Into the Dark of Night: Winter Vacation within the Arctic Circle

Part One: Finland

Northern Lights, dog sleds, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, a sauna in your hotel room which is a block through the forest from the Laplander capital building; reindeer, ice fishing, snowmobiling, king crab fishing, the ice hotel, enduring a winter storm on the Artic Sea, the same storm that sent a tidal wave through the galley of the Viking Sky. Does it sound interesting?

The key objectives of our plan were:

  1. See the Northern Lights
  2. Visit Lapland and learn something about the Saami people
  3. Take the Hurtigruten Cruise Boat, aka, Mail Boat, Ferry, Produce Transport down the Norwegian Coast from Kirkenes to Bergen.

And since we were going to land in Helsinki, we may as well spend some time there, and since there is a ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, and my wife is half Estonian, we may as well go there, too.

All in all, it turned out to be about a seventeen day trip.

Oh, yeah, and while we at it, why don’t we spend one night at the Snow Hotel in Kirkenes?

The earliest we could start was the second week of March, since our travel partner, the retired Dr. H, couldn’t extract himself from his farm of which he is not yet retired.  March is still winter, at least most of it is, but the nights aren’t so long, which is bad for objective 1, to see the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis to sticklers. However, when I set up the March reservations, the Hurtigruten travel agent told me that March was better, because even though we would lose several hours of darkness, the skies would more likely be clear of clouds. And I have to admit that I was also pleased that temperature in Northern Finland would also be marginally better, in the teens at midday rather than single digits, Fahrenheit.

It seemed guaranteed to be heck of a fun.

We booked our flight to Helsinki on Air France through Paris Charles de Gaulle. If you’ve read my Clear Steerage article then you already know how that all worked out.

Upon landing, and a few bags short, I told our taxi driver to take us to prison. It took him only a few seconds to figure out that we were staying at Hotel Katajanokka, once a prison and now a great place to stay in Helsinki. It’s unique, the rooms are big, the service is good, the staff is helpful and the breakfast and evening dining were great although the dinner menu is limited.  There are even a few rooms which have been set aside as exhibits of the hotel’s previous stint as a prison. It’s a short walk to the harbor or to the center of the city, things that I am sure are more enjoyable in the summer. If you want a change from their limited dinner menu, there are several viable restaurants about two blocks away, a distance you can walk on a winter night. If you wish to go further afield, the tram stops directly at the hotel’s doorstep, and it will take you warmly to the more distant parts of the city center. The hotel cost was about 125 euros/night. Link to their website.

Prison decor Interior of Hotel Katajanokka in Helsinki. We had an enjoyable stay here.

Of course, the cold has no impact on the locals and they are active visiting museums and shopping in what you might consider extreme weather, but that’s why we’re here, to see what it is like, right? Helsinki is a relatively new European city, only a few hundred years old, still there are interesting things to see. All of the travel guides suggest pretty much the same collection of things. We were unable to do all of them. Some just aren’t available during the winter season. Still we filled our time doing the following:

The outdoor market right next to the frozen harbor. My wife was so impressed that she bought some wooden plates. I kept saying, “Let’s go-inside, somewhere.”

The Temppeliaukion Kirkko, alias the temple built into the side of a rock.

The Uspenskin Katedraali, an Orthodox Cathedral within walking distance of our hotel.

The National Library, just off of the Unioninkatu Street. At least step into it for an hour and examine the old books, and watch the students do their research.

The Ateneum Art Gallery, the building itself is art.

and

Most importantly, the Central Train Station: A fascinating exhibit of Art Nouveau Architecture, both inside and out.  Do go inside to the tourist center and check out the décor.

The iconic exterior of the Helsinki Downtown Train Station. Check out the inside as well.

We also took the one day trip to Tallinn. Well, I always love a boat ride. It is an early pre-dawn start and a post dusk return. I was disappointed that we did not require an icebreaker to lead the ferry across the sea. Our fellow passengers were mainly Finns going to Estonia on shopping trips. Two hours after boarding a very modern looking ferry in Helsinki we entered Tallinn Harbor, with the towers and walls of the Old Town standing out clearly on the hill to our right. A taxi can be taken from the port to the old town, but the walk isn’t long, the worst aspect of it being to find an entrance through the old city wall.

Tallinn Old Town, is pretty empty during the winter months, the Finnish shoppers deserted us and went the outlets and shopping malls. Once inside the Old City, we visited several museums, an orthodox church, walked the walls and streets, which traverse an upper and lower town. All in all, the Tallinn Old Town is a nice compact example of a medieval city, and has enough coffee shops to step into  when you want to warm up.

The Tallink ferry service leaves Helsinki at 7:30 am and enters Tallinn harbor at 9:30 am. The return is the same, but in the PM. Hence it makes sense to eat dinner on board. The buffet dinner is 26 euros, a bit pricey, but it seemed to be a thing with the day shoppers. It is good and plentiful, and as the locals told us, “Don’t miss the free beer and wine,” so I had several glasses of both.

Quickly enough to never have been bored, nor having done everything we wanted to do, we flew from Helsinki to Ivalo, the main airport of Lapland, pretty much a single runway affair kind of like what you would expect at a jumping off place for an Arctic expedition. Since we would continue north into Norway after our Lapland stay, we did not rent a car, because when you drop a car in a different country from where you rented it, the rental costs automatically rise by $1000 or more. Also who really wants to drive those empty, icy roads with no one expecting you to show up? The transfer service from Ivalo to Inari, the Saami capitol was about $80 euros total for the three of us. It was about an hour drive on a virtually empty highway through an endless forest of dwarf pine trees in drifts of infinite snow.

Plane on ground at Ivalo

The main reason we were there was to see the Northern Lights, and no sooner had we arrived at Hotel Kultahovi Inari than our hostess asked, “To you want to see them tonight?”

My first inclination was to say “No,” and I did say no. I’m always tired after a flight, stressed, I guess. But we looked around at each other and after a pause, we all said okay. She assured us that it would be after dinner and we would have time to settle into our rooms.

It’s a good thing we decided to go, because it was the only night during the two week trip that we would get a good show of them. In fact, our guide said it was the best show all year, and it lasted about three hours. Axiom: If the sky is clear-go that night. There is still no guarantee, we were told of a Japanese woman came six years straight, and finally saw them, but you definitely will not see them during a storm.

About 9:30 PM we were picked up and taken to our launch point, where we were stripped and forced to wear heavy snowmobile suits and helmets with face shields (necessary to keep our faces from freezing). You didn’t have to strip, but it was going to be difficult to put the suit on over a full set of clothes. Corollary: Wear your heaviest weight thermal underwear.

Once we were all properly dressed, we were taken to the back of the building where snowmobile drawn sleds full of reindeer hides waited for us to take our seats, huddle under the hides, and endure the ride over the lake through the woods. At one point a couple of reindeers bolted out of the forest and ran in front of us before darting back into the woods.  After about half an hour, our guide pointed out a gray funnel in the distant sky and informed us that we were in luck, we would see the lights. We pulled out of the woods and across another smaller lake to a log cabin, where a couple of other people sat by a campfire warming themselves. By then the gray funnel had turned to the green most often associated with the Aurora Borealis, and everyone grabbed their cameras. We stayed out as long as we could stand it, and when we could no longer feel our fingers we moved into the cabin and warmed by the fire and drank a hot local tea made from berries. After five or ten minutes we would shove on the gloves and go back out again. This went on for hours during which the lights changed in form, location, and color. It was quite a spectacle. Unfortunately, neither my iPhone 6, its battery died, nor my camera captured them well. My wife’s super iPhone didn’t die, but the pictures weren’t good either. Dr. H had a brand new super camera that did a fair job, and all the photos posted here, are his. About 2 AM we got back into the sleds and headed home.

video

Corollary 2: You’re probably not going to want to do this every night, so go when the skies are clear and the lights have a high probability. Also figure that you may have to do it more than once, so you might try different methods of travel to keep it interesting: car, snow mobile, reindeer sled, dog sled, etc.

When you have met your major objective on your first night what else do you do in Lapland?

Rather let’s start with: Where does one stay in Inari any time of the year?

My hands down suggestion is to stay where we stayed, and that is the Hotel Kultahovi Inari.  It’s two main buildings stand next to the river and away from the main part of town. We bought half board with our rooms, and thank God; it would not have been pleasant to walk to the main village at night, and indeed the meals were excellent, but you have to get used to reindeer. Not really, I’m sure they will fix food to match your dietary requirements. Our evening meals did include the local cuisine of fish and reindeer meat, and always dessert and drink. You can have lunch or a drink anytime of the day at the bar, although we were generally at some remote location at midday. The breakfast was typically Finnish, which is your typical European breakfast layout with an emphasis on home baked breads and jams, and always good coffee.

Our room was in the river house and had a nice entrance alcove where you could leave your heavy outdoor clothing and boots, before entering your nice suite. Once inside the first door on our right was our private sauna. The room was spacious and were set with Scandinavian furniture. On the other side of the room, facing the river, were large windows and a door to a porch, which we did not use. Between the hotel and the river were various trails, one used daily by the Saami schoolchildren as they trekked first to their Saami language class at the cultural center, and then, afterwards, back to school about a quarter of a mile upstream of the hotel. The closest building to the hotel is the Saami Cultural Center and Legislative Building- all in the same structure that looks like a giant lodge of sorts. We spent a few hours there one afternoon and it was well worth the time, between the museum, the handicrafts, and other exhibits.

Now, what does one do in the Lapland in the middle of winter?

Answer, everything winter, except Alpine skiing-it might be there but we never found it, nor saw anyone in the hotel with Alpine gear. To start with, we booked all of our excursions through the hotel, and they have an extended list of these at their website. If something you want is missing, I’m sure they can hook you up with it.  The activities, in summary, include:

Dogsled options from a brief afternoon tour, to overnight tours. The dogs are friendly and quickly endear themselves to you.

Dogs getting harnessed for the sleds.

Saami Cultural Activities: Visit a reindeer herder in the forest, gather herbs and mushrooms with a shaman (herbiest), visit a remote Saami village via dogs (a twofer), go ice fishing. We didn’t do any of these and regret it. The only other Americans at our hotel did the reindeer herd visit and said it was great.

Northern Lights Tours: There are many ways to go, cars, snow mobiles, sleds, or just walk out behind the hotel and down onto the river.

Winter trail activities: Snow shoe, snowmobiles, reindeer sleds, dogsleds. There are cross country skiing tours for beginners, or if you are experienced, rent the skis and ski across the lake, which is at least a kilometer wide, and into the woods. We did skiing, snowshoeing, and dog sledding. The sledding involved being driven deep into the forest to the dog kennels, learning how to hook up a sled, and then doing a short tour in the middle of nowhere.

If you are with a guided group, your adventures always end with a gathering together and drinking some hot local tea.

So for us it was: The Aurora Borealis, dog sledding, snow shoeing, cross country skiing, and visiting the Saami Cultural Center. Later we were told that we should have had lunch at the pizza place in town at least once. If I had my rathers, I would have done the reindeer visit, or if in spring, the mushroom-herb gathering.

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