Traveller's Guide: Lapland - drive huskies, meet Santa Claus and try to catch the Northern Lights
Winter doesn't get more atmospheric than in Europe's frozen north
Chris Leadbeater is a full-time travel journalist who has written for The Independent since 2009. He specialises in the USA, South America and Europe, but has covered destinations as varied as Mozambique, New Zealand, Indonesia and Lebanon. Prior to becoming a travel journalist, he worked as a music writer and for men's magazines.
Saturday 23 November 2013
On the surface, it is illogical – the idea that, just as Europe plunges into winter, anyone would wish to visit the continent's coldest and most remote portions in search of a holiday. Yet the pull of Lapland is undeniable. It is a place of magical, even otherworldly image – a white landscape of frosted forests and iced lakes.
It is not a country, but an area that spreads over the uppermost parts of the Nordic landmass. You might delineate it as Sapmi, the region inhabited by the Sami people crossing the top of Norway, Sweden and Finland, even flowing into Russia.
Lapland is easy to reach from Britain. Norwegian (0843 3780 888; norwegian.com) flies non-stop from Gatwick to Tromso in Norway, with connections to Alta and Kirkenes. Finnair (0870 241 4411; finnair.com) flies via its hub in Helsinki to up-country Finland, including Ivalo, Kuusamo, Rovaniemi and Kittila. And Scandinavian Airlines (0871 226 7760; flysas.co.uk) covers Lulea and Kiruna in Sweden via Stockholm. In addition, charter airlines such as Thomson Airways (0871 231 4787; flights.thomson.co.uk) head to destinations such as Rovaniemi directly.
One attraction is the chance to meet Father Christmas. Finland is the ho-ho-ho heartland, especially in the case of Rovaniemi (www.visitrovaniemi.fi), which hosts two theme parks where the great man can be encountered.
Tromso Santa Park (00 358 600 301 203; santapark.com; €31 for adults, €25.50 for children 3-12) boasts Santa's Office, the Toy Factory and an Elf Workshop. Santa Claus Village (00 358 16 346 270; santaclausvillage.info; entry free – individual exhibits are charged for) is on the precise curve of the Arctic Circle. The attached Santa Claus Holiday Village (00 358 40 1593 811; santaclausholidayvillage.fi), has apartments for a family of four from €319 per night in December, half board. Alternatively, a three-night break at the Hotel Santa Claus in Rovaniemi with flights from Birmingham on 8 December, costs £1,548 for a family of four (kids under 12) with breakfast and transfers via Thomson (0871 231 4691; thomson.co.uk).
These can be busy in December, but a quieter possibility lies near Kuusamo, in the hamlet of Vuotunki. Santa's Cottage (00 358 207 5518 50; nordicholidays.com) is a small operation where guests meet Father Christmas and go tobogganing, grill sausages and bake gingerbread. Four-hour programmes will run every Saturday between 7 December and 29 March, priced €70pp, including transfers from hotels such as the Sokos Hotel Kuusamo (00 358 20 123 4693; sokoshotels.fi), where a family room for three costs €165 in December.
Shorter jaunts are feasible. Lapland Breaks (02920 761 379; lapland-breaks.co.uk) sells one-day Lapland Santa Experiences – to Pajala in Sweden from £399pp, including snowmobile and husky rides, and a date with St Nicholas. Departures from Bournemouth, Cardiff, Gatwick, Exeter and Norwich during December.
Enjoy a dog's life Calm comforts
Not keen on rushing about on skis? There are trips galore for those who want to enjoy the silence. Simply Sweden (01427 700 115; simplynorthernlights.co.uk) sells a four-night Magical Moments in Lapland jaunt – from £1,645pp , with flights and breakfast – which splits its time between two intriguing Swedish retreats: Treehotel (00 46 928 10 403; treehotel.se), near Lulea, has outlandish rooms such as a "bird's nest", a "UFO" and a mirrored cube – built into tree boughs; and the Icehotel (00 46 980 66 800; icehotel.com) is reconstructed each winter at Jukkasjarvi, near Kiruna.
Equally quirky is Transun's (01865 565 806; transun.co.uk) Happy New Year getaway – three nights in Karesuando from £879pp, full board, with flights from Glasgow or Gatwick on 30 December. This Finnish town is so near to Sweden that, on New Year's Eve, you can switch nations and, due to the time difference, greet 2014 twice.
Icehotel Winter in the city
Lapland is not entirely rural. It can also provide the most northerly city break in Europe. Tromso is a splendid slice of Norwegian urban life, largely built on a fjord-framed island. It plays host to the striking landmark of the Arctic Cathedral, which resembles a row of icebergs (ishavskatedralen.no), the explorer lore of the Polar Museum (polarmuseum.no), and it has busy bars and restaurants. A three-night B&B stay at the four-star Radisson Blu Hotel, flying from Heathrow via Oslo on 19 December, costs £475pp with Expedia (020 3027 8682; expedia.co.uk).
Into the wilderness
This vast, rugged expanse makes a perfect playground for those who want to explore far from the beaten track.
The White Circle (01670 785 044; thewhitecircle.com) also delves deep into the Finnish realm with its Harriniva – Extreme Adventure trip (pictured left), a six-night odyssey that is dominated by two long snowmobile journeys – 250 miles north from Kittila to Kilpisjarvi in the upper reaches of the country, and a return leg that traces the Swedish border. From £2,345pp, with flights to Kittila and transfers; next departure is 30 March.
If you want a brief taste of the wild, you could try the quick Swedish escape proffered by Wexas (020 7590 0610; wexas.com) – two nights in a comfy lodge near Lulea and one night in the open at Aurora Safari Camp, where you sleep in laavu tents (traditional Sami tipis, thankfully heated). From £1,975pp, with flights and most meals.
Enjoy a dog’s life
Husky-lovers are in for a treat. Mountain Kingdoms (01453 844 400; mountainkingdoms.com) runs an 11-day Northern Lights & Husky-Sledding break which takes a detailed approach to Norway. The crux is a three-day cruise along the north-west coast, from Bodo to Kirkenes. Guests stay at the Kirkenes Snowhotel, before a three-day husky mission into the interior. From £2,400pp, including flights, with the next trip penned in for 14 February.
Exodus (0845 869 9179; www.exodus.co.uk) runs a Finnish Wilderness Week – a group expedition that dissects the marshy Riisitunturi National Park and neighbouring Oulanka National Park with its thick pine forests and waterways. The latter sits so far to the east that it almost touches Russia, though both parks are accessible from Kuusamo. The week is spent dog-sledding, snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing, costing from £1,369pp, with flights. Departures in January and February.
See the lights fantastic See the lights fantastic
Lapland has a close affinity with the Northern Lights – the swirling celestial display that is sparked when charged solar particles hit the magnetic pole. Holidays that catch a glimpse of this eerie spectacle include a four-night Hunt for the Northern Lights group trip sold by Aurora Zone (01670 785 012; theaurorazone.com), which revolves around the cosy Forest Hotel in the Swedish village of Tarendo. Days are spent ice-fishing or in the sauna; night brings snowshoe hikes in search of the main event. The price starts at £1,795pp, full board, with flights to Kittila or Kiruna.
For scholars of all things aurora, Discover the World (01737 214 250; discover-the-world.co.uk) suggests Lofoten and Northern Lights – a six-night, self-drive deal that lets you absorb the rustic scenery of the Vesteralen and Lofoten Islands on Norway's north-west edge while appraising the firmament for activity. From £1,079pp, including flights to Evenes, hotels with breakfast and car hire.
If that seems like too much effort, Taber Holidays (01274 875 199; taberhols.co.uk) works with Kakslauttanen, a resort near Ivalo in Finland, where you can stay in glass igloos and let the Northern Lights come to you. Four-night half-board breaks from £1,229pp, with flights.
Slope off for skiing
Lapland wins points as a ski destination thanks to the length of its season, which can last from October to May. And while it lacks the high terrain of the Alps, it succeeds as an enclave of intermediate challenges ideal for families. Levi, the largest ski area in Finland (reached via Kittila) is a good example, with just three black runs among its 43 pistes.
A week's half-board holiday for a family of four (children under 12), flying from Gatwick on 26 January and staying in the three-star Crazy Reindeer Hotel, costs £3,122 in total, with equipment and lift passes, through Inghams (01483 371 206; inghams.co.uk).
Ruka, near Kuusamo, is similarly gentle. A week's trip for two, flying from Gatwick on 5 January, staying at the four-star, Ruka Village Ski Inn, costs £709pp, with transfers, breakfast, equipment and lift passes, via Crystal Ski (0871 236 5420; crystalski.co.uk).
Those in search of steeper slopes can find them at Riksgransen. Sweden's northernmost ski resort (accessible by train from Kiruna) is known for its off-piste action. A package of three nights in March at the Hotell Riksgransen, with breakfast and lift passes, costs 2,450 krona (£229) pp via the resort (00 46 980 64 100; riksgransen.se).
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