The Complete Guide To: Lapland

The home of the Sami people lies across four countries and offers spectacular scenery, unique accommodation, and nightless days
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The Independent Travel

Lapland: sounds like a fairytale

Once upon a time, the northernmost part of mainland Europe was freely roamed by nomadic people who, indeed, had almost magically adapted themselves to their Arctic environment. The Sami people lived in tents called lavvus. By the mid-16th century, the economy was based on farming and herding reindeer. Their homeland at the top of the Scandinavian peninsula became known to outsiders as Lapland. They knew no frontiers, taking their animals inland during the winter and, for the most part, out to relatively mosquito-free reaches of the coast in the summer. It was largely through them that the Norwegians, Finns, Swedes and others from the south learned how to survive, and enjoy, the Arctic.

Today, these indigenous people of the north still live there – albeit in modern houses. And they continue to herd reindeer, but they now have to respect international boundaries. Technically, "Lapland" still stretches across the same region – from northern Norway to Russia's Kola Peninsula, encompassing northern Sweden and northern Finland on the way.

Quite apart from the intriguing culture of the area's communities, this is a place of intensely beautiful fjords, of inland lakes and trees and, of course, of extreme contrasts, with bright summers of abundant wildflowers, and almost sunless winters when the snow-covered world around shimmers in a haunting blue light.

What's in the name?

The Sami people refer to their homeland as Sapmi. "Lapland", meanwhile, was a pejorative term deriving from the Scandinavian word lapp, meaning patch of cloth, or the Finnish lape, denoting remoteness. Today, the administrative areas of northern Finland and northern Sweden are known respectively as Lapland and Lappland; the Murmansk Oblast (administrative region) contains the Sami lands of Russia; and Norway's Finnmark is also home to Sami people (and their many reindeer).

Of the 10 Sami languages, Fell or Northern Sami is the most widely understood. Sami councils promote their culture in all four countries: the Sami people have been downtrodden, and as recently as the mid 20th-century the speaking of Sami languages was banned in many places. Today, the human-rights pendulum has swung the other way, and in some areas, Sami land issues have become highly controversial.

How many Sami are there?

Officially, about 70,000 Samis live across the region. Norway's Sami population of 40,000-plus has representation at the large and very splendid Sami parliament building at Karasjok, 18km from the Finnish border. The town has a fine Sami Museum (at Mari Boine geaidnu 17; open daily 9am-6pm; in winter Mon-Fri 9am-3pm; admission Nkr75/£6.80), with artefacts from all over the region. To experience how the Samis used to live, visit Sapmi, a theme park showing a typical summer camp and winter dwellings (at Porsangerveien 1; open 9am-7pm daily June-August; the rest of the year, 9am-4pm from Monday to Friday, admission Nkr100/£9).

Roughly 20,000 Samis live in Sweden, where Kiruna is the gateway. This iron-ore town offers the extraordinary combination of the Esrange Space Station and the original Ice Hotel. A new Sami parliament building is due to be completed here in late 2009.

Finland has about 8,000 Sami. The lively town of Rovaniemi (boasting a Santa Claus village as well as being home to Lordi, the hard-rocking winners of last year's Eurovision Song Competition) is the capital of the country's Lapland county. Here the expansive Arktikum museum (at Pohojoisranta 4; open daily 10am-6pm, and until end-August until 7pm; adults €10/£7.15) offers an absorbing exhibition on Finnish Lapland, from logging to reindeer herding. It explains that most of the towns throughout Finland's Lapland region were burnt to the ground by the Nazis during the Second World War; this is why so many Finnish towns have an ungainly, Soviet-style look. A hi-tech, hands-on gallery devoted to The Arctic in Change focuses on modern life above the Arctic Circle and the effects of climate change, plus a section on contemporary Sami culture and song (known as joik) across the region.

The smallest density of Samis is in Russia, where they number only 2,000 – making up about 0.001 per cent of the nation's population, compared with around 1 per cent of Norway's.

How do I get there – and around?

The most accessible destination is Rovaniemi, with non-stop flights from a range of UK airports – but only during December, when tour operators arrange charter flights to the Finnish capital of Lapland, with a smaller number from Gatwick and Manchester serving Kittila airport, about 160km north of Rovaniemi. To other destinations, and between January and November, you must usually change planes at the national capital. SAS (0845 607 2772; www.scandinavian.net) serves northern Sweden and Norway, Wideroe (www.wideroe.no) offers internal flights between Mehamn and Berlevag and Berlevag to Kirkenes, while Finnair (0870 441 2411; www.finnair.com) has flights to Finnish Lapland. Tour operators to the area include Specialised Tours (01342 712785; www.specialisedtours.com) and Scantours (020-7554 3530; www.scantours.co.uk).

Surface transport is normally by road, though Norway's northernmost reaches are accessible by the Hurtigruten coastal ferry (020-8846 2666; www.hurtigruten.co.uk), starting in Bergen; and an international rail link, the Inland Railway, connects Stockholm with Kiruna before crossing into Norway.

Is it easy to cross frontiers?

Travelling across Lapland may appeal due to its resonance with the formerly nomadic lifestyle of the Samis – and, certainly, border crossings between Norway, Sweden and Finland are free of red tape. Travel between these three countries can also make good financial sense. Oil-rich Norway is extremely expensive, but you can reduce some costs if, for example, on a fly-drive holiday you start in Finland and hire and return your car there.

Some UK travel companies offer scenic itineraries across frontiers. Taber Holidays (01274 875 199; www. taberhols.co.uk) has a 12-day trip that takes in Swedish Lapland, to which you travel from Stockholm by train, followed by a boat journey down the Norwegian coast to Bergen. The Inland Railway and Coastal Voyage trip starts from £1,983 per person including flights and surface transport, and all accommodation.

How extreme can I go?

Lashed by the Arctic Ocean, Norway's North Cape is billed as the northernmost point in mainland Europe. When not engulfed by mist, the cliffs here look spectacular, but on close inspection of a map you may well be perplexed by the claim that this is continental Europe's ultimate north. North Cape lies on the island of Mageroya, so it is not a mainland point. In any event, it is not even the northmost part of this small parcel of land (the peninsula of Knivskjelodden just above being the real claimant). Yet in summer, coachloads of tourists arrive at the North Cape visitor centre, each one paying Nkr195 (£17.75) as the entry fee for the North Cape. Still, the drive here is dramatic; at this time of year it wends through reindeer summer-grazing grounds. Intriguingly, there is even a small Thai museum on the premises, commemorating the 1907 visit of King Chulalongkorn of Siam to North Cape.

Meanwhile, mainland Europe's true northernmost point lies further east, beyond the pretty harbour town of Mehamn. Access to Nordkyn is possible only by boat or on foot, which is presumably why road-accessible North Cape is more heavily promoted. The well-marked hiking trail from Mehamn to Nordkyn takes about eight hours, and there's a cabin for overnight stays. You can organise day boating excursions here (around Nkr2,500/£227 for a group of four) – or arrange to be picked up by boat after you have made the walk. This service is offered by Nordic Safari Wildlife Adventures (00 47 901 47509; www.nordicsafari.no), which also provides a generous range of accommodation and services at Mehamn.

You can choose between five very comfortably furnished fishing cabins on stilts over the harbour (one night from Nkr2,000/£170), or a youth hostel next door (from Nkr350/£32 per bed). There is also a restaurant serving the freshest of local catches. Activities range from ice fishing in the winter to speedboat safaris in summer. And at any time of year you can take a king crab safari, a day out on a boat in Tanafjord. Measuring up to two metres across, king crabs are a relatively new addition to the area: they originate from Russia's Kamchatka area and were brought to the Russian Arctic a couple of decades ago. Great crowds of these enormous crustaceans have, literally, walked into Norwegian waters since then.

And for more Nordic beauty?

Norway's northern fjords are breathtaking – and the country's coastal ferry service, Hurtigruten, is the best way to make a sublime voyage around the amazing shoreline of Finnmark.

Part-cruise operation, part-cargo ship, Hurtigruten has been carrying passengers, post and fish along the coast for more than a century. Most tourists buy four-day (or more) passages on the ships, but you can also use the service as a short-hop ferry, stopping to explore harbour towns at leisure or perhaps taking a driving holiday and cutting out circuitous roads around fjords by booking yourself and your car on-board.

For spectacular landscape, head for Kjollefjord with its amazing Finnkirka cliff, shaped like a church, at the sea entrance. Legend has it that this was once a sacrificial site of the Sami, although today the herdsmen who arrive with their reindeer in the summer show no such tendencies. You can learn a great deal about their culture, both at the engaging local museum at the village of Kjollefjord and by visiting a traditional Sami lavvu, where the lifestyle of nomads in the Arctic wilds will be explained to you.

Kjollefjord's cheerful Hotel Nordkynn at Stranveien 136 (00 47 78 49 81 51; www.hotelnordkyn.no; doubles from Nkr1,090/£99 including breakfast) can organise such activities. The village's Foldal Wharf museum (open daily in the summer 11am-5pm; other times on request; Nkr30/£2.75) encapsulates the spirit of enterprise here: it is currently being developed from a fishing wharf dating from 1911. Besides its Sami exhibition the curator is painstakingly recreating fish-factory life of the 1920s and 1950s.

To sample some more local culture as well as stunning scenery, move on to Berlevag. This colourful little fishing town was the setting of the unlikely 2001 hit movie Heftig og Begeistret (or Cool and Crazy), about the men's choir. The harbour is attractive, as is the innovative Arctic Glass Studio (where you can even join a workshop to create your own artworks – 00 47 78 98 11 55; www.finnmarkskatalogen.no). Next, take the extraordinarily beautiful coastal road that sweeps around bays and cliffs to the village of Kongsfjord. Here, Berlevag Trolling and Deep Sea Fishing (00 47 78 98 18 80; www.trollingnorway.com) has a range 3 7 of seafaring activities. These include a bird and seal safari on which you visit an island of gulls, gannets and more, then sail on to a natural seal sanctuary, from Nkr780 (£70) per person per trip.

For accommodation and dinner, there's a treat in store. Kongsfjord Gjestehus (guesthouse), in the adjacent hamlet of Veines (00 47 78 98 10 00; www.kongsfjord-gjestehus.no), is an old family home filled with antiques and driftwood artistry and offering bedrooms in wonderfully converted barns where innovative touches include banisters made from old oars. Rates start at Nkr1,050 (£94) per double excluding breakfast; dinner from Nkr180 (£16).

Can I see the midnight sun in August?

In the very northern reaches of mainland Norway, the sun never sets from mid-May to the end of July – it started to dip briefly below the horizon around midnight only a few days ago. Further south, at Sweden's Kiruna (67.50 degrees north) and Finland's Rovaniemi (on the Arctic Circle at 66.57N), at this stage in the summer the sun disappears for between three and four hours. Nevertheless, the nights are still luminous even in cloudy conditions.

I want to see the bright lights

To see the natural light show that is the aurora borealis you need dark, clear skies. Generally, the optimum time to see the lights is during the autumn and spring. This year, aNorthern Lights Centre opened in a prime viewing area of Sweden. The Aurora Sky Station (00 46 980 402 00; www.abisko.nu) is based on Mount Nuolja in the Abisko National Park. You can learn about the science of the Northern Lights at the exhibition here, watch them from a viewing platform and even "listen" to the accompanying electromagnetic sounds via a synthesiser. The station is open from September to March on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 9pm until midnight; the Skr295 (£22) admission includes the chairlift ride up and down the mountain.

You mentioned the ice hotel?

Once the weather turns consistently cold enough, Lapland sees a flurry of construction activity with the creation of ice accommodation. The buildings – with restaurants, bedrooms, and bars made entirely of snow and ice – usually start to take shape from December and then melt the following April. Finland boasts at least two such hotels, with a snowcastle created annually at the port town of Kemi (00 358 16 259 502; www.snowcastle.net) and an igloo-like snow "village" at Lainio near the ski resorts of Yllas and Levi (00 358 16 565 112; www.snowvillage.fi).

Norway offers the Alta Igloo Hotel (00 47 784 333 78; www.alta-friluftspark.no), complete with spectacular ice art and within fairly easy reach of the Alta Unesco Heritage Site of Stone Age carvings. Sweden, meanwhile, is home to the original Ice Hotel (00 46 980 66 800; www.icehotel.com), created each year near Kiruna. The UK travel company Discover the World (01737 218 800; www.discover-the-world.co.uk/icehotel) has devised a neat, four-night trip to this area, taking in the Ice Hotel and also visiting Kiruna's Esrange Space Centre, which is soon to be Virgin Galactic's European base. The holiday costs from £798 per person (January to March next year) including flights, accommodation and transfers.

Any other winter wonders?

Santa Claus, of course. The Finns maintain he and his band of elves live on the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland. They've built him an entire village conveniently near Rovaniemi airport (www.santaclaus.fi). Importantly, it has a busy post office – and it also contains discount Finnish designer home interior shops stocked with the Marimekko and Arabia brands.

You can meet the enormously tall, multilingual Santa here at any time of year (at no charge) but the Christmas season is inevitably the most popular, and this is when a number of charter flights operate direct from the UK. Day trips or longer breaks are sold through agents such as Magic of Lapland (0870 3511310; www.magicoflapland.net); Canterbury Travel (01923 822 388; www.santa-holidays.com); and Esprit Holidays (01252 618300; www.esprit-holidays.co.uk/lapland). And while you're here there are snowmobile safaris, reindeer sleigh rides, dog sledding and more to enjoy.

Where can I find out more?

Information about Norwegian Lapland is available from www.visit northcape.com or the Norwegian tourist board (020-7389 8800; www.visitnorway.com). The Swedish tourist board is on 020-7108 6168; www.visitsweden. com; and the Finnish tourist board at 020-7365 2512; www.visitfinland.com.

Get active – you can even work up a sweat in the arctic circle if you want

Finnish Lapland has the best winter outdoor offerings, and with its great wilderness areas of woods, lakes and rivers it is now also developing its potential as a summer adventure and activity destination.

From Rovaniemi, for example, Lapland Safaris (00 358 16 331 1200; www.laplandsafaris.com) organises excursions along the Ounas and Kemijoki rivers in long wooden boats; picnics by canoe; river safaris to a reindeer farm where you feed the residents and later have lunch of local reindeer stew yourself; and visits to a local Sami home where the hospitable owners will show you the traditional crafts of antler carving and drum making.

Rovaniemi offers a wide range of accommodation, but for views, a great setting and excellent food, head slightly out of town to the Lapland Hotel Sky Ounasvaara (00 358 16 323 400; www.laplandhotels.com) where double rooms, including en-suite sauna, cost from €64 (£46) per night including breakfast.

For scenic hiking, make for Arctic Sweden. Mountainous, glacier-filled Sarek National Park in the north-west presents perhaps the most magnificent landscape, although the weather and terrain are very challenging here.

Less daunting, and almost as beautiful, is the Kungsleden, or King's Trail. This long-distance footpath runs about 450km from the village of Abisko along a mountain range through Abisko National Park and on to the village of Hemavan. Much of the long trail is dotted with trekkers' huts and lodges.

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