Thursday, April 14, 2016

Snowed under in the Finnish Laplands

We visited the Finnish Laplands during Easter 2016.

All set to break Arctic Ice

Lapland is a paradise for nature lovers. It is a remote Arctic region which technically spreads across Finland, Sweden, Norway, and even some parts of Russia. In this blog, we will be covering the Finnish part only.

Finnish Lapland

Once we decided that we want to explore the Finnish Lapland, it was a bit of challenge to fully understand what the region comprises and how best to cover it in a short time. In a way, there is almost too much information with every small village in the region promoting itself to be the best place to experience Lapland.

To start with, Rovaniemi is the capital of Finnish Lapland. As such, it is the city with maximum flight connections, though most flights will transit via Helsinki. So you will need to fly international to Helsinki, and then local to Rovaniemi. From Rovaniemi, how far you want to travel and where you want to stay will most likely depend on how much time you have? If winter activities are your primary goal, there are many tours and travel companies based in Rovaniemi itself; which offer everything from snowmobile rides, to reindeer sleighs, to frozen lake walks, etc.

So the only real reason you might want to venture further is if you want a totally relaxing holiday in the lap of nature - in some remote Arctic village with very few people around. Having said that, even though Rovaniemi is the capital, it is not a very big city by any standards. The city centre (Bus stop: Aallonkatu) primarily consists of the lake bridge and shopping area which you can easily walk around. Aallonkatu is also the stop from which most tours depart from Rovaniemi.

Rovaniemi city bridge panorama

The only other reason why you might want to stay outside Rovaniemi is to be in a better position to experience the Northern Lights. Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis) is an amazing natural phenomenon to be experienced at least once in your lifetime. Although many Rovaniemi hotels advertise themselves as "Northern Lights" hotels, the chances of seeing Northern Lights are clearly optimized the farther away you are from city lights. In this context, we can recommend the perfect gateway: the Arctic SnowHotel and Glass Igloos (more on that below).

Arctic SnowHotel and Glass Igloos

The Arctic SnowHotel and Glass Igloos is a unique hotel / resort complex - 40 mins drive from Rovaniemi. 

The hotel is located on the shores of lake Lehtoj√§rvi, which is fully frozen in winter. Check out some of the amazing pics of the frozen lake below:

In the midst of nowhere ...
Juggling life
Snow sculptures

The hotel offers 2 types of accommodation- the Snow Hotel and Glass Igloos.

Snow Hotel

The Snow Hotel is an architectural marvel, which is created fresh out of snow every year. It consists of sleeping rooms, a bar, and church (pics below).

Sleeping on ice - Arctic Snow hotel bedroom

As you can guess from the pics above, sleeping in one of the rooms above is definitely more of an adventure; and you are likely not to get the best sleep of your life. You are basically sleeping on hard ice with just a layer of fur in between. The hotel does provide warm clothing, in case you failed to fully comprehend the "coolness" of the situation. The atmosphere also feels very damp because of the all encompassing water / ice. Having said this, it is still definitely an adventure of a lifetime. So our recommendation would be spend may be one night here, and the rest in the more comfortable glass igloos.

Glass Igloos

Glass igloos

As the pic suggests, these are basically wooden cabins which are modeled in the style of igloos. The "glass" part comes from the transparent / translucent roof made of glass. The transparent roofs provide the perfect medium to experience 'Northern Lights' from the comfort of your bed. All the cabins have an attached bathroom and are centrally heated. So they provide the perfect compromise between luxury and ruggedness - you can basically "rough it up" in perfect luxury.

Arctic Ice-breaking Exploration

Embarking on the Arctic icebreaking cruise

For those interested in taking the trip, here is the (link).

As mentioned on the website, Sampo used to be icebreaker for the Finnish government. When it was decommissioned, it was refurbished to be used for tourism. You can find most of the essential tour details on the website, so here let us focus here on our observations.

- Yes, we saw the ship breaking Arctic Ice. The experience (and the sound of ice breaking) was pretty amazing to say the least. However, many people on TripAdvisor have complained that they did not get to experience this on their respective tours. Please note that a lot of tours in such remote places are heavily dependent on weather conditions, not just on that day, but the days before - so yes, there is a high probability that you might not get to experience the actual "ice breaking" part - but then that is life!!

- It is a day trip (8 hours) from Rovaniemi.  So yes, you can take it while staying at a hotel in Rovaniemi - you do not need to stay at a hotel in Kemi. Of the 8 hours, you will spend about half the time on the ship - the rest is travel time. If you take the tour from Rovaniemi, then there is first a brief stop at Kemi, where you will have about 30 minutes to explore the Snow Palace (pics below). And, then you will be driven to the port of Ajos, where the ship is docked.

While returning, the bus drops you directly at Rovaniemi (from Ajos) without any stops in between. It will usually be late evening by the time you reach Rovaniemi, so make sure that you have pre-arranged transportation to reach your hotel from the bus stop. While Rovaniemi is "perfectly safe" at night, public transportation including taxis are not very frequent or easy to find. Hence, the advise to pre-arrange your return transportation to the hotel.
The bus has 2 stops in Rovaniemi; if you are not sure which is the closest to your hotel? - opt for 'Aallonkatu' - which as explained above is smack in the middle of the city centre - so it should be easier to find some sort of transportation there (even if you haven't pre-arranged anything).

- During the cruise, the ship stops on a frozen lake; where you are allowed to disembark. The feeling is surreal with nothing but ice all around - check out the pic at the top of the blog. It is completely "white", whichever way you look.

This is also where the famed "swimming in arctic waters" takes place. Now, it is very difficult to predict whether you will like it or not. You are basically given a floating suit which allows you to swim / float on the water. The activity seemed perfectly safe. The tricky part seemed to be in getting in and out of water, where you have to follow a very specific procedure to account for the inflated suit.

Santa Claus Village

The final (and probably the most important reason if you have kids) reason to visit Rovaniemi - is to visit the Santa Claus village. Yes, you heard it right; Santa Claus lives here. Every year during Christmas, he starts from here to deliver gifts to kids all over the world. The rest of the year he works in his office here arranging those gifts.

So yes, if you visit the village, you can meet Santa Claus!! We had to stand in a queue for about 15 minutes to meet Santa; but you can easily expect that to stretch to hours if you are planning to meet Santa during the Christmas / New Year period. They also have an internet TV station where your meeting with Santa will be streamed live - so you can ask your family members to be prepared beforehand - you are going to be a celebrity :)

The village is a 40 minute drive from Rovaniemi, and can be easily reached by public transport. The village is a full resort with hotels and facilities for all different types of activities including theaters, shops, reindeer sledges, etc. So you can also choose to stay here instead of Rovaniemi centre. The village is actually very close to the airport.

Magical Santa Claus village