Once the business end of my trip to Helsinki ended, I had planned heading north to Lapland to spend the weekend looking for Santa, Northern Lights and Reindeers.Fri 3-Feb: Rovaniemi
I had an early flight at 7.30am so booked a taxi to the airport, hoping to leave at 6am. But I soon realised Finnish taxi companies tell YOU when they’ll collect you, not the other way around. So the taxi was scheduled for 5.30am, and as it was a shared taxi, we picked up a few on the way. Helsinki Airport was easy to get through and they’re using great technology – they have screens advising you of live average time it takes to clear security (3 mins). I found out this is calculated based on RFID signals picked up by scanners which track you via your phone signal from the start of the queue through to the other side of security screening. Ingenious idea – they’re looking to extend RFID to tracking luggage through the airport (may help reduce lost/misrouted bags).
I was flying north to Lapland, the town of Rovaniemi, which we were informed was “Santa’s Official Airport.” We were 66 degrees north – just on the Arctic Circle. In fact the runway crosses the Arctic Circle. It was cold – the captain announced it was minus 29 degrees Celsius. Holy moley, I’ve never experienced that cold. Everything looks like a winter wonderland – a blanket of white snow, frozen lakes/rivers, snow laden pine trees, clear blue skies and a low lying sun.
I spent the afternoon cross-country skiing (doing about 14km in 3 hours). First time for everything – it was too cold for most people to head out, but I felt ok with all my winter jackets and insulted layers, so decided to give it a go. The skis are much thinner and lighter than downhill skis. The boots are also much lighter, easy to get in and out of. My first problem was getting the boot into the binding. I spent 15 mins jumping around in the snow, feeling a complete idiot.
Once I got that sorted, I had to teach myself. I remember watching biathlon and cross-country skiing on Eurosport from time to time, so figured you needed to use the poles to balance and propel you forward. It also looked like you tried a running/jogging stride with your legs kicking back. It requires concentration: keep your weight forward or you’ll topple back; plant the poles to give you balance; move on leg back at a time; keep the skis pointing straight down the tracks.
It was good fun, if less of an adrenaline buzz than downhill or snowboarding – mainly due to slower speed and restricted route options (i.e. you’re stuck in trail tracks). It’s a good body workout – arms and shoulders pumping with poles and your legs propelling you forward. It’s very relaxing – especially as the tracks were quiet – I only met 2 skiers in 3 hours!
Later that night, I went for a swim and sauna to unwind. The Santasport hotel is great – it has all sorts of indoor sports available: swimming pool, sauna, plunge pool, gym, massage, basketball courts, etc. The Finnish Army had over 200 recruits staying at the hotel doing training. Later that night I walked into town, in minus 29 degrees, and had a beautiful Reindeer sirloin steak in Fransmanni restaurant, which was recommended #4 on Tripadvisor. It didn’t disappoint – a mix of Cote de Rhone and Lappi cuisine (i.e. onion soup and reindeer steak).
Mitt Romney should visit Lapland – I met two guys in the street who stopped me and were looking to spread the word of God. Turns out they were from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which drew a blank from me. But they quickly explained they were better known as Mormons. Who’d have thunk it?
Sat 4-Feb: Rovaniemi
The temperatures across Europe were plunging to record lows, with 100s of people dead from the cold. That made it even more amazing to see how life goes on as normal in Lapland, where minus 30C causes no disruption or change to normal life. Shops, restaurants, sports facilities, transport are all open.
I ventured out cross-country skiing again, completing over 15km on a nice gentle forested loop. I had my Lumia phone to keep me company – catching up on loads of podcast interviews I’d downloaded. That night I hoped to see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), so had booked a snowmobile trip for 3 hours out across the dark plains of Lapland. We got suited up in heavy overalls, gloves, balaclavas, wool socks, helmet and jumped on the snowmobiles. We’d need all that gear to stay warm on a chilly night, with lows of minus 34C.
I shared a snowmobile with a Japanese guy, and it was great fun. Top speed was 50kph, as we wound our way in the darkness across tracks on fields and through wooded paths. We took a break in a wooden hut, cooked some sausages on an open fire and drank some warm berry juice to try heat up. Then I got to drive. It was great craic – simple with an accelerator and brake. The only scary moment was when I took a corner too fast and the front ski came off the ground, so I thought we were going to turn over, which wouldn’t have been pretty. I probably scared the crap out of my Japanese mate, but he was too polite to scream (Japanese) obscenities at me. Nice feature I liked was the handlebars had heaters on them, so your hands never got cold from the wind-chill.
Unfortunately, the skies weren’t kind to us, so the Northern Lights didn’t appear for us. There are no guarantees; they may only appear a few times a week.
Sun 5-Feb: Travel via Copenhagen
My last day involved travel: 3 flights taking 11 hours from Lapland to Dublin, with stops in Helsinki and Copenhagen. It gave me a chance to catch up on reading, so I was happy to finish “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, which is a captivating book about why humans run and what our true capabilities really are (I’ll post a review shortly).
My stop-over in Copenhagen gave me time to meet an old friend for lunch. Morten studied at ESADE back in 2005 when I did an exchange in Barcelona, so it was great to catch up with him for lunch in the Hilton. We had some great times in Barcelona, so we had a good chat like old times: talking football, girls, travel and work.
So a good week in Finland – definitely worth the trip to Lapland, even if I didn’t find Santa or the Northern Lights. Kiitos Suomi!