Pyha: In the Lapland of the gods

Winter on the holy mountain of Pyha is both adrenalin-fuelled and quietly magical, discovers Leslie Woit

Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Ah, Finland in February. As I pack for a week in the frozen extremities of Lapland, I toss in a few extra thermals, steeling myself against the unknown.

A few hours later, I'm north of the Arctic Circle and 200km west of the Russian border, laughing uncontrollably, tears streaming from my eyes. Not to worry, sliding off your dog sleigh into deep downy snow is a Lappish rite of passage. After a short briefing, my friend Janet is swaddled beneath cosy reindeer pelts while I take the first stab at driving a team of six wide-eyed huskies from behind.

Off comes the brake and, after a brief period of mutual terror, the team gallops into rhythm and their excited barks compete with our adrenalin-addled shrieks. That first left turn is a tricky one.

Life in Pyha (pronounced poo-haa) is all about making transport fun. Skis, snowshoes, snowmobiles, dogs, reindeer: you name it, they ride it. It's a good thing too; stand still for too long at minus 20C and you might freeze to the spot.

Pyha is a holy mountain for the Sami people, and home to a small handful of restaurants, chalets and comfortable slope-side kitchen-equipped accommodation. There's downhill skiing – limited by European standards – with nine lifts and 14 well-groomed pistes making it ideal for beginners and families. And while any bumps on the pistes are perfectly defined (they turn on the floodlights to boost visibility when necessary) there are aspects of Finnish culture that demand a closer look.

"First, we're Finnish, we don't talk," local ski instructor Jenne Haarme explains with a smile. "Second, Finns love rules."

These include working hard, speaking plainly, leaving enough kindling for the next guy, and always riding the chairlift with the weather-protective bubble down.

From skiing and walking to fishing and cloudberry picking, a Finn's connection to the great outdoors is as strong his love of saunas.

"One of the most important things for the Finnish culture is the sauna," explains Seppo Saarinen, Pyha resort manager, over an excellent buffet breakfast of cereals, fruit, eggs and herring.

Sauna is a Saturday night tradition for families; the ideal sauna temperature is around 80C with good ventilation and not too dry.

"Traditionally, it was the only place to wash, to prepare meat for smoking, to give birth, and to die. It was the beginning and the end. Without the sauna..." He drifts off in a hopeless shrug of Finnishness, Leonard Cohen playing in the background.

Leaving Seppo to contemplate life without sauna, we hop in a Ski-Doo taxi to the ski shop for our next expedition: a three-hour cross-country ski odyssey to neighbouring Luppo around 20km away.

Over groomed tracks, we glide through the forest, past idyllic log cabins tipped with smoke curling from chimneys. An occasional husky heralds our passing. Cross-country is the national sport, pursued amid the magical snowscape that defines the culture. On the flats, it's easy for most people to pick up the technique – step, glide, step, glide – though we are handily passed by several Finns older than trees.

Another bit of Finnish culture involves a phone call. Arcane licensing laws require a call to the liquor store to place an order for delivery to the supermarket. It sounds like a lot of admin but when in Rome… Hours later, we happen to be in the supermarket – buying birch-sprigs-in-a-bag for our ritual sauna whipping – when a Ski-Doo roars up and a helmeted driver calls out, "Hey Leslie, your order is arriving!" Beat that, Tesco.

Next, we are off on a 42km self-drive snowmobiling marathon. While the hoped-for Northern Lights are a no show, we do happen on a herd of eight not-so-tiny reindeer followed by a magical tea break under the shelter of a candle-lit teepee. Around the fire, we soak up the moonlit magic cloaked in soft reindeer skins.

With more reindeer than people in Lapland, these guys are everywhere, dead and alive. "One thing," cautions James, our ski rep. "Watch out for antlers. It doesn't happen often but still ..." Goring apart, a reindeer-pulled sleigh ride is a requisite up here. Before the tour, a herdsman dressed in skins recounts his family's 200-year history taming and tending the hearty beasts. After the ride, their soft lips snaffle pellets from our hands.

Finland's winter wonderland attracts visitors keen to unplug and recharge, invigorated by the freeze-and-thaw approach to holidaying. In addition to the two types of skiing (Nordic and Alpine), snowmobiling, reindeer and dog sleigh trips, in one week we also climb a 30m frozen waterfall with picks and crampons, race ice bumper karts around a timed course and, wearing headlamps and snowshoes, tramp into the silvery moonlit forest awash with eerie shadows.

We also visit the only working amethyst mine in Europe, accessed by snowcat. We dig around with tiny picks to unearth our souvenir gems, while a fellow amateur gemologist out for a day with his children explains what being Finnish means to him. "We are a bit gloomy. Just take a look out there!"

Through the icy window, an undulating sea of silver and white sparkles like a frozen dream. It's not surprising that for the indigenous Sami, this region forms the border between Lapland and The Other World.

Pyha is certainly more than a one-reindeer town. Just watch out for antlers.

Staying there

Inghams (01483 791 114; offers a week's self-catering at the four-star Pyha Ski-Inn Suites from £249pp (based on five people sharing), including return flights from Gatwick to Kittila and resort transfers.

Skiing there

A six-day ski pass costs £125pp, with ski and boot hire from £75pp and three days' ski or snowboard school from £75. Snowmobile safaris cost from £79, reindeer safaris £29 and mini husky safaris £39. Ice climbing costs from £59.

More information