For the last 3 years I’ve been on a mission to explore Western & Central Europe “properly”, immersing myself in the pretty Instagrammable must see cities. And I’ve loved every minute of these adventures. However I’m starting to wonder whether I need to think outside of the box and also consider visiting places that I wouldn’t normally be drawn to. As much as I adore big cities with magnificent architecture, museums, palaces and cafes, lately I’ve been craving nature. Exploring the wilderness with beautiful landscapes, clean crisp air and wildlife that are still free to roam…
Having said all that it fascinates me how I’ve somehow managed to end up in places that I never dreamed I would visit or even live as an expat! Out of everywhere I’ve travelled to so far, Finland certainly tops the list in being the most surprising. Surprising to me because it was never on my must see list. Reaching out to my friends in 2017, I was trying to find someone who would be interested in travelling to Russia with me… Luckily one of my friends was keen to visit and suggested we also go to Finland as well, because it was close and she wanted to see the Northern Lights. This meant we needed to travel way up towards the arctic circle, so this is how I found myself in Lapland…
Where exactly is Lapland?
Lapland is the most northern region in Finland located within the arctic circle. It’s bordered by Norway, Sweden, Russia & the Baltic Sea and has vast stretches of natural beauty. In fact, the wide expanse of forests here are often referred to as “Europe’s last great wilderness”.
This area near the North Pole where reindeer roam is also recognised as the home of Santa Claus! A popular destination for tourists chasing the Northern Lights as well as children & young at heart adults who adore Christmas. Whether you want to marvel at nature’s light shows in the sky, curious about traditional Sámi culture or seeking a winter wonderland destination – Lapland should be on your bucket list!
From “down under” up to the North!
It took us 3 flights to arrive from way down under in Australia up to Lapland! The journey consisted of flights from Sydney to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Helsinki then Helsinki to Ivalo. I chose Finnair to fly from Hong Kong to Helsinki, which was a 13 hour flight, and found Finnair to be one of the best carriers I’ve even flown with. They’ve also got a great safety reputation so I would recommend flying with them if you have the option!
Ivalo airport is the northernmost airport in Finland – so this is where the majority of tourists will need to organise flights to when travelling to Lapland. You can then rent a car and drive from the airport to your accommodation if you want to take your time exploring. Keep an eye out for reindeer along the forests on the sides of the road too! We were picked up at Ivalo airport by our Hotel’s van for our transfer and after about an hour drive ended up at our new home.
I stayed at Hotel Korpikartano, located at the edge of beautiful Lake Menesjärvi, in what appeared to be the middle of a beautiful forest! The accommodation here felt more like a foresty style lodge than a hotel. It’s located very close to the National Park Lemmenjoki. This was the kind of accommodation that is perfect for nature lovers. Don’t think Hilton Hotel, think more beautiful wooden accommodation with authentic Finnish homestyle & rustic vibes.
Woodfire huts were scattered around the grounds, canoes & bicycles for your adventures, a sauna & dining room for guests and friendly staff. If you think there isn’t much to do in Lapland other than see the Northern Lights well then you are definitely wrong! The hotel has a range of activities available for guests and I definitely signed up for as much as I could over my 4 day stay!
Address: Meneskartanontie 71, 99870 Inari, Finland
Getting lost in Nature
As the plane was flying over Finland, the further North we got the more I witnessed the colours of the landscape changing. It was the start of September in 2017, that period of time when the days become cooler and the leaves & landscape are changing colour… you know, the time of year where they say, “Winter is coming” and you can actually smell in the air that the snow is on its way soon!
Coming into Ivalo and then on the van to the hotel, I’ve never seen trees so yellow or landscape with such vibrant Autumnal tones. Lapland looked to be exactly like the Autumn-time of my dreams – the roads were very quiet and there was a solitary vibe. Autumn colours are called “ruska” in Finnish and you can see these changes in the landscape’s pallete from mid August, when the vibrant hues start to appear like a masterpiece painting.
Arriving at the hotel I distinctly remember how quiet it was once we got out of the van. Even the sound of my footsteps on the gravel sounded deafening. I knew this was a place I was going to be able to relax, especially with the hotel being on the edge of Lake Menesjärvi and in the middle of the northern wilderness. I loved wandering around the grounds, lighting the fire in one of the fire huts of an evening and chilling out in the middle of nowhere. There’s a lot of hiking trails around as well as trails in the nearby National Park, if you enjoy hiking and landscape photography.
Learning about the Sámi culture
Determined to immerse myself in learning about Finnish culture, I travelled to Inari and visited Siida – the National Museum of the Finnish Sámi. The Sámi are the Finno-Ugric people of the Sápmi region which includes Northern Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia. Reindeer herding is traditionally what they are well known for and this museum also widely showcased their ancestral & cultural history.
It’s interesting to note that the Sámi peoples in some regions are the only ones legally allowed to participate in reindeer herding now in certain regions. I really enjoyed wandering around the museum, admiring the exhibitions, opening my mind to a culture that I had never previously been aware of. I’m really glad I visited Siida Museum as it provided an extra layer of cultural understanding and appreciation for the peoples of the land I was visiting.
After visiting the Sámi museum we were able to stop off at some souvenir shops along the way. Because I still had to travel to Russia after Lapland, I didn’t want to buy a lot early on in my holiday. But I absolutely couldn’t resist purchasing a pair of white & black mittens with reindeer on them. And these mittens came in very handy for the rest of my stay!
Siida Museum website: http://www.siida.fi/contents/sami-museum
Eat reindeer – no, seriously!
I know, this sounds horrible…because reindeer are so cute! As I was on my way down the stairs to walk into the dining room of the hotel, I smelt what I thought was going to be one of the most delicious chicken roast of my life. So because I’d fallen in love with the smell, when I found out just before eating that it was reindeer, my hunger overruled my sensitivities.
Apart from that amazing meal (I still will never forget the aroma, I was certain it was chicken!) I was also able to try Finnish vodka in the dining room of the hotel, which was pretty amazing. And of course to warm up, plenty of red wine! Hotel Korpikatano certainly treats its guests to local produce and everything was super fresh and delicious.
Relax in the sauna
Can you believe that I got to try a sauna for the first time on this trip?! Hotel Korpikatano has a traditional and beautiful wood sauna so I was determined to make like a local and test it out! It took a little getting used to, as at first it was a bit hard to breathe and to acclimatise to the warmth. But once I was able to relax I found myself really calming down from my walking and touristy activities. Sauna’s are an important element of Finnish culture, so make sure you don’t miss out on trying one. Being able to relax Finnish style will certainly add to your experience and warm you up, especially as the temps dip to below zero degrees in Autumn.
Berry picking in the woods
When I saw this activity being offered by the Hotel, I had to sign up for it! I imagined myself wandering into the forests, picking berries and possibly seeing fairies. Childlike dreams aside, being able to learn about the different types of edible berries and mushrooms was fun! The berry picking tour was located right on the Hotel’s grounds in the forests nearby and our tour guides made the experience so worth it. Once we collected the berries and made way for some huskies & cyclists it was back to the hotel for the second part of the tour… tasting our catch of the day!
Traditional cooking over a fire
Lingonberries are in a lot of Scandinavian dishes and we discovered that the berry sauce pairs perfectly with pancakes! In one of the hotel’s outside dining room huts, the group gathered to cook mushrooms and pancakes over an open fire. Being able to source the food and then watch it being cooked in such a traditional manner further enhanced the cultural experience for me. The mushrooms sautéed in butter were also delicious and like none I’ve ever tasted before.
Up your photography skills
The hotel had photography courses available specifically designed for those keen to capture the Northern Lights. And despite the fact I didn’t have my own camera at this time (only my Samsung S8 mobile), I signed up to learn about photography. So this was actually the first photography course I had ever taken! Among other tips I learnt about how the Northern Lights often show up more visibly on photos than what the human eye can see when viewing the sky directly. Hotel Korpikatano also has tripods you can borrow if you haven’t got one with you, which is super handy for your long exposure shots!
Aurora Borealis aka the Northern Lights
So this is what we came for… the Northern Lights. And I didn’t see them – because I was asleep! I know, I know, you’re thinking “Lauren, how you travel all the way from Australia to the arctic and miss seeing the lights because you were asleep?”. In my defence, I was actually super tired! But what I am thrilled about is that my friend, Kat, got to see them as that was one of her lifetime dreams!
However – I am determined to witness the lights one day – which means I’m going to have to travel somewhere to see them! I’m thinking this time I’d especially love to go to Norway, or Canada and do some light chasing there. Or even back to Lapland, possibly during the Christmas season! If you’re keen to see the Lights here in Lapland, then the end of August until early April is the recommended season.
Why should you visit in Autumn?
Each season in Lapland will showcase its own charm & vibes for you. It’s worth noting that if you’re set on visiting during “Ruska”, that it doesn’t last very long, as typically the height of this season is from mid to late September. A photographer’s dream; the vibrant reds, oranges and yellows cascade across the fells in the region. There certainly is something magical about experiencing the Autumn-time in Lapland, especially as its duration is so fleeting. This is why a lot of the Finns will often travel up north here to go camping, hiking and to immerse themselves in the beauty that Autumn displays.
Ahhh Lapland, you have me wanting to return to you again very soon. How strange this seems to me, when you weren’t even on my travel list to begin with!
I hope you have enjoyed reading about my experience in Finnish Lapland! Tell me, have you visited Lapland or seen the Northern Lights? Would you like to? Let me know what you think in the comments below!