Sleigh It Like Santa in Finland

A winter spent in the Finnish Lapland can tick off all childhood dreams, and some grown-up ones too.  
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Silvery pine forests, pink skies, and a snowy landscape as far as the eye can see—Lapland is the quintessential winter wonderland. Photo Courtesy: Jani Kärppä/VisitFinland

When asked to write a short bio, my world-hardened, no-stars-in-her-eyes colleague, L, wrote, “[she] fantasises about a bucket-list journey to witness the aurora borealis someday.” In Finland, there’s more than one way to witness the Northern Lights: lie on a plush bed in a heated glass igloo; don a ‘survival suit’ and float in an icy lake; chase the lights across the sky in a chartered airplane, or on the ground in snowmobiles and husky sleighs; rush down a snowy slope in a glass-roofed cabin on a sledge. Then there’s the least fancy method: dress in your warmest woollens and drive to a spot where the artificial light is at a minimum, and wait for the celestial show to begin. No matter what you choose, in the Finnish Lapland the odds are ever in your favour—the lights are visible for almost 200 nights a year.

It’s March—still winter in Finland. Three days back, I’d landed in Helsinki with a group of five other journalists, and we’d travelled to Levi, a ski town north of the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland. The only thing on our minds was the lights. The aurora borealis is unpredictable. We had not seen the glorious flashes in the two days that we’d been in Levi and uncertainty has kept us on edge. There are, of course, a slew of alert systems designed by tourism boards, handy weathermen and enterprising tour companies. You can sleep soundly after setting a Northern Lights alarm tracker—the lights are best visible close to midnight—or you could go on the hunt on the day of the strongest predictions. We, however, had only one night left in Levi, and a designated tour time—9 p.m.—that is early for the lights to be seen, if it all.

Over a four-course dinner at the Aurora Sky restaurant, I find myself tuning out of a conversation centred around what we might witness tonight, and looking up at the glass roof as if I’d make the lights appear by sheer force of will. As our hosts recount the woes of a group who’d visited Lapland four times and never seen the lights, I choose to let the stars rule. After rushing through a Masterchef-level meal, we layer up and meet our guide, Harri, who would be driving us about half an hour outside town, to ensure no artificial light hampers our viewing. It was -10°C outside but with the wind, felt another 10° less. Temperatures drop to -50°C in peak winter.

Photography instructions are given before we pack ourselves in the car: DSLRs are adjusted to low ISO and long exposure, and phones equipped with an app, aptly called NorthernLights. When the lights are building up, they first appear as white streaks to the naked eye. The camera captures the green.

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As per Finnish legend, the Northern Lights or revontulet are the sparks flying from the tail of an Arctic fox running across the sky. Photo by: Antonyspencer/E+/Getty Images

We stop right outside town to check our camera settings. The photographs are pitch-black but Harri is optimistic. The forecast shows a very high possibility of a flare-up and all we need, he says, is patience and the ability to hold cameras still (in gloveless hands, in the biting cold). After all, mysticism notwithstanding—Finnish folktales say that the aurora borealis, or revontulet (literally, fox fires) are the sparks flying from the tail of an Arctic fox running across the sky—there is a well-studied science to the phenomenon.

We finally stop at a designated parking area by the highway. No artificial light, except from the occasional car passing by. After a couple of test shots, there is the first glimmer of green on my phone screen. Just as our time is up, the sky is streaked with green. It’s not very strong, but enough to have strangers holding hands, cameras long forgotten.

No one speaks on the drive back. We thank Harri profusely before entering the hotel, where the receptionist casually tells us that in case we’re interested, the lights are visible from the back. There’s a stunned silence. And then we run.

Standing at the back of the hotel, we see the aurora borealis light up the sky of Finland’s biggest ski town, artificial lighting be damned. This time, I could see the green with my eyes. I stay a while thinking of the golden rules and alerts, and the science. Then my thoughts go to L. I wish she too could have witnessed this. For under these glorious lights, even the most jaded can melt.

***

‘Winter wonderland’ is a term often used to describe Lapland’s landscape. We’d all seen the photos: cottony pine trees, frozen lakes, colourful huts (usually red and yellow to ward off evil) with sloping roofs buried in fluffy snow. With over 70 per cent of the country covered in forests, and 1,88,000 lakes, the real picture is much better.

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During winter, the steps leading to the Helsinki Cathedral are swathed in an unforgettable white (top); Levi, Finland’s biggest ski town, paints a picture prettier than any storybook (bottom). Photo Courtesy: Janne Suhonen/VisitFinland; Photo Courtesy: Levi Destination Marketing (ski town).

My introduction to the beauty of Finland’s winter landscape was Helsinki. It was snowing when we landed three days ago, and the city was swathed in white. The cold hits you hard here. No matter how much you’ve researched, you aren’t really prepared for temperatures in negatives, especially if you’re from Mumbai like me.

The image of snowy steps of the white-and-gold Helsinki Cathedral was imprinted in my brain. And then, we’d landed in Kittilä, Levi’s closest airport, the next day. The tiny airport, Levi’s town centre, and the drive through silvery forested land in-between were all storybook-like.

Yesterday, our guide Ari—a local who rattled out facts and stories in equal measure—laughed at our chattering teeth and took us to a winter-wear rental store. “In Finland, there is no bad weather. Only bad clothes,” he said, while ensuring we were kitted in warm overalls, jackets, snow-gloves, snow-boots and woollen socks. These were to be worn over thermal underwear, thermal tops and bottoms, a sweater or two, and socks. With scarves. We waddled like penguins all through our two-day stay, but we were warm.

“Wait till you go skiing,” Ari said with a wicked gleam in his eye as I had my first taste of reindeer at the King Crab House. The steaming sautéed meat, served in a bowl with mashed potatoes, lingonberries and pickled gherkins, was lean and surprisingly flavourful. Over lunch, Ari had introduced us to Levi. The centre is at the heart of this town, built to support the 43 ski slopes, 28 ski lifts, and 230 kilometres of cross-country skiing trails surrounding it. Speaking of his childhood in the 1970s in his home 65 kilometres away, Ari told us of dark and long winters without running water and central heating. It changed with an ambitious local municipality’s dream of making the town a tourist hub. Levi Hotel came up in 1981, Kittilä airport—Finland’s fourth busiest now—in 1982. Today, Levi can house 25,000 tourists; Helsinki’s capacity is 18,000. There are karaoke bars (including Finland’s second-largest nightclub), high-end shops, a huge spa, and over 60 registered tour companies that offer everything from snow sports, to watching the aurora borealis. Distance from the city and long winters—the reasons people once avoided Levi—are what brings travellers to the town today.

***

Lunch, and a gondola ride later, high on the Levi fell, I was breathing heavy and my exposed appendages were freezing despite the layers. We discovered it was cold enough for our gadget batteries to drain rapidly and phones to shut down. Our lungs were not accustomed to breathing in a place with the third-cleanest air in the world (as per WHO). My breath fogged up my glasses, quickly turning into a film of ice. Hair not tucked in my cap also wore icicles. Cheeks and nose were frost-bitten. The cold had our blood-pumping and adrenaline soaring. I looked like Rudolph. It was glorious.

Sleigh It Like Santa in Finland

At the Northern Lights Ranch in Levi, the restaurant looks out to a reindeer enclosure (left). Guests can feed them too. The spread here includes a variety of meats, and Lappish cheese with cloudberry jam, a Lapland speciality (right). Photo Courtesy: Northern Lights Ranch/Twelve Video Productions

Later, during our two-hour ski lessons with our instructor Heidi, I was the first one to trip and fall over my skis. I saw kids skiing down baby slopes with far more finesse. Levi, the venue for the annual Alpine Slalom Skiing World Cup every November, was no stranger to such things though. I was far more in my element sipping hot chocolate and roasting marshmallows over a roaring fire-stove at the tiny Café Panorama Laavu. Halfway up Levi fell, it overlooks the town and can barely seat 10 people.

I was happier still at the Northern Lights Ranch devouring platters of meat, root vegetables and Lappish cheese with cloudberry jam for dinner. However, a lot of my more sensitive friends were put off by my Instagram updates. Through the restaurant’s glass walls you can see an enclosure of baby reindeers, while you tuck in reindeer meat. In Finland, it is said that if you’re eating and meeting reindeer, better meet them first. For good reason, I think, because after I’d had my taste of the flavourful meat, their cuteness factor did diminish a little bit.

Dinner was a boisterous affair; our group of six women regaled our very proper Finnish guide with impressions of some not-so-savoury Indian mannerisms. The next morning when Finland was announced as the ‘World’s Happiest Country,’ we felt we’d contributed to the laughter.

***

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At the Elves Hideaway in Levi, you can attend classes at an Elves’ school, meet the Wise Elf, and write letters to Santa. Photo Courtesy: Tontulla Elves Hideaway

There is a lot of joy on offer on our last day in Lapland, even after I’d spotted the aurora borealis. It comes in the form of adorable huskies. We meet them first at the Elves Hideaway park in Levi, and later in the Lapland capital Rovaniemi, Official Home of Santa Claus.

The Elves Hideaway is based on the Finnish legend of the Elf in a Yellow Dress (different from the regular red garb), who ventured into the world opening Finland’s gates to visitors, and later helped protect them from evil by making their village a secret place. The elf dressed in yellow is there to greet us too, and she takes us through a tunnel past snow-covered pines and huts, to the Gingerbread House, the Elfish School and the husky farm.

We get a crash-course in baking (and eating) gingerbread cookies at the Gingerbread House, and sitting in classroom desks at the school, write to Santa—who visits regularly. In the husky enclosure, joyous dogs frolic in snow. To see them in their natural habitat and not panting in air-conditioned city apartments is truly a pleasure.

On our second meeting with the huskies, at Raitola, a husky and reindeer farm close to Rovaniemi, the group is divided into pairs to lead a husky sleigh on a short safari. If their howls are an indication, the six dogs pulling our sleigh are as excited as us. We learn that huskies can run over 60 kilometres a day; it helps burn off their energy. Ours are totally in their element as we sleigh over a frozen lake and through a wintery forest, cold wind slapping our faces. Unlike our excited blue-eyed huskies, the reindeers are gentle, going about a route they know well—perfect for trips with kids.

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While flying reindeers are only meant for Santa, you can go for a short safari with the gentle creatures (top); Husky safaris are an exhilarating way to experience the snow—and the team of blue-eyed dogs will be as excited as you (bottom). Photos Courtesy: Juho Kuva/VisitFinland

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Visitors can cross a latitude at Santa Claus Village—it’s located at the Arctic Circle (top); The special stamps at Santa Claus Post Office (bottom left); Meeting Santa was a childhood dream come true for the writer (bottom right). Photo Courtesy: VisitFinland (Arctic Circle), Photo Courtesy: Lubna Amir (santa), Photo by: Ton Koene/Dinodia Photo Library (stamps)

 

Kids have an even bigger reason to visit Rovaniemi—Santa Claus. I’d spent many Christmas Eve nights of my childhood waiting for Santa, in my Indian home without a chimney. The prospect of meeting the ‘real’ Santa, instead of the one playing dress-up at a mall, is child-me’s dream come true. While Santa’s home is believed to be hidden deep in Finnish Lapland, he has had a base in Rovaniemi since 1985. The city trademarked the Official Home of Santa Claus in 2010 and his office and post office, located right at the Arctic Circle was expanded into a village, a stone’s throw from the airport. Though it’s pretty much always Christmas here, the city sees most of its visitors close to Christmas. Last year 5,00,000 people and letters from around the world came to the city. In fact, since 1985, over 1,80,00,000 letters from 199 countries have reached the post office and Santa Claus sits in his office every day, and reads all the letters. When we meet him, he greets us with “Namaste.”

I realise quickly that for Finns, young and old, Santa Claus is as important, and as real, as the Northern Lights. So when you’re being given a tour of his office—being told that you’re walking over “hot lava;” and shown the Earth’s Rotational Speed Regulator, a two-wheel axle-system going half inside the Earth that Santa uses to slow down time to deliver all presents in a night—you believe. Or at least try to. And definitely don’t make the same faux pas as me. I deeply offend a senior elf by asking if Santa’s beard was real, and if yes, how does he keep it in shape. But, I am also swayed by sentiment enough to send a postcard to my parents. The special Arctic Circle stamp is found nowhere else in the world, after all.

***

Winter weaves magic in Finland. Wide-eyed with wonder, you tick off the boxes—a white winter, a rendezvous with Santa and his elves, and witnessing the mystical Northern Lights. It’s childhood stories and grown-up bucket lists tied with a fairy-tale bow.

 


FIVE WINTER FINDS

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1. Salmon Soup; 2. Cinnamon Buns; 3. Blini; 4. Karelian Pies; 5. Reindeer. Copyright: ©Visit Rovaniemi (Soup), Photo By: Katrinshine/Fotosearch LBRF/Dinodia Photo Library (Karelian Pie), Photo Courtesy: Vastavalo/Taru Rantala/VisitFinland (Cinnamon Bun), Photo By: Lubna Amir (Blinis), Photo Courtesy: Lapland Material Bank/Terhi Tuovinen (Reindeer)

1. Salmon Soup

Dill-flecked, creamy, hearty salmon soup, with chunks of fish and new potatoes is quintessential Finnish comfort food. Thick slices of rye bread—another Finnish staple—slathered with butter are served on the side.

2. Cinnamon Buns and Hot Berry Juice

Though not a local invention, cinnamon buns or korvapuusti are a staple in cafés and bakeries. In winter, there’s nothing better than a warm bun with steaming mixed-berry juice.

3. Blini

Winter is incomplete without savouring Finnish-Russian cuisine. One of the favourites is blini—a thick and fluffy, yeast-raised pancake, which is served with fish roe, sour cream, onions and pickled herring.

4. Karelian Pies

Karjalanpiirakka or Karelian pie originates from the province of Karelia, a region shared between Russia, Finland and Sweden. Made with rye flour and rice, it tastes best when coated with a thick layer of creamy egg butter.

5. Reindeer

With potatoes and lingonberries (whole or in a jam) on the side, the lean meat—a local delicacy—is eaten in various ways: dried, smoked, roasted, barbequed. Or, even on a pizza with blue cheese and mushrooms.

Essentials

Getting There and Visa

Finnair has direct flights from Delhi to Helsinki 4 times a week. From Helsinki, daily flights go to Rovaniemi and Kittilä. Most hotels arrange for airport pick-ups; shuttles to town operate in high season. Indians require a tourist visa for Finland. Application forms along with relevant travel documents can be submitted at a VFS centre. Processing time is 15 working days (vfsglobal.com; single-entry visa Rs6,458)

Stay

Hullu Poro, in the heart of town, is one of Levi’s oldest hotels. Some of its 157 well-appointed rooms have private saunas (hulluporo.fi; doubles from €80/Rs6,800). For some indulgence and great Northern Lights views, the 24 glass igloos with motorised beds at Levin Iglut Golden Crown (leviniglut.net; doubles from €400/Rs34,000) or the 6 sky-view cabins at Northern Lights Ranch (theranch.fi; €275/Rs23,000), are ideal. Book well—even a year—in advance if travelling during peak-season.

Levi and Rovaniemi

Levi’s 43 ski slopes and 28 ski lifts support tourist influx well. Sign up for lessons at Levi Ski School (levi.fi; adults 1.5-hr beginner’s lesson €47/Rs4,000; ski-set rental from €29/Rs2,460 for 3 hr). At Rovaniemi, visit the Santa Claus Village, go on a husky or reindeer sleigh safari and chase the Northern Lights (visitrovaniemi.fi).

The writer went on the Northern Lights tour with Backwood Action (backwoodaction.fi) and visited Raitola for the safaris (raitola.fi; reindeer farm visit from €30/Rs2,550; 1-hr husky sleigh safari from €142/Rs12,000).

Santa and his Elves

Meet Santa at the Santa Claus Village or Office. Though there in no entry fee, everything from a photo with Santa to the special Arctic Circle stamp costs extra. Regular shuttles ply from Rovaniemi airport and city to the village (santaclausvillage.info).

At Tonttula Elves Hideaway in Levi, you can visit the secret village of the elves, and meet the Finnish legend, Elf in a Yellow Dress (lapintonttula.fi; entry €10/Rs850; trip with Elf in a Yellow dress €25/Rs2,100).

  • Lubna Amir is Jr. Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.

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