In December, the sun does not rise in Northern Finland. The forests are blanketed in snow and cloaked in darkness and absolute silence. Bitter cold snaps can reach minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
It's bliss -- a road to relaxation and peace of mind no hilltop spa in Malaysia can offer.
Seven Shades of Blue
A week in Lapland is the polar opposite to the splendor and racket of Venice or Tokyo. Plenty of tourists visit the area during June, when the sun does not set for days and the booze flows in the major hotels. I advise renting a cabin in December or January, when the so-called "polar night" blankets Lapland.
In the northern parts of Lapland, the sun does not shine at all in winter. Instead, the deep midnight black turns into various shades of blue during noontime -- at the horizon you can see a gauze of purple or orange glow as the sun passes the deep north without a stopover. This period is harsh for natives, but for one week's visit, it's a unique experience.
If you rent a cabin outside the tourist hot spots, the combination of absolute silence and darkness can be intimidating for a day or two. But soon you will start tracking the subtle changes around you. The phase of the moon dictates the availability of ambient light. Cloud conditions reveal and conceal a stunning ocean of starlight. You see the Milky Way in its majesty.
Waiting for the
Northern Lights is a high-stakes gamble. It is not a nightly light show, but during a seven-day stay around December or January, the odds of witnessing it are reasonably high. Even a low-level event is something that stays with you -- a sheet of blue slowly undulating across one-fifth of the sky, slowly changing shapes and moving towards green and back.
A real blockbuster period is mesmerizing. The colors can range from blue to pale yellow and deep crimson, the billowing light covering almost half the sky. The ripples can move with a speed that you have to see to believe. Sometimes a single, leaf-shape unit can stand alone like a gigantic bonfire -- in my view, the best color combo is that rare yellow-orange, which looks like true flame.
Aurora Borealis in Finland
Sense of Snow
The best experiences you can get in Lapland during midwinter are all in slow time. This is an experience of observing the rhythm of the weather, going on cross-country skiing expeditions or walking in the woods or the hills. I would advise against television, newspapers, mobile phones and Blackberry handhelds.
Reading, eating and walking are the traditional pastimes of the midwinter. At first, it may not be easy for a family or couple. But working through the boredom and feelings that you should be doing "something" or getting some sort of a pre-packaged instant thrill is a process that can lead to profound relaxation.
As you unwind, you learn important answers to questions you need to know. Can you stop? Can you live for a week without being over stimulated? What do you do when you have to live with your family without distractions? Somebody is silent, somebody is talkative, somebody wants to move and somebody needs to be still. Some will love the experience and some will find it depressing. Can you deal with it and find ways to cope as a group or a couple when there is no VH1 or Coach boutique or Xbox to bail you out?
This is not a dream vacation -- it's real.
How much you get out of the trip depends on how much you are willing to interact with nature. This does not mean extreme sports -- just taking mile-long walks and going cross-country skiing every now and then can be mesmerizing. The environment is austere, but never boring. The condition of snow evolves and invites contemplation.
There is the powdery, thin snow of deep cold -- it is bone dry and squeaks under your boots. There are the fat, lazy snowflakes of a warm spell, so big you can hear them falling on ground if you stand completely still. There is the hard ice snow that covers the fields after a brief spell of sleet during a heat wave -- kids can walk on it if they go very slow, but adults fall through. There are dunes of snow on lakes and if the conditions are just right, there are mornings when a combination of snow and frost paints everything paper white -- walls, trees and roads. The quality of snow shifts overnight, making some days good for skiing, some for walking and some for building massive forts and castles of snow.
Cabin in Lapland
There is no culture or history here that many tourists build their trips around -- this was a poor, forsaken region where no cathedrals or pyramids were ever built. The deep cold, darkness and silence of Northern Finland is not something meant to be cooed over by tourists. It's not an experience that can be flattened into a postcard or a cute fridge magnet. The midwinter in Lapland is something you confront and even fight -- and if you are lucky, the experience will change you as much as seven days anywhere can.
Most Finnish cabin renters have extensive experience with foreign tourists -- they may not be prone to overt chirpiness, but they are highly professional. I recommend a cabin outside the major skiing centers. Downhill skiing is a foreign import -- the real Finnish winter sport is cross-country skiing, which involves hard physical labor in the middle of the darkness and silence of the wilds.
Go here for information on a cottage south of the Polar Circle. There you can actually glimpse the sun at noon, as the area is not far enough North to create the polar night. Forest cover is thicker, towns and cities bigger. Temperature is a tad warmer.
There are clusters of tourist hot spots up in the north -- places where you can get ESPN on hotel cable and
The Wall Street Journal
in the lobby.
Here you can engage in non-native activities like reindeer feeding and snowmobile safari. This is fairly popular among tourists who prefer the idea of Lapland over the substance of what it actually is.
My personal advice is go to
Ultima Thule, far above the Polar Circle. This is the "ends of the Earth" option I would recommend. There's a kind of apocalyptic vibe in Inari, Ivalo and Utsjoki. These are places even people in Southern Lapland can find freaky.
Note: The better cabins for the peak holiday season are usually booked by early October, so time is of the essence for the coming winter.
Will wild beasts snack on our kids? Nope. Wolves are delicate and skittish creatures, likely to give wide berth to the racket humans make. Bears are hibernating in December. Over the past decades, the rare bear attacks have taken place during the summer, when joggers get between a mother and a cub. Statistically, the risk of an animal attack is higher in Santa Monica.
Is it dangerous to have one's nostrils freeze from inside out? No -- and most children find it actually amusing! The likelihood of a genuine cold snap (below minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit) isn't that high -- the typical December temperature will range from plus 20 to minus 20.
What about cold blains? Not dangerous in moderation -- the most likely spot is the earlobe, which can easily be protected by a pair of earmuffs. Normal layered clothing you would wear in Minnesota in December is plenty enough protection for 95% of the time. During deep cold, having common sense about extended outings is a good thing. Cottages tend to be extremely well-insulated and heated with triple-glazed windows, etc.
What about Santa Claus? You can get a flashy, phony holiday high by visiting the cottage of Santa Claus or taking a dog sleigh run. But the modern Santa Claus is pretty much an invention of the Coca-Cola marketing team and dog sleighs are not native to Finland -- I'd advise avoiding the tourist traps and risking a slice of seclusion.
I want to hug a reindeer! Don't. There are some places where you can pet them, but these are not cuddly creatures -- they tend to be vicious beasts with a penchant for biting. I'd advise any exposure to reindeer be limited to thin slices on rye bread with cream cheese. This is a rare delicacy -- and reindeer meat is extremely low-fat. Plus, the glycemic index reading of black rye bread is low.