Winter Rapture in Finnish Lapland
By Scott Stone
Snow up to my knees, I stood at the corner of Puthaarannantie and Lahenrannantie in Muoino, Finland. I breathed in deeply, taking in the townscape, a sea of white, still, except for a pulled sled in the distance. The air I was breathing was not just any air but recognized by the W.H.O. as the “world’s cleanest air.” This town of 2,100, pronounced Me-own-eo would be my home for the next three nights.
This was day two of my nine-day travel of Arctic Finland. It was early November which is “off-season” which I prefer, and by traveling in November, I did not have the ultra-frigid weather and deep dark of December/January. My mode of transport would be the bus.
Finland has always intrigued me . . . the Finnish language unique to Finland, the music of Sibelius with its ethereal sound, globally renowned for their socially progressive ways, and how can you not love a country where there are more saunas than cars.
I arrived to Muino by bus from the city of Rovaniemi, the city I flew into via Helsinki. The four-hour journey of endless towering evergreen and birch scarce of people, however, there was plenty of reindeer that would dash out to run along the bus.
The city of Rovaniemi though located four miles south of the Arctic Circle is known as the “Capital of Lapland.” It surprised me in a good way. The city of 60,000 decked up with colorful Holiday lights had a wonderful spirit, chic boutiques, pubs, live music, international restaurants, and four buildings designed by the late Alvar Alto, Finland’s most famous architect. My favorite Finnish restaurant is Roku Street Bistro, I recommend the “Pike,” and a dish called “Tastes of the North.”
Muonio made for an ideal base for exploring Pallas-Yllasttunturi National Park, a fifteen-minute taxi ride away. The Park, which is the most popular in Finland, is made up of 270 miles of open space with some of the best hiking and cross-country skiing in the country. The heavy snow that continued through the night made my skiing an absolute nirvana like experience. A wide range of trails are offered for all levels, I took the “Pollask 10” route, as I glided through the hushed forest, with a healthy variation of slight up and downhill. Whereas hiking, because of the deep snow, was somewhat difficult, however, gloriously magical in its stillness. I counted but a handful of people in four hours of walking and was rewarded with breathtaking wide-open vistas.
The terrain in the Pallas-Yllasttunturi National Park is not mountainous in the conventional sense but instead dominated by a series of “fells,” which are rounded hills above the tree line, forming a tundra-like landscape. This fell terrain is the landscape that is prevalent throughout Finland. Please note for those that prefer to stay in the park, the Lapland Hotel Pallas built in 1938 sits at its entrance, is somewhat dated but atmospheric with a decent restaurant. Skis can be rented at the hotel.
During my time in Muoino, I stayed in a cozy red cabin perched on a hill. The view was terrific, it was ample in size, including a full kitchen and, like a real Finn, my own sauna. Each night around 10 pm in the hopes of seeing the “Northern Lights,” I would walk to the darkest place I knew, the frozen lake, approximately one mile away, and stare up at the sky. Darkness and clear sky are the key elements for optimal viewing.
On this my final night looking up I reflected warmly on my time in Muino, my good interaction with locals and being able to experience the “small-town arctic life.” Be hanging out at the Swiss Café, run by Agnes a Swiss national, or introduced to an authentic “Tunturiporo,” an establishment that specializes in a mind-boggling array of freshly cooked reindeer dishes, operated for the past forty years by Kirsti Vesikukka and her son. And even my morning grocery shopping at Market K where I would try out my Finnish on unexpected shoppers with a “mita tuo on” (what is this?) or “missa on poron fille” (where is the reindeer fillet?) This led to a startled look, a slight smile and often to interesting conversation.
Suddenly off to my right whiteish strands, ghost-like whisps danced around, and then came straight out at me a brilliant greenish blue. The “Northern Lights” so sudden that it was unsettling at first, but then the other-worldly beauty set in. The brilliant colors moved about in various forms and in five minutes vanished. Magnificent.
My next stop was Inari 145 miles to the northwest was the cultural homeland of the indigenous Sami. (Do not call them Lapps, as this is considered derogatory). The Sami number nearly 9,000 in Finland originated from the Kola Peninsula of Russia and emigrated as nomadic reindeer herders around 1200. The Sami also has a presence in the arctic regions of Norway and Sweden. They have their own language (nine versions of it), own flag, and Parliament and are recognized as the only indigenous group in Europe. I highly recommend visiting the museum SIIDA in Inari, which is devoted to the Sami culture and will give you a good understanding of their history and of the Sami people today. It is housed in a sleek building with classic Finnish interior design elements of wood and light.
In Inari, I stayed at the Wilderness Hotel Inari & Igloos, an upscale complex, beautifully situated on Lake Inari. The dining room, with its soaring ceiling, huge windows, and the roaring fireplace, was stunning. The food was delicious and diverse, offering up both Finnish dishes (make sure to try the Reindeer Fillet), and continental dishes. Accommodations include igloo-shaped huts with a glass roof for viewing the night sky from your bed. Very cool. The Wilderness Hotel was a place to be pampered and offered an array of “winter activities,” such a husky sledding. I met tourists from all over Europe and as far away as India, as the nearby Ivaldo Airport makes in convenient.
It was now time for the final frontier as I hopped on a postal van for the two-hour journey to Utsjoki, Finland’s most northern village. The familiar landscape of evergreen gave way to savage windswept tundra. I relished the rawness and desolation. (0.40 people per sq mile) About ten minutes before arriving in Utsjoki a young man previously sitting in the back of the van moved to the seat across from me. He introduced himself, his name Jere, and in his early twenties and a local. I informed him I was headed for the Holiday Vale Hotel and added that when making the reservation, they informed me that the hotel’s restaurant would be closed, but the pub in town should be open. As we exited the bus, Jere pointed across the street. The pub was closed. Jere then said, “my mom is the chef at that hotel,” and he gestured for me to stay put. He got on his cell phone and within a couple of minutes, said, “My mom will cook for you, let’s go.” And off we went walking the two miles to the hotel, slightly uphill, and though not yet two o’clock, it was dark already. It was very cold, the landscape rugged, and foreboding. As we reached the rise of the road, down below was the hotel wedged dramatically between two fells resting on the edge of the Tovo River across from Norway, and the restaurant with its extra-large windows lit up like a jack-o-lantern welcoming me.
And what a welcome it was! Jere’s mother Mari, very open and demonstrative dressed in traditional chef attire introduced me to Kimmo her boyfriend, a chef as well. Jere and I indulged in an array of Finnish gastronomic delights, my favorite being “Venison with Mashed Potatoes and Lingonberry.” But as delicious as the food was the best part was sharing the warmth of my new-found friends over dinner and followed by dessert and cognac. They would not allow me to pay for anything. I was overwhelmed by their hospitality as I repeatedly called out with “keetos” “Hare-koo-linin” (Thank you/delicious.)
Early that next morning before taking the long bus back to Rovaniemi for the return flight, I took the time to walk across the bridge to Norway. I scrambled to the top of the nearest fell and looked over to Finland, taking in the endless landscape one last time. Harsh, unforgiving, so removed. I loved it and took a photo in my mind.
There is another moniker that comes with Finland, that being voted “The Country with the Happiest People in the World.” The Finns are somewhat shy at first, but generous and big-hearted and you could sense their appreciation of their country, in nature, in the respect to others, in the simple things that make up their high quality of life. From this travel and meeting its people, I, for one, was very happy.
Scott Stone is the author of Insatiable: A Passion-For-Life Memoir Backpacking Around the World, and founder of the website Ethnicepicurenyc.com. In a previous life before being totally consumed by travel and writing, where he especially is drawn to report on remote rather far afield destinations. Stone split his business career of thirty years between the cruise industry and magazine publishing. Working in executive management positions at the Cunard Line (VP Sales) and in publishing with such titles as Town & Country, Civilization, Hemispheres and Doubledown Media. (Trader Monthly/Dealmaker/Private Air). Raised in the Midwest, he has resided in New York City for the past twenty-six years. With being impassioned by exploring the world, its diversity in landscapes and cultures, his ambition is to spread its benefits of travel to as many people as possible through his writing and public speaking. He is also an ardent enthusiast of all fine and performing arts, and a big reader. He is married, his wife Zehua a native of Shanghai.