By Kathryn Lemmon
In northern Finland, snow is measured not in inches but in feet. It’s a place where reindeer herds thrive and traditional Lapland costume is elfish in color and design. Have an urge to cross the Arctic Circle? Do it in Finland.
This country is home to just over five million people and 200,000 reindeer, give or take a Rudolf or two. The Finns speak excellent English, another big plus for foreign friends.
Once-in-a-lifetime Arctic adventures begin with a flight to Helsinki. The Arctic Circle is a convenient one-hour trip north of the city and there’s no need to bring cumbersome clothing — more specifics on that later.
You can visit Finland anytime in early December to experience Yuletide customs and still be home for the actual holiday.
The city of Rovaniemi, Finland, lies at the Arctic Circle. It’s not as far-flung as you might guess, having the northernmost McDonald’s restaurant in the world.
Prior to departure, I saw a television segment about Finland. The President, Tarja Halonen is a red-headed woman with a resemblance to TV personality Conan O’Brien. The talk show host made quite a to-do about the likeness. O’Brien met with her and made all manner of jokes about it on national TV in both countries. Fortunately, the Finns have a healthy sense of humor, as does their president.
Finnair will quickly whisk you to Rovaniemi, where the airport runways are lined with stately, snow-heavy pine trees. Stepping off the plane, I got an anticipatory chill, (not the other kind) knowing I was so very close to crossing the Arctic Circle.
In and around Rovaniemi, the Arctic is a fluffy white playground and snow a source of pleasure. Unlike home, I heard nobody complaining about the weather; in fact they were hoping for more snow.
Standard tourist hotels and restaurants provide all the amenities we’ve come to expect. The Rantasipi Pohjanhovi hotel even offered free computer access in the lobby. Finland is very progressive when it comes to the computer age. Modern technology made it possible to keep up with events back home.
Outfitted by Experts
Still wondering about the proper gear? Lapland Safaris, a major tour company in Rovaniemi, provides every bit of the warm clothing necessary for Arctic experiences. They realize most travelers either don’t own it or would rather not lug it so far. I was outfitted head to toe, by folks accustomed to cold temperatures.
If you stay for several days, all the gear remains in your hotel room to be used as needed — which is anytime you set foot outside the door! The “loaner” wool hat and thick wool socks worked wonders, as did the snowmobile suit.
The tour company sits immediately next to the Rantasipi. Most of the activities mentioned here were arranged through Lapland Safari’s.
A Reindeer Sleighride
We visited a reindeer farm and rode like the jolly old man himself on a reindeer sled. Bumpy! Since the sled had space for two, I was paired with a young man from Spain. He was enthralled with all the snow. Though our communication was limited, we laughed and grinned like best buds. The sled ride did not involve flying over rooftops; unfortunately we stayed attached to terra firma. Where are Donner and Blitzen when you need them?
Santa Claus Village is a white fantasy land, constructed partially of snow buildings. Tall, narrow ice obelisks glowed blue and green, eerily illuminating the afternoon darkness.
I kept noticing a group of youngsters in the 7-to-12 age range, wearing matching outfits.
Filled with energy, they bounced around the village in an organized fashion so I assumed they were part of the staff, or perhaps staff off-spring. Their duties included throwing snowballs, giggling, sledding, and generally creating a festive feeling. Their antics had the desired effect.
Snowmobiling is an essential part of any visit to Rovaniemi. The trails are cut through more pristine, snow-covered pine trees. Acre upon acre of perfectly sculpted snow is such a pleasure to see. The temperatures cause the snow to cling tenaciously to even the tiniest, thinnest tree branch.
I took a spill off my snowmobile into a snowbank, head first. Then I realized someone was laughing like crazy. Oh, it was me! A moment later, I reminded myself I was sitting in a snow bank in the Arctic. It gave me an out-of-this-world sensation. At one point while riding, I could see the moon sitting on the horizon to my left and the sun on the horizon to my right.
Dining in Snowland
Each winter local residents build an igloo and other buildings collectively called Snowland. Like kids during the first snowfall, they find the urge to build with snow and ice irresistible.
At Snowland I had a well-prepared dinner in their igloo with steaming mushroom soup and a mild white fish as the main course. As they say on the MasterCard commercial, “the chance to dine in an igloo — priceless.”
By April, Snowland melts away, only to rise again the next December, with human help, of course.
The Regional Museum
How have indigenous people survived in this often harsh environment? What exactly is the line on the globe labeled the Arctic Circle? Arktikum explains it all. The Arctic Center and regional museum of Lapland, known as Arktikum is a five-minute taxi ride from the hotel.
Most of the museum actually lies below ground level. Above is an eye-catching, narrow glass structure, appropriate in a quirky way to the landscape.
Traditional Lapland clothing is on exhibit at Arktikum. The styling clearly resembles that of Santa’s elves with solid blues and bright red; even shoes with curled up toes. There must be a correlation to toy-making elves we’ve come to know and love.
Cloud cover kept us from viewing the Northern Lights, although they can be visible in December… maybe next time.
Travelers in general don’t appear inhibited by Arctic temperatures. I met people from Spain, Singapore, England and some happy honeymooners from Holland.
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Kathryn Lemmon is a freelance travel writer residing in Bloomington, Indiana. She’s a member of the American Society of Journalists & Authors, with more than 600 published credits… and still counting. In her spare time she volunteers as a grant writer for two animal-welfare groups, sells hand-made greeting cards on ebay and reads mysteries.