I’ve done a lot of travelling this year and I’ve been lucky to visit a total of 14 places in 9 months…that’s insane. But amongst all my travels – finding Orangutans in Borneo, sipping champagne on an ultra luxury cruise ship, swimming with turtles in Mexico and more – I’ve never visited a place that’s made me feel so free, so calm and so connected to nature as Finland.
As I boarded my Finnair flight to Helsinki I was tired. I’d been working none stop for the last three months and quite frankly if my tickets hadn’t already been booked and people hadn’t been relying on me I may not have got that far. I plugged myself into the personal tv to entertain myself for the next 2 hours ahead of me, sipped my blueberry juice and narrowly missed out on ticking off another item on my bucket list had the wifi been working (next time finnair, next time). After a stopover at the Helsinki business class lounge and meeting the rest of the journo team we were on our way to Lapland – a place little I had dreamt about visiting since she first saw Santa’s sleigh pulled by reindeer on a Christmas card. Except there was one difference, we were visiting out of season, in Ruska ‘the turning of the leaves’ and I had absolutely no idea what was in store or what to expect of a bare and naked Lapland without its Christmas blanket.
Hiking – The National Park and My First Open Fire Sausage
On our first day we went hiking in the Ylläs national park with Yllassguide. 6km on a crisp but sunny Saturday morning. I don’t hike ok. I had to buy new hiking boots especially for the Komodo Islands and that was the first time my feet had ever been in a hiking boot. But hiking inexperience aside I laced up my boots and off we went into the forest.
In Finland they have ‘every man’s right’ which is a rule that allows you to pick and eat any berries you find and to walk anywhere you like. So we started off with a berry and mushroom lesson as we walked. Blueberries and loganberries are a big favourite in Finland – look out for their loganberry jam and if course blueberry pie wth ice cream…but more about that later.
In the forest there are wooden huts that can be used by everyone to rest, make a cuppa or have lunch. To my surprise we walked into one of the huts, started up a fire and sat down to eat, right there in the forest. Probably common fare for the outdoorsy of you out there, but for someone who’s never actually camped before this was a real experience. Freshly brewed coffee and sausages grilled by yours truly and squeezed into a bun with some fiery mustard. Awesome.
The views from the top of the mountains overlooking the lake were spectacular and oh so silent. I don’t get outside and just walk enough. There always has to be somewhere to go or an end goal with me. I never think to wrap up warm, pack a picnic and just walk, it was incredibly liberating and the nature in the national park was stunning. Oh, and did I mention Lapland has the cleanest air in the WORLD, scientifically proven. Breathe deep and enjoy the chill on the end of your nose and the sun on your cheeks.
I could have gotten myself lost in that forest for hours and the time we did spend there simply rushed by. Needless to say my ugly hiking boots will be getting a lot more use from now on.
Canoeing On The Lake- One of Life’s Ultimate Thinking Places
In the morning we climbed up the mountain and by the afternoon we were canoeing around it. I’ve never canoed before, open water scares me…you’ve seen the film right? No, me either. But still scary.
We donned our very attractive life vests and paired up ready for the boats. With a gentle push we were off, paddling around the lake with nothing but the gentle lap of the water around the canoe to listen to. Canoeing is a fantastic way to put the world to rights. On calm water with no one else around all you can do it chat to your boat partner and let your thoughts go.
We spent nearly two hours on the water that felt like 20minutes. It was gentle exercise that wasn’t even felt until I went to drink my coffee the next day and struggled to lift my mug!
It sounds so simple, and it really is. Taking the time to canoe with Yllassguide when you’re in Finland could be the most basic but the best part of our trip. I had somewhat of a revelation in that little boat that I would never have got sat in front of the tv or with my eyes glued to my phone. It was possibly the most peaceful I’ve ever felt.
Sauna – The Most Exhilarating Spa Experience of My Life So Far
I’ve been in plenty of saunas in my time but they’re usually my least favourite part of a spa day – they’re just too hot for me! So when I was told we were going for a traditional Finnish Sauna I have to admit I wasn’t overly excited. An afternoon sat sweating in a wooden box with strangers? The shy British young woman inside of me was dubious.
Most houses in Finland have a sauna. It’s usually a weekly thing done with your family and friends…naked. Some of the bigger decisions in Finland are made in a sauna so I was intrigued. And as it turns out, sauna is pretty damn cool, comes with a freezing cold lake, and beer – score!
We went to the simply stunning Aurora Estate for the afternoon to experience a traditional wood smoked Finnish sauna and the more popular electric sauna. We all got changed into our bathers, grabbed a Finnish ale and hopped onto the wooden benches inside the sauna. Our hosts tipped on the water to create ‘löyly’ (the steam) and we began to sweat.
When it became too much I was shown how the Fins cool down…by taking a running jump into a freezing cold lake. Sorry what? Literally leg it across the grass, drop your towel and go for it! I was dubious at first, I can’t even bare dipping into a chilly pool on holiday, but I did it and then I did it again – it was honestly the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done and that sauna afterwards has never felt so good!
I’m a total sauna convert and it’s 100% something you should do when you visit Finland. Our first hotel even had a sauna in the bathroom…I think we could learn a lot from the Fins with this tradition.
Icelandic Pony Riding – Warning, Reindeer’s Crossing
I used to ride as a child. I used to love the excitement of galloping around the barn along with the distinct smell of hay and leather that you just can’t get anywhere other than a stable. So when I found out that we would be Icelandic Pony Riding in Lapland I was incredibly excited if not a little worried – suddenly I realised just how fearless we are as children and how far up you are on the back of a horse, even a tiny one like this! We were sized up for our boots and helmets and were assigned to a horse. Once we were all comfortable on how to get on, off, slow down and stop we were off once around the yard and then into the forest.
Once again I was blown away how such a simple activity could bring peace like this. We pottered through the forest to the gentle clopping of the horses feet and even had to stop for a group of Reindeer who went running across our path, it was incredible. We even got to Tolt which is the Icelandic horses version of a run which was a little scary but so exhilarating at the same time.
It was clear that at Yllaksen Vaellushevoset they love their horses. It was a true passion for our guide and she even takes them on day long treks through the mountains for you hardcore riders out there. Again this is something I really enjoyed during our time in Lapland and although not for everyone, something I’d certainly recommend. Being able to see wild reindeer just running through the forest and watching us as we passed was a real ‘pinch-me moment’.
Sleeping in Style – Aurora Domes and Lapland Apartments
Ok, let’s talk accommodation. At first we stayed in the Lapland Hotels which were so cosy and I can imagine fabulous also in the snow. Walking into my apartment after a day in the chilly wind was just so comforting and knowing I could cook for myself, relax in the living room and watch some tv or head into my very own personal sauna in the bathroom was just ace. The food in their restaurant was delicious and the bar stays open until the early hours with love bands and dancing – perfect for some relaxation alone or an all night party! There’s something so satisfying about warm tiles under your feet while the wind blows outside your window and they also have a gym and spa if you’re feeling up to it.
The showstopper however had to be the Aurora Domes in Harriniva, glamping at it’s finest! The Aurora Domes are a true spectacle in the woods of Harriniva and an absolute must for a romantic break away, even if just for one night. With faux fur throws, a roaring fire, cosy beds and a window looking right out over the lake, I just wanted to jump right on that bed with a hot chocolate and a good book. They were just so beautiful nd oozing with style.
The domes were just gorgeous, and while I still wouldn’t relish having to dash to the loos in my snow boots and short pjs for a midnight wee, I think I could completely embrace it for a night under the stars. Especially if we were lucky enough to see the Northern Lights out that window.
The Northern Lights – Indescribable Beauty I Simply Wasn’t Prepared For
The Northern Lights have been on my bucket list for a long time, but it wasn’t until I’d actually seen them that I realised why. I think they’re on a lot of people’s lists because we’ve seen the photos and they look amazing, but it’s not until you actually experience them in the flesh with your very own eyes that you understand why they are such a natural phenomenon and a true ‘must see’.
It was a cold night and our last in Lapland. We had roughly arranged to meet each other outside at around 10:30pm to start looking out for them after our Aurora spotting app (yes that does exist) told us our chances of seeing them was high. By the time I’d put on my 6 layers, hat, scarf and gloves I realised that it was pitch black and aside from yelling down the entire forest and flashing my iphone torch around I wasn’t going to find the rest of the gang. So I set up camp on the edge of the river we’d jumped into earlier today after a hot sauna (still just as fun an refreshing as my first sauna experience) and settled down to watch the sky come alive.
We’d seen the lights a couple of nights before at our apartments but my camera actually picked up more than my eyes did. There was a soft green hue across the sky over the mountains but I have to admit after coming back in at around 12:30am and de-frosting in my sauna I did sit there and think…was that it? It was beautiful and I got some great long exposure photos but it wasn’t quite what I expected. Little did I know that on my last night I would see the true beauty of the Aurora Borealis and it would take my breath away.
Having stupidly forgotten my tripod on this trip I rested my camera on a wooden beam propped up with it’s lens cap, fiddled with my newly learnt long exposure settings and waited. I drank my water, ate a raw fruit and nut bar and watched the sky on a nearby bench ready to jump up and snap away. Mid-way through a voice note to my friend to keep myself entertained I nearly dropped my phone as the entire sky exploded in front of my eyes. Like a kaleidoscope of colour, breaths of smoke, paint on water, the greens, blues, oranges and purples of the Northern Lights swirled and licked above me.
I was awestruck. I couldn’t even move to pick my chin up off the floor let alone walk to press the shutter on my camera. I had a sudden thought that maybe I’d fainted and this was just the colours of the world swirling back into focus as I came to. It lasted for around a minute above my head before floating away back into the streams of eery green smoke that seemed to be coming from the trees. I stayed out there for another hour and never saw anything like it again.
There are a few places you can see the Northern Lights in the world, Lapland is one of them. I will never forget that freezing cold night at the lake and I will be forever grateful of the luck that mother nature showed me that evening. You can travel many miles to see the lights but it may never work out quite right. If you get the chance to see them then consider yourself incredibly lucky and share your experience with the world. People these days seem to be so amazed and obsessed with new technology, new fashion or the latest blockbusters, but when you have a true spectacle like this in our world it’s a crime not to make time to try and catch it.
Reindeer Steaks and Salmon – How The Finish Food Took Me Completely By Suprise
I didn’t know what to expect from Finnish food. I got the impression berries were their thing when Finnair offered me water, tea, coffee or blueberry juice but aside from that I was in the culinary dark. Oh how pleasantly surprised I was. Wow.
I have NEVER tasted smoked salmon so fresh in my entire life. It melted in your mouth and the flavour was exquisite. Reindeer steak is my new favourite meat (sorry kids) as it was tender, full of meaty flavour but still so succulent and heavy. Mushrooms picked fresh from the forest and full of earthy flavour, beetroot soups and jus to compliment the reindeer meat. Blueberry pie and ice cream…need I say more?!
The Finnish food blew me away. Every single thing we ate was delicious with a capital D and I couldn’t get enough of the flavours. I wouldn’t have thought I’d find my new foodie destination in Finland but I really did. I can’t tell you how happy I was with every single plate put in front of me, even the ones with moss on them. Yes, actual moss from the forest which FYI goes amazingly with Reindeer meat to add a salty little garnish.
I will be dreaming about that smoked salmon and that blueberry pie for a long long time. Foodies, if nothing else in this article has swayed you to put Finland on your travel list then this part should. Make sure you try some loganberry sorbet with your after dinner coffee too, super refreshing. Hunt down Restaurant Rouhe for lunch or the Aurora Estate for dinner.
What’s To Come – Husky Rides and Reindeer Safaris
There are so many wonderful things to do in Lapland in Autumn. Some of our team did river rafting which looked incredibly fun but sadly I wasn’t able to take part in – yet another reason to come back in Ruska before the snow arrives. But if it is snow you’re after then this truly is the place to be, and although prices do rise in snowy season there’s so much magic to discover.
Reindeer Farms! We visited Torassieppi Reindeer Farm which is actually the oldest reindeer farm in Finland because guess what, reindeer do still exist without Christmas! It was a really interesting morning learning all about the traditional culture and how the reindeer are kept and herded. Did it feel strange petting and feeding one when we’d had it’s brother on our plates the night before? Yes. But it’s so clear that the farmers love their animals and they really are so well taken care of. In wintertime expect a lot of Santa’s grottos, reindeer feeding and reindeer safaris. After all, this is where the big guy lives.
Ski! Lapland is a big ski destination with our guides showing us the difference between the green and brown forest we hiked through vs snow up to their waist in the very same spot! I tried skiing for the first time this year and although I was terrified I kind of loved it so I’d love to come back to Lapland and give it another go. Walking into the log cabins for a warm hot chocolate or even a sauna after a long day skiing sounds like total bliss!
Huskies! We got to visit the world’s biggest Arctic Sleddog centre at the Harrivina Hotel on our final day in Lapland too – puppy cuddles included which made me one happy lady. It’s out of season for them right now and even though we were still bundled up in arctic weather gear they were still pretty warm so it’s a lot of R&R right now until showtime in the snow. Husky riding is still well and truly on my bucket list so I’ll have to come back in winter. You can even see the Northern Lights on a husky safari, riding out into the snow and watching them swirl over the powdering white cushion around you.
I had no idea what to expect from Finland without snow and although I’d love to come back and see it in all its crystallised beauty I can’t help but feel I experienced something even more special.
I only spent four days in Lapland but I really feel like I found a new piece of myself in that country. With just the light breeze rustling through the leaves, a gentle trickle of the stream and the silence of the mountains for company, Finland has made such an impact on me I can see myself visiting year after year as a little soul searching tradition.
I can’t tell you how Santa is getting on with your list this year or how bright Rudolph’s nose was. How it felt to make snow angels or speed across the snow pulled by huskies. What I can tell you is that Lapland is quite simply one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited and you’re seriously missing out if it’s not on your list – snow or no snow, Finland is the answer.
Need a ride? Contact Ylläs Express – they transported us everywhere and were fantastic.