An Arctic adventure in Finnish Lapland
From snowmobile safaris to cross-country skiing, there’s more to Lapland than a trip to see Santa
After another mild and snowless Christmas for most of the UK, there’s still time to book in a belated festive break in a more reliable winter wonderland.
In northern Finland – a vast expanse of frozen lakes, snowbound cabins and endless Arctic forest – you can bank on a proper winter whiteout from the beginning of November until the end of March.
Why come here?
The first and most obvious reason is that Finnish Lapland is sensationally beautiful. Five times the size of Wales yet home to just 180,000 people, it is profoundly empty and unspoiled.
Even a suburban street is an adventure in the northern winter. Stroll between cosily lit homes and you will hear little more than the quiet crump of snow beneath your feet. Venture a little further, on the network of off-road footpaths or ski routes, and you’re in for a visceral blast of icy solitude.
You will need to be equipped for the weather and prepared for the darkness, but that’s part of the experience. The physical extremity of the Arctic is invigorating in itself – and the perfect justification for long evenings spent with a restorative mug of hot chocolate by a log fire.
What to do
Though it may be best known as a pre-Christmas destination, Lapland is developing a reputation for year-round outdoor adventure. The creation of a new national park in the region next year is expected to encourage more nature-based tourism – and ensure that it’s developed in a sustainable fashion.
Most international visitors arrive in Rovaniemi, home to the Santa Claus Village and other family-friendly attractions. If you have young children, a stop here may be unavoidable, but otherwise you can head straight on to Salla, a small town 85 miles to the north-east.
In the summer, you would arrive to find a green and pleasant patchwork of lakes, fells and pine forests, bathed in midnight sun. But at this time of year the lakes are long frozen and covered, like everything else, in a deepening layer of snow.
The Narnia-like transformation enables a flurry of wintry activities:
Reindeer safaris: A trip on a reindeer-drawn sleigh is an all-but-compulsory part of a stay in Lapland. Once you’ve been kitted out with snow boots and overalls, your expert guide will introduce you to your means of propulsion, and summarise its habits and character flaws. Reindeer are opinionated creatures, with strong views about where they want to go and at what speed. They also have a knack for working out which drivers will let them get away with a more leisurely pace – but why hurry in a landscape like this? The route weaves through dense woodland and alongside icy lakes, incorporating stops to feed reindeer calves, and to warm your extremities by a fire. Salla Reindeer Park, three-hour safari, £80 per adult (£40 for under-13s)
Snowmobile trip: Faster and more obedient than reindeer, snowmobiles are an excellent way to climb through the forest to Ruuhitunturi, a mountaintop near Salla which, in good weather, presides over spectacular views of the surrounding valleys. Equipped with powerful headlamps, these vehicles can be taken out during gloomy winter afternoons, or even later – Arctic Circle Safaris offers a moonlight itinerary that sets out late in the evening, maximising your chance of seeing the northern lights. Daytime trips include a stop at a candlelit cabin for hot drinks and a cinnamon bun. Arctic Circle Safari’s two-hour snowmobile safari, £95 per person for a snowmobile each (or £70 each for two people sharing one vehicle)
Winter sports: Salla’s ski resort was rated Finland’s best in 2021. Floodlit through the day to ensure safe skiing after the sun has gone down, it consists of 15 slopes, the longest of which is 1,300m. Snow machines are ready when the Arctic climate produces the wrong kind of powder – a common problem when temperatures fall well below freezing. Cross-country skis, snowshoes and fat-tyred electric bikes (and guides) will get you off piste in varying degrees of comfort. Salla Ski and Active, various ski passes and activities available
Hiking: For all the thrill of motor- or reindeer-powered exploration, the purest way to experience Arctic solitude is on your own two feet. Maps are available at Salla Ski and Active and footpaths are reasonably well signposted (mobile phone coverage is good too). And it’s hard to go too far wrong, as long as you keep off the clearly marked cross-country skiing routes: local hikers and dog walkers keep the main paths well trodden, but step out of line and you’ll sink to your ankles or knees in soft, fresh snow. The hike up to Northern Sallatunturi Fell to the observation point overlooking the Russian border is well worth the slippery final ascent up an ice-caked staircase.
Northern lights: Though by no means guaranteed, a glimpse of the northern lights is a highlight for those who see them. Solar storms are usually strongest around the equinoxes, in September and March, but the aurora can make an appearance at any time during the winter. A large element of luck is also involved: you need not only strong solar activity but clear skies at the same time too.
What to wear
The outdoor adventure companies will provide warm snowsuits and boots, usually at no extra cost, to those who don’t have their own, but you will need at least some gear to stay comfortable in temperatures that regularly plunge below minus 20C. A windproof down jacket, thick gloves and socks, fleece-lined trousers, a hat and a scarf or snood will serve you well. You may need to carry your phone and camera inside your coat to keep their batteries working.
What to eat
The traditional Lapland diet relies heavily on fish and game, both of which are readily available in Salla’s cafes and restaurants. Reindeer is particularly well represented, its rich meat a good way to ward off the cold. Trout and various other local fish provide lighter options. Keloravintola, a delightfully rustic cafe overlooking the ski slope, serves moose burgers and pike steaks, as well as reindeer in meatballs, with pasta or on pizza. Restaurant Kiela, near Arctic Circle Safaris, specialises in more authentic Lappish cuisine.
Where to stay
Salla Holiday Club, at the foot of the ski slope, has a range of modern, comfortable rooms and apartments, many with private saunas. Especially popular with families, the hotel has a swimming pool and spa, as well as a restaurant that serves buffet breakfasts and dinners (studios from £85 per night and two-bedroom apartments from £140 per night, minimum two nights). Just up the road is Sallatunturin Tuvat and its cluster of holiday cottages, which offer a more traditional timber-clad Nordic experience (from £410 per week for a one-bedroom cottage with sauna). Or AirBnB has several private cabins available for rent, some deep in the snowbound forest.
How to get there
Finnair flies from London Heathrow via Helsinki to Rovaniemi and Kuusamo, from £230 return. Public buses run from Kuusamo to Rovaniemi and Rovaniemi to Sallam, or private transfers can be arranged. Rental cars with winter tyres can be picked up at either airport, from about £30 per day.