On the off-chance that the presence of Christmas is not enough to keep you in high spirits throughout December, you might want to consider a week away. The southern hemisphere is too far to go chasing the heat, so go north and embrace the season. Rain turns to snow and the lights arrive to illuminate the darkness, not from electricity, but from the sky in the form of aurora borealis. The festivities are even more palpable here, after all you are in Santa’s homeland. Not the North Pole. The other one.
A couple of things to note before you embark on a trip to Finland in the winter time: Firstly, it’s cold. Not the Gibraltarian ‘cold that gets to your bones’ that your grandmother warned you about. Actually cold. Secondly, it’s dark. If you nip above the Arctic Circle you won’t see the sun at all, and even in the south it struggles in its plight to climb above the rooftops before giving up after a couple of hours and taking refuge beyond the horizon. Just embrace these factors as a novel experience, safe in the knowledge you won’t have to endure them for a full winter. It’s part of the fun.
Suomenlinna, commonly referred to as ‘The Gibraltar of the North’.
Capital cities are the standard starting point for any trip, but Helsinki in the winter can often be caught in the grey area between winter wonderland and frozen netherworld. To make the most of it, catch a proper Christmas market in the aptly named Market Square or slap on some snowshoes and take a trek out of the city with one of the local companies. When it all becomes too much, you can strip off and get your first taste of a Finnish sauna, of which there are many dotted about the city. Take a day to walk around and absorb all the sights you might expect to see in a capital: churches, monuments and whatnot, but let’s be honest, you’ve come here to soak up nature in all its wintry glory, so you’ll want to be heading north soon. Before you skate away from the sun, it would be rude (and inadvisable) to miss out on a trip to Suomenlinna, commonly referred to as ‘The Gibraltar of the North’. Once a great island fortress, the area serves mostly as a tourist destination stuck in old times with few new buildings or cars in sight. Nice for a picnic in the summer, better to stick to the cafes in the winter.
A trip to the east provides a contrasting view of what you might expect to find in other Nordic countries; a sprawling mass of lakes and rolling hills makes for a scenic change from the rugged mountains that Finland’s neighbours are famous for. Choose from a plethora of lakeside resorts and spend your days building snowmen until your fingers turn blue, before retreating to the, now familiar, sauna. Indulge in something that, until recently, was only undertaken by the older generation; ice dipping is having somewhat of a renaissance, with the youth of today considering the act more of a kick start to the day rather than a display of machismo. After a few minutes of tentative toe dipping, you’ll realise the time for now or never has arrived. The icy water encompasses all as breath is robbed from your lungs and the feeling in your legs momentarily vanishes, but upon exit, your circulation pumps back into action and you begin to feel a new lease of life, ready for the day ahead. An activity quite literally not for the faint hearted…
An activity quite literally not for the faint hearted…
For a more traditional winter day out, head to the Koli National Park, where there are a couple of ski resorts to get the heat back in you again after your questionable decision to jump in a Finnish lake in mid-winter. What were you thinking? The slopes offer panoramic views beyond the snow-capped woodland pines and over lake Pielinen.
Now you’ve spent a few days here, a week maybe – you’ve seen Helsinki and the other Gibraltar, you’ve been to see some lakes and wilderness – but think back to why you came. Of course. You’ve been so stupid to delay this any further. It’s time to visit a land of beauty, where dreams are born, a land exploited by consumerism, a land offering its name as an easy way out for a winter-themed strip club manager looking to rebrand.
Lapland, bereft of architectural history thanks to the punishment of switching sides during WWII, has tourists flocking to the area year-round. If you’re driving up here, you’ll want to take all the necessary precautions associated with ice and snow, but there’s one more thing standing between you and your destination. Officially a bilingual country (Finnish and Swedish) road signs and street names, unlike in the south and west of the country, almost always appear in Finnish only. Despite this, Google Maps likes to flip a virtual coin as to which language to use, so look up both names, or you may as well throw your smartphone out of the window.
Rovaniemi is the number one place on everyone’s list. Speaking of lists, this is the stop to get to Santa Claus Village, hosting Santa’s official post office, bustling with angry five-year-olds enquiring as to the whereabouts of their Tamagotchi. There are other things to do here, such as take the kids sledding, and at this time of year there are beautifully lit ice sculptures all over the village. You’ll also finally have the opportunity to meet the real Father Christmas to reignite a belief you may have lost along the way. Stereotypical arctic activities are available from here: ice fishing, taking a ride on a snowmobile or husky sleigh etc. But, unless you are there for Christmas Eve/Day (presumably they are busy over this period) you can ride in a sleigh pulled along by Dasher and Vixen themselves.
Rent glass-roofed pods and watch the sky light up all night long.
As a day trip, or longer if you’d prefer, you can visit Kemi, which hosts the world’s largest snow-castle. You can walk around the structure, complete with restaurant, hotel, and ice art exhibitions. If you can’t think of a more romantic setting, there’s even an ice chapel where you can bind yourself to your significant other for life. The other reason to visit Kemi is to undertake the unique opportunity to smash through the sea ice on a polar exploration experience. If you passed up the previous opportunity to dip your naked body into the water of a frozen lake, you are now presented with an alternative one. The crew onboard the Sampo provide dry suits for you to float around in the boats wake in relative comfort. It’s also a great opportunity to get a photo of yourself standing on the ice in front of the boat. Don’t worry, it’s safe… they tell us.
By now you should have had ample opportunity to spot radiant colours in the dark sky caused by solar wind, if not, have one more crack at going further north. Another unique opportunity presents itself at the Kakslauttanen resort, where you can rent expensive glass-roofed pods dotted throughout the snow-covered forest and watch the sky light up all night long. Once you’ve tired of the lights, the town of Saariselkä is another place to get your winter sports on, such as skiing and snowmobiling. The slopes in Finland are relatively small, so this is also a great place to try cross-country skiing. This is also the site to try your hand at some extreme tobogganing from the summit of Kaunispää and down the 1.2km run. You have to bring your own toboggan, but your hotel should be able to lend you one. Hold on tight!
To experience winter – and by extension Christmas – in all its glory, this trip really is an unparalleled experience. You’ll set off on your travels back to Gibraltar with a renewed appreciation of the festivities that await you that evening. Keep one eye out of the plane window and your ears on alert for the flying sleigh as you speed down the runway like the down of a thistle. You might hear him exclaim as he drives out of sight:
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!