Finnish Lapland is the largest and northernmost region of Finland. Lapland makes up about one third of Finland’s total area and also covers northern Sweden, Norway and part of Russia’s Kola Peninsula. To put its size into perspective, Lapland is as big as Belgium, Holland and Switzerland put together.
But have you ever wondered what Finnish Lapland offers visitors besides a magical Christmas holiday? As Finland’s most popular tourist destination, there’s more to Finnish Lapland than the official home of Santa and his little helpers. I arrive at Rovaniemi Airport, the official airport of Santa Claus. Images of snowscapes and Santa greet you, but it’s only June!
All year round sustainable fun in Finnish Lapland
Lapland’s link with Christmas is clear; yet the region has a multitude of things to do all year round and you can enjoy both nature and outdoor pursuits in harmony. Take for example the outdoor adventure resort at the Pyhä-Luosto National Park. If you have a head for heights, you can climb up a rugged rockface or cross a gorge along a zipline. You can also canoe on Lake Pyhäjärvi or ride a fatbike (a bicycle with extra wide tyres) up a mountain to visit an amethyst mine. In fact you can do any of these activities and marvel at the chain of 12 fells, the highland flora, and fields where reindeers roam.
If you visit in summertime, the Midnight Sun is a phenomenon you have to experience. The northern region of Finland is in constant daylight owing to the inclination of the Earth’s axis. Sodankylä is one of the best places to see the midnight sun; it’s also host to the Midnight Sun Film Festival in June.
Finnish Lapland has all the staples such as culture, gastronomy and natural landscape but with sustainable tourism in mind. For example, in 2011 the Pyhä Ski Resort became the first ski resort in Scandinavia to become carbon-free. Other examples include eco-friendly hotels and the use of locally sourced ingredients in restaurants. This can also be experienced at the Jaakkola Reindeer Farm where foraged food is cooked by a member of the indigenous Sámi people.
Mountain climbing and ziplining at Pyhä Adventure Park
After breakfast, we make our way to Pyhä Adventure Park for a full day of activities. The park opened in summer 2021 and offers a variety of experiences to visitors of all ages. Antti, our guide, and owner of the park explains the training and safety procedures. Attached to your harness is a safety clip measuring about the size of your palm. It’s reassuring to know once you attach your clip onto the zipline, ‘you are in the system.’ If you slip or miss a footing, the harness will ensure you don’t drop … far! I try not to strain my neck as I look up at the sheer height of the rugged rock formations. Safety helmet on; we begin our ascent.
During the climb, I reflect upon the National Geographic documentary film, Free Solo (2018). If Alex Honnold can climb up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park unaided, then I can do this with a safety harness. Even the positive words of assurance from Antti were not enough to quell my fear. I take in the sublime view as I reach the highest platform. Dark clouds, jagged rocks, and a vast expanse of mountain range in the far distance. This awe-inspiring view could be a painting by the German Romanticist artist, Caspar David Friedrich. The panoramic scenery contrasts the immensity of nature with our own insignificance.
I snap back to reality as I look down below – if there was one piece of advice I would offer it is: don’t look down! It’s quite a drop, but there is only one way down and it’s by zipline. A member of the group was unable to continue due to his fear of heights. Antti was able to assist him by undertaking the zipwire in a tandem embrace. Unfortunately, there is no emergency staircase in these incredible mountain terrains.
The cold artic wind blows onto my face as I attach the pulley to the zipwire. I check it several times to ensure it’s secure and then one last time to be certain. I take a step forward; a leap of faith if you will. There’s no turning back as I whizz along at some considerable speed, taking care to avoid any trees that might be in my path. There’s a feeling of euphoria as I reach the bottom. I take one last look at the imposing mountain with a sense of achievement as well as a pang of hunger. The heady mix of climbing, ziplining and adrenaline brings on quite an appetite. We proceed to Café Loimu, located inside the Visitor Centre for a much-deserved lunch.
Canoeing in Lake Pyhäjärvi
Lapland has numerous rivers and small lakes and Finland is home to almost 200,000 lakes. It is with good reason that it’s referred to as the ‘land of a thousand lakes.’
Antti and his friendly dog greet us as we approach Lake Pyhäjärvi. The canoes are on standby at the edge of the lake. The clouds are grey and foreboding with a thin veneer of light peeking beyond the mountain range. Rain is forecast but should hold out for the next few hours. We have a brief training session consisting of how to row, steer and bring the canoe to a stop. With our lifejackets on and a generous spray of insect repellent, we are ready to set off. Even Antti’s dog is coming along for the journey.
While seated in the canoe you get a different perspective of nature. The breath-taking views of the fells and pine forests shimmer in the reflection of the calm waters. There are hardly any rapids and those that are present are gentle. The flow of the river makes it fairly effortless with just the occasional paddle to steer you through the slow winding river. This is the idyllic afternoon activity. Just listen to the sound of the paddle, the flowing river, the chirping birds, and the odd buzzing of mosquitos.
Jaakkola Reindeer Farm: Gastronomy, Sámi culture and herding
Finnish Lapland is home to many cultures, including Sámi who are Finno-Ugric-speaking people. Sámi are direct descendants of nomadic people that once inhabited northern Scandinavia thousands of years ago. As one of Europe’s last remaining indigenous people, Sámi people have their own parliament and collaborate with the Finnish parliament in helping to preserve their culture.
In the deep forest, we meet Anu a Sámi who operates the family-run Jaakkola Reindeer Farm. She greets us dressed in a traditional Sámi costume or Gákti, which includes a shawl called a Liidni. The vivid red and yellow colours of the shawl and outer socks determine the ethnicity of her Sámi group. Securing the shawl is a decorative silver broach made with amethyst semi-precious stones.
We see a herd of reindeers with young calves grazing in the fields. Raised by Anu and her family, these semi-wild animals spend much of the year in their herds. They graze on moss, ferns and leaves of shrubs and trees found in the woods and grasslands. Each animal is clipped on one ear to identify the reindeer and the owner. Anu calls out to the reindeers, a sound akin to a yodel while waving a small birch tree branch. The reindeers, which have all shed their antlers look up in bewilderment. Unfortunately, not even the lure of fresh leaves is enough to draw these shy animals towards us.
The biting ice-cold wind and rain cause my hands to freeze, and we walk towards the hut called a goahti. Another piece of advice is to pack warm clothes as the weather in Lapland can be changeable even in the summer months. We walk into the large wigwam-shaped tent and there is a roaring log fire in the centre. Anu has prepared some much-needed hot drinks for everyone. The drink contains lingonberries, foraged herbs including rosemary and copious amounts of vodka. The feeling in my fingers finally returns.
As part of our visit to the farm, Anu is treating us to a wonderful three course meal and Anu offers visitors to Lapland the opportunity to learn how to cook Finnish and Lappish food. Some of you may have seen her kitchen as well as Anu on TV with a certain celebrity chef. In an episode of Gordon, Gino and Fred’s Road Trip, Gordon Ramsay and his friends prepare a Finnish Christmas dinner with Anu’s help.
We start with mushroom soup and homemade rye bread. It’s the most delicious mushroom soup I have ever tasted. The soup contains foraged False Morel mushrooms. These mushrooms contain toxins that need to be removed by washing. False Morels, when eaten raw in some quantity can be fatal.
Next, on to the main course: Reindeer steak with lingonberry sauce, new potatoes, and heritage carrots. The steak was lean and tender. It paired well with the sauce; the sourness of the berries balanced with the red wine helped to cut through the intense flavours of the meat. We finish our meal with a moreish cloudberry cheesecake.
At the end of the evening, Anu delights everyone with a performance of a joik (a native song.) She sings while playing her shaman hand drum, made of stretched reindeer skin. The joik is a musical expression with layers of meaning. It serves as a tool for sharing cultural memories or for social community building. Anu’s joik was mesmerising. It felt like a spiritual awakening; transported between worlds or perhaps that was partly due to the mushroom soup! After an encore, we ended a truly memorable evening.
Guided E-fatbiking tour to the Amethyst mine
It’s a wet morning; we don plastic raincoats for our first activity. We meet Antti who is going to assist our group up the Lampivaara fell to visit an amethyst mine. The best part is we get to ride on electrically assisted fatbikes. My only experience of riding an electric bike is through the busy streets of London. These bikes in contrast are powerful, off-road bikes that can tackle any terrain, in all seasons. They can go up a steep incline with minimal effort, especially when you press the ‘turbo’ button.
As we enter the forest, Antti asks everyone to stop for a moment and inhale a deep breath of air. While this may seem odd, Antti was highlighting how pure the air is in the mountain – and he was right! I wish I could have bottled up some of the air to bring back home. We also stopped to scoop and drink some mineral water flowing into a small rock pool. Nature is forever giving in these mountains.
We finally arrive at Lampivaara Amethyst Mine. During the tour of the mine, we learn about the geology in the creation of the amethysts and its properties. Amethyst began to form 2,000 million years ago from molten lava, deep in the bowels of these ancient mountains. The guide exhibits some of the large amethyst boulders as well as their eye watering monetary value. Armed with this knowledge, we try our hand at digging for amethyst in the pouring rain with a metal scraping tool. ‘Rain is a miner’s best friend’ our guide tells us. The rain unfortunately didn’t help, and I was unable to find anything aside from little rocks that were similar to the ones in my garden. Our guide kindly gives us a small amethyst stone to take home instead.
The Midnight Sun Film Festival: Finns, film and feasts
For our last evening we head to Sodankylä for the Midnight Sun Film Festival. Sodankylä is 120km above the Artic Circle where the sun doesn’t set during summer. The unique location of the festival allows for the 24 hours a day screening of films.
If you enjoy cinema, you’ll love the festival programme, which attracts an international audience and shows both Finnish and International films. The films include timeless classic as well as new contemporary films. Veteran film directors such as Francis Ford Coppola are presented alongside up-and-coming talent. Leading film critics also provide their insight at Q&A sessions.
We watch a film titled ‘The Longest Day’, written and directed by Jonas Selberg Augustsén. In the film, curious stories unfold in a Finnish-speaking village during midsummer in Sweden. It contains multi-narrative plots where the storyline interconnects. In one scene, a wild moose grazes in a forest in Lapland, which captured the power of nature for me.
As serendipity has it, we finish the evening with a tasty homemade moose burger and chips. The burger was made from ground moose steak and served in a brioche bun with cheese, tomato and onion salsa, yogurt sauce and cabbage salad from Veidon Sydän, a pop-up street kitchen vendor.
Reindeer meat is a local delicacy in Lapland. Souvas, a carpaccio of lightly smoked reindeer meat is a popular dish served with lingonberries and mashed potatoes. You can also enjoy reindeer sautéed. Wild berries such as bright red lingonberries, cloudberries or blue berries are found in many dishes. Thanks to a universal Everyman’s Right, anyone can go foraging so long as the environment is left undamaged.
Salmon is among the best in Europe due to the various rivers in Lapland. Try salmon marinated on a barley flatbread with a sprig of dill. Perch and Pike Perch are also very popular during the summer season. Almond potatoes are cultivated in Lapland and have a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) label in the European Union. Enjoy them as sides with your reindeer steak, fish, or moose burger.
Where to stay
Located in the village of Luosto, Lapland Hotels Luostotunturi has 176 rooms, including log cabins, apartments, and suites. Some of the rooms come with a balcony or terrace. If you are looking to mix business with pleasure, there are also conference rooms available that cater for small groups as well as an auditorium, which can hold up to 180 people.
The use of the Amethyst spa centre and gym are included in the stay. The pool is shaped like a willow grouse, a local bird, and the jacuzzi is decorated in amethyst. Men and women have separate sauna rooms in a traditional Finnish sauna. Those not familiar with sauna etiquette: birthday suit – good, bathing suit – bad. There’s nothing quite like a relaxing spa to help you refresh your body and mind after a long day outdoors.
An authentic Finnish feast of a breakfast is provided in the Tunturi buffet restaurant, including marinated herring and salmon, rye bread, a variety of cereals, berries and spruce powder. The Luostotunturi restaurant serves traditional Finnish and Lappish food. I ordered the fish of the day, a grilled Perch with potato puree and fresh vegetables.
The hotel’s location makes it ideal for accessing the Pyhä Adventure Park, Amethyst mine and the Luosto ski centre, which are all nearby. The Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä is a 40km short drive away and Rovaniemi airport is 120km.
Be at one with nature
The past two years has reinforced how our perception of nature has changed. The pandemic forced us to interact with the outdoors in new ways. Our desire to reconnect with nature had also become stronger, particularly when lockdown restrictions were imposed.
Nature is a source of solace for many. Our interaction with it leads to health benefits such as to our wellbeing, including the reduced risk of disorders or stress. Accordingly, I have a much greater respect for and appreciation of nature and the outdoors. The Japanese have epitomised this through forest bathing or ‘shinrin-yoku’ since the 1980s. Try walking barefoot in the rain through the forest as I did during my stay. Or hug a tree and feel the roughness of its bark while you listen to birdsong and you too will feel at one with nature.
There’s more to Lapland than the jolly bearded fella in the red suit. Lapland has been everything I have been craving for: fun, adventure, nature, and nurture. It has literally been a breath of fresh air.
For flights to Rovaniemi via Helsinki, visit: finnair.com
To discover more about Finnish Lapland, visit: visitfinland.com
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All imagery courtesy of Visit Finland.