Not just for Christmas: 10 reasons to hit Finnish Lapland
A trip to Finnish Lapland to see Santa Claus, his reindeer and the elves is the stuff of childhood dreams. The irony is, you’ll probably enjoy it even more as an adult.
When the Yuletide bubbly has fizzled out and those rich, childish imaginings fade, this Arctic region that caps the northern part of the Scandinavian Peninsula offers a wintry, European experience that’ll provide enough tales for many a future Christmas dinner.
There's gold in them there Lapland river valleys. It was first discovered in the Ivalojoki river valley in 1868, prompting a mini-gold rush.
But there's still a little to be found by lucky and/or determined prospectors.
When the rivers thaw, locals and tourists alike get panning, hoping to come upon a life-changing nugget.
A 251-gram nugget was once found in the Miessijoki river, but many tourists head for the museum at the Tankavaara Gold Village, where the Finnish Open Goldpanning competition takes place every July and visitors can pan for gold all year round.
2. Lip-licking Lappish food
Fans of Rudolph look away now -- reindeer features heavily in the local cuisine.
It's fat free, healthy and wonderfully gamey, but if eating one of Santa's beloved sleigh-pullers is a step too far, there are plenty of other Lappish delicacies to explore.
There’s reindeer food (lichen), which, when dried, makes a light, crisp garnish for all kinds of arctic fish, baby root vegetables, herbs, berries and even licorice.
For a full expression of local flavors with a modern twist there's Lapland Hotel Sky Ounasvaara's restaurant in Rovaniemi, where TV chef Tero Mantykangas pushes the boundaries of an ancient cuisine.
3. Gorgeous lakes filled with fish
Lapland is home to hundreds of lakes, the biggest of which is Lake Inari, in the far north, which covers more than 1,000 square kilometers.
Even when the lakes are frozen, Lappish fishermen can be found with their ice fishing augers drilling through the ice by hand to catch pike, perch, rainbow trout and whitefish.
Ice fishing safaris are available to tourists, which often include scooting off to a frozen lake by snowmobile.
There's often more chance of catching a cold than a fish, though, so warm clothes are recommended.
Grayling Land offers ice fishing safaris from October to May.
4. Wildlife (and the not-so-wild life)
There are wolves, wolverines and brown bears roaming around the wilderness of Finnish Lapland. So it's a good idea to whistle while you're exploring to let them know you're coming.
Locals have the right to hunt small numbers of these beasts without a special permit. Many keep herds of reindeer, which often fall prey to such predators.
Luckily, there are some 200,000 reindeer in Lapland -- and only 180,000 people.
Huskies and white Samoyed were brought in from Siberia too, as working dogs to pull sleds. These days they pull tourists, but it gets them out of their kennels.
Nordic Visitor provide dogsled tours and other activities in Finnish Lapland.
5. Brag-worthy winter sports
There's nothing you can do in Val D'Isere or St. Moritz that you can't do in the ski resorts of Lapland.
There's downhill, cross-country and freestyle skiing and snowboarding, you can walk the forest trails with snowshoes or have your face whipped by the fresh mountain air courtesy a snowmobile.
6. Aurora borealis
Since most of Lapland is situated within the Arctic Circle, it's an ideal spot to watch the northern lights. According to ancient legend, an arctic fox, whose swishing tail sends sparkling lights into the sky, creates the aurora borealis.
Dancing displays of green, red and blue lights can be seen on clear, dark nights when conditions are right.
Authentic Scandinavia offers tours specifically for viewing the lights.
7. Sami culture
Not many places in Europe still have a thriving community of indigenous people.
The Sami originated in the Sapmi region of Lapland -- a far-northern area comprising parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia -- making them Europe's northernmost indigenous people.
There are thought to be just under 10,000 Sami living in Finnish Lapland and you can learn about their culture, customs, costumes and languages at the Arktikum museum and science center in Rovaniemi.
8. Awesome art and architecture
Lapland isn't all lakes, forests and wilderness. Rovaniemi, the “capital city” and gateway to the region, is a busy urban center packed with modern buildings, from the functional to the fascinating.
Ninety percent of the old town was destroyed in World War II, but a redesign was led by famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.
The new town plan followed a reindeer antler plan, and today's Rovaniemi features many meticulously designed, environmentally friendly buildings that have inspired architects all over the world.
One building that survived the war is a 1930s mail truck depot, which has been converted into the Korundi House of Culture.
This is where Rovaniemi's heart turns into art, with exhibitions of local artists and a small but perfectly formed concert hall, playing host to the Lapland Chamber Orchestra
9. Forests and huts
The great swathes of birch, pine and spruce trees in Finnish Lapland are vitally important to the local economy.
Exploring the forest is a Finnish Laplander's favorite pastime. A network of open wilderness wood huts stretches across the national parks of the area (www.outdoors.fi/Huts).
Many have provisions for a campfire and are free to use for a night while you trek through the forest trails.
Like many buildings in Lapland the huts are made of wood, which is one reason sustainable forestry is so important to the region.
Visitors can learn more about Nordic forests at the beautiful wooden Pilke Science Centre in Rovaniemi.
10. Real saunas
There's an old saying in Finnish Lapland: "If it's a cold sauna, it's a Swedish sauna."
Sauna has a very special place in the hearts of the local people, to the point of fierce rivalry. A real Finnish sauna is insanely hot, can last for hours and is most commonly enjoyed completely nude.
Locals meet in saunas, relax in saunas and some even give birth in saunas. They thrash each other with birch twigs in saunas.
They jump into frozen lakes after saunas. There are electric saunas, hot stone saunas, smoke saunas and even an ice sauna at the Arctic Snow Hotel in Rovaniemi.
Just be careful to pronounce it right (“sow-na”) or they might lock you in a sauna.
Reach the Finnish capital Helsinki with Finnair and fly onwards to Rovaniemi. There are some direct flights to Rovaniemi from some European airports.
VR (Finnish Railways) runs splendid double-deck overnight sleeper trains, with comfortable compartments, free Wi-Fi and a superb restaurant car, from Helsinki to Rovaniemi.
Stay there: Rovaniemi is the gateway to Finnish Lapland, so Lapland Hotel Sky Ounasvaara, on a mountain overlooking the town, makes for a great base to go exploring. Lapland Hotels also has properties in resorts around the region, from Levi to Luosto.