We had an early departure from Tallinn for a flight to the far north of Finland. We had a layover in Helsinki, where we were joined by Katie and 2 of her friends, before flying to Rovaniemi. It was a sunny day from the air, but a thick layer of clouds hung over Rovaniemi and there was a fresh coat of snow on the ground and trees. I picked up my rental car, which was a tiny Toyota Yaris with studded tires, and we did our best to cram 5 people, 2 suitcases, and 5 backpacks into it – not an easy feat!
Rovaniemi is located right on the Arctic Circle and it’s a very popular tourist destination. I haven’t seen any stats about Finland’s tourism, but I’d argue that it’s probably stronger in the winter than in the summer, at least in the north. Lapland is a large region that dominates Finland’s North, attracting tourists who want to visit a snowy wonderland, see the northern lights, and participate in a range of traditional winter activities. Unlike Norway and Sweden, which are quite mountainous, Lapland is pretty flat and is characterized more by trees and barrens.
In general, Finland actually reminded me a lot of Newfoundland. While it definitely has more topsoil than “the Rock”, the terrain is really similar. Finland in Finnish is called Soumi, which loosely translates to Swamp Land, so it boasts a lot of the same boggy mosses and lichens as Newfoundland. Lapland is filled with elk and reindeer, whereas Newfoundland has moose and caribou – but the most notable is the berries. Lingonberries and cloudberries are incredibly common and popular in Finland, which reminded me a lot of home, where they’re known as partridgeberries and bakeapple.
While maneuvering the luggage into the car, the clouds started to break up and they completely transformed the landscape in no time. Where it was cloudy and snowy when we arrived, the sun filled the sky, sparkling on the fresh snow. We were staying about 15 minutes outside of Rovaniemi in a quaint little cabin in the woods. It wasn’t very big and only had one bedroom, but there were 2 futons in the living room, a toasty fireplace, and a sauna.
It was around 2pm in the afternoon, so we were all hungry for lunch and immediately returned to Rovaniemi in search of food. We opted for a chicken and waffles restaurant called 21, which was delicious and filled our bellies for exploring. Everyone was in search of some warmer items for the -20 degree weather we were expecting, so we set off wondering around town to do some shopping. It was about -10 degrees, which we thought wouldn’t be too bad for walking around in the sun, but the cold felt different in Lapland and I immediately wished for a few more layers. I may just be a wuss from living in Vancouver for the past 10 years, but we did get used to it over time.
Rovaniemi is a quirky town. Its big claim to fame is that it’s the “home of Santa Claus” and they’ve definitely leaned into the marketing. We passed everything from Santa’s “city office”, to “Santa’s Hotel”, to “Santa’s Luxury Boutique”, to my personal favourite, “Santa’s Donor Kebab”. We ended up at the Kemijoki River, which was mostly frozen over, and went for a very chilly walk along the riverbank, enjoying blue hour as the sun went down and the frost sparkled on the trees. When it started to get dark, we made a stop into the grocery store for some breakfast foods and pizzas before heading back to the cabin for the night.
We spent the evening playing cards while periodically checking outside for the aurora. I had downloaded a bunch of aurora apps for the trip, the best of which was definitely “My Aurora Forecast & Alerts”. The forecast is indicated using KP, which measures geomagnetic activity and is an indicator of whether you’ll see the lights. Simply put though, the numbers just indicate how far north or south the lights will be/can be seen. So for a low KP, they will only be in the far north and difficult to see until you are also very far north. 0-2 is considered low on the index, though Rovaniemi is far enough north that you can still see them when the KP is 2. 3 is moderate, and 4-6 is quite high, though the index tops out at 9. Once the KP hits around 4, you can see the lights in Helsinki, and at 6 you can potentially see them in Scotland and parts of the UK. But of course, that’s only if the sky is also clear of clouds, so in addition to KP, the forecasting apps also tracks cloud cover.
I didn’t really understand all of this until after the trip though. The forecast was only at 2 on our first night, so we kept popping outside, but only for short periods of time and we didn’t really know what we were looking for, so we didn’t see anything. Personally, I suspect they probably were visible, but when the KP is low, it takes a bit more patience to see them. I’ve since learned that they go through cycles when they are more visible and with a low KP, they can be pretty faint and won’t look how you expect. They photograph super well because it’s easy for all that light to show up on camera, especially when you leave the shutter open, so we expect them to look like all the viral photos we see on social media (which they do when the KP is high). However, when the KP is low, they are more of a faint white-ish glow, so it would be easy to mistake them for clouds if you didn’t know what you were looking for and you need to give your eyes a bit of time to adjust to the dark to see them best.
In any case, I had 7 nights in Lapland, so I wasn’t too concerned and had a great night socializing with Katie and her friends instead. I get a lot of energy from other people, so it was fun to hang out in a cabin in the woods and play cards and enjoy the sauna. I knew a bit more what to expect from the sauna this time and it wasn’t as hot as Loyly, so I enjoyed it a lot more. We did a few sauna sessions, followed by a roll in the snow for cold therapy, before heading to bed. My favourite part of sauna was how well it helps you sleep!
We woke the next morning to cloudless skies! It was an absolutely beautiful day, but despite the sun, it was still very cold, around -10 again and going down to -20 overnight. We didn’t make any mistakes this time and fully bundled up before we went out. We decided to go for a little hike in the morning. Usually I dress on the light side for hiking, but I also don’t usually go out in such cold weather, so I decided to commit to the warm clothing. The snowpants were definitely overkill once we started walking, but they’re too hard to get off, so I ended up hiking in just my sweater and snowpants, which wasn’t too bad either.
We went hiking in Ounasvaara, which is just across the river from Rovaniemi. It’s a popular outdoor spot and even has a small chair lift and a few ski runs – but it’s not very high, so I’m not sure I’d recommend it for skiing. Instead, we hiked up on the back side of the ski hill to a viewpoint. It’s really common in Lapland to come across small shelters out on the trails. I’m not quite sure about their history; I was guessing they might originally have been constructed for hunting, but maybe they’re just constructed by the municipalities for safety when adventuring. But it’s very common to find small cabins and lean to’s with a few benches and firepits for roasting sausage. The one at this viewpoint was heavily in use, but there was also a big wooden viewpoint to help you see over the trees, so we had a really lovely view of Rovaniemi and all the surrounding snow-covered forest.
We did some more wandering along the trails before returning to Rovaniemi for lunch. We landed on a burger restaurant called Kauppayhtio and had the most delicious reindeer burgers! I was really adamant that I wanted to try reindeer while in Lapland and it ended up being incredibly easy. In addition to the burger, I also had reindeer pasta and pizza on the trip, though I was a little dismayed that the pizza was called “the Rudolph”.
There’s a few museums and art galleries in Rovaniemi, so we decided to visit the Arktikum after lunch. It was a bit of a mix of museum and science centre and had a lot of great exhibits. We didn’t get to do them all, but my favourite was their very large exhibit on culture and history in Lapland. It covered everything from the local Sami culture, to Lappish history, to the local flora and fauna. They also had a very large science exhibit on the arctic, which I enjoyed. The other big art gallery is Korundi House of Culture. Me and Seth skipped out on that one because we were heading further north, but Katie visited it before returning to Helsinki and said it’s also excellent.