Visit Finland in summer and sunshine, scenery, Santa and Sami culture are some of the things you’ll see. These are the ingredients of an exciting summer holiday to Finland Lapland.
Images of a wintery snow-filled wonderland with dog-sleighs, ice hotels and Santa Claus offers an idyllic landscape for Australians who seldom get the chance to experience snow. But visiting Finland’s northernmost province in winter does have its drawbacks.
Aside from freezing temperatures, winter gets really busy with Christmas Lapland day-trippers from Europe queue up to talk to Santa.
Lapland in summer
A trip to Lapland in summer, when the sun doesn’t set until midnight, offers the prospect of seeing so much more of Europe’s last pristine wilderness.
It’s the country’s largest yet most sparsely populated province, a land covered with forests, rivers and teeming with wildlife like bears, wolves, eagles, and wolverines. And in the far north reaches of Lapland, from mid May, the sun doesn’t set at all for almost 70 days.
We begin our Lapland journey in its capital, Rovaniemi. Our first stop is the Santa Claus Village where Santa receives visitors all year round at Santa Claus’ Office.
We join the queue to meet the white-bearded jolly old guy dressed in a red suit. Fortunately there are only a few people ahead of us, a blond-haired blue-eyed Scandinavian family, a middle-aged gentleman with a clipped German accent and a Singaporean family ahead of us.
Lapland’s Santa training colleges insist that budding Santas learn to communicate in different languages and his linguistic skill comes to the fore as he converses with a Korean family in perfect-sounding Korean. The children stare at him in goggle-eyed awe nodding their heads enthusiastically.
When all promises have been made, he produces a giant atlas and flips to the map of Korea, marking the town they live in with a thick red felt pen.
The children giggle happily as he scrawls their names into his book, satisfied their visit has been worthwhile.
Next door, the Main Post Office is manned by an army of busy elves. The room is packed with visitors browsing through shelves of Christmas story books and decorations.
There’s a flurry of activity at the post office counter as the elves stamp postcards and parcels.
I find a quiet corner, next to bags of letters written to Santa from children all over the world, where I write a stack of postcards for friends and family in Australia.
There’s something catchy about sending a postcard to the other end of the globe marked with the Arctic Circle postmark.
Our next stop is Arktikum, a contemporary museum and science centre housed in an impressive glass building on the banks of the Ounasjoki River.
One section of the building consists of a 172-meter-long glass tube constructed with 1000 glass panels, designed for spectacular views of the northern lights.
The building is a true Lapland creation using materials such as granite from Perttaus for the floors, timber from local birch trees and reindeer pelts used for the chairs.
The Provincial Museum of Lapland and the Arctic Centre inside is the best place to learn about the history and culture of Lapland.
Permanent exhibitions like Northern Ways display history, indigenous Sami culture and mythology while the Arctic in Change exhibition addresses topical issues in the Arctic such as climate change.
But for real life encounters with culture, you only have to drive around the long silent roads. With over 300,000 reindeer roaming free, the reindeer is an icon of Lapland’s culture.
Most of the Sami continue to make a living as reindeer herders. Since the dawn of time, the Sami have been hunters and gatherers who – as prehistoric works of art, primarily rock carvings, attest – had a deep understanding of nature. As we drive around the province, we see many more reindeer than cars or people.
At a local reindeer farm, a Sami dressed in a traditional blue and brown tunic with red embroidered trimmings leads us to a tent where he performs a local ritual.
The Sami believe foreigners from the south bring bad luck and removing our blood will stop the flow of ill fortune. First he pretends to cut our throats.
Then he heats his knife over the open flames of the fire burning inside the tent and marks our faces so that he will recognise us when we return in the next life as a reindeer.
Huskies are idols of the winter landscape, dashing across the snow pulling sleighs filled with goods and people. But summer is when they go on holiday.
We get a close look at them at one of the many husky parks. A young handler puts on a fascinating show where the huskies run, sit, jump, roll and balance on narrow planks at her commands.
80 kilometres south of Rovaniemi is Ranua Wildlife Park, the world’s northernmost zoo. The wildlife park is stocked with 60 species of Nordic and Arctic animals living in enclosures designed to imitate the animals’ natural environments.
We wander past lynxes, wolves and wolverines. A keeper feeds the large brown bears while the polar bears keep cool in a large swimming enclosure.
From Rovaniemi, we head south west to Tornio, a municipality in Lapland on the Swedish border.
Tornio’s main attraction is the Green Zone Golf Club, a unique 18-hole golf course that straddles Finland and Sweden with nine holes in each country.
In summer you can play golf both day and night while in winter you can have a chilly hit on snow.
Tornio’s main event each year is the 90-hole Midnight Sun Golf Marathon Tournament held in late June where keen golfers play till their heart’s content.
In the nearby town of Kemi, plans for the world’s largest snow castle are underway. Kemi’s snow hotel is re-built from scratch each winter with a different design that includes a restaurant, hotels with ice beds and a chapel.
In summer, the area looks nothing like it will when the snow falls and the temperature drops to a bone-chilling -5°C. It’s so cold that you need a thermal sleeping bag.
Kemi is also where the Sampo ice-breaker cruises leave from. Ice-breakers are specially reinforced ships that crunch through layers of ice to keep important routes along the icy seas open for trade.
Winter cruises range from four-hour trips to overnight sojourns; the highlight of a cruise is to pull on a water-tight thermal suit and go ice swimming. In summer, the ship’s restaurant is open to guests.
Dog sled rides, snowmobile safaris, reindeer sleighs and other winter activities might be popular in winter. But Lapland’s clear blue skies, forests, rivers and gorges, offer the perfect attributes for exciting and challenging summer activities.
Oulanka National Park
We continue our journey 140 kilometres south to Oulu and then to Oulanka National Park where we join a rafting trip on the Kitkajoki River.
Rafting trips in the park are on two main river routes. The rapids are measured by their degree of difficulty from one to seven (one is the easiest). Ours has seven rapids and lots of calm stretches where we float under blue sky.
Brown bears roam the forests and although they are difficult animals to spot, there are a few places in the forest where you can go to watch the bears. And as the light is bright for most of the night, you’re able to see them quite clearly.
The Martinselkosen Wilds Centre in Kainuu, not far from Oulanka National Park, is just a stone’s throw from the Russian border.
The centre has bear-watching hides tucked away in pine forest next to a small swamp. Hides are fitted out with old reclining car seats, sound-amplifying audio systems to enable watchers to hear the bears, dry toilets and bunks for those who need to have a nap.
The most common safari is an overnight stay in one of the hides to watch the bears through viewing peepholes. You get as close as five metres to brown bears.
Finnair flies to Helsinki with connections to Rovaniemi. See www.finnair.com. Regular rail services run between Rovaniemi and Helsinki.
For bookings and more information on Lapland tours contact MyPlanet, a leading specialist in Scandinavian, Arctic, Baltic and Russian travel for over 30 years, see
LumiLinna SnowCastle builds a new castle out of ice each year, open from January to April. 30-minute guided tours cost €50, double rooms from €220 per night.
What to do
Visit Santa at Santa Claus Office, Joulumaantie 1, 96930 Arctic Circle.
Ranua Wildlife Park is situated 80km south of Rovaniemi along road number 78.
Martinselkosen Wilds Centre’s bear-watching season runs from May to August. An overnight bear-watching package costs €145 ($) per person and includes guiding services, sandwiches and coffee. For more information phone +358 8 736 160.
See www.visitfinland.com or www.laplandfinland.com.