It’s been a while since I planned to start exploring the North, and finally it happened, after I found a very valid reason to dare visiting one of the coldest parts of Earth in January, dedicate time & money for planning and execution 🙂 Guess what was the reason for all this buzz? A birthday of a Very Important Person! Have you ever impressed someone with a trip gift? If you did please share your experience, if not maybe we can plan it together?
I was always dreaming to be surprised by someone packing my suitcase, buying the tickets and planning the adventures, and then kidnapping me to the airport. Well, so far it never happened (so I have to be my own Santa), but at least I’m getting the excitement when planning these birthdays for others, and wish there were more occasions to impress with these purely emotional, and zero materialistic gifts! Is your birthday soon?
Objective – See the Northern Lights. Destination – Rovaniemi Lapland. Duration – too short 🙂
I started by checking out all the airports in the Arctic Circle area, and researching about chances for Aurora. Well, you need 3 things for seeing it:
- Clear sky
- Dark nights
- Solar activity
Auroras occur from August to April, but there is no precise forecast to predict it well in advance, so you can book your flights and accommodation at a good rate 😉 The only thing we all do when coming to the North is relying on our good luck, because nights should be the darkest in winter, sky should be the clearest in case it’s cold (what can be colder than January), and the solar activity – … well, this is the ‘hope for the best’ part of planning.
I was choosing between Norway and Finland, and somehow comparing the beauty of accommodation types (because the other parameters are more or less the same), I ended up with the Finnish Lapland, more specifically with Rovaniemi. And neither I, nor the VIP birthday guest, were disappointed, even though we couldn’t see the Aurora.
This brings back to my mind another important thing to share with you: Auroras are pure luck (do your best and hope for the best), but be sure to choose a place where you’ll get other attractions and activities to enjoy. You can stay in the middle of nowhere waiting for Aurora Borealis, but they may just not come, and you’ll be very depressed for spending your time passively waiting.
The North is much more than just the greenish-pinkish sky full of solar activity. It’s huskies, reindeers, cuisine, ice & snow (and ice hotels), endless safari ideas and just cozy wooden and warm houses where you feel yourself so Lappish that even start understanding their language while having the local TV on the background.
It’s been only 3 full days in Lapland, and almost 3 days on the road! But it was definitely worth it!
Day #1. Aurora hunt at the camp fire in Rovaniemi Lapland
I was very optimistic and was sure that the right hunt will take you to auroras, whatever the sky above your house is! Well, we arrived the night before and saw impressive snow-white forest along the dark road, and an equally white sky, predicting a lot more snow, but auroras above us 🙂
But the Aurora hunt was scheduled and we didn’t regret that joined!
So the idea of northern lights hunts is:
- Experienced in Aurora locals take you to the most far from civilization places, where no city lights can disturb the darkness of the sky
- They usually take you to approx. 3 different spots in order to find Aurora
- Whether you see it or not, you’ll most probably end up with a camp fire, sausages, tea and coffee (Finnish people drink more coffee than any other nation in the world)
Well, the Aurora hunt I booked was smoother, less active, I wasn’t sure if my guest would like running around with a bus in order to see (and then maybe not see after all these) the Auroras. So I chose an aurora evening, with an ‘educational’ forest walk, a camp fire and sausages to wait for the northern lights well equipped 😉
It looked the following way:
- There were a few pick up points in the most popular places – the Santa Claus Village (close to the airport) or the Santa Claus Hotel in the centre of Rovaniemi.
- Once we were on board of the mini bus with the rest of the group (another 4 people, generally their tours are open to public, but you can request a private activity) we headed towards the cottage of Happy Fox, put on extra overalls on top of our owns, got some rhubarb candies and went out to the wild 🙂
- We started from making the camp fire (or actually our guide did) and then entered the forest and started my favourite walk – deep snow, fire trees, and silence of a night in a forest
- The rest of the activity until midnight we spent at the camp fire speaking about life in Lapland, the nature, the legends, and of course enjoying the slightly burnt on fire sausages and Karelian pie
Let me come back a bit to the forest part. It is really a-mazing! You see so many of footprints on the snow, it’s so hard to believe that this quiet, sleeping forest can be as lively as Turkish bazar. Then you’ll see how fire trees got used to the Lappish conditions – because of tons of snow on their branches, they don’t grow high and wide. Fire trees of the same age but growing in southern Finland can be twice higher, and much more wider in branches.
Our guides showed us huge anthills, can you imagine that the first thing the Polar bear does after waking up in spring, is taking a handful of the anthill, for ants being a great source of pure protein for a bear!
Then we walked down to the frozen river where in summer they have a sauna floating on water, do boat trips, fishing, next to the river have berry safaris and even gold panning (the soil here is famous to be full of gold).
We enjoyed the night a lot, and kept many memories for us. For not seeing the auroras we were rewarded by meeting a wild reindeer next to the road, who was digging in the snow to get some roots for dinner. Actually this is not a surprise for locals, since next to the road is always the forest, so reindeers, bears, squirrels, elves and other residents 🙂
Talking about the organizer – you can’t believe how many offers of Aurora hunts there are in the web! And most of my time was spent on comparing the offered services vs prices, and then the communication with the organizing company. That’s how I chose Happy Fox 🙂 Weird name? Not at all!
The legend says that the Auroras are caused by a magical fire fox Tulikko running so fast, that once it’s feet touch the snow, it sends sparkles to the sky. The aurora itself is called ‘Fox Fire’ in Finnish (‘Revontulet’). And let’s be honest the company got a point from me for naming themselves after the Fire Fox, sounds so good!
Kristina and Mika were very responsive (believe me or not, but I still have those never answered emails, when booking an activity). I clarified everything via email, and could pay online by card. To compare, there was a company asking to pay by transfer – why would anyone ever make an international transfer when there are others offering the same but with 0% commission paying by card or paypal? And I get really angry when such small companies which should fight for every client, don’t fight for their chance by starting a paypal account…
But that’s another story, the main point is that I was very happy with the choice and we even promised the hosts to come back in spring when the ice breaks on rivers 🙂
Turning back from night to day – since the activity started in the evening (9 pm), we had time to do some self-discoveries and visited the Santa Claus Village. And there are a few important things for you to know before going there:
- Don’t stay in Santa Claus Village – it might seem as the best and most authentic place when visiting their website, but in fact they offer some very small wooden cottages or tree houses located just next to each other, so you’ll have zero privacy for enjoying the nature.
- It’s a very crowded place and just next to the road, you won’t have a quiet night here.
- It’s enough for coming for a few hours for seeing Santa (actually in the area there are 3 of them – 2 in the village and 1 in the Santa Claus Park)
- Be careful entering the shops with your children – every little toy starts at minimum of 20 EUR, and if your children are a bit like me, they’ll want many, many toys from there
- Reindeer and husky safaris in Santa Claus Village – if you are tight on time and budget you may do these here. But! A 20 min husky safari will cost you 40 EUR (hope I remember the figures right), and you’ll ride around people, cars, tourists etc. On the other hand, you can pay 125 EUR, ride 2 hours in a wild forest, disconnect from civilization and just wow to the view every single second. And you’ll ride your own sleigh on your own, all the 2 hours! But I’ll let you know more details on Day #3 🙂
Don’t get it wrong – go to the Santa Claus Village, once you are in Rovaniemi, but don’t choose it as your base point for accommodation and activities. The authentic Lapland is so close, just a few kilometers away, so why would you waste your chance exploring it?
Day #2 Overnight stay in the Arctic Snow Hotel and ice fishing in Lapland
I saw many times hotels made of ice and snow on TV, and never ever considered it as an option for me to stay. In fact, before the trip to Lapland, I realized that it would be a loss not to try out! When and where else if not here and now 😉
The Arctic Snow Hotel is impressive just by understanding that it melts every year, and then gets constructed again by December. Everything is made of either ice, or snow, even the bar & restaurants inside. By the way, none of these works full day – the bar opens from 5:30 to 6:30 pm, and then around 10:30 to 11:30, the restaurants – only for dinner, and by prior reservation. There is no human being ready to stay there in ice all day long.
The bed in your room is made of ice, then covered with reindeer hide, there is a small ‘coffee table’ made of ice, 2 plugs for your freezing phones, and a curtain instead of a door covering the entrance to a standard double room. The cost was 220 EUR/night
Then there are suites – more spacious, with carvings on walls, larger beds. These are 350 EUR. Besides that you can find a family room, a triple, or even larger one.
So how was it?
- Check in starts at 3 pm, at that time or approx. every hour the hotel arranges a tour for all the arrived guests. This is when they’ll show you the facilities of the hotel – your room, the lockers, restaurants & bar, the eateries outside the hotel (not made of ice), ice sauna and standard Finnish sauna.
- The building with the reception – is the place for breakfast next morning, and there is a room which is open all night long in case you are cold in your ice hotel (but that room was already cold at midnight, since they turned off the heating when closed the reception)
- How to survive in an ice hotel? The locker room in the hotel has lockers for your personal belongings (we didn’t use it), sleeping bags and liners from fleece, and beds where you can sleep in warm if you are too cold in your ice room. The lockers is in something like a truck connected to the hotel, but not made of ice, so it has heating.
During the tour you’ll get an instruction on how to wrap yourself up at night, but I didn’t like it, because it wasn’t clear and the English of our guide wasn’t the best.
So here you go! How to survive a night in a snow hotel:
#1 Don’t go for the sleeping bag and put yourself in bed unless you are sure to fall asleep within the next half an hour – your room in the ice hotel is not a place where you just lay down to relax on your bed!
#2 Once you’re sure, take your sleeping bag and the liner from lockers, but don’t get undressed there (recommended to undress by the guide). Your room might be at the other end of the hotel, and you don’t want to waste your body warmth on the way.
#3 Take of your jacket, trousers, sweaters, shoes – and stay in your thermal underwear (if you don’t have one, stay in sweater and tights). Put your cloths to the sleeping bag’s bottom, for warming up you, and having the cloths warm in the morning.
#4 Put on a pair of woolen socks, keep your hat on.
#5 Put your liner inside the sleeping bag, and then crawl into it. Keep the reindeer hides under the sleeping bag.
#6 Pull up the zippers, tighten the top part of the sleeping bag around your head.
That’s it! This way you won’t be cold, even on the contrary. If you are from a very southern place, and your nose gets cold at night (nose and eyes are the only things uncovered), try to use a knitted scarf, to cover your face. It will let the air circulate but keeps your breathing warm.
Waking up in the snow hotel
By default the guides will wake you up at 7:30, you can change this time to anything until 10 am – that’s the check-out time. And can you believe, when the guides asked if anyone wants other time than 7:30, no one was against this early hour. And in the morning many of them even woke up before this hour!
Who knows maybe I was the only one sleeping sweet and deep in an ice hotel? I generally sleep very well in places with fresh, cool air 😉
Important to know: there is no reason to stay more than 1 night in the snow hotel, unless you are an Eskimo. Even the hotel recommends it for an overnight stay only.
Besides that, if you don’t want to stay in the ice hotel, but want to see it and take photos – please, you are more than welcome! Just park your car and walk in the ice hotel – the door is open, there is no receptionist to check if you have a room or not. Finland is a very very safe country and no one would ever had an idea that it might be dangerous. I received the key to my locker and went to check it out, however on my way I got too excited by the rooms having no doors, being empty and very welcoming, so I never arrived to the locker room, but kept taking photos of their various bedrooms.
But tsssss! It wasn’t me planting this idea in your mind, okay?
Other accommodation offered by the Snow Hotel:
The also offer the famous glass igloos, which are obviously made of glass, to facilitate the Aurora observation. I really wanted to stay here, but the price was painful – 600 EUR/night! But when I saw them live, I actually didn’t regret and realized how happier is the stay in our Airbnb house
Actually only the roof is made of ice, there are plenty of igloos and all very close to each other, and they are small, tiny. It’s not like a house or hotel room where you feel comfortable to spend time during the day, not only once asleep.
Besides that, the biggest disappointment would be to book a stay in glass igloo for all 5 nights, so 3000 EUR, and see zero auroras just because the sky is cloudy)) Remember the northern lights are pure luck!
Ice fishing in Lapland
As I mentioned above, there are different activities in the ice hotel area. One of them is ice fishing – thanks to the huge frozen lake just next to the hotel, you don’t have to walk a lot. If you always wanted to try it out – do it! But keep in mind that if it’s just cold outside, it will be extremely cold on the lake, and not only cold, but very windy.
Whatever your overalls are, you won’t stay there more than 20 min, unless ice fishing was your one and only dream since childhood. The chances to catch a fish in January, in the evening are low, very low. The morning session is more promising, but even if you succeed, don’t forget that the rule is to let the fish go afterwards (live).
I joined an evening session just to take photos and videos, but didn’t resist even for 5 minutes.
By the way, I told nothing so far about food? Did we eat these days and what? Restaurants are not so much spread around the Lappish forests 😀 Find out about what to eat in Lapland here
Day #3 Husky park in Rovaniemi. The best creatures in Lapland
There are so many things to do in Lapland, that till the end I couldn’t decide what will we do on our last day. Reindeers and huskies won as the most authentic creatures in the Lappish forest. Just as most of you I thought that 2 hours ride is too much – how can you stay outdoors that long if it’s anything in between 0 and -25 C ? But since the only short (touristic) rides were provided by the Santa village, and didn’t require prior reservation, I didn’t book anything and hoped for the best.
On the other hand, I never stop researching, even when all is planned, there is always a chance to find something omitted before. That’s how it was with huskies!
Raitola – is perhaps the best husky and reindeer park in Rovaniemi. It looks just as good as anything seen by me in the area. And since it was just 3-4 min further than the Santa village, we didn’t mind checking out.
First you’ll see the reindeer part – a cottage and lots of reindeers behind the wooden fence, relaxing and laying on the snow (I could never believe that these creatures are okay with sleeping directly on the snow!). Then if you continue to the next wooden cottage you’ll see a huge dog area with many dog houses, puppies and adult huskies. Don’t worry, it’s not a zoo or circus – the animals here are very happy, healthy and perfectly taken care of.
Now what to choose if you have no time for both (we were sure we’ll do both, but huskies were in priority). Huskies are more fun, they are very active, lively, sometimes unpredictable, and you’ll ride your sleigh on your own. Reindeers are for slower walks, and the only thing you’ll do is sitting in the sleigh covered with reindeer hides (although they raise their speed at the end of the ride once close to home).
So we entered the building belonging to the husky part and asked if we can have a husky ride. The girl we asked passed us to her colleague, who came and said that we should go upstairs for the overalls to put on top of our cloths, as well as shoes, jackets, gloves, and even goggles.
After dressing up as much as possible, we went to wait outside and one of the Raitola guides asked if we are the part of the group coming for the 2-h safari. We said we are not, but we’d like to join. The answer sounded like ‘anyways it will be the 2-h safari’.
Trying to avoid the long safari, indeed we ended up there waiting for the other part of our group 😀 and no one didn’t even told us the price (of course I checked while waiting).
When the group arrived, I was sure they are all professional skiers from Switzerland)) They looked athletic and very accustomed to cold temperatures, and to be honest this made me afraid – what will I do if get cold during the ride in the middle of the forest, 20 people won’t turn back because of me!
It became even worse when the guide started explaining how to ride the sleigh – the explanation how to break, keep distance between the sleigh and dogs, that if you hit the huskies by chance with the sleigh they might refuse continuing, it all sounded so serious, that me, with my navigation skills, is not someone suitable to control these very smart dogs.
But what to do? Once there, there is no way back. And guess what? They put us into the first sleigh, leading the group (and all those ‘Swiss skiers’ stayed behind!).
Each sleigh had 6 huskies, and let me tell you a bit about their hierarchy:
- The hardest physically job is done by the dogs closest to the sleigh, they are actually the ones carrying you
- The hardest psychologically done by the two dogs in front – they have to deal with the feeling that all other dogs behind are chasing them. These dogs are leading the others, they are barking before the start to spread the word to the ones behind to prepare for the run. If they stop, all the group will do the same.
- During our ride the guide changed the leading dogs in our sleigh, because the husky who was leading it in the beginning, didn’t feel like doing it that day (by the way, the guides are very strict with the dogs, but as soon as a dog performs well, you see how much the guide loves the huskies, and paying back for the good job by petting and saying many encouraging words in Finnish))
- There are two guides during the safari – one in front, one in the back, both on snowmobiles.
During the 2 hour ride you have a stop in the middle of the safari for photos – the guide will take photos of you then, and you can change with your partner from ‘passenger’ to ‘driver’, if you want. Generally, it’s 1 h of sitting in the sleigh and being a passenger (and photographer of all the surroundings!), and 1 h of riding and encouraging the dogs to run (maybe they don’t pay attention to you too much, but if you shout, you feel like contributing to their speed).
There are no words to describe how impressive was the snow-white forest, the communication with huskies, the excitement you get when the dogs from the sleigh behind start getting closer and try overcoming you)) I’m very thankful for the destiny to bring us here to Raitola in the correct time, just before their scheduled safari was about to start, and extremely happy that it was 2 hours, not half an hour or so.
I would definitely recommend to make reservations (relying on luck doesn’t work 24/7), and choose either a 2 hour, or not less than 1 hour rides.
Our guide made a Q&A session after the safari and brought a husky puppy inside the cottage to socialize. During this session I really learned some amazing things:
- The Alaskan huskies have very different appearance. The reason is that during the Klondike Gold Rush people needed lots of dogs for transportation, so all the foreigners arriving to America from Europe were pairing their dogs with the local ones. They didn’t care about appearance, but payed a lot of attention to selecting the huskies by physical capabilities, resistance and friendly attitude towards people. That’s why all the huskies you’ll meet in Raitola look different.
- Huskies consume 9000 calories a day! And all this comes from very specialized food for working dogs, which is protein and fat full.
- Huskies run around 50 km a day (our safari was around 17 km, and some of them already worked in the morning ride, and will do a night ride as well), and 3000 km per season.
- These dogs have the longest holiday ever – 4 months. They don’t train, just socialize and enjoy the mild summer weather. Huskies start training in autumn to get back in shape.
- The puppies spend the first year of their life just socializing, because being human friendly is a very important part of their CVs.
- All the dogs are born outdoors and sleep outdoors in their dog houses, they don’t feel comfortable inside the cottage.
So what happened to the reindeers? Well, after the first safari we were exhausted and it was already dark. And although there was a night reindeer ride, we felt like it would be something extra.
It was the third day of our activities in Rovaniemi, and what remained was dinner and packing suitcases (for 3 days we took a checked in and a cabin bag, that much of ‘wrapping’ you need).
Talking about the dinner – the house I rented on Airbnb was not only well done till the last detail, not only smart, but also very authentic, made in a traditional Finnish style, but as a bonus had a private sauna inside and a separate cabin with a grill! So guess what was the dinner during all the stay here?
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