Lapland gives the phrase "winter wonderland" a new meaning. Visitors have been flocking to the Finnish region for years with the dream of meeting Father Christmas and the hope of catching the Northern Lights. Coupled with a few days on the slopes, a holiday in Lapland is every bit different to any other snowy escape.
But skiing, Santa and the magnificent Aurora Borealis are just half the story.
When HELLO! Online visited the resorts of Levi and Ylläs in February under the guidance of tour operator Inghams, we experienced the rise in popularity of those "other" winter adventures. Reindeer sleigh rides, husky safaris and snowmobiling across a frozen lake at 60mph were just some of the highlights. An overnight stay in a luxury igloo was the cherry on top.
Read on to find out why magical Lapland should top everyone's bucket list...
Once upon a time husky-drawn sleds were the only means of travelling vast distances above the Arctic Circle. Nowadays, a husky ride is one of the Big Three snow adventures that draws most visitors, alongside reindeer sledding and snowmobiling.
At Polar Lights Husky, a short drive away from Levi resort, we were met by the sounds of yapping and howling. The huskies (a mix of the traditional Siberian husky and the high endurance Alaskan huskies that are best for racing) were raring to go, impatient to start their run. After some essential instruction about our safety and the safety of the huskies, we set off on an eight-kilometre safari, driving through the snowy wilderness and vast empty spaces – at sunrise. It's a magical experience and requires just a bit of concentration to steer, but otherwise is straightforward and easy. You ride two adults to a sled, or more if you have children.
Husky super safari (8km driven by guests) costs £55 for an adult, £29 for a child.
Reindeer sleigh rides
Another eco-friendly way to tour Lapland – and a must-do for families with young children – is reindeer sledding. There are more reindeer than people in Finnish Lapland and that soon becomes clear during a visit to an indigenous Sami farm. The herdsmen, who let their ear-marked reindeer roam freely in surrounding land, organise safaris as well as feeding activities for guests.
This was the ultimate, epic Lapland experience – being pulled in a sleigh by a reindeer, who, miraculously, followed the track and didn't stop to munch on snow or lichen. As stubborn animals, they can sometimes veer off course but we were lucky enough to have well-behaved "poro" ("reindeer" in Finnish) at the Ounaskievari farm, Levi. Driving through the forests is an enchanting and romantic experience, and it won't be long before you're leaning back, wrapped up with a cosy blanket, and dreaming of Narnia.
The Sami are extremely knowledgeable about their herd and explain how reindeer play a central part in Lappish lifestyle. Their fur is made into clothes and rugs, their meat features heavily on the menu, and their antlers are crafted into jewellery and knife handles. The Sami also make their artefacts by hand, including a pair of leather reindeer boots, which can cost a whopping £350.
Reindeer super safari (3km driven by guests) and Sami farm visit costs £39 for an adult and £25 for a child.
Driving over a frozen lake at 60mph without a seatbelt may not sound like the most appealing, helmet-safe activity, but if you pluck up the courage to try snowmobiling, you'll be rewarded with a powerful adrenaline rush. Unlike husky and reindeer sledding, this activity requires a driving license and a large pinch of guts. The adventure starts from the very beginning when you're given a safety briefing at Destination Lapland Safari House in Ylläs resort about how to operate the snowmobile. Don't be put off by the deep, throaty roar of the engine – the snowmobiles are easy to manage and even have heated handle bars to keep you warm. But if you prefer to ride as a passenger behind someone, there is also that option, although it's three times as bumpy on the back!
Your guide will take you, driving single file, away from the main roads and deep into the forests. As you cruise along, sometimes reaching the maximum speed of 60mph uphill and downhill, you'll see the sun wink through the trees and marvel at the varied terrain, all covered in 50cm of snow.
Snowmobile safari (2 hr excursion) costs £75 for a single adult, £49 per adult for two sharing and £9 for a child.
This is hiking on a new level. Snowshoeing is one way to build up thighs of steel as you strap snowshoes (racket-shaped frames) onto your feet and start your ascent up a fell. We challenged ourselves and ventured up one of the steepest sides of a fell in Ylläs, astounded by the total silence of the woods as we went higher and higher. Our local guide from Destination Lapland Safari House showed us different trees, the oldest being 800 years old, and pointed out animal tracks from hares, willow grouse, Arctic foxes and the like. Luckily, on our descent, walking in snowshoes felt like gliding through cotton wool or on clouds, especially when we went off piste. Expect to slip and slide your way down and be buried waist-deep in snow.
Daytime snowshoe safari costs £29 for an adult, £15 for a child.
Skiing in the resorts of Levi and Ylläs is a far cry from the boisterous activity of the Alps. The wide pistes, uncrowded chair lifts, tree-lined runs and guaranteed snow make for an idyllic experience for skiers and snowboarders. With the sun setting at around 3pm in winter, you're guaranteed a picturesque end to your day, when the low winter sun throws shafts of pink and golden light through the trees. Carry on skiing into the late afternoon on the floodlit slopes, before stopping for a warm hot cocoa in one of the nearby cafes. The resorts have an abundance of beginner and intermediate slopes, as well as some limited off-piste options for the more advanced.
Three days of adult ski school at Levi Ski School can be booked via Inghams for £75pp.
While downhill or Alpine skiing has always been popular with tourists, cross-country skiing is an extremely practiced sport among the locals of Lapland and many children start learning on cross country skis. It's easy to see how the sport has become a big draw for foreigners too. We spent the morning cross-country skiing with our guides from Akaslompolo Sports Shop in Ylläs, gliding past locals ice fishing on a frozen lake and following the immaculate, pristine trails into the scenic wintry forests. Like skiing, routes are divided into blue, green and black runs, and each night the tracks are groomed by a machine. There is over 300km of trails around the resorts and through national parks, so you're never short of a new adventure.
Cross country three days tuition (1.5hrs per day) costs £69 plus the cost of cross country ski hire.
Amidst the romantic, snowy woodlands of Lapland, a racetrack has sprung up to satisfy the Lewis Hamiltons among us. Fearless drivers will want to take a spin at Eskimo Circuit in Levi, where guests can test their skills in go-karts equipped with studded tires and silent four-cycle engines. After donning winter racing gear, including helmets and extra pairs of gloves, you'll be taken down to the track where you are free to drive as fast or be as cautious as you want. The option to do a big final race, with winners standing proudly on a podium afterwards, is also available.
Ice karting (2hr excursion) costs £55; drivers must be over 12 years old.
Visit to a snow hotel
The room temperature in a snow hotel fluctuates between zero and minus five degrees, yet staff at the Lainio Snow Hotel insisted that we wouldn't feel the cold. A pair of knickers is all you need to wear to go to bed, they said. The "bed" is made of ice just like everything else in the hotel – the ice sculptures and wall carvings that vary from the ten suites to the 24 rooms, the tables and 108 seats in the restaurant, the bar area, the cinema and the fun slide. You can even get married in the ice chapel. The notion of sleeping on ice isn't the most appealing but those who are brave enough to try it (1,500 guests stayed last year), will be provided with a fleece sleeping bag and blankets to see them through the night. There is a "warm room" where guests can use the bathroom and recuperate if it gets too much, but we were told that most "survive".
Building of the snow hotel, with its walls spanning a width of two metres, starts in November and impressively takes only three weeks. Ice is, however, collected from nearby rivers as early as March and stored in containers over the summer. Day visits are also available and more popular than an overnight stay; last year 30,000 tourists walked in and stayed for a meal in the dome-shaped restaurant.
Visit to the Lainio Snow Hotel (3hr excursion with 1.5hrs at the Snow Village) costs £25 for an adult and £15 for a child.
Where to stay:
Golden Crown Igloos
Standing outside in minus weather and craning your neck up to the sky in the hope of catching the Northern Lights isn't the most ideal holiday experience. But staying inside a luxury thermal glass igloo, snuggled up in bed with a 360 degree panoramic view of the starry night skies, is. While the dazzling light show of the Aurora Borealis is never guaranteed, a night in an igloo at Golden Crown Igloos is magical enough and was the highlight of our trip. Nestled a few minutes' drive away from Levi in the middle of the woods, it's astounding how we instantly lost noise and light pollution.
Each luxury igloo has an ensuite shower and toilet, a kitchenette with a fridge and a basic form of entertainment – a CD player. Yes there's no wifi, which means, as our host Kristiina said, you have to talk to each other! The igloos are becoming so popular that Kristiina, whose father owns the land, is having four more igloos built to meet demands. Book early if you want to stay – and you should!
One night stay in a Luxury Glass Igloo from £209 per person based on two sharing. Igloos are located 10km from Levi, continental breakfast and transfer from Levi accommodation is included. For more information or to book visit inghams.co.uk or call 01483 791 114.
Levitunturi Spa Hotel
Located just 300 metres from the ski lift and village centre, Levitunturi Spa Hotel is the resort's flagship property and a convenient base. Its excellent spa facilities – think sauna and steam rooms, outdoor jacuzzis and 17 indoor and outdoor pools – offer the perfect respite after a day of winter activities or skiing on the slopes. Remember Finnish culture calls for bathers to use the sauna au naturel, so if you're not feeling brave enough, the option to upgrade to a room with an en-suite sauna may be just the ticket.
Inghams is offering 7 nights half board at the 4.5* Levitunturi Spa Hotel, Levi from £729 per person departing 8 January 2017. Price includes return direct flights from London Gatwick to Kittilä and resort transfers. For more information or to book visit inghams.co.uk or call 01483 791 114.
Yllås Log Cabin
A stay in a traditional Lappish log cabin in the middle of the woods is the cherry on top a magical holiday. If you're travelling as a group or with family, the option to hire a cosy log cabin is ideal and gives you more freedom, independence and privacy. With its classic look, the cabins include timber walls, an open fireplace or log-burner, a comfy lounge and a kitchenette. Some even come with an en-suite sauna – a staple in every Lappish house! Guests in Ylläs can opt for self-catered cabins or half-board cabins, with meals served at the nearby Akas Hotel.
Inghams is offering 7 nights self-catering at the 4* Yllås Log Cabin, Ylläs, Lapland from £519 per person departing 8 January 2017 based on eight sharing. Price includes return direct flights from London Gatwick to Kittilä and resort transfers. For more information or to book visit inghams.co.uk or call 01483 791 114.