Beyond the slopes: 10 Arctic adventures in Finnish Lapland

Lapland tugs at the imagination long before you ever set foot there. This is the winter wonderland of childhood dreams, with Christmas-card scenery, sleigh rides through forests, real-life reindeer and the one-and-only Santa.

Situated directly beneath the aurora oval, in the wild mystical north of Lapland, Saariselkä is a fantastic place to view the Northern Lights.

Photograph by Inghams
Published 16 Dec 2021, 11:00 GMT, Updated 7 Jan 2022, 16:47 GMT

Whether off-piste, downhill or cross-country, the skiing in Lapland is sensational, with low-key, crowd-free resorts such as Levi, Ylläs and Saariselkä offering superb conditions from December through to May. But this is just the tip of the Arctic iceberg — in Lapland, you can experience so much more. The howl of huskies as you dash across the frozen tundra, a post-sauna dip in an ice hole, Sámi stories told around a crackling campfire and the Northern Lights arcing and swaying in winter skies are all moments that will stay with you forever. Here are 10 of the best winter adventures to try. 

Levi and Saariselkä have glass igloos and aurora cabins specially designed for viewing the Northern Lights. The glass is made of a special kind of thermal glass that keeps the inside of the igloo toasty even when the temperature outside drops to a chilly -30C.

Photograph by Inghams

1. Chase the Northern Lights

The Aurora Borealis is the greatest natural show on earth; and Saariselkä, 155 miles north of the Arctic Circle, gives you a front-row ticket. The odds of seeing them here are astonishing, with displays up to 200 nights a year from September to April. Situated directly beneath the aurora oval, the magic wand flashes of green and, if you’re lucky, pink, red and blue, will leave you speechless — whether seen on snowshoes, a snowmobile or from the comfort of a glass-roofed igloo. Science speaks of solar storms colliding with the earth’s atmosphere, but there’s a pinch of sorcery, too. The Finnish call them revontulet, meaning ‘fox fires’, as myth says an Arctic fox running through the snow sent sparks flying into the night sky.

In Ylläs, husky safaris have been tailor-made to suit all ages, experience and fitness levels. While the shorter safaris are the most popular, there are also longer half-day trips and an evening safari in search for the Northern Lights.

Photograph by Inghams

2. Head off on a dog-sledding adventure

Gliding through the frozen wilderness, pulled by a team of howling, run-hungry huskies is almost like flying. Place your trust in the dogs as you head into the great white wilderness on a tailor-made husky safari in Levi, Saariselkä or Ylläs. By day, a pale winter sun guides you, but the real enchantment comes in the pearl-white hush of a bitterly cold winter night — especially when the Northern Lights come out to play.

At Ounaskivari reindeer farm, local Sámi herders will teach you about their communal, reindeer-focused way of life — from lasso-throwing and herding to understanding the mysteries behind these beautiful creatures’ ability to thrive in such a harsh climate.

Photograph by Inghams

3. Visit a reindeer farm  

Lapland is the heartland of the Sámi, Finland’s indigenous, formerly seminomadic, reindeer herders who have eked out a life in the harsh Arctic climate for more than a millennium. For a fascinating insight into their unique way of life and to witness their deep connection with reindeer, visit Ounaskivari reindeer farm, located just outside Levi. Here, you’ll listen to ancient stories, find out why these beautiful creatures are partial to the odd magic mushroom and learn the secret of the suopunkki (Sámi lasso). If you’re lucky, you may even be treated to a spontaneously sung joik, a rhythmic poem conjuring the spirit of the Sámi peoples’ ancestors. No visit is complete without a fairytale reindeer ride across the snowy landscape, cuddled up inside a blanket-laden sleigh.

The Sámi Museum at the Inari village is a fascinating excursion from Saariselkä. Here, guests can learn about the Sámis' unique hunting skills, rich traditional culture and how they have thrived for generations.

Photograph by Inghams

4. Learn about indigenous Sámi culture 

A tiny speck of a village on a flint-blue, forest-rimmed lake, Inari village has big wilderness right on its doorstep. Nature is sacred to the indigenous Sámi people and it’s here their spirit is felt most keenly. The Sámi Museum and Nature Centre Siida takes a deep dive into Sámi life past and present. Cleverly curated exhibitions lend insight into Lapland’s one-of-a-kind ecology, wildlife, traditions and the rhythm of the eight Sámi seasons, while the open-air museum takes you back 10,000 years with its collection of rustic dwellings and farm buildings scattered along a trail shaped like a reindeer herder’s lasso.

In Levi, there is a snowmobile safari for everyone to enjoy —  they're easy to pilot and children (ages eight and over) either ride pillion with an adult or are towed in a sled behind a guide.

Photograph by Inghams

5. Motor out into the wilderness on a snowmobile

For a true sense of Lapland’s scope and beauty, book onto a guided snowmobile safari. In Levi, full thermal gear is included and tips from your guide will soon have you bouncing from side to side through gullies and leaning into the bends as you hurtle through snow-shrouded fells, pine forests and across rivers frozen solid in the winter chill. Switch off the engine and all you can hear is the crunch of ice underfoot, and when the Aurora Borealis dances overhead, perhaps muffled gasps of wonder.

Ice-karts are easy to drive and similar to Go-Karts but on a snow-packed track. This adrenaline-pumping activity in Levi includes driving instructions, helmets, thermal suits, boots and gloves, with warm up laps, heats, and a final with prizes.

Photograph by GETTY images

6. Take part in an ice-karting competition

Like go-karting but with a frozen racing track and snow-blanketed backdrop, ice karting throws you in at the pulse-racing deep end of winter activities in Lapland. The illuminated track in Levi gives you a taste for life in the frozen fast lane, with ice karts equipped with studded tyres and silent four-cycle engines. Driving instructions, helmets, thermal suits, boots and gloves are provided — and there’s even a final with prizes. Go for an introductory whirl or, once you’ve picked up a little confidence, the full-on F1 Arctic experience.

The privately bookable saunas at the Star Arctic Hotel, Saariselkä, have large scenic view windows so you can admire the endless fell landscape, the autumn sunsets and the Northern Lights in the frosty night.

Photograph by Inghams

7. Let off steam in a traditional Finnish sauna

Midnight sun or winter snow, the Finnish believe there’s no better way to relax, unwind and stay healthy than sweating it out in a pine-clad room heated to 80C. Dubbed the ‘poor man’s pharmacy’, the sauna holds a near-sacred place in Finnish hearts, where only the crackling wood in a smoke sauna or the hiss of water being tossed on to stones in a steam sauna can be heard. Afterwards, there’s ice swimming and self-administered beatings with a birch-branch whisk (known as the vasta or vihta) to boost circulation. Levi alone has 2,000 saunas, perfect for a post-ski steam, while Ylläs raises the bar higher with the world’s only cable-car sauna.

Ylläs and Levi take Arctic ice swimming to the next step: slip into a rubber survival suit to drift in a hole bored into a frozen lake as the snowflakes flutter around you.

 

Photograph by STOCK images

8. Try Arctic ice swimming 

For every roasting hot sauna in Lapland, there’s a shockingly cold ice hole to plunge into afterwards. And there are many health benefits for those who dare to take the dip — boosted energy levels, a lowered heart rate and a strengthened immune system, to name but a few. Arrive warm, begin slowly and listen to your body — get out before you go numb and shiver uncontrollably. A neoprene cap, gloves and socks can protect the head, hands and feet. Ylläs and Levi have gone one step further with ice floating. Here, you slip into a rubber survival suit to drift in a hole bored into a frozen lake as the snowflakes flutter around you.

The Bear Suite at the Lainio Snow hotel, a short trip by snowmobile from Levi and Ylläs.

Photograph by Inghams

9. Stay overnight in an ice hotel

Built from truckloads of snow and chunks of metre-thick river ice by a team of artists each year, Lainio Snow Village is the igloo dream. Outside it’s bitterly cold, but inside your ethereally lit ice suite it’s surprisingly warm as you snuggle down into your expedition-grade sleeping bag. Mornings bring hot berry juice, breakfast in the log-built restaurant and the sheer joy of being the first to pad through fresh powder snow. If you can’t stay overnight, take a day trip from nearby Levi and Ylläs for a spin of the intricately carved ice rooms, bar, restaurant and chapel.

Levi and Ylläs offer three- and four-night Santa breaks where kids can visit the Elf Hideaway, meet Comet the reindeer and enjoy other festive experiences including gingerbread baking and Christmas tree decorating. 

Photograph by Inghams

10. Meet Santa himself

Finnish Lapland is considered Santa central. Indeed, no visit north of the Arctic Circle is complete without paying him a visit, and you don’t need to go to Rovaniemi (the most renowned destination) to do it. Guests' can book three- and four-night Santa breaks in Levi and Ylläs wrapped up by half a day of festive fun: kids can visit the Elf Hideaway, meet Comet the reindeer and enjoy other festive experiences including gingerbread baking and Christmas tree decorating. Afterwards, there’s the chance to add on other excursions such as dogsledding and snowmobiling.

Inghams offer 3-for-2 on all Lapland excursions, including husky, snowmobile and reindeer safaris. For more information and to plan your trip, visit Inghams.co.uk

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