A trip to see the northern lights is a bucket list item for most Brits, so we sent Judith Holder to Lapland to see what all the fuss was about.
I’m now getting to the age where my bucket list is my to-do list, so when the chance to go to Finnish Lapland came along it was too good to miss.
Lapland isn’t a country, but describes the bits of Scandinavia and Russia that lie within the Arctic Circle. All I knew for sure was it was going to be cold, as in very. Armed with a suitcase of clothing that made me look like a lagged boiler, I made off for five days.
This region of Finland (Inari) has three times more reindeer than people and only half a person per square km. Hour after hour of ice-packed roads intersecting snow forests, with infrequent truck stops and road signs to places that look like bad Scrabble hands: it was all adding up to properly remote.
We arrived in the tiny ski resort of Saariselkä, easily the most northerly international ski resort in Finland and only 30km from the Russian border.
The town is covered in snow and compacted ice. Toboggans are, therefore, the easiest way to transport stuff around, and there’s a vending machine selling them for two euros at the supermarket, which makes a nice change from the bags for life routine.
Lapland is big on cross-country skiing – all those forest trails and wide open spaces mean the Finns have got it down to a fine art. The skis are longer and thinner than downhill ones and using them doesn’t involve hurling yourself down mountains at 80 miles an hour.
There were quite a few other Brits in their dotage at ski school on the first morning, including Sandra who came back from a downhill skiing holiday in Austria last year in a neck brace and was determined to master cross country instead. She and I inched our way round the baby circuit like giraffes with poles strapped on our feet and were beginning to feel quite confident until we were marched over the road to the beginning of the trail proper.
Needless to say, even cross country involves slopes and given that neither of us had mastered stopping, our first launch off ended in (harmless) carnage. We went back to the baby circuit and consolidated but I realised that, as a control freak, skiing full stop is not for me. I have now officially ticked it off my to-do list.
Snowmobiles are the best way to get around this part of the world and so we spent a lot of time whizzing about in forests at speeds of up to 35km/h in our thermal suits and helmets, like Deliveroo riders in convoy. I noticed the trees looked weirdly small and oddly proportioned, until I realised that the snow was so high up their trunks that we were just seeing the top third of them. That’s a lot of snow.
In late January, the daylight hours were still challenging – the light started to go at 4.30pm and dark lasted till 9.30 the next morning. Our hotel Holiday Club Spa hotel had a pool, spa and sauna, but the evenings could feel long, particularly with no English TV in the rooms. I did have a photo of two men fishing which lit up, but that was the total sum of in-room entertainment. Which is where searching for the northern lights comes in.
“I put so many layers of clothes on that bending any limbs was virtually impossible. Have you ever tried to open your phone wearing an oven glove on each hand? Not a good look.”
From the resort you can take the Aurora Walk, which is well signposted and often candle-lit, to the top of the hill where there’s a platform looking due north and a log burning stove and shelter for when you are hanging around waiting for the clouds to clear. The cabin was full of people looking frankly forlorn and about to give up, but the magic of the aurora is that it can take you by surprise.
We watched, we scrutinised, we imagined we saw turquoise bits, we thought we might see the odd shaft of light coming out of the horizon. Others told us they were just car headlights, but we weren’t put off.
More stars came out. The cloud seemed to move away. People started to set up their cameras on tripods as this is the best way to see it taking shape… Yes, there were definitely some shafts of light; yes, there were shades of pale blue.
People came out of the cabin and started to get excited. We turned back towards the town feeling pleased we had seen something but secretly disappointed it hadn’t amounted to all that much. Then on the walk back to town in a clearing with little light pollution, it all started to happen in a big way. Great swirls of white and then blue light chasing over the sky in all directions, shafts of light turning into swirls, and bright turquoise curtains. It is magical; there is no other word for it. Like the best ever firework display but silent, more beautiful and humbling.
The cross country dunces were given the option of snow shoeing the next day. All we needed was a 10-minute demonstration of how to trail-blaze into virgin snow, and hey presto, off we went, and to add to our fun the sun came out. I loved it, and have discovered the winter sport for me.
The ‘shoes’ strap on to your own boots and are hinged at the toe so that you can lift your heel. They have a crampon spike on the bottom of the hinge, so if you feel you are going to slip then you can stick the crampon blade into the snow and march up or down any incline. Fantastic. We met snow shoers who were off for the day, a picnic in their rucksack, a map and some wood to make fire – how marvellous is that?
In the afternoon we took a husky ride. The dogs were all harnessed up and ready to go. When I say ready to go, I mean they were all tied up to one another and then to a tree like marathon runners on their starting positions, pulling at the rope like coiled springs.
Apparently in December, when the females are on heat, they have to put them all on the front sleighs because the males are desperate to get to them – so if you go at that time of year you may actually become airborne. Just saying. They don’t hang about – and I wondered how many husky power my Volvo at home is. Not as many as you’d think, I reckon.
We drove an hour even further north to the huge Inari lake and the Sami museum, which tells you everything you need to know about the indigenous Sami people who you see round town in brightly coloured traditional dress with hats like jesters and shoes made of reindeer fur. What a hostile environment they have survived in against all odds.
The lake shore is littered with summer houses for town dwelling Finns who come here in the long summer and swim and sail in the lake. If you’re lucky, here you can see a double aurora, which is the northern lights reflected in the water of the lake. That must be quite something.
We decamped after three nights to the Muokta Lodge, a remote hotel with log cabins (all with individual saunas) and aurora cabins, glass ceilinged for maximum viewing at night and an alarm service to alert you if the lights come out. The whole place was Finnish design at its best, with a magical soft candle-lit reception and restaurant area, with views over the snow and trees looking out at what felt like 360-degree Ikea posters.
After dinner they run aurora safaris, and this time the temperatures had dropped to -25°C. We struggled into our thermal suits with more layers underneath than seemed possible and sat in sleighs pulled by snowmobiles.
We were even tucked in by our guides with reindeer hides. It was so cold my nostril hair froze. Oh yes: that’s a weird feeling I can tell you. Trees thick with ice sparkled in the headlights of the snowmobiles like cheap Christmas cards.
After an hour’s drive to a clearing we got out and set up camp in wait for the lights. Our guide lit a huge fire in the snow – a skill to behold – and we warmed up drinking hot berry juice. Sadly the lights didn’t co-operate and so, disappointed but windswept, we went to bed.
You can’t come to Lapland and not go in a sleigh drawn by reindeer; I mean it wouldn’t be polite… Once again the convoy of snowmobiles took us out to the reindeer farm where the creatures were waiting to give us a ride. Our guide Jani was the size of a phone box. I don’t think I have ever seen such a great solid hulk of a wonderful man; I nicknamed him Meatball. He was pulling my sleigh. In more ways than one, I can tell you.
The reindeer were a lazy if cuddly lot, speeding up only for the last 30 seconds in order to get to their reward food at the end. It was like the gentlest, prettiest Disney ride for the under-fives ever.
The last chance to see the northern lights inevitably came around and there was a great deal of cloud cover. Temperatures were lower than ever and I put so many layers of clothes on that bending any limbs was virtually impossible.
Have you ever tried to open your phone wearing an oven glove on each hand? Not a good look. I came to the conclusion that a romantic break in Finland at this time of year would involve bringing your own romance; pulling in this outfit would not be easy.
We set up what they called an Aurora Camp – and despite the lack of aurora it was possibly my favourite night out in the snow. We spent the evening in a Finnish traditional hut with an open fire in the middle, toasting marshmallows, drinking hot berry juice and feeling like explorers at the North Pole.
British winters will never feel cold again.
Inghams is offering seven-night holidays to the four-star Holiday Club Hotel in Saariselkä, Lapland, from £799 per person. Price includes accommodation on a half board basis, return direct flights from London Gatwick to Kittilä and airport transfers, departing in December 2017.
Inghams also offers a Muotka 7 Night Adventure to the three-star Muotka Wilderness Lodge, Lapland from £1,829 per person. Price includes accommodation on a full board basis, return direct flights from London Gatwick to Kittilä, airport transfers and daily activities according to programme, departing in December 2017.
For more information and to book, visit www.inghams.co.uk/lapland or call 01483 345680.
Producer/writer of the BBC Two series Grumpy Old Women and the spin off books, and co-writer with Jenny Eclair of the three stage shows which have been international hits.