When I look back on my trip to the Arctic Circle last year, there remains an unbelievable sentiment: I can’t believe I did it!
The new checked-off bucket list items were, in fact, childhood dreams. Reindeer sleigh rides while learning about Sámi villagers’ approach to farming, dog sledding in a literal Winter Wonderland fairytale, and waiting to see the Northern Lights after midnight in a snow igloo. These dreams didn’t come true in any random part of the world, I had to arrive in Lapland – Finland’s northernmost region snuggled between Swedish and Norwegian ghost towns.
As frosty as Lapland’s climate could be, it was once a station for the Nazi German Army until the Soviet Union took over and evacuated German soldiers. Once World War II destroyed much of this region and burned 90% of Rovaniemi (today’s Santa Claus Village) to the ground, the Finnish government invested in Lapland’s expansion through reconstruction and industrialization with massive hydroelectric plants and mines. After the decline of these industries, so did the region’s population, hence tourism became one of Lapland’s main sources of income for locals.
One of my personal favorite conversations during my time in Lapland was with the Sámi farmers who carried on their family businesses in reindeer herding – which is solely preserved for the Sámi people by Finnish and Norwegian governments in an effort to protect cultural heritage. As indigenous Finno-Ugric people, Sámis have their own language tied to a history tracing all the way back to the second and third quarters of the second millennium BC. Due to their complicated relationship with Scandinavians (which I will explain in a later article,) the Sámi culture and language have dwindled over the years. When in Lapland, make sure you spend time bonding with the reindeer and husky farm owners, they’re most likely of the Sámi descent. As curious travelers, it’s imperative that we learn about cultures in need of preservation.
A trip to Lapland requires at least two nights of stay so you can fully experience a well-rounded spectrum of adventures. Be sure to rent a car, or hire a driver since towns are situated further away and no one wants to be walking when it’s -20°C outside. Some key towns include: Rovaniemi, Inari, Ivalo and Saariselkä. But the most iconic of them all is Kemi, where Emperor Alexander II of Russia envisioned a thriving port district. Here, you’ll experience Frozen in real life by dining or spending a night at the SnowCastle, play with hundreds of adorable canines at the husky farm, and ride the incredible Sampo icebreaker.
Such an intrepid trip only proved to me that dreams do come true. Somehow, as I rode on reindeer sleighs, I knew I would want to hike glaciers in Iceland someday or see polar bears in Greenland. That’s the funny thing about dreams, once they do come true, we conceive even greater ones to fulfill. Unapologetic ambitions. This, is the kind of endless cycle that I can get with.
DO: Visit a husky farm.
Within the Lapland region, you’ll most likely spend ample time in the town of Kemi where husky sledding is a popular activity. Even if you’re not a dog lover (but truly, how can one not be?) visiting a husky farm is a thrilling and a loving experience especially if you can do your research to find a farm that follows ethical guidelines. Since dogs love to run, sledding is a great activity for them to burn off energy. Coated in snow, this winter fairytale landscape is an exciting Lappish experience.
DO: Ride the Sampo icebreaker.
Make sure to ride Sampo, Europe’s first icebreaker – a large vessel with a propeller in the bow and stern, constructed in 1961 – made to operate under extreme conditions in the Arctic. During wintertime, Sampo cruises down the Gulf of Bothnia. The engine room even contains its original operators from back in the day.
DO: The SnowCastle of Kemi.
The SnowCastle of Kemi belongs in the largest snow fort in the world, covering 13,000 to 20,000 square meter of restaurants, hotels, bars, even a chapel. Every winter, it’s rebuilt by a different local architect. Typically, the SnowCastle is decorated with reindeer fur and various ice sculptures.
DO: Santa Claus Village.
Known as “Santa’s official North Pole residence,” Rovaniemi is where you can take photo with St. Nick at the elves’ workshop. Meanwhile, the Arctic Circle also happens to cut through Santa Clause Village via a line which has been in existence since 1865. Here, you’ve arrived at the most northern point.
STAY: At a hotel with sauna in your room!
A large element to Finnish culture is the tradition of sauna with its earliest roots dating back to 7000 BC. Finnish sauna is famous worldwide due to its versatility, locals have been using it as a place to live, eat, and even give birth since it’s believed to be incredibly sterile. Many hotels in Finland provide an in-room sauna as an amenity, which is atypical of hotels around the world. So be sure to book a hotel with a sauna in your room for an unforgettable lodging experience especially during Finland’s cold winter months.
DO: Snowmobiling in the Arctic Circle.
A freezing but thrilling experience is to snowmobile in the Arctic Circle. It’s a popular past time in Finland and considered as a traditional form of transportation within the Lapland wilderness. In Rovaniemi, you can find electric snowmobile safari tours where you can enjoy the emission-free ride without too much noise.
DO: Visit a reindeer farm.
Lapland essentially equates to Christmas all-year-round. Why? You’ve gotta check out some real life reindeer! My Finnish friend Katya told me that reindeer are like cows in Finland, I didn’t believe her until I came here myself! Reindeer sleigh rides were the ancient Sámi villagers’ way of transportation. Fun fact: the number of reindeer in Lapland equals to the number of people!
SEE: The Northern Lights.
This is what we came to Lapland for! In Finland, the Aurora Borealis can be best viewed when you stay inside a glass igloo hotel. Here, nature puts on an incredible show 200 nights a year, as the result of disturbances in the charged electrons and proton particles caused by solar wind. In the hotel room, an alarm sets off whenever the lights are about to come. Bucket list, checked!