Travel north of Rovaniemi — the capital of Lapland, the hometown of Santa Claus and the gateway to the Arctic — and a land of choices opens up: swim in a lake, or skate on it; hike steadily through greenery or wade through 10ft of snow.
It all depends on the time of year. In summer, days in Finnish Lapland never end — under the midnight sun, reindeer roam freely through forests covered in wild berries, hiking routes have never looked more tempting, and festivals fill the land.
Meanwhile, in winter, seemingly endless swathes of snow blanket the ground, lit up by the elusive aurora borealis (visible for around 200 nights of the year here). Step out of the bustling towns and the landscape feels remote, silent; the air purer. And it’s a paradise for those wanting to bound around in the snow. From snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, to husky sleds and snowmobiles, what began as ways to get from A to B have become both sports and tourist pulls.
During the winter months, the sun teases, barely breaching the grey skies before giving up again. Nights can be filled with walks or — for the locals, and those who just love a good singalong — trips to the local karaoke bar. Just 3% of Finland’s population reside in the region, so it’s emphatically a wilderness destination, yet it still manages to tick the culture box: the heritage of the indigenous, semi-nomadic Sami people is protected by law, and local festivals offer a chance to meet them.
A snowmobile safari is arguably one of the most exhilarating ways to cross the icy terrain, and networks of paths weave through forests, over frozen lakes and across highlands. Trips vary from half-hour circuits to three-day excursions. The steering works in the same way as a motorbike’s, but the addition of snow — and omission of traffic — make for a very different riding experience.
Nightlife is scarce in an area with an almost equal ratio of people to reindeer, but locals gather for evenings filled with rather impressive (and surreal) renditions of the classics and the not-so-classic at karaoke bars. Expect heavy metal, operatic ballads, pop melodies and jazz, belted out by fervent (and slightly tipsy) locals wearing anything from dresses to salopettes. Voices can be intimidatingly good, but you’ll still get a raucous cheer for sloppy attempts of Billy Idol’s White Wedding.
This traditional way of traversing the snowy tundra, dog-sledding has turned into a serious racing sport. One person (the musher) stands on the sleigh, driving the five huskies on and controlling the brake. The sole responsibility of the other person, meanwhile, is to swaddle themselves in furs, sit in the direction of travel and take in the scenery. Most hotels do taster sessions, and although providers are visited regularly by animal welfare officers, it’s best to book with a company that locals can vouch for.
Three to try: Lapland’s delicacies
In the summer, bilberries take over the Finnish forest, their sweetness making them the perfect pie ingredient. The tart flavour of lingonberries makes them good for jam, while bright orange cloudberries give juices a sour kick. All can be mixed into tea, which is served in homes and hotels across Finnish Lapland.
Poronkäristys (sautéed reindeer) is one of the best-known traditional foods in Finnish Lapland, providing high levels of omega-3 and B12 — making it an ideal food in cold weather. The lean meat is usually thinly sliced, fried with cream and served with mashed potatoes and a lingonberry preserve.
Call it bread cheese, Finnish squeaky cheese, leipäjuusto or juustoleipä — it’s all the same: a cheese that’s curdled, fried and baked to become a milder version of halloumi. It can be served in pieces with hot coffee poured on top, or baked in cream and cinnamon, with lashings of cloudberry jam.
Eyewitness: Chasing the fox fires
Keen for another shot at it, the next day — just as the other residents of my hotel are laying their heads on their pillows — I zip up my snowsuit, pull on my balaclava and snowshoe up a hill with Tero. Soon enough, wearing just my base layers after this alpine workout — an uphill battle, grappling with branches and powdery snow — I find myself crouched over a camera that’s pointing north. It’ll pick up any signs of the light show before we can.
Behind us is a tipi that Tero built from animal skins and fallen trees. We go inside to light the fire in the centre and wait it out, in the hope that the lights will eventually flaunt themselves. Smoke dances in my face, blocking the eye contact Tero is keen to lock in. “In our culture, we believe that whoever the smoke is attracted to is the wealthiest person around the camp fire.” I contemplate my scruffy appearance and knotted hair. “Well, it doesn’t have to mean in terms of money,” Tero adds, passing me a cup of berry tea from his thermos, before lacing it with an extended dash of kilju (homemade sugar wine).
We settle in for the long haul, and I’m entranced by Tero’s tales of the mythologies surrounding the Northern Lights. “Every culture has their own story about the lights. An ancient Finnish myth is that a magical fox, sweeping his tail across the snow and spraying it into the sky, causes them or that he runs so fast his tail creates sparks. We call the lights Revontulet, which means ‘fox fires’, but the Sami people in Lapland believed the lights were the energy of departed souls.” Tero then heads around the globe, reeling off a list of other national theories. In Scotland, they were merry dancers; in China, the lights of fire-breathing dragons; Icelanders saw them as a force to ease the pain of childbirth; while in Japan, they’re said to be a display of magic that brings good fortune, blessing future children with intellect and looks. As for the Canadians, they looked up and saw the spirits of ancestors playing a ball game with a walrus skull.
Tero refills my cup, shaking the last drops of kiilju into our teas. He tells me that, despite the varying beliefs and legends, all cultures have one thing in common: a respect for the lights. Tero has won me over; it’s not about how bold the lights can be or how much they dance, it’s about how unifying they are, how much they can bring different cultures together in appreciation for this enigmatic natural phenomenon. Camera in hand, I head back out for one more try.
How to do it
Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)