Friday, March 09, 2018

Adventures in Arctic Europe Part 2: Finland

This is the second part of a three part series that I am writing about my recent journey through Arctic Europe. If you haven't read part 1 yet, you'll find here.

After spending the night at Brändön Lodge in Sweden, and a quick snowshoeing excursion in the morning, we were ready to set off on the next stage of our journey. That morning we left the warm and cosy cabins at Brändön behind and hit the road for Finland, our second country on this three-nation tour of the Arctic. Our destination was the town of Kemi, where we would find all kinds of interesting opportunities to explore the Arctic in new ways.

The drive to Kemi took just a couple of hours and we arrived just in time to get a tour of one of the biggest local attractions in the area, the Icebreaker Sampo. The ship began its life in the service of the Finnish government back in 1961, but in 1988 it was retired from service and was purchased for use in tourism instead. The ship makes regular runs out into the frozen sea, taking passengers  to remote areas where the ice is so thick that normal ships can't travel during the winter months. Passengers who take the cruise will find the Sampo is quite comfortable, with several lounges and a dining hall. They'll also find some great views of the Arctic ice as the vessel pushes along the thick crust that forms above the water. There is even an option to take a snowmobile out onto the ice and join the Sampo mid-cruise, which sounds like quite an interesting way to board the ship.



After a tour of the Sampo, it was into Kemi proper where we then explored the local SnowCastle. Rebuilt each year, the SnowCastle is an impressive structure with multiple chambers, dining rooms to seat 200 people, wall carvings, hotel rooms, and even a chapel. This year's theme was animals, and as a result there was some impressive artwork sculpted into the walls around every turn. The structure itself is made from snow that is mixed with sea water, which gives it a bit of extra strength, but nevertheless it is a monumental effort to build the castle each year, which is open from late January into April. 
Leaving Kemi behind, we were soon back on the road and heading to Ylläs where we would be spending the night in one of the more unique accommodations in the area. While en route, we did finally cross over the Arctic Circle, officially putting me the furtherest north that I've ever been. We'd continue even further in that direction in the days ahead, but it was an exciting milestone to say the least. 

Once in Ylläs we took a brief tour of the small village before heading over to the Lapland Hotel Snow Village, which is where we would sleep that night. Much like the SnowCastle in Kemi, the entire place was made from snow and ice, including dozens of rooms and an ice bar to grab a shot of courage before retiring to your suite for the evening. 

As you can probably imagine, the interior of the hotel is chilly, but the staff provides guests with a warm sleeping bag and a fleece liner to help them get comfortable for the night. There are a couple of permanent structures that serve as a lobby/gift shop, as well as a warm room to prep for your night's stay, but other than that, the entire structure is made of snow. 

Thankfully, I've slept in far worse conditions before, so I actually found it to be quite comfortable in my room. Snuggled inside my sleeping bag, I drifted off to a wonderful slumber and was so warm that I was even a bit hesitant to get out of bed in the morning. The air mattress that I slept on was perfectly suited for the conditions and I awoke well rested and ready to go. Sadly, some of my companions couldn't say the same, with several retreating from their suites to seek shelter in the warm room instead. 

After a hot shower and some breakfast, all was good with the world, and before I knew it, we were back on the road and making or way for our next destination, which was the town of Levi where we would get back to some fun outdoor adventures. Again, we took a tour of the town to get a lay of the land, before heading to the top of the nearby ski resort to soak in the views. The skiing looked fantastic, and is a popular spot for those looking to escape the more crowded areas in the Alps, but sadly we didn't have enough time to make any runs ourselves. Considering my meager downhill skills however, that was probably for the best. 

Later, we dropped by a local Lapland farm to experience one of the more fun – and unique – modes of transportation in the area. Using reindeer to pull sleds has been a tradition in the region for hundreds of years, and no visit would be complete without taking a ride for ourselves. The powerful – but temperamental – animals pulled us along silently through the snow, making for a charming way to see the countryside. Pulled along through this enchanting winter wonderland, it was a truly magnificent way to soak up the Finnish landscapes. 

We capped off a busy day by visiting a few other local landmarks, including the spectacular Levi Igloos and the charming Elves Hideaway, both of which are guaranteed to delight visitors on opposite ends of the age spectrum. Kids will love the magic of the elf village, where it is Christmas pretty much year round, while couples looking for a romantic escape will find not better accommodations than the igloos, which have glasses roofs that allow you to watch the Northern Lights from the comfort of your bed each night. 

Speaking of which, Levi was our best opportunity to see the auroras for ourselves while traveling in the Arctic Europe. The skies were clear that evening, and the outlook for Northern Lights activity was good. So, braving the cold temperatures we bundled up, wandered outside, and took in the light show. While it wasn't an incredibly strong display, we were able to catch the green glow of the aurora as it danced overhead, while also snapping some impressive photos along the way too. It was truly one of the highlights of the entire trip, and thankfully most visitors will get a chance to experience the lights for themselves at some point. In fact, they are visible at nearly every time of the year, except in the weeks of the midnight sun in the middle of summer. 

Knowing that the next day we would depart for Norway, I wanted to soak up as much of the night's sky as I could before turning in. I actually ended up staying out until nearly 2:00 AM, watching the auroras and enjoying the cold, crisp night. By the time that I turned in, the lights were fading, but I was utterly thankful that I had a chance to witness them on this trip. 

Next up, we had a whole new spate of adventures on the agenda as Norway beckoned. The last leg of our trip would take us through that spectacular country, and the best part of the adventure was still to come. 

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