Tuesday, 7 February 2017

My Lapland & Northern Finland travel guide

It feels like I've been gone ages, but it's actually only been a week. Still, I want to get this little guide to Northern Finland & Lapland up in case any of you have an Arctic holiday planned!
I didn't actually know what to expect when I excitedly signed up for a 6-day stay in Lapland, because I'm more of a beach bar kind of girl than a cold-weather explorer. But I am so happy that I went because I was amazed at just how much there was to do and see. It was a once-in-a-lifetime visit packed full of amazing food, friendly people, and some of the best sights I think I will ever see. So, if you fancy learning a little more then have a read of this...

// How to get there //

 I went with a travel agency called Inghams, and they have a whole heap of deals, plans and holidays in Lapland. Sometimes I prefer to do my own thing and just see what I fancy doing when I get there, but because I know it's quite pricey in Finland, I wanted to get some of my meals and transfers included. So I figured a tour group would give me some nice savings - which it did. They organise flights, transfers and the hotel for you, and then you can pre-book some winter activities in advance through them as well, if you so wish. If you don't want to use an agency, then you can get flights through Finnair. You can fly from London Heathrow to Helsinki (3 hour flight), and then do a quick change and get on another internal flight from Helsinki to Ivalo, a small airport in the heart of Lapland (1.5 hour flight). Not super simple, but you can get direct flights from London with Monarch to another airport called Kitilla and then do a 3-hour coach transfer to where a lot of the hotels in Lapland are (more on this below). I did this on the way out and it was a very pretty journey, and I got to see lots of snowy countryside, so it wasn't boring.

The view from the Holiday Club & spa hotel (not too shabby, eh?!)

// Where to stay //

There are a few choices of hotels, depending on your budget, and I divided my week between two hotels - the first was very affordable, and the second was more of a splash-out. The little town I stayed in when I first got to Lapland is called Saariselka. It has around 200 people living there, which means there's more reindeers than people (an actual fact). Since it's a very tourist-centred town, there are a few hotels dotted around, and mine was called the the Holiday Club & Spa. I wouldn't say it was super luxe, and rooms run from about £68 per night in the winter season (Christmas will be higher). With that you get breakfast too, which is a nice buffet - with a highlight being the make-your-own waffle station! The word 'spa' is a little misleading as well, and I quickly found out that it was little more than a slightly cold jacuzzi and a sauna (which you have to go naked in!). The rooms are a little basic as well, but it's all part of the charm really. I was out doing so many activities anyway, I found I was only really in my room to sleep.

The second hotel I stayed in was a little bit further out of Saariselka (a 20 minute drive), called the Wilderness Hotel Muotka. It was the dream. You can choose to stay in individual log cabins OR for a seriously romantic upgrade, you can book into little northern light huts - fully equipped with glass roofs for you to lie in bed and wait for the Northern Lights. Both the log cabins and huts come with your own private sauna, and again, they do breakfast and dinners buffet style. If you're looking to really splash out then you can get one of the glass roof huts for about £480 extra a night, which really isn't cheap at all. But believe me, it was a once-in-a-lifestime experience lying in bed and looking for shooting stars.

The glass roof hut!
The inside of one of the Northern Lights huts

// The excursions worth paying out on //

There's a whole heap of activities waiting for you in Lapland, and they can really add up, so it's best to work out just what you want to do before you head off. I tried pretty much all of the outdoor activities (I know, keen right?!), so here's what I really found was worth paying out for...

Northern Lights camp or Aurora camp (cost: €95pp)

If you're interested in this, then you can book it through the Muotka lodge (though other hotels
probably do a similar tour). If you really have your heart set on seeing the Northern Lights then your best chance is to get away from all the light pollution and head off into the darkness. This tour lasted a few hours, with a team of wilderness guides picking you up at 8pm and taking you back for about half 10. To get to the camp, you get bundled up under reindeer throws in a 6-seater sleigh and when you get out into the open, they build a fire in a little hut and you wait to see the lights! Marshmallows and hot drinks are included. Be prepared to smell like a log fire for the next few days.

Vroom vroom! 
Snowmobile tour (cost: from €70pp)

This one I did with the first hotel, the Holiday Club & spa, but again - most of the hotels will have a link to a similar tour, if not the same one. It's a 1.5 hour guided tour of the forests and hills around Saariselka, and after a quick introductory lesson, you get to drive your own snowmobile! It's easier than it sounds, and the views are pretty breathtaking. My advice though - wrap up warm. If you think you have enough layers on, then put another one on. They'll give you a thermal suit but I still wore my full ski gear underneath and I was chilly.

Amazing views from the snowmobile tour
Cross country ski lessons (cost: from €40pp)

If you think cross country skiing is boring, then think again. There's actually a lot of skill to it, and I really liked learning how to properly do it. You can get a 1.5 hour group lesson (and longer if you want), and full use of the rental equipment and thermal suits included in the price - and if you want to stay out and practise after your lesson, you can. The atmosphere was lovely, the teacher was hilarious (a Russian man named Dan), and I came away with sore arms, legs and a big sense of accomplishment.

Taking a well deserved break from all that skiing 

// What to eat //

I like to think I'm not a fussy eater, and it was a good thing I wasn't because I tried a lot of interesting food on the trip. Because Finland has so many lakes, you'll find a lot of lake fish on the menu - as well as salmon from the rivers, just a few hours drive from Saariselka. If it's not seafood, then it's meat - and yes, that includes reindeer! I tried it once, but it was served uncooked (pickled, almost) and I didn't like the texture, but the taste was a lot less game-y than you'd think.
 If you see any of these on the menu, then I'd really recommend you give them a go:

* Doughnuts
Fresh-made doughnuts are a big thing in Finland, and they often come heavily sprinkled with sugar. Grab one with a coffee if it's offered to you! (Oh, Finland is also the country with the heaviest coffee consumption in the world!)
* Arctic char
This is a type of red-meat fish, a bit like salmon. It's often served hot-smoked and it tastes amazing!
* Cloudberry
This is a yellow berry used a lot in Finland for jams and sauces. Try some on your morning toast, it's lovely.
*Liquorice
You can't come back from Lapland without picking up a few packets of liquorice. It's so popular up there, and one lady told me that whenever she has a headache, she eats a pack of salted liquorice and it goes away!
*Siika (white lake fish)
Another really nice fish to try is siika. Because there are so many lakes near-by, it's always incredibly fresh and tasty. Usually served grilled with butter and potatoes. Yum.
Hot chocolate
I'm more of a coffee drinker but I found myself drinking mug after mug of hot chocolate when I was away. Not just because I needed warming up, but for some reason it just tastes SO much better than what we make over here. 

Apple pie and cloudberry jam!
That doughnut though!

// Other fun facts //

 - The currency in Finland is the Euro
 - Anything north of the Arctic Circle is referred to as 'Lapland', so it's a pretty big area. A lot of it is  forests and lakes.
-It's rude to ask how many reindeers someone owns in Lapland, as it's a symbol of wealth. Imagine it a bit like asking what someone's wages are over here.
- Saariselka used to be a big party place in the 90s for some strange reason, but now it has just a couple of local pubs which are relatively quiet. 
- You can't buy alcohol in any old shop - you have to go to a special booze shop to pick it up.
- There isn't really a word for 'please' in Finish - instead, they say 'thank you' (kiitos) a lot.

Already missing the snow:(
There's a whole lot of info so I hope I haven't bored you! As always, if you're heading off and have any other questions then just ping them my way in the comment box below.
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