I have a confession: I owe my first glimpse of the northern lights to my terrible smoking habit. Pacing around in blast-freezer conditions, I was puffing away on my after-dinner cigarette (my face and hands progressing from cold, through stinging, to completely numb) when I happened to glance to the skies. There it was. A faint beam of eerie green light snaked overhead, curling and intensifying, then slowly unfurling into a delicate, shimmering curtain. As I watched, a second swathe of rosy pink light began to materialise. I was mesmerised. Eventually I snapped out of my trance and burst into the restaurant to share the news. A stampede for the door ensued.
A number of our, very international, brigade of fellow light-chasers were from Japan. Markku, our knowledgeable and affable guide, told us of a Japanese folk-belief that babies conceived beneath the Aurora Borealis will grow up to be wise. Disappointingly, none of the assembled sky-gazers – Japanese or otherwise – made any noticeable attempt to conceive there and then. Like us, they stared open-mouthed, utterly captivated by the spectacle above. Slowly, however, hands slipped into hands and who knows? Perhaps on retiring to their romantic glass igloos and log cabins a new generation of clever babies was created.
But, northern lights and romance aside, why else might one head for the dramatic icy snowscapes of Finnish Lapland? Well, firstly, it’s stunning. Throughout the Arctic mid-winter the sun sits low on the horizon all day. The air at these temperatures contains no moisture, so the clarity of the light is astonishing. Protracted dawns and dusks lend the snowy rolling hills, icy lakes and frozen forests a warm pink cast that feels quite extraterrestrial. It’s like no place we’ve ever seen.
Minus thirty-six degrees (celsius, though at minus forty fahrenheit and celsius correspond, cold is cold, after all) is itself an adventure. Your nostril hairs freeze. As you breathe, tiny icicles fracture and reform over and over again inside your nose. It’s an unexpected, slightly ticklish sensation: not at all unpleasant. Breathing deeply feels like inhaling a gaseous extra-strong mint and exhaling a dry-ice experiment gone awry. Conversation is conducted through dense clouds – a bit like waving someone off through the open window of a departing steam-train. Then there’s the heightened awareness of one’s extremities. Only through toe-numbing trial and error did we discover that the minus thirties demand no fewer than five pairs of ski socks, one pulled over the next like a knitwear matryoska doll. In Lapland, layering is always in.
There’s also a veritable buffet of adrenalin-pumping escapades on offer up here. We consider our many options.
‘Drifting’, for those of you new to the joys of motorsport, is the contemporary art of driving a car sideways round a bend at speed. It’s the kind of thing normally frowned upon by traffic police. If you’d like to try, however (and I know you would) the Finns have the perfect solution: ice-karting. The little go-karts are the same as anywhere (albeit with knobblier tyres) but this track is made of compacted snow and ice. The karts skid given the slightest provocation and that’s where the fun really starts: just zip up your arctic race-suit, pull down your tinted visor, floor the throttle and go. It’s harder than it looks. At first I pirouette off the track altogether. Practice makes perfect however, and on lap four I start to get it right. It’s a delicate balancing act; demanding careful judgement of speed, line of attack, angle of bend, throttle control and gentle suppression of the desire to show-off. When it works, it’s glorious. My fastest lap time is among the slowest in recorded history, but I don’t care. My grin lasts for hours.
After revving our way to glory it’s time to let the experts show us how it’s done. We take turns with professional driver Timo who straps us into the passenger seat of his rally-spec Subaru WRX, pops a helmet on our heads and makes us scream like little girls as he bombs round the forest rally course at full pelt. We careen through the woodland, engine screaming, flying sideways round bends, barely missing trees, kicking up walls of snow and ice, hard left, hard right, here’s the jump… Ten minutes of blurred motorsport frenzy and we’re sweating profusely and laughing like madmen. Timo congratulates us on our co-piloting skill. I guess he’s just impressed that we remained conscious.
With our adrenalin levels in the stratosphere, a little fresh air is in order, so we take to the ski-trail for a bracing afternoon of cross-country skiing. Finns are big on cross-country skiing. (Brits are big on it too, but usually do it indoors on loathsome contraptions called ‘cross trainers’). Like ice-karting, it’s not nearly as easy as it looks. Minna, our heroically patient instructor, guides us to glide and eventually we get into the groove. Out in the Nordic woodland an extraordinary feeling of serenity envelops the skier. It is absolutely silent and still, with the odd glimpse of reindeer skulking deep in the forest. It’s exhausting but invigorating.
How else might one traverse this beguiling land? Three more options: snowmobiling – basically a cross-country motorbike on skis: outrageous fun and (unlike the skiing) much easier than it looks; tobogganing – scare your thermals off by hurtling headlong down an icy, mile-long track on a plastic tea-tray; and finally – if you’re in the mood for something more sedate – reindeer-sledding. Tuck yourself up in fur blankets and let your four-legged, knobbly-antlered new best friend take you on a gentle tour of that crazy landscape.
So far, so physical. But what about that legendary Finnish design? (And frankly, what about a bit of shopping?) Visit the beautiful Design House Idoli – set on the banks on Lake Inari – and curators Hanneli and Pekka Sillfors will guide you around a showcase exhibition of Finland’s most inventive, stylish and iconic pieces of homeware design. Each is presented and discussed with the quiet pride so typical of the Finns. (They’re a modest people. It’s a really charming trait). There are some very desirable objects here and it’s hard not to be seduced into some major credit card action.
Travel to these Northerly latitudes requires a connection through Helsinki and it’s well worth exploring this quirky and engaging city. There’s an impressive spectrum of arts and entertainment on offer, and excellent shopping. Design legends like Alvar Aalto and Marimekko are here, plus rising stars like shoe-queen Minna Parikka (Lady Gaga is a fan). You’ll find a burgeoning gastronomic scene. Helsinki boasts five Michelin-starred restaurants and there’s a palpable enthusiasm for top quality, locally sourced food across the board, from street-food vendor to elite eatery.
Take Olo. You’d never know it from the subdued décor, but dinner at Olo is utterly bonkers. Each dish is more outlandish than the last: artful compositions of wildly delicious foams and gels, transparent slivers of locally-foraged radish, dainty fillets of tender smoked reindeer, clever dual temperature soups, freeze-dried lingonberries and more. It’s magical and truly world-class. We left the restaurant just as dazed and elated as when climbing out of Timo’s Subaru.
And really, this echoes so much of what we found in Finland. A calm and unassuming face cloaks a land that very much takes its fun seriously.
Finnair, 0870 241 4411, www.finnair.com
Heathrow-Helsinki-Ivalo daily. Prices from £ 234.00 including tax
Where to stay and Eat:
Hotel & Igloo Village Kakslauttanen, Saariselkä, +358 (0)16 667 100, www.kakslauttanen.fi
Glass/snow igloos for 2 and log cabins for 2-10, from £240 (igloos) or £160 (cabins), including breakfast. Ice chapel also available for winter weddings.
Santa’s Hotel Tunturi and Kaltio restaurant, Saariselkä, +358 (0)16 681 501 www.tunturihotelli.fi
Doubles from £120, including breakfast. Excellent Nordic fine dining. Three courses including half bottle of wine £60
Kaunispään Huippu restaurant, Saariselkä, +358 (0)16 668 803, www.saariselka.fi/huippu
Mountain restaurant in ski area with panoramic view. Three courses £30. Also start point for tobogganing.
Design House Idoli, Ukonjärvi (Ivalo), +358 (0)40 0197 181 www.idoli.fi
Action Park (motor-sports) www.actionpark.fi
Kamisak (husky & horse sledding) www.kamisak.com
Joiku-Kotsamo Safari Company (reindeer sledding & snow mobile safari) www.saariselka.fi/joikukotsamo
Santa’s House (Santa was out gold prospecting to fund presents when we visited) www.santasresort.fi
Siida Sami Museum (indigenous Laplander (Sami) cultural centre) www.siida.fi
Top-Safaris (cross-country and downhill skiing) www.saariselka.fi/topsafaris
Klaus K Hotel, +358 (0) 20 770 4700, www.klauskhotel.com
Doubles from £160, including breakfast
Restaurant Olo, +358 (0) 10 320 6250, www.olo-restaurant.com
Michelin-starred Nordic food specialist. Seven courses, including seven wines £80
Restaurant Sunn, +358(0)10 2312800, www.ravintolasunn.fi
Good Nordic food. Three courses, including half bottle of wine £50
Eat & Joy Farmer’s Market, +358 (0)50 442 8099, www.eatandjoy.fi
Lunches only, also good for gastronomic presents
Artek (homeware design centre), Eteläesplanadi 18, www.artek.fi
Minna Parikka (shoes, handbags), Bulevardi 24, www.minnaparikka.com
Marimekko (textiles, clothes, homeware), various locations, www.marimekko.com
Finland Tourist Information
Finland is in the Euro-zone
Bring ski gear, full thermal underwear and plenty of ski socks for layering.
A warm hat and good quality ski gloves are a necessity, gloves preferably with separate thermal liners.
Thermal arctic over-suits and gloves are provided free of charge by each company for all activities that require them.