Finland fascinates; winter activities thrill
I’ve been to Europe several times, but my recent trip to Finland was the first to a Nordic or Scandinavian country. I have lived most of my life in the Southwest of the U.S. and have little experience with winter activities, however several had been on my bucket list…such as snowmobiling and staying in a snow/ice hotel.
Finland is farther north than I realized and the Lapland region is located all the way in the southern part of the Arctic Circle. Rovaniemi is the Lapland capital of Finland, which is the official headquarters for Santa Claus himself! I also learned that Lapland is not just in Finland, but is spread across the northern parts of Sweden, Norway and Russia as well. One of the things I absolutely love about travel is what an amazing educator it is. I learned a great deal about Finnish culture, cuisine and history during my visit, some of which I will share with you in this post and video below.
The bulk of my time in Finland was spent in the Lapland region for an organized press trip called, “Winter on Wheels,” where many of the activities were organized by the amazing folks at Lapland Safaris. No matter what time of the year it is, Lapland Safaris (a regional tour company), has something for everyone. The operation is quite impressive in both scope and scale. More on my excursions in a moment.
My trip to Finland began with a flight from Phoenix to London, then a flight to Helsinki (the capital of Finland) where I would spend a few days. The flight duration, time change and jet lag took its toll my first day and I ended up sleeping well past noon. I stayed at a chic hotel called Glo right in the heart of Helsinki…everything was within walking distance, or, a short transit ride away. While European accommodations are typically modest in size, the amenities are often quite luxurious. I really gravitate toward more contemporary décor and my room at Glo was certainly impressive with its solid surfaces, modern materials and masculine colors.
After taking a shower and getting ready, I left the hotel with an elated sense of discovery. I absolutely love the thrill of exploring new places. It was a glorious day and quite warm for this time of year (around 28 degrees fahrenheit). I strolled the cobblestone streets of Helsinki and began to get my bearings. I ambled through a farmers market and observed some talented street performers along the way. I was armed with brochures and a map and decided to hop aboard a ferry to an island known as the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, which is a World Heritage site and popular area to visit just outside Helsinki. Here, visitors can explore the historic military architecture while enjoying the many views from different vantage points. The ferry ride across the harbor was quite unique for me, while the surface was not frozen solid; the chucks of ice blocks blanketed the surface of the water like giant cotton balls.
As I returned to Helsinki, I navigated the streets to the center square where I ran across an outdoor ice skating rink…here I donned some blades and skimmed across the slippery surface with my fellow novice skaters. I managed to avoid falling, but graceful I was not. Helsinki offers a wide range of activities for its visitors, from world-class museums and architecture to hip nightclubs and fine dining. On one of my evenings in Helsinki, I was treated to an extraordinary meal at a local restaurant called, Juuri, which translates to “root,” and is a bit of a double entendre in that the food is prepared using traditional Finnish methods (Finnish roots), and that roots, are a common food staple in Finland.
One thing that can’t be missed while visiting Finland is a Sauna experience. As a matter of fact, the word “Sauna” is the most popular Finnish word to make it into the English language. I have quite the Sauna story for you, but you’ll have to read on.
After a few days in Helsinki, I boarded a plane to Rovaniemi, which is located in the northern part of the country. As I mentioned, Rovaniemi is situated in the southern part of the Arctic Circle and is the official headquarters for the “real” Santa Claus. As I made my way to my hotel, named for Ol’ Saint Nick himself, I met five other travel journalists who would be joining me for the “Winter on Wheels” press trip. Two of the journalists were from France, one was from Russia, and, the other two were from Ukraine. The Ukrainian conflict had just begun, so I was fascinated to see how the Russian and the two Ukrainians would interact…ended up, everyone got along swimmingly. As I pointed out earlier in this post, travel continues to be my greatest educator. It’s one thing to listen to news on television; it’s an entirely different perspective when you get it straight from the source. I really enjoy my conversations with my fellow journalists who hail from other parts of the world, it’s fascinating to learn of their heritage and perspective on America.
After getting settled in our hotel, we all headed to a seasonal restaurant called, Snowland, which is an igloo restaurant. Snowland is not just a restaurant, but rather a snow/ice experience. In addition to the dining portion of the evening, there are many sculptures to admire as well as other structures on the property to explore. There is even a fire pit to cozy up to while sipping some Finnish vodka from a glass made of ice. While taking in all the intricate details of Snowland, I glanced at my Russian colleague who had a bemused look on his face…I inferred that he thought it odd how enamored we all were with Snowland, that from his land, this was commonplace. I remarked when I noticed his facial reaction to our excitement and we both had a chuckle.
The next day we walked down the street to Lapland Safaris where we were outfitted with Arctic attire and then boarded a bus en route to a nearby frozen river where an ice track had been set up for our driving pleasure. The excitement level was high, first up were the rally sport cars, which were a pair of souped-up circa 1980s Ford Escorts. Since I was filming for my video, I opted to go last. Our tour guide, along with three of the journalists, were all from cold weather climates—so I fully expected them to be highly proficient on the ice, but what I observed was a high level of trepidation. I actually had to speed up the footage on the video because everyone was going so slowly. I don’t know if it was a false sense of confidence, but when I got buckled into the car, I was off like the wind! I can’t describe how exhilarating it was to push the limits of the car on a slippery surface, while improving precision through the track cones around each lap. After about ninety minutes or so of practice, it was time to race! A timekeeper boarded the car and we had two laps to post our best time. With great enthusiasm, I came in first place. Note: I’m only slightly competitive [insert sarcasm].
Our next event was four-wheeled ATVs along a different track set-up. Coming from the southwest, I have a lot of experience with ATVs, however none of which is on ice. It was a different experience to say the least, but like the rally cars, it was simply a blast. After an hour or so of practice, it was time to race. Again, we had two laps to post our best time. Again, I posted the best time. I absolutely love racing and competitive sporting activities, so for me, I was in my element.
After the ATV race, we headed to a teepee of sorts where some traditional cuisine was prepared. There was a fire in the middle of the structure where we warmed up and enjoyed our Finnish lunch fare and conversed about the morning activities. After lunch, we headed back to the track, this time we were racing some high performance go-carts. These too were so much fun to drive, however the track conditions and performance of the carts proved to be more challenging as traction was hard to come by. There had been a lack of snow the pervious few days and we had pretty much cleared any existing layers with the rally cars, so now it was shear ice. Again, after having some time to practice, it was race time. This time, I came in second place, just behind our local Finnish tour guide.
That evening we headed to Nili, a well-known local restaurant serving some wonderful Lappish cuisine. Lappish ingredients often consist of reindeer, salmon, white fish, various root vegetables and regional berries.
Our next day was a long one, but equally exhilarating…we ventured off on a snowmobiling excursion with the folks from Lapland Safaris. Riding a snowmobile was one of those winter activities on my bucket list, so I was so excited to hop aboard and get started. After our guide provided an overview of the tour and explained some operational and safety procedures, we were off. We left right from downtown Rovaniemi where we rode along the river bank for a short while, then worked our way onto the frozen river where we rode for several miles, eventually veering off onto a snowmobile road system that led us up into the forest. It was so awe-inspiring…the beauty surrounding us was stunning. The way the tree-filled branches were weighted down by snow and the views below were sights to behold. As we gained a bit of separation from one another, we were able to give the snow machines more throttle, just to see how they performed. The power and agility these machines possess was extraordinary…I was so surprised by the precise handling. During stretches on straight-aways, atop smooth frozen rivers, I imagine we must have reached speeds near 70mph.
As we meandered through a network of snow trails we eventually stopped at Northern Gate Safaris for our first break when we had an opportunity to dog sled and ride in a reindeer sleigh, both were also new experiences for me. The husky dogs were so full of energy and genuinely excited by the idea of running. After our sled ride we got to meet some of the dogs and learn more about the sport of mushing.
Adjacent to the dog sled area was a reindeer farm where we took turns riding/navigating a reindeer sleigh. Afterwards, we walked to a structure and sat around a warm fire where we listened to a native cultural story being told by a woman in heritage clothing as she talked about the importance of the reindeer to the Lappish people. We then walked to a traditional Lappish building where we were treated to lunch…which of course consisted of reindeer meat.
Soon after, we were back on our snowmobiles for more of our scenic journey through the forests of Finnish Lapland, far removed from civilization. After a few hours, we arrived at our next destination…a private lodge called; “Bear’s Den” situated along side a river and nestled by nature. At the Bear’s Den we enjoyed a traditional Finnish sauna and tasty dinner among its legendary surroundings. The Bear’s Den became famous by former Finnish President Kekkonen, who hosted such dignitaries as Golda Meir, Leonid Brezhnev and Lady Bird Johnson.
During the sauna portion of the festivities I learned that the activity is performed a bit more modestly in the States. Unbeknownst to me, sauna is not just where you go to sweat, but rather where men go to bond…in the buff. Men casually hang out (figuratively and literally) in an extremely hot room, putting water on the hot rocks and waving towels to circulate the air (with junk in full view!). I was the last one to arrive in the dressing room before entering the Sauna. As I was getting undressed, I was about to put on my swimming trunks, but thankfully, one of the guys came out and I noticed he was not wearing any. I can only imagine how embarrassed I would have been walking in with an article of clothing on. While in the Sauna we drank cold Finnish beers, presumably a healthy way to replenish the fluids that are being lost [insert sarcasm]. After we were sufficiently toasted, we ran down a snowy path (naked mind you…with strangers no less), where conveniently, a hole had been cut out of the frozen river—inviting us to further humiliate ourselves with the additional reduction in our manhood…some know this as, “shrinkage.” Suffice it to say, this form of “Sauna” was a new experience for me. I’m always willing to try something once…twice, if I like it.
After a shower and getting dressed, we made our way to the dining room where we enjoyed a wonderful meal in the incredibly cozy lodge. All-in-all, it was a fantastic day that included, excitement, relaxation and bonding with new friends.
The next day was all about culture as we toured the Arktikum Museum, where the exhibitions take guests on a journey of Finnish Lapland and its Arctic region, while providing a comprehensive look at its history and culture. Another culinary journey followed with an amazing meal at SKY Restaurant, where not only is the local cuisine expertly presented, but the view is pretty spectacular as well.
Next was a trip to the official village headquarters for Khris Kringle, otherwise known as, “Santa Claus.” Visiting the Santa Claus Village is really a special experience, with lots of activities for the kids, and a reminiscent time for the adults. For me personally, Christmas as a kid was a wonderful time and I have many fond memories. Also located within Santa Claus Village is a unique Lappish venue called, Santamus that caters to groups and special events. Santamus is an unforgettable restaurant experience that tempts all the senses. The glow of burning firewood and the sounds of a creek’s water cascading gently over river rocks, create a warm and soothing ambiance.
The next day I parted ways with my fellow travel journalists and boarded a train heading south to the seaside town of Kemi. Kemi has two very popular tourist attractions in the winter…the SnowCastle and the Sampo Icebreaker. Staying in an ice hotel was another winter activity on my bucket list…click here to read all about it and see my video. An icebreaker cruise never even occurred to me before, but let me tell you, it was quite an experience…something not many have ever had the chance to do. I also wrote a separate post and produced a video on my experience, don’t miss it…click here.
After a couple of days in Kemi, I boarded a plane back to Helsinki where I would spend another day before heading to London for my international flight back to the States.
My trip to Finland was simply extraordinary…the activities and experiences have forged memories that will last a lifetime. If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind winter travel experience, you should really consider a trip to Finland. If you’ve ever been to Finland in the winter, please share your experiences and favorite activities by leaving a comment below.
NOTE: If you plan a trip to Helsinki, and you have the time, I would suggest planning a trip to Saint Petersburg, it’s just a short train ride away. I wish I would have had the time myself, but the visa process takes more time than I had when this trip came about.