ELISA ELWIN reunites with her daughters in Lapland for the adventure holiday of a lifetime
I envisioned a January reunion with my daughters, in Lapland, as a beautiful adventure. None of us had been to Finland and, with both my daughters studying in Europe, I thought it would be a perfect, snowy winter escape. Like most families, we planned to meet Santa, ride in a reindeer-pulled sleigh, go husky sledding and, if we were really lucky, catch the spectacle of the Northern Lights. But were we really prepared for 22 hours of darkness each day and temperatures that plunged well below freezing point?
As we touched down in the regional airport of Kittila, we were suddenly immersed in Lapland’s long, winter night. Met by our driver, we embarked on a 45-minute journey through metres-high snow to Lake Jerisjärvi, where we would spend the next three nights. Hotel Jeris is one of several Harriniva Hotels and Safaris properties based in West Lapland’s Muonio-Enontekiö area, just a stone’s throw from the pristine wilderness of the Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park (boasting the cleanest air the world, according to the World Health Organisation).
Perched on the edge of Lake Jerisjärvi, it’s a dream destination for nature lovers. On leaving the hotel, you can jump directly onto a cross-country skiing track or snowshoe trail and be surrounded by wilderness. Or our favourite: walking directly onto the frozen lake to gaze up at the night sky and wait for the mesmerising dance of the Northern Lights.
The cold reality hits
Leaving the warmth of the car, we crunched our way through thick, dry snow towards the hotel lobby, suddenly realising how underprepared we were for the freezing weather. At this time of year, temperatures in Finnish Lapland can get down to -30°C, with just two hours of light each day. What on earth was I thinking? How were we going to enjoy a holiday exploring the great Lappish outdoors when the wind cut through our measly layers of clothing in mere seconds?
Never fear! Our first stop was the hotel storage area, which was filled with complimentary (dare I say “lifesaving”) outfitting options that ranged in size from toddler-friendly to extra, extra-large. We were kitted out in waterproof, skid-proof boots (including a thermal boot layer), zip-up, full-body winter parka suits, balaclavas and lined gloves – all matching – so we were ready to head outdoors in style. Ahhh. That being said, it did take me a good 20 minutes to dress myself each morning, and I remain in awe of families wrestling toddlers into full, deep snow gear every day.
After settling into our wilderness-inspired cottage, we discussed our plans for the following day over a traditional Lappish meal. Most of the ingredients served at the hotel restaurant are organic and sourced locally, with a strong focus on reindeer meat (yes, you can eat them too), wild-caught fish and berries. We rapidly grew to anticipate each meal, with fresh salads and hearty stews to feast on and a hot chocolate “nightcap” before bedtime.
Encounters of the reindeer kind
Well rested and ready to explore, our first morning in Lapland was all about reindeer. Set around a 100-year-old farmhouse, the Torassieppi Reindeer Farm is just a 10-minute bus transfer from the hotel. We met the resident reindeer up close and fed them their favourite lichen, known as “reindeer moss”, taking special care not to let their antlers get too close to our eyes. One interesting fact about reindeer is that they are the only member of the deer family in which it is the females who grow antlers!
It was a lot of fun, particularly when it came to throwing lassos to test our herder skills. But the ‘pinch me’ moment was hopping onto a sleigh for a 3km, reindeer-pulled ride through the majestic forest, along the edge of Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park.
Sauna - A traditional Finnish pastime
As the ever-so-short light faded to afternoon darkness, we returned to Hotel Jeris for an afternoon spent thawing out in the new Arctic Sauna World – the brainchild of Antti Pietikäinen, one of the third-generation siblings who manage the family-owned Harriniva Hotels and Resorts.
Pronounced “sa-oon-ah” in Finnish, the sauna is an integral part of life here. A remarkable statistic states that there are more saunas than cars in Finland. In fact, there are more than 2.5 million saunas in the country, which has a population of just five million!
Offering five different saunas, spring water showers and an only-for-the-brave ice hole swimming area, Arctic Sauna World is the ultimate place to indulge in a massage or treatment. Needless to say, it was easy to spend a cleansing four hours popping in and out of the saunas and relaxing in the lounges while peering up at the stars and the green smear of the Northern Lights. Children are more than welcome, as is a cold beer or drink whilst you warm up. In Finland, the sauna is a place to relax, connect and share the day’s adventures, or spend time alone in quiet mindfulness.
I watched on as my fearless girls decided to brave the post-sauna dip in the icy waters of Lake Jeris, wiping snow over their steaming bodies before gingerly lowering themselves into the near-frozen lake. The health benefits of “cold therapy” are widely known – reduced muscle inflammation, improved circulation and increased mental toughness, to name just a few. They shrieked upon entry before declaring how wonderful it was as they emerged, although not convincingly enough for me to try it myself.
It’s a husky day
Day two saw us at the local husky farm where a group of much-loved working dogs was housed. Energetic, excitable and noisy, these happy huskies are trained athletes, building strength at the beginning of autumn for longer runs as the winter sets in. And make no mistake about it – the dogs love to pull the sleighs!
As we arrived, the barking increased, with each dog communicating his or her desire to be included on a team. We began our visit with a tour of the farm, including the chance to meet some of their adorable puppies, before learning how to manage the sleds and care for the dogs. With my girls setting off in one team, I followed close behind as we flew across the lake and through the forest. After the noisy welcome we received from the huskies, the silence of being out in the wilderness was surreal, only broken by the gentle “whoosh” of the sleds being pulled through the snow.
Santa’s special homeland
With our three-day stay at Hotel Jeris coming to an end, we saved the best for last: a private family visit with the man himself! The Finns claim Santa as their own – he was “born” there, lives there and makes his annual present-dropping journey around the globe using local reindeer.
My eldest, Sam, was born on Christmas Eve (our very own Christmas present), so our family’s relationship to this festive holiday is strong. Each year, as her long-awaited birthday came to a close, we would prepare for Santa’s arrival. She always felt a special connection with him and it was her dream to meet this jolly, bearded man in his Finnish home.
Snug in our snowmobile sleigh, we had to keep our eyes peeled for the elves who would show us the secret path to Santa’s cabin, which was lit by lanterns showing us straight to the door. We crunched our way through the snow to his beautifully illuminated timber cottage, and were met by a cosy room complete with a beaming Santa seated in his welcome chair.
With an authentic beard and full costume, the picture couldn’t have been more perfect. Both Sam and Santa were laughing throughout their face-to-face encounter – Santa with his gentle “ho ho ho” and Sam with undeniable joy at meeting her Christmas Eve mate.
Despite my initial concerns, we discovered far more than just Santa in this spellbinding corner of the globe. The Pietikäinen family shared with us their warmth, laughter and joyous pride in the glorious wilderness of the Muonio-Enontekiö area, combining exhilarating outdoor experiences, responsible tourism practices and delicious organic cuisine. It turned out to be a wintry stay we’ll never forget, for all the right reasons.
The writer was a guest of 50 Degrees North, Harriniva Hotels and Resorts and Finnair.
Finland’s flagship carrier Finnair flies to Kittila via the capital, Helsinki.
Harriniva Hotels and Resorts has several properties throughout Finnish Lapland, including Hotel Jeris near Muonio on the Swedish/Finnish border.
Nordic travel specialist 50 Degrees North, which has an office in Melbourne, can organise accommodation, activities, transport and flights.