When I told our friends and family that Shiv & I would be spending the entire December of 2018 travelling around Finland, these were their immediate reactions:
“You are going all the way to Europe just to visit Finland?”
“There is nothing much to do and see in Finland! Aren’t a few days enough to cover the highlights?”
I just smiled these questions away as I knew exactly how I was going to spend my time in this Nordic gem. After all, if I was prepared to brave temperatures plummeting below -20ºC, it wasn’t going to be for nothing! Packed with a suitcase full of winter jackets and armed with multiple layers of warm clothing, we finally set off to start what would later become one of the most magical journeys I’ve experienced in life.
Below are five once-in-a-lifetime experiences in Finland that made me pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming:
So many first-time experiences in Finland but there was none as crazy as this! We set off on an icebreaker cruise that pushed its way through thick layers of ice to the middle of a frozen sea. Upon reaching, the vessel made a sharp turn, clearing an entire section of ice underneath to create a natural plunge pool. In small groups of ten, we took turns to float around the pool donning neoprene suits that kept us incredibly warm throughout the entire experience. Plus, they had hot Glögi – a traditional Finnish berry drink – for everyone on board right after the swim. Pure bliss!
Where: Kemi, Finland
When in Finnish Lapland, an adrenaline-pumping ride on a husky sleigh is an experience not to be missed. If you expect a relaxing joy ride in the wilderness, this one is definitely not for you. Alaskan huskies are lightning fast, and they just love running. The pack of six huskies that pulled our sled absolutely hated it every time we stopped or slowed down to give them a break (they were pretty vocal about their feelings too!) and reached speeds of up to 30 km/hour during the 60-minute ride.
Reindeer sleighs, on the other hand, are for people of all age groups. If you are just looking to pet them, head over to one of the many reindeer farms in Rovaniemi. You can spot them in the wild too, but do tread carefully. They have antlers for a reason!
Where: Best experienced in Rovaniemi or Ivalo above the Arctic Circle
A trip to Finland is never complete without a relaxing Finnish sauna. Saunas form an important part of the Finnish culture and nothing explains their significance to the Finns better than the saying: “A house without sauna is not a home”. Finnish saunas are generally heated to around 80ºC by steam generated from a wood-fired or electric stove. I alternated short sessions in the steam room with soothing cold showers as recommended by our hotel staff and ended the day with some drinks and a hearty Lappish meal.
Where: Saunas can be found across the length and breadth of the country (there is even a Burger King in Helsinki with saunas! You can immediately burn all the calories you gain). If you are looking for something out-of-the-ordinary, try the ice sauna at Arctic Ice Hotel.
One cannot go to Lapland and not visit the “real” Santa—Rovaniemi is his hometown after all! Millions of visitors flock to Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi every year for a photograph with the man himself. About half a million letters and Christmas postcards addressed to Santa from different corners of the world by kids (and adults alike) arrive at the park’s main post office run by Finland Post.
As if this isn’t enough to make it an integral part of one’s itinerary, visitors also get to write and mail postcards to their loved ones from the post office at Santa Claus village, meet Santa’s reindeer at his own backyard, and cross the Arctic Circle (literally!) by walking past the marked arctic line in his village!
Where: Santa Claus Village, Rovaniemi, Finland
Last but definitely not least – catching the Aurora Borealis topped our list of must-do things in Finland, and we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Temperatures plummeting below -25°C and thick cloud cover made spotting the already elusive lights even more challenging. If you are looking for an ideal spot to view these dancing lights right from the comfort of your bed, my recommendation is the Kakslauttenan Arctic Resort’s Glass Igloos, set in the middle of a forest far away from all the city lights.
Where: Kakslauttenan Arctic Resorts, Saariselkä, Finland
Explore the Macedonian capital – Skopje, during your stay in Sofia and see the breathtaking oldest artificial lake in the country – Matka canyon.