Monday, March 24, 2014

Fun winter week in Lapland - where, when, how?

Yep. I spent my winter holiday in Kuusamo, in Northern Finland. It is the home of about 20.000 people, and one of the largest ski resorts in Finland, Ruka. 34 slopes with 21 lifts and 205 kilometers of ski tracks of pure bliss!

Picking your destination...

A fun week in Lapland is really not that hard to achieve! All you need to do is pick a nice spot and get a good group of friends, and you're pretty much all set.

So what are the nice spots in Northern Finland? There are many! Best bets for winter fun are the ski resorts. The biggest ski resorts are Levi (near Kittilä), Ylläs (near Kolari) and Ruka (near Kuusamo) where you find the most slopes, ski lifts, cross country ski tracks, organised activities like snow safaris - and also many shops, restaurants and a busy nightlife. All this is surrounded by pleeenty of peace & quiet and untouched nature. There's really no mountains in Finland but the fells are quite picturesque:

Slopes at Ruka and Levi

I like Ruka and Kuusamo area because there's plenty of things to do, it's still peaceful enough during off-season and its location at the southern edge of Northern Finland makes it easier to reach; you can drive there and not kill yourself of boredom in the process.

If you prefer an even more serene location, head out to some of the smaller ski spots, like Iso-Syöte, Saariselkä, Pallas, Pyhä, Luosto, Olos or Salla, just to name a few.

Lapland extends also over Sweden and Norway, covering areas mainly above the Arctic Circle. It is not only a geographical but a cultural region - with plenty of interesting places to choose from! Some of the famous spots outside Finland are the ice hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Kiruna in Sweden and Svalbard, the northernmost permanently settled place in Europe, in Norway.

Timing is everything!

I'd recommend the weeks from mid March onwards (avoid the Easter as well) - less people, a bit cheaper, days are longer, temperatures warmer and it's typically sunnier. You can expect to see beautiful winter landscapes and do plenty of snow activities all the way through April in most years, some years even until the end of May!

Landscapes in Ruka, Kuusamo. On the upper right the views from Valtavaara, lower left from Pyhävaara.

This year we headed to Kuusamo on the week after the school's ski holiday weeks (weeks 8-10) in the middle of March. The ski lifts didn't have long lines and at times you felt like you had the whole place to yourself. The weather was mostly sunny with some scattered clouds - just perfect! This year the winter was a bit warmer than some of the years before but there was still an abundance of snow!

What kind of activities can you plan for?

Most people go skiing - Alpine and Nordic skiing are both very popular, as well as snowboarding. There are no mountains in Finland, but the fells have great snow conditions and the slopes are about 500-1500m long. The bigger resorts Ruka, Levi and Ylläs have also FIS approved slopes (and host competitions as well) that offer challenge for the more advanced skiers. And there is nothing quite like the pristine nature in Lapland!

Especially if you like Nordic skiing you can really enjoy the peace and quiet of the serene landscapes. And you don't need to get bored with the hundreds of kilometers of tracks - both easy and difficult.

Nordic skiing - one of my passions!

Around the bigger resorts you'll find more and more organised activities. Husky safaris, snow mobile safaris, reindeer sleigh rides.. You can even get your "reindeer driver's licence" - I did that in 2011! At the resorts you find lots of restaurants, shops, services and all kinds of entertainment. Many places also have spas for you to relax your aching muscles. In Rovaniemi you can even go see Santa Claus! You knew that Santa lives in Finland, right!?

Mind you, everything you do in Lapland is expensive, starting from the food and accommodation down to the activities. If you're on a budget try some of the free activities: Build a snowman, go on nature walks, go to pulkkamäki (toboggan slide) and cook your own meals. All the cottages surely have their sauna for you to sit & relax in. Also Nordic skiing and snow shoeing - even if you rent the equipment - is less expensive than hitting the slopes. If you're lucky, you may get to see the Aurora Borealis! Some may want to join an organised tour for that but with good timing you can do it yourself, here is one site to track the Auroras.

How to get there?

The way you travel may affect the choice of the destination and your accommodation. If you can / are willing to travel by car you can easily go anywhere - distances are long but bearable. With a car at your disposal you can pick any nice & remote cottage you may find. You will need winter tires (all rental cars all equipped with them) and you preferably have experience with driving on slippery roads and in the dark.

You can also fly to many towns in Nothern Finland, e.g. Kuusamo (Ruka), Kittilä (Levi, Ylläs, Pallas, Olos), Rovaniemi (Ounasvaara, Santa Claus Village) and Ivalo (Saariselkä). You can also get by train to Rovaniemi, Kemijärvi (Pyhä, Luosto, Salla) and Kolari (Ylläs). With a bus you can go almost anywhere; and most places you will need to take a bus to reach the ski resort - they are not located in the towns, but 10-100km from them. If traveling without a car it will be wise to get accommodation right at the ski resort or to rent a car at your destination. Most resort towns have a pretty decent local bus service but you will save time and free yourselves from the bus schedules & routes. Taxies are plenty but also expensive.

Whichever place you choose, I'm sure you're in for quite a treat. Welcome to Lapland!

1 comment:

  1. For the geography buffs: Kuusamo is a part of Northern Ostrobothnia province (Pohjois-Pohjanmaan maakunta) of Finland, not Lapland province (Lapin maakunta) - but can be generally considered as part of Lapland (general area). Although some don't agree. For me, Kuusamo represents the essence of Lapland with its northern location, beautiful fells, reindeer and wide spaces of untouched nature.