Reports, reviews, interviews and columns

Travel: My frosty reception in Lapland

I have three excuses for crashing my snowmobile into a tree. 1) I was blinded by the Arctic sun’s glare. 2) I was knackered by a night in an ice hotel. 3) I really like Die Hard films.

I didn’t feel much like John McClane while being detached from the thorny branches of a birch tree by our unimpressed guide Henry. Rather than teach terrorists a lesson I suffered the indignity of spending the rest of the journey on the back of somebody else’s ride.

Hardly the perfect Finnish.

Crashing wasn’t my first Arctic error. That was made four days earlier, back in the relative warmth of London, while packing a suitcase full of supposedly sensible clothes – jeans, sweaters, fleece, scarf and a woolly hat.

It turns out that even the warmest River Island winter coat is as insulating as a string vest at -20 degrees, so I really shouldn’t have bothered packing at all.

The only sensible attire at the top of the world is a heavy-duty thermal jumpsuit, which were promptly handed out by our hosts Arctic Safaris after landing in Rovaniemi – Lapland’s self-proclaimed capital and, according to the sign in customs: ‘The official airport of Santa Claus’.

It’s Christmas every day in the arrivals hall with mistletoe and a plastic reindeers turning the terminal into a theme park.

Don’t tell Al Gore, but glacial growth is actually increasing Finland’s surface area by five square miles a year.

So visitors get ever more pristine scenery to savour – a magical white world of empty acres to the horizon, interrupted by the odd birch tree two-thirds submerged like an iceberg in the snow.

War, not weather, is to blame for Lapland’s surprising lack of forest, which was burned down by the fleeing Germans in 1944 as part of their ‘scorched earth’ policy to delay the Red Army’s advance.

A lack of trees to cock a leg against hasn’t upset the tireless huskies – the only local transport to rival the snowmobile.

These dogs are born to run – the slightest sniff of a stranger enough to make them howl in anticipation at the inevitable walkies to come.

My boys, a pair of dashers named Ural and Troy, strained on their harnesses, back legs digging into the snow while front legs pawed the air, until I released the sled’s foot brake to begin our ten-mile safari through Ulas National Park.

Yelling “Mush! Mush!” helped me feel included, but didn’t cut much ice with Ural and Troy. As far as they were concerned anyone with less than four legs was a third wheel, simply there to hang on and avoid being impaled on tree branches. Again.

Their misgivings were proved correct after a few miles as we slowed to snail’s pace at the back of the field. The dogs looked baffled as their efforts failed to make up any ground.

They hadn’t noticed my heel accidentally slip back on to the foot break. Releasing it sent the fellas flying back into fifth gear but crawling home in last place, their colleagues’ mocking woofs ringing in their ears, had a clear psychological impact on the boys’ self-worth.

Finland’s spectacular scenery really gets a chance to shine at the Lainio snow village ice hotel, located between Levi and Ylläs ski resorts.

Built every December then melted down in May, the hotel guarantees the frostiest of receptions but the warmest of welcomes.

Like Superman’s lair the walls, ceilings, fixtures and fittings – including the beds – are all made from the white stuff, so the indoor temperature stays permanently subzero.

Before packing you off to your personal igloo for the night the hotel provides a mattress, reindeer pelt, thermal sleeping bag and hooded fleece to keep out the cold.

Lying in bed, wrapped up like a chav Eskimo, city dwellers will be stunned by the eerie sound of total silence created by the insulating ice.

The cold and quiet aren’t the only sensory shocks. Slippery surfaces and icy corners abound in this alien environment, so ‘elf ‘n safety dictates that the hotel’s lights remain switched on all night.

Added to the snow’s natural glow, it makes dozing off difficult. I lay in bed for hours counting reindeer jumping over fences.

Two final warnings: don’t keep clothes in your igloo or you’ll need to douse them in anti-freeze to wear them again, and dry your hair after showering or you’ll be sporting a stalactite perm.

A heated dormitory is on hand for those unable to live like a packet of frozen peas.

I finally succumed to central heating at 5am, before nipping outside to catch an all-too-brief glimpse of the legendary Northern Lights – magical displays of swirling blue and green light visible in the night sky up to 200 times a year.

Before my final day’s sleigh ride with Santa’s transport of choice, the only reindeer I’d seen had been the plastic variety at Rovaniemi airport.

My driver, a single-antlered old timer called Topi, avoided flying over rooftops en route to our destination – the iced-over Wilderness Lake near the town of Luvattumaa.

Reindeers are so insulated that they are invisible to infrared cameras and stay warm in temperatures as low as -50. Dear old Topi was such a friendly soul that I almost regretted spending the past four days eating his delicious cousins in all manner of traditional stews.

Topi dropped me off by the side of the lake, giving me the chance to actually walk on water and try my hand at ice fishing.

This involves boring a hole through three feet of ice then sitting patiently on a stool, grasping a tiny plastic rod and waiting for passing herring and rainbow trout to bite.

After an hour without a nibble our host, anticipating our de-fish-encies, called us into his cosy log-fire cabin for a hearty lunch of wild salmon and potato broth.

Despite its frosty location, Finland is officially the sweatiest nation on earth thanks to a ratio of one sauna for every three citizens.

The Finns host – and usually win – the annual Sauna World Championships, in which the competitor who endures heat in excess of 115 degrees fahrenheit the longest is crowned champion.

The world record stands at 16 minutes. My regular respite breaks to cool off from a trifiling 90-degrees wouldn’t have troubled the judges.

Our guide Henry, meanwhile, showed his potential by happily sweating away for more than an hour, before explaining the sauna’s central role in Finnish life: ‘We and our saunas are like a couple in love. They are places where friends and family come to socialise and relax. Without them our national identity would not be as strong.’

• First published at

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About Me

Newspaper editor and publisher with 30-years’ experience at national and local titles in the UK and USA including the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror and Jewish Advocate. Editor of Jewish News (Free Weekly Newspaper of the Year 2021/22) since 2009. Columnist for The Times, Daily Telegraph, New Statesman, Independent and others.


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