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Jo’s Blog: Our Lapland adventure


Whilst the rest of the world eases gently into a new year, travel agents find themselves fully immersed in the frenzy of the peak holiday booking season.


No sympathy required but this means 60 solid days of little else than a few hours sleep and the daily dog walk, so early March is a designated slot for a couple's escapade and some R&R (that’s rest and rejuvenation).


Steve and I often return to our comfort destinations at this time, which one depends on the battle of the ‘brief’ winner, but I had my sights firmly set on Finnish Lapland, a destination that I’ve been longing to dedicate some serious time to.

Jo’s Brief

Steve’s Brief

 

Blue skies, sunshine, hot tub, sauna, a bit of extreme weather

Bleak landscapes, windy, snow and freezing temps

 

Car hire/ self-drive

Car hire/ self-drive

 

Easy access to a range of restaurants showcasing local specialities

Self-catering, pizzas or kebabs

 

Ability for husband to consume alcohol

Ability to purchase/ consume alcohol without judgment or taking out a second mortgage

Proximity to IKEA to avoid husband tantrum

Foreign IKEA visit

 

Multi-centred itinerary

Multi-centred itinerary

 

Learn a new language, meet new people, make new friends, understand new cultures

Minimum interaction with humans other than wife

Direct flights from Stansted

Direct flights from Stansted

 

Despite the few glaringly obvious differences in our requirements (I always win), we agreed that heading to a Nordic territory would work.



It’s important for me, where possible, to make holiday recommendations based on personal experience and with this, and Steve’s brief, in mind, I settled on three nights in Rovaniemi city centre (Finland, hotel), one night in Haparanda (Sweden, hotel) and three nights in Norvaluusua (Finland, lakeside cabin).


Here’s the tale of two happy wanderers venturing into the Arctic wonderland...


Steve: An exciting autopilot landing into the Arctic Circle was a great start to the trip for me. Seated in row 2, we were soon at passport control and the friendly welcome provided an early indication of warm Finnish hospitality.


Reindeer, Christmas trees and other related paraphernalia made for a festive March atmosphere, and with plenty of snow on the ground, it was always going to feel like Christmas.



Steve’s Airport & Car Rental Tips


  • Unlike UK airports, there’s no fee to pull up outside either arrivals or departures. So, as it’s icy, I’d advise getting snow boots on, walking to the rental car and driving it to the drop-off point to collect the rest of your party and luggage on the trolley. We battled with wheeling the trolley to the car – it was ugly.

  • Take pictures and videos of your hire car before you leave the airport as you may not get to inspect it before signing for it and ensure you know what level of insurance cover you have.

  • A mandatory fee is payable if you plan to take the car to Sweden or Norway.

  • There is a petrol station opposite Santa’s Village just five minutes from the airport to refill at the end of the trip.


Jo: Rovaniemi, Lapland’s capital, is small so there is plenty of central accommodation options. I was after something with a Nordic wow factor, a taste of the infamous Finnish sauna culture and a roaring open fire.


The Haawe Boutique Apart Hotel occupies a historic functionalist building dating back to 1933. Its 14 rooms are individually curated and inspired by the ever-changing seasons and natural beauty of the region's mesmerising landscapes and phenomena.


Our stay in apartment ‘Revontuli’, translating as ‘Northern Lights’, totally wowed our socks off!



The hotel has no reception as such, and when check-in time approached, we were texted the key code and settled in without having to interact with another human being – bliss!


We’d been advised that the fridge would be stocked but to say that expectations were exceeded would be a huge understatement. Room service replaced items daily and we could have holed up for a week without needing to send out for supplies.


Additional culinary highlights in Rovaniemi included:


Nili’s Restaurant



Lappish classics served in a cosy atmosphere and essential to book. Finnish salmon soup, steak and horseradish and the best-grilled salmon I’ve ever tasted.


Hilarious (and mildly disturbing) lost-in-translation menu moments included: “overcooked bear” (slow-cooked bear), “reindeer entrails” (reindeer rillettes) and “overcooked battered leg of deep-fried Lapland woodpecker” (absolutely no idea!)



Santa’s Doner Kebab



Takeaway or eat-in, simple menu with several kebab styles and fillers.



Rosso



Italian classics with a Nordic twist including reindeer doner pizza, salmon and deep-fried capers white pizza, along with the more traditional fare.



Like most Nordic countries, Finland has strict alcohol sale laws with supermarkets only allowed to sell beverages up to 5.5% vol.


Fortunately for Steve, a lover of fine wines, the aptly named ‘Alko’ stores kindly fill this gap and whilst opening hours are restricted, the service is splendid with plenty of bright young things willing to assist with recommendations and guidance.



Santa Claus Village


Jo: Around ten minutes outside the city, this resort does what it says on the tin. It's like stepping into the pages of a fairy tale and feeling a sense of joyful curiosity where anything is possible. Anything other than a suntan that is.


As you might imagine, with Santa and his entourage living here, it’s a huge draw for the family market at all times of year, with accommodation to suit all budgets, from caravan parks and apartments to snow hotels and glass igloos with jacuzzis.



Steve: Naturally the whole site is somewhat of a cliché, but very enjoyable nonetheless, even without kids.


There’s a large store at its heart, where the main man can be found. We elected not to sit on his knee but there are several other attractions, including Mrs Claus Christmas Cottage, the Elf farmyard, reindeer, lots of shops and eateries including a lovely shack selling smoked salmon prepared in front of you on an open fire.


Jo: Apukka Resort is around 20 minutes drive from Rovaniemi and has a little more “outback” and “grown-up” vibe than Santa’s Village, not that you’d know this from the joyous look of delight on Steve’s face as he took to the in-resort swing at every given opportunity.



The focus here is on glass igloo-style accommodation, known as either Aurora Cabins, Glass Igloo or Lake View Suites. They all come with sky views from your bedroom, some with hot tubs and private saunas, others with dedicated ice-holes to complete the Finnish sauna experience.


We booked our activities with a favourite supplier of mine, Not In The Guidebooks, who provide a menu of the most authentic and sustainable experiences available, often a little off the beaten track.


Steve: Our Husky experience was excellent. Unfortunately, but refreshingly from a dog safety perspective, because the temperature wasn’t quite cold enough (minus three degrees), the huskies would have found it too warm to be harnessed up and pull us along on a sledge, so this aspect of the excursion had to be cancelled.



We did however have the pleasure of meeting them and their owners at their accommodation. It was evident that they are well loved and taken care of. All had names and lived happily in kennels with at least one other buddy, and their plaques displaying their details revealed many were siblings born on the same day.


The ones we met were gorgeously playful and cuddly, including some fluffy white Samoyeds too. After being taken for some light refreshment in a large wigwam with an open fire blazing, we then got to meet four adorable Husky puppies.



Our snowmobile adventure took place the following day back at the Apukka Resort. Snowsuits were provided, along with boots, safety helmets and any other required items of clothing.


The skidoos were lined up in a single file and our superb guide, Jesse, took us through the controls before an induction session and heading out onto the frozen lake to begin an amazing two-hour journey.



Getting up to speeds of 40kph, we reached the far bank before ascending into the forest on a specially created skidoo trail and stopping for a hot beverage and biscuits. The silence was deafening at this point - something alien to most of us in our modern city lives - and was wonderful to experience.


Life in the wilderness continued as we headed by car from Finland to Sweden. Driving was easy-going, with long stretches of excellent straight roads through enjoyable landscapes and scenery, and little traffic.



After crossing the border, we headed through the forest to the edge of the Baltic Sea where a rendezvous with the 2,000 tonne Polar Explorer Icebreaker Cruise awaited.


The vessel has led an interesting life, spending time in both the Arctic and Antarctic, as well as the North Sea, aiding with the oil rigs.



It has seven decks, and with our VIP passage, we had access to them all, including the bridge, where we met the captain and his first officer, and a private lounge with refreshments. We also had a reserved table in the main galley, where we had a lunch of either salmon or Swedish meatballs.



Thirty minutes after heading out through the ice from the port, the ship was brought to a halt, having created a ‘swimming pool’ behind the stern.


Orange survival suits were donned, and the small group of our VIP contingent were the first to be allowed into the freezing water.



These suits are designed to enable survival for several hours, and their buoyancy provides some great comedy.


A gangway was also lowered from the ship's main deck into the ice below so we could walk onto the frozen sea, which was an amazing but initially nerve-racking experience.



The ice was solid, around 1m thick, and we could see large sections that had been upturned by the ice breaker.


After lunch, we spent the rest of the four-hour journey exploring the vessel, which included a cinema in one of the lower decks, screening its history.


Upon arrival on the quayside, we were presented with achievement certificates for the swim, which I was particularly pleased with having not actually taken part.



Jo: I've always wanted to dress up as a Teletubby and launch myself into the Baltic Sea from the back of an icebreaker vessel, said no one ever.

 

Pools of mental resilience were called upon, but wow! It was exhilarating, a major accomplishment and husband chickened out - nuff said.



Cape East Hotel & Spa in Haparanda is located on Sweden’s easternmost point (hence the name), just 15 minutes across the Finnish border. It has a direct view over the picturesque Torne River, which being frozen made for great people-watching as we spotted commuters crossing on skis or snowmobiles, their dogs attached by leads running joyfully alongside.

 

The hotel had caught my attention as a convenient overnighter following our cruise to avoid a night drive back across Finland’s Arctic tundra.



The chance for Steve, an avid IKEA fanatic, to have the pleasure of visiting a store on its home territory was a small bonus too (spoiler alert: he was ‘disappointed’).



I quickly realised that I’d stumbled across a gem of a property. Yes, the location was perfect, the building and rooms contemporary and the vibe tranquil but the ‘kakun kuorrutus’ (icing on the cake!) is the spa. Seriously, we’re talking with cherries on top, that good!

 

I’m fortunate to have been tempted by many a swanky spa offering whilst inspecting hotels across the world, but this was on a different level. Quite literally - the sauna alone had 3 floors. 



The outdoor pool is kept at a comfortable 20 degrees, enabling a swim even in minus temps. There are outdoor hot tubs, indoor jacuzzis, steam rooms, foot spas, experience showers, chill-out rooms with views that go on forever and an ice-cold plunge pool which featured real ice around the edges.

 

My only regret is that we only stayed for one night. It would make for such a fabulous couple retreat or, even more appealing, a girls’ long weekend away.



After the thrills of the first part of the trip, our last three nights were spent in splendid solitude at the Lakeside Cabin, Norvaluusua, on the shores of a frozen lake around 30 minutes north of Rovaniemi.



I had figured this would give us the best chance of viewing the Northern Lights, should the elements allow it: clear skies, zero light pollution and high solar activity.



I’m beyond pleased and totally astonished that after over 20 years of trying, we were treated to two astonishing nights of dancing colour, and in two entirely different palettes.



It was the perfect way to conclude a fabulous trip and having also spent some time site visiting other glass igloo accommodations to add to my knowledge bank, I can categorically assure you that Lapland is not just for Christmas and I can’t wait to be able to curate a dream experience for others.



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