwick and Manchester from £58.98 per person, return including taxes.
Anna stayed in a Komsio Suite at Apukka Resort (apukkaresort.fi) and in a Seaside Glass Villa at the Snowcastle Resort in Kemi (experience365.fi).
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