Stylist’s travel editor Lizzie Pook discovers solo travel is no longer the preserve of boozy backpackers on a bucket-list trip to the wilds of Finland.
Some people love being near-naked in front of relative strangers. Small children and embarrassing uncles on Mediterranean package holidays, for example.
I, on the other hand, am more of a towel-up-to-the armpits kind of holidaymaker. Funny, then, that I should find myself in just my swimming costume, surrounded by people I met only 24 hours ago, in a metre-deep pile of snow.
I’m high above the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland – a place where icicles dangle from the branches of pine trees, the northern lights waft across the night sky and temperatures can plummet to a teeth-chattering -30 degrees. So far, so spectacular. But there’s something slightly different about this trip.
I’m travelling with Flash Pack, a company that organises journeys for small groups of solo travellers in their 30s and 40s, sending them on action-packed adventures through jungles, mountains and deserts. The trips are designed to take people out of their comfort zones and introduce them to like-minded friends (while also delivering them the holiday of a lifetime) and I’ve already been impressed with how seamlessly everything has been put together – from the airport transfers and activities to a WhatsApp group so people can get to know one another before they travel.
My particular itinerary promises adventures galore: husky sledding, snowmobiling and snowy sauna circuits. And the latter is precisely why I, along with six other ‘Flashpackers’, am standing shivering in my swimwear, having just stepped out of a lovely toasty sauna.
Our guide Val gives the signal and we pick our way down to the lake, on tiptoes with clenched fists in the bitingly cold snow. Taking a gulp of freezing air, I grip the railings and lower myself quickly into the water (which is hard, given it’s an icy two degrees). Immediately, the breath is sucked from my lungs and my skin burns from the intense cold. But the group, who were just names to me a day ago, yell words of encouragement, and when I emerge after a (decent, I think) 40 seconds in the water, the camaraderie between us feels like we’ve been friends forever.
We warm up back at our accommodation in Torassieppi village, a snow-slathered collection of traditional wooden cabins set on the banks of a frozen lake next to a reindeer farm (could it be any more Finnish?). As well as these communal cabins (I’m sharing a place with two other Flashpackers; single rooms can be booked for a supplement), you’ll also find ‘aurora domes’ scattered throughout the forest here.
With one entirely transparent wall, the igloo-shaped domes are designed to offer views of the northern lights from your bed. Although the lights weren’t playing ball on this particular trip, I’m sure watching them dance like skeins of silk as the fire crackles beside you is all sorts of magical.
Not that the lack of aurora is fazing my group of Flashpackers (five women and two men, which is the average ratio for a Flash Pack trip), and with every passing activity our bond grows stronger. As we muster huskies together – the gentle tug of the dogs on the sled the only sound in the silent forest – we crease with laughter if one of us topples over into the snow.
When we take a break from snowmobile expeditions – after motoring across vast frozen lakes and winding our way up snow-burled mountains – we huddle together, grinning, to shelter from the cold. At night, over dinners of Arctic char, beetroot patties and rosehip pavlova, we discuss all sorts of subjects – from grief to unrequited love – and retire to our shared cabins for mugs of wine and lots of laughter. It feels really exciting to be among people who throw themselves so fully into new experiences, and I start to question why I’ve not joined a trip like this before.
That said, I’m fairly used to travelling alone (as a travel journalist it kind of comes with the territory), but I am very aware of how alien and daunting it can be. Flash Pack is changing all that. Their trips attract the sort of people who want to get under the skin of a new country, who want to meet new friends without the hassle of imposingly large groups, but who are so busy at work that they don’t have time to organise everything for themselves.
Travelling in this way is also ideal if your friends have used up all their holiday allowance or even if your partner simply hates the sort of holidays you like to go on (20% of Flash Pack’s guests are married or in a relationship).
Our final night is spent in Torassieppi’s bar which, fittingly, has been hewn entirely from blocks of ice. Its walls are covered in hand-carved depictions of goddesses and trolls, and drinks slide slowly off the slick ice tabletops. In bulky snowsuits and bobble hats we knock back shots of Finnish brandy (ouch) and toast the adventure we’ve just shared together. As the snow falls outside, I smile, the brandy warming my stomach.
Travelling with a group of solos has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. And given we’re already planning our reunion, I think the others agree.
Flash Pack’s four-day Winter Finland trip costs from £1,499 per person, including all food, soft drinks and activities but excluding flights; flashpack.com