Ski special: Off-piste with the huskies
The slopes in Finnish Lapland are magical - and so are the reindeer and husky rides. Natalie Holmes and family tried them all out
Sunday 05 November 2006
If your idea of fun is to roast in a sauna and then plunge into a lake (and the air temperature is -10C), you must be either; a) mad, or b) Finnish. Being neither, I declined this treat, offered while on a family skiing holiday near Ruka in Finnish Lapland - a trip more memorable for the "bolt-ons" that this cold, cold climate can offer.
I had worried about the cold (-12C) and the dark. Being just 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle, it starts to get dark at about 1pm. But, apart from one day, when at -16C my son and I gave in and sat by an open fires at the bottom of the piste, neither was a problem. The cold is a dry cold, and the air is very still. The dark is more than compensated for by sunsets, which seem to last for hours.
Ruka, near our home for the week, the Holiday Club Kuusamon Tropikki, boasts a 200-day ski season, lasting until late May. It is ideal for beginners, with plenty for the intermediate skier too. From the top, on a clear day, you can see Russia.
Whizzing down empty floodlit pistes, we were enveloped by a magical feeling of aloneness. The pistes are so empty that a fellow skier told me a reindeer had strayed out in front of him that morning. Reindeer are everywhere: Lapland's idea of fusion cuisine is reindeer pizza, reindeer kebabs and reindeer hot dogs.
Reindeer was very much off the menu for my demi-veg daughter, but she was happy to be pulled along in a sleigh by one. A reindeer called Tito took us on a ride through the snowy forest, after which the children were taught to use a reindeer lasso and awarded reindeer driving licences (valid locally, renewable every five years). The sleigh ride was hypnotic, silent but for the creaking of the poles and the jingle of the bells. But it wasn't quite as thrilling as the high-speed husky sledge ride we had taken earlier in the week.
Husky pups would give baby penguins a run for their money in a cuteness contest. I don't even like dogs, but I caught myself wondering what the quarantine rules were. Many of the adults had one dark eye and one ice-blue, which contributed to their other-worldly wolfish appearance, but they were ridiculously friendly and good-natured.
Positioned near the back of a convoy, it turned out I would be driving our sledge. The children were zipped into a giant canvas bag lined with reindeer skin, and I stood on the back in charge of the brake. It was a bit like riding a luggage trolley. The noise of about 50 excited dogs was deafening, but I yelped louder still as we hurtled over the bumpy forest floor at racing speed. Yet soon we left the woods and moved on to the ice of an enormous snow-covered lake. The dogs grew quiet as we glided along silently.
At the other side of the lake the snowmobile leading the dogs looped around for the journey home - it was then that our dogs decided they would rather be at the front than at the back, and cut out the loop charging to get near the leader.
On a ride like that the cold can reach the core of you, even while wearing thermal jumpsuits. The only recourse is to make like the Finns and go for a sauna.
HOW TO GET THERE
Natalie Holmes and family travelled as guests of Thomson Holidays (0870 606 1470; thomsonski.co. uk).
A week at the Holiday Club Kuusamo starts at £499
per adult, with 50 per cent reduction for children sharing a room with a parent, including flights and half-board. Ski rental, passes and tuition cost extra. The reindeer and husky rides are available with Ruka Safaris (00 358 8 8521 610; ruka safaris.fi/eng/ index.php).
Finnish Tourist Board (020-7365 2512; visitfinland.com).
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