There’s more to Lapland than men masquerading as Santa. We find snowloads of adrenaline-pumping action in northern Finland. Words by CATHY WINSTON.
Say Lapland, and all you hear is Santa, Santa, Santa. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s all family breaks and overcharging for children to sit on a stranger’s knee. But whether it’s before Christmas or after Mr Claus hangs up his red suit for the year, there’s far more to discover in northernmost Finland. And most of it’s guaranteed to get your pulse racing.
Which is why I rock up to Lapland with one thing in mind: action. I’ve got a tick-list of things to try: there’s adrenaline-fuelled snowmobiling through the countryside, ice karting – think kamikaze go-karting – plus skiing and snowboarding on the guaranteed powder between November and April.
The slopes in Lapland are far less busy than the more popular European Alpine resorts, so as a novice it’s perfect for my first nervous outings, especially as the patient Finnish instructors talking me through the basics are fluent English-speakers. But for more experienced skiers, there are black runs and World Championship-standard slopes to challenge your skills, too.
And with just an hour separating the country’s two main resorts – the quieter traditional Ylläs, with its two villages of Äkäslompolo and Ylläsjärvi on either side of the mountain, and the more buzzing, busier Levi – I’m able to try them all, armed with an obligatory wardrobe of thermals.
When everywhere’s a foot deep in snow, the only real way to explore is behind the controls of a snowmobile. Not too different from driving a motorbike, apart from having significantly more grip on ice, the machines have skis at the front, a wheel at the back and very simple controls – two levers to brake and accelerate.
As I rev the throttle, I get a bit overexcited and hit a good 75kmph before a sharp corner slows me down. (It’s only later that I discover there’s a 60kmph snowmobile speed limit – woops.) We race through the frozen landscape along a 36km loop of track around Levi, then end at the ice hotel at Luvattumaa, complete with ice chapel for anyone keen to get married in a thermal wedding dress. I opt for a warming vodka from an ice-carved glass instead.
Having got a taste for speeding through the snow, I try a spot of dog-sledding next. The huskies strain at the leash, flinging themselves bodily into the air as their frenzied barks drown out every noise, desperate to start running. As soon as the brakes are off the sled, the sheer speed at which I’m travelling fills my ears with the whooshing of wind and the sound of paws crunching on snow.
It could easily be a scene out of Narnia, with the dogs pulling my old-fashioned wooden sleigh through the Arctic wilderness, past fairytale snow-dusted pine trees. Until one of the team of five decides to lighten his bodyweight a little, all over the pristine white expanse. They wouldn’t have stood for that in Narnia.
“Don’t bother yelling ‘mush, mush’, that’s just a Hollywood invention,” says Maria, the owner at Husky Super Safaris in Köngäs, Finnish Lapland, shattering all my husky-driving illusions. But as the dogs bound joyfully through the forest, I doubt they could go much faster whatever I choose to shout. Besides, with the wind whipping my breath away as we speed along, I’m just grateful for my huge and cosy snowsuit in the sub-zero temperatures.
All too soon it’s over, and with the good-natured huskies rolling ecstatically in the snow to cool down, I try to work out whether I can persuade anyone to let me take one of their ludicrously cute puppies home. The answer? Yes, if I’m happy to hand over €1000 (about £850).
Tired, but not yet beaten, I head for some ice karting at All Wild Adventures in Levi to discover just what go-karting without any gripping power is like. After a few hilarious practice circuits to get used to slithering around slick icy corners and along the slippery straights, I put my foot flat to the floor, and promptly spin off into a snow drift.
Fortunately, Lapland has saunas galore to defrost in – followed by a roll in the snow if you want to get your heart-rate back up again. But while it might be Finnish fashion to strip off entirely, I decide there’s been quite enough excitement for one trip.
Finnair flies from Heathrow to Kittilä Airport via Helsinki, with return tickets from £208. (finnair.com)
WHERE TO EAT
There are two branches of Julli’s in both Äkäslompolo and Ylläsjärvi, on either side of the slopes in Ylläs. As well as traditional dishes on the menu, there are pizzas and burgers for about £9 if you’re simply looking to refuel after a day in the snow. Great for a cheeky drink too. (jullis.com)
With its fairylit trees outside and wooden beams inside, Poro restaurant in Ylläs hits the spot whether you’re looking for a romantic evening meal or a cosy traditional Finnish spread. Start with the fabulous creamy salmon soup before trying reindeer with sweetly sour lingonberries. (lappvillage.fi/en_restaurant.html)
Restaurant Pihvipirtti, aka The Steakhouse, in Levi might not have the most inspired name but the fantastic food easily makes up for that. There’s a starter fish buffet, with more ways to pickle a herring than you thought possible, followed by three choices of steak, including reindeer. (hulluporo.fi/poro/esivu)
WHERE TO DRINK
Levi’s nightlife hub is the Crazy Reindeer Hotel. As well as beer for the relatively cheap price (for Finland) of about a fiver, there’s a new pub opening there this season, the Rock Café Wanha Hullu Poro, plus live music at weekends – even if you’re unlikely to recognise most of the acts! (hulluporo.fi)
The Finns love their karaoke – and take it very seriously indeed, in case you’re planning to join in. Ihku Bar, on Levi’s main street, stays open until four in the morning from Thursday to Saturday. There’s also live music and stand-up comedy on some nights. (ihkubar.fi)
If you’re looking to party the night away, Ylläs isn’t the most buzzing area. Most bars dotted around the villages are attached to restaurants so if you’re looking to drink and dance, head to the nightclub at the Akäs Hotel in Äkäslompolo – a beer will set you back about £7.50.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Finland’s not a bargain destination, but checking into an apartment rather than a hotel can cut costs. The Äkäs Alp Apartments just outside Äkäslompolo in Ylläs each have a mini-sauna and cost from £359 for seven nights with Inghams (inghams.co.uk). You’re also on the free ski bus route.
The Levitunturi Spa Hotel is walking distance from the slopes as well as Levi’s shops and restaurants. Rooms are split among 10 buildings and cost from about £110pn based on two sharing. There are saunas attached to some of the rooms, and the spa complex is free to guests. (hotellilevitunturi.fi/en)
For an unforgettably romantic stay, the secluded Golden Crown igloos outside Levi are perfect. The heated glass of the igloo walls and furry rugs to snuggle under mean they’re ultra-cosy and perfect for gazing up at the stars or spotting the Northern lights. The igloos cost from £220pn.