Snow good in Lapland

Sat, Dec 19, 2009, 00:00

Deciding between a reindeer or a husky safari, snowmobiles, going ice-fishing by sledge on the lake or seeking out the Northern Lights was such a magical experience, YVONNE GORDONkept having to pinch herself to see if it was for real

‘YOU CAN COME here to watch for the aurora borealis after dinner,” says Jussi. We’re in a giant tepee with a glass roof. It’s warm and cosy, and there are little lines of snow building up on the glass outside. The entire hotel village is white, covered in thick, soft, bumpy snow. It’s snowing so we don’t think we’ll see the Northern Lights through the clouds, but we don’t mind. There’s so much else to take in, we’d probably forget to look up.

To get here, we’ve walked along a curvy, snow-filled path and crossed a bridge over a frozen lake. The tepee is up a slight hill and on the way we pass the site for a restaurant made of snow and for snow igloos. The mounds of snow sit ready and waiting – building starts next week.

It’s only 5pm but it has been dark for a few hours – this time of year, there’s only a few hours of daylight and it all adds to the magical atmosphere of this winter wonderland in northern Finland. We’re in the Hotel and Igloo Village at Kakslauttanen, around 250km north of the Artic Circle, and nothing has prepared me for how magical it is.

From the moment we landed, all we could see was snow and miles and miles of pine trees, their branches frozen white. The tree-lined roads are covered in snow, and when we catch the bus from the airport, we’re terrified at the speed. If I was driving in this, I’d be doing 3mph, I think. When the driver starts overtaking taxis, my normally calm travel companion nearly loses the plot. How does the driver even know where the road is? But the bus has special tyres and we arrive safely.

The Kakslauttanen reception and restaurant is in a large log cabin – a proper one, made out of massive round pine logs, each hundreds of years old, stacked on top of each other. It’s a winter paradise. There’s a stack of sleighs parked haphazardly outside and some skis and poles are leaning against the logs. Everything is silent. When we open the front door, reindeer bells ring and the atmosphere inside is warm and welcoming.

We’re given a map and directions to get to our log cabin, so we wrap up well in our ski gear, and off we set into the darkness and the snow. It feels like we’ve stepped into Narnia. Along the way, we have to rub snow off the wooden signs to see the cabin numbers. Finally, there’s an arrow pointing up a hill towards our cabin. The last bit of the slope is quite slippery, so we step off the path into the snow. Bad idea – it’s about 4ft deep, though beautifully pristine and powdery. It’s all so magical, I keep having to pinch myself.

The Lapland region is within the Arctic Circle and stretches across Norway, Sweden, Finland and parts of Russia. Due to extensive marketing around Christmas, the region has a Disney-type image of Santa’s workshop and husky rides in the snow but there’s a lot more to it and, as we find out, it’s an adventure-lover’s paradise.

That evening, after dinner at the cosy restaurant, we decide what activities we’re going to try. We’re spoilt for choice, deciding between a reindeer safari, a husky safari, snowmobiles or going ice-fishing by sledge on the lake.

We decide on a morning reindeer ride and, for the evening, a night trip on snowmobiles to hunt for the aurora borealis. The hotel arranges everything for guests including pickups, so it’s all very organised.

In the morning we are collected by Pentti, a Sami man (the Sami are the indigenous people of the area). He’s wearing a long woollen tunic, fur reindeer-skin boots and there’s a knife hanging from his belt. We suddenly hope our reindeer safari doesn’t include actually hunting a reindeer.

Pentti takes us to his reindeer farm deep in the forest. The white roads are lined with trees so heavily snow-laden, their bottom branches encircle the ground like big heavy layers of skirts. Visibility has turned into a total white-out. We wonder how Pentti can find his way around. He tells us that he can find his way home from anywhere in the forest, no problem, but when he goes to Helsinki he gets lost.

At the farm, we meet our first reindeer. They’re smaller and cuter than I imagined. I had images of deer-like animals in my mind, but these are lighter in colour and have huge eyes. Even their feet are cute. We have a wooden sleigh each, lined with reindeer skins and are covered in blankets.

Off we set into the forest, each of us pulled along by one reindeer. It’s snowing heavily and the path of snow underneath us is smooth and soft. The reindeer from the sleigh behind runs alongside mine and every so often he dips down for a mouthful of snow.

The trails through the forest are stunning and on some of the paths the reindeers really pick up speed. The sky is full of snow flakes and it really is like a scene from a Christmas card. When we stop, there is nothing but peace and silence. It is a surprisingly relaxing experience.

When we return, we lead the reindeers to their enclosure in the woods. Then we retire to a traditional Sami tepee to make pancakes on the fire and listen to traditional songs from our guide. It’s a magical experience and we’re sad to leave.

Later in the afternoon Jussi, the owner, shows us and some Japanese visitors around the resort. We see the Queen log cabins which have a fireplace, sauna and outdoor jacuzzi. We see the world’s largest smoke sauna (powered by logs) and the honeymoon suite – a cosy turf chamber. We also visit a traditional Lapland farmer’s house and we see where the snow chapel and snow restaurant will be built next week.

Apparently, there are around 50 weddings a year in the chapel from all around the world, including Ireland.

We walk out onto the frozen lake – 30cm of ice, covered in snow – and Jussi lifts a huge lid to reveal a hole in the ice and a ladder. It’s a swimming hole. The temperature of the lake under the ice is surprisingly warm – 4ºC to 5ºC. Apparently, this is nature’s way of keeping the flora and fauna in the water alive, even in winter. Lapland people have always enjoyed ice swimming, and it’s an ideal way to cool down after a sauna – a regular activity for the locals.

In the evening we’re brought to Saariselkä village for our snowmobile safari. Given full thermal suits, balaclavas and helmets, I wonder what we are in for. We’re taught how to drive the snowmobiles – each has an 800cc engine – and the hand signals we need to use. Hearing the engines revving up, I can’t help thinking about global warming and how they’re not in tune with the beautiful environment. But it’s an adrenaline-filled adventure as we set off into the night.

We spend hours driving around the arctic landscape looking for the Northern Lights and enjoying the thrills of the ride. It is mostly smooth, until we veer off the track, hit a log and nearly come a cropper. I cling on tight to my companion who is now experimenting with some off-track driving at high speeds. He has turned into the bus driver. Now I know what the helmets are for.

At one point, we drive above the treeline to an arctic fell. We can see for miles around – trees and hills and snow. The only lights on the landscape are the two red lights on a hill. The rest of the night sky is pitch black and a chilly wind sweeps across the frozen landscape.

There’s no sign of the Northern Lights tonight – it’s too overcast. Apparently they’re visible here around 200 days of the year. But we don’t mind. We have coffee and roast sausages by the camp fire instead and chat to the guides. The moon is shining through the snow clouds and it takes on an eerie ring around it. I look into the empty forest and wonder about wolves.

On our final night at the hotel village, we sleep in a glass igloo. The owner, Jussi, came up with the unique glass igloo concept a few years ago. They are designed for watching the aurora borealis or starry sky through the glass.

On this night we see the snow and the surrounding trees and it is magical. Our igloo is right beside the forest, snow is falling and there is no sound, just total quiet. I can barely remember my head hitting the pillow . . .

Where to stay, what to do, what to know, and how to get there

Where to stay

Hotel and Igloo Village Kakslauttanen, Saariselkä, Finland, 00-358-16-667 100, kakslauttanen.fi. There is a choice of different-sized log cabins, each with a fireplace and sauna, or a glass or snow igloo. There’s a bar and restaurant and the hotel arranges all excursions and can arrange airport transfers.

What to do

Reindeer safari – a two or four-hour safari. Each person has their own sleigh. You can also learn about the Sami people, indigenous to Lapland.

Husky safari – each person gets their own team of six huskies and a lesson on how to drive the sledge. There are two and four-hour husky safaris, and teams of two can take turns driving or sitting in the sledge.

Snowmobile safari – the snowmobiles go right up to the Kaunispää fell, 436m above sea level and there are stunning views of the forests. There are two and four-hour safaris or night safaris to see the aurora borealis. Teams of two can take turns driving – it’s thrilling.

Ice-breaker Sampo, Kemi – this ice-breaker ship operates on the northern Gulf acting as a base for ice adventurers in the frozen Arctic waters. It is a full day trip from the hotel village.

Ice fishing at Lake Inari – this takes place on the lake where a hole is drilled in the ice. Lunch is served over an open fire in the open air. There is also a visit to the Sami museum in Inari.

Winter karting – this takes place three times a week in the evening and other driving experiences, such as rally, are available.

Santa’s Resort – the new Santa’s Resort Kakslauttanen opens for the first time on December 15th. It includes Santa’s house, elf houses, a reindeer pen and a sledding hill and is ideal for children.

Summer activities in the area include Arctic cruises, gold-panning, smoke sauna, midnight sun excursions, reindeer farm visits and cruises on Lake Inari.

What to know

Temperatures in Lapland can go down as far as -50ºC so pack enough warm gear – thermals, thermal socks, a hat, gloves and warm outer clothing are a must. The hotel rents ski or snow shoes and winter clothing.

If you’re booking a snowmobile safari, be aware of the guidelines – you must be over 15 years old and have a valid driving licence. Driving a snowmobile under the influence of alcohol is illegal in Finland.

How to get there

Scandinavian Airlines (flysas.ie) flies from Dublin to Helsinki via Copenhagen, Stockholm or Oslo. SAS partner airline Blue1 connects from Helsinki to Ivalo from October to April. Finnair (finnair.com) also flies from Helsinki to Ivalo.