Finnish Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland, has vast open spaces, rounded fells (hills), big skies and air that’s said to be purest in Europe. The region, split in two by the Arctic Circle, occupies 30% of the country, yet it’s home to only 3% of its inhabitants. (The population of Lapland is around 185,000 – with 200,000 reindeer).
Compared to summer, when there are around 70 days when the sun never sets, in winter there are 50 days when it never gets above the horizon. Temperatures plummet to as low as -40 degrees Celsius.
But if you can bear the cold, the snow-laden landscape is bewitching. Days aren't pitch black either. Instead, skies are awash with pink, gold and violet. Time to enter the twilight zone...
Where to Stay
If you want to experience the wilderness without travelling miles, base yourself in the region of Enontekio, 200 miles northwest of the Lappish capital Rovaniemi.
In the region's main village, also called Enontekio or Hetta, you’ll find Hetan Majatalo (hetan-majatalo.fi, above) a small, traditional hotel. Established in the 1920s, it's been in the same family for four generations.
Rooms at Hetan Majatalo
Rooms are simply-furnished with the feel of small log cabins. Some have lofts and skylights which overlook the fells. The manager, Tiina Vuontisjarvi, whose great grandfather built Majatalo, is incredibly friendly and speaks good English.
The hotel's traditional Lappish hut
The hotel has a sauna, fitness room and a traditional Lappish hut (kota) where people can gather round the fire and fry sausages.
A hiking trail leading through the snow
Behind the main building, a hiking path leads towards Uyppyra hill. There’s also a cross country ski trail which links to the region’s network of 100km of maintained ski routes.
Know before you go
- If you take part in outdoor activities you’re likely to be provided with thermal boiler suits and suitable footwear. But always check first
- You need a full driving licence to hire a snow mobile. Helmets are compulsory (except for reindeer herders)
- Never ask a reindeer herder how many animals he has. It’s like asking him how much he earns and is considered extremely rude. At best he’ll say “one reindeer, either side of the tree”, i.e. I own at least two (but probably a lot more)
Food and Drink
Minced reindeer steaks with whitefish and mashed potatoes
Vegetarians beware - reindeer is the staple diet here. Eaten almost every day and in every way, it’s regularly minced, smoked, sauteed and fried. Hetan Majatalo serves minced liver steaks with lingonberry sauce together with (siika) whitefish and mashed potatoes.
Café Silya just down the road has made reindeer burgers its speciality. They come in sweet buns with loads of mayonnaise and are really tasty.
Had your fill of reindeer? Try salmon, whitefish or trout. There’s willow grouse too. It may feature on Enontekio’s flag but it’s still eaten on special occasions. As one Lappish Finn said, “we’re not sentimental here.”
Lapponia with cheesecake
As for fruit, it’s all about berries, particularly cloudberries. The locals, an industrious lot, pick them by the kilo use them to make jams, sauces, toppings and desserts. They're a great source of Vitamin C.
There’s also Lapponia, a cloudberry liqueur. Drink it neat, add it to sparkling wine (dropping a few berries in for good measure) or mix it with vodka.
Sparkling wine with Lapponia
If you prefer pastries, try cinnamon-flavoured korvapuusti or “slapped ears”, although even after a few cloudberry shots it’s difficult to see the resemblance to ears (slapped or not). But no matter. They still taste gorgeous.
In the run up to Christmas, Finns traditionally serve cinnamon buns topped with gingerbread stars. They’re eaten as they are, or (surprise!) with cloudberry jam. There’s even a Cinnamon Bun Day (October 4th) when the pastries are celebrated - no doubt to the delight of bakeries – across the country.
What to wear
- When winter temperatures drop to -30, you stop worrying what you look like. The streets are full of Michelin Men-style apparel. This isn’t about style - it's about keeping warm
- The key is layering. Wear good thermals, a mid-layer (e.g. long sleeved sports top), outer layer (e.g. fleece) then a ski jacket or equivalent
- Waterproof hiking boots/trainers are fine for pavements or pathways but if you try to cut across snow you’ll probably sink in up to your calves
- Most Finns dress very casually, even at dinner, so you probably won’t need that LBD unless you feel absolutely lost without it
Things to see and do
Anyone for mushing huskies?
There are lots of wintry activities to add to the excitement of exploring this remote winter wonderland.
• Try your hand mushing huskies. Balance behind the sledge, give the command and you’re off. Afterwards, drink hot juice in a teepee and cuddle a three day old puppy. hettahuskies.com
Reindeer safari, here we come...
• Snuggle into a sledge and head off on a reindeer safari. It’s a wonderfully peaceful experience until your beast breaks into a trot and you’re hurtling downhill. torassieppi.fi
• For the ultimate adrenalin rush, how about crossing a frozen lake in a snowmobile? Dare you go 60km an hour? Make sure you feel in control first. It takes some getting used to, especially in fresh snow. (make sure you ask to be shown the switch for the heated handlebars) hettasafaris.com
• For those who’d prefer to focus on culture, the Fell Lapland Nature centre in Enontekio (outdoors.fi) has several interesting exhibitions on the life of the indigenous Sami people. You can learn about their traditional dress and peek inside a teepee.
Spend the night in a traditional Lappish hut
• For a typical wilderness experience, spend an evening round a crackling log fire in a Lappish hut in the middle of a secluded forest. Listen to one of indigenous Sami people sing you a joiku (traditional song) and keep your eye out for the spectacular Northern Lights. harriniva.fi/en/
Souvenirs to buy
Traditional Sami drums
Souvenir shops offer a surprisingly wide range of gifts but if you're looking for a typical keepsake, here are a few suggestions:
- Kuska, traditional-style Sami cups, typically carved out of birch. Samis carry the cups with them, using them for coffee or food. When they're done, they rinse them out with snow
Silverware and jewellery
- A copy of a traditional Sami drum, or rune drum, used by shamans in special ceremonies
- Silverware and jewellery. Raimo Korkalo at Hetta silver (hettasilver.com) makes pieces inspired by Sami customs and culture. Ask him to show you how it's done. Circular designs represent the sun – something that's hugely valued in a region where it's not seen for up to 50 days a year
Words and photos: Karen Bowerman