ROVANIEMI, FINLAND - Snowmobiling on the frozen Kemijoki River, I follow the lead driver up a steep embankment and into a primeval forest. The pathway is lined with towering trees heavy with new fallen snow. In the distance I see the reindeer farm where we are headed to learn more about Finland and the frozen Lapland tundra we are crossing just south of the Arctic Circle.
When we arrive at the farm, we are greeted by a Shaman - a native Laplander - who teaches us about local customs and traditions, like the making of a sami, a four-pointed toque worn throughout Scandinavia to ward off the bitter Arctic winds. Of course there’s a legend attached to the sami - the Shaman tells us a legendary Laplander created the first one to “trap the four winds” and that’s why it’a also known as the Four Winds Hat.
Above: Visitors get into the Nordic liftestyle by wearing a sami hat on a sleigh ride.
The sami comes in handy when we are invited on a reindeer sleigh ride through the woods - suddenly I’m feeling like Santa Claus, whom by the way, we’ll be meeting later.
There’s actually only one reindeer pulling my sleigh and his nose is not glowing red. But the tiny sled is being effortlessly pulled across the snow, which crunches under the reindeer’s hoofs.
I don’t think anything can top this until my guide Hannah asks “are your ready to go dog sledding?”
So back into the forrest we go, this time being pulled by a team of six muscular huskies who seem delighted to have me guiding them. The quick lesson Hannah gave me on how to control the dogs seems to be working and my deft handling of the team seems to be putting my passenger Norma at ease.
The dogs perform brilliantly on our 20 kilometre run and soon the twinkling lights of Rovaniemi come into view - what a magical sight!
It’s time to check into our accommodation - the aptly named Santa Claus Hotel is where we’ll be staying. Located in the centre of this Arctic outpost, the hotel is close to everything - Rovaniemi has some interesting museums, quaint shops and several lovely restaurants that are all located within walking distance of the hotel.
Above: You get a cold reception in Finland with hotels and museums looking a lot like ice castles.
Next morning we head off to Santa Claus Village to meet the Jolly Ole Elf himself and he seems excited to see us.
“I’ve had children as young as 20 days young and as old as 97 visit me,” Santa, who says anyone under 100 “is a child” to him, tells me.
Santa also says that when his home at Ear Mountain (in Korvatunturi) was discovered, the elves decided to build this place so he could meet children and retain the privacy of his home.
After meeting with Santa I walk to Santa Claus Post Office where the postmaster elf tells me more than a half million letters from all over the world arrive here addressed to Santa each year. Some children ask for gifts, others ask for health and wellbeing.
Later, we check into the Arctic Snow Hotel and Glass Igloos where we enjoy a drink at the ice bar and tour its beautiful snow castle.
Norma and I stay in a glass igloo hoping to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights show that people come to Rovaniemi to witness.
Sadly, the lights did not materialize that night but the glistening snow outside our igloo made the whole experience enchanting.
Next morning we head off to Kemi, located south of Rovaniemi, which is famous for its annual snow castle, which is erected on the edge of the sea each year. Local crews build the castle and artisans from China, Russia and Latvia create beautiful ice sculptures to decorate its interior.
Touring the castle and its SnowHotel, SnowRestaurant and SnowChapel is a study in creativity and fantasy. Around every corner is another dreamlike image. Themes change every year and when we visit medieval creatures, scenes and wizardry are what are on display.
There are other snow castles in Finland, but Kemi’s is one of the most amazing.
Kemi also has another attraction that visitors seem to love — the Sampo Icebreaker.
Left: You can visit the old coast guard ship Sampo. Right: Later, you can jump in a giant frozen pond.
The Sampo kept shipping lanes around here open for many years before being retired after almost 30 years of service. Now owned by the city of Kemi, the Sampo is the only icebreaker in the world that offers cruises to the public.
There are several different ways to get to the icebreaker from the city centre. I choose to take a snowmobile with across the frozen Gulf of Bothinia and I’m greeted at the ship by a lovely guide named Maria, who escorts us on a tour of the vessel, including the bridge, navigational centre and engine room.
Maria then guides us to an expansive dining hall where a bowl of warm, hearty salmon soup is waiting.
At the end of the short cruise, passengers get the opportunity to don rescue suits and float in the arctic waters. What an experience!
A guide leads the brave tourists down the gangplank and we jump into the frigid water and frolic in the surf like bright orange gummy bears floating in a child’s drink.
So if you’re looking for a different winter getaway this year, Lapland may her your answer.
It will help you appreciate winter all over again.
Safari companies including Safartica and Lapland Safaris in Rovaniemi, and Lapponia Safaris in Kemi offer snowmobiling, dog mushing and reindeer safaris. For more informstion go to: www.safartica.com; www.laplandsafaris.com/en;
https://lapponiasafaris.com. / In Rovaniemi two excellent restaurants within easy walking distance of Santa Claus Hotel are Rosso Rovaniemi and Café&bar21 / In Kemi, the Merihovi is a charming 1940s hotel with lots of Art Deco design elements, an excellent breakfast and friendly and helpful staff. / Kemi is small and it’s easy to get around the city on foot. Several restaurants are near the hotel including Pizzeria San Milano, which is located near the Snow Castle. / For more information on travel in Finland, go to www.visitfinland.com
/ Finnair offers direct flights from Toronto. Go to www.finnair.com/ca/gb/destinations/north-america/toronto
to find out schedules and airfares.