Image Credit | Vicki Williams
8 years ago, today, I was in Northern Finland, experiencing my very first taste of Lapland. After years spent specialising in holidays to New Zealand and the South Pacific it was certainly a learning curve, to be promoting a country I had never really given much thought to, but the best way to learn is to visit!
Having never been to Finland before I was unsure what to expect… how cold would it be? Would I struggle with the language barrier? Did I really want to eat reindeer? And the big question… Would I see the Northern Lights?
Well, I can now confirm, yes, in winter it is cold. Very cold! But not British cold. Not the damp, miserable, gets through to your bones, kind of cold. But a different, good cold. A crisp, sharp, refreshing cold where you can see every breath you take and feel the purity of the air in your lungs. A dry cold, where your clothes don’t get wet in a snowball fight, your car windscreen doesn’t need defrosting every morning, the kind of cold that you can soon warm up from once back indoors. During winter, temperatures can drop down to -40°C, although an average temperature in Lapland during February or March is usually between -15 to -20°C. But, as the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing and, in Finland they have this covered with Arctic thermal oversuits provided for outdoor activities. As unbecoming as they may first seem, I assure you, you will be most grateful for the warmth they provide.
The Finnish people are a delight, and during my visit, and every visit since, I have never once encountered a problem with language. We are a particularly lazy nation when it comes to language but thankfully our Nordic neighbours all brushed up on their English skills at school, so pretty much everyone speaks our tongue. That said, it doesn’t go unnoticed if we make a little effort ourselves with a few basic words, Hei (hello), Kiitos (thank you) and, more importantly, olut (beer!).
And that brings us to the reindeer! Not just for Christmas, in Lapland the reindeer population equals that of the people, and they play a huge role in Lappish life. The Sami are known for their reindeer husbandry, and this age-old tradition has, over the years, made a foray into tourism to offer us a glimpse into the Sami peoples’ ancient ways. As tourists, we are welcomed during visits to traditional reindeer farms, Sami practices are shared with us, we can hand feed lichen to these inquisitive creatures and ride around a snow laden forest track in a reindeer drawn sleigh. Back in the Sami Kota (tent) it may then seem a little wrong to heartily tuck into a flatbread generously stuffed with sautéed reindeer meat. As a former vegetarian, I’m not easily persuaded to try the more ‘exotic’ meats but in the name of research I gave a try. ‘Oh my gosh… I’m eating Rudolph’, sprang to mind… but oh my gosh… Rudolph tastes divine!
My final wish, for my first visit to Lapland, was to see the Northern Lights, so I joined a snowmobile safari to head out in search of them. As my thumb depressed the accelerator trigger, my anticipation built with the noise of the engine and then we were off. Slowly at first, we headed along the trails into the forest, under bridges and across frozen lakes, the only lights to guide us coming from the full beam of the headlights. As we increased our speed, the cold blast of air hit the only exposed flesh of my cheeks and I was suddenly grateful for my fetching thermal attire, which was more than doing its job. With the excitement of the journey I had almost forgotten about the main purpose of the trip and it was only when we stopped in the darkness of the forest for hot blueberry juice, we caught the first faint glow of the silent Aurora. That was it! I was happy, I had seen the Northern Lights!
Back on board, and with twice the confidence, we hit the throttle and were off on our homeward journey, eyes on the trail. However, a quick pitstop in the middle of the forest, to let the others catch up, resulted in an unforgettable experience. Above us the night sky had come alive with the most incredible auroral display. Vivid green bands of light danced in the sky creating swirls and waves before the colours faded, only to emerge again in a new location. Stunning coronas formed, with rays of colour turning from green to red, to hues of purple and blue. I lay back on my snowmobile, mesmerised, and lost myself in the silence of the moment. Now I had really seen the Northern Lights and 8 years on, the memory still makes me smile.