I don’t really like being wedged up against the window seat unless of course I am guaranteed to see something special. Crossing the Arctic Circle to get to the extreme north of Finnish Lapland definitely met that criteria and I grabbed the window seat on offer. On the two-hour flight from Helsinki, my eyes remained glued to the unique aerial view of the Tundra. I think I could even see the subtle curvature of the horizon as I gazed over the amber waves of grain to the line that divides land and sky. From a relatively cool -2? in the capital, the temperature was predicted to drop drastically to –25? at Levi. Frozen rivers and sheets of ice covered the land that was emerging from a deeply dark (read 24x7 night) and cold (read -40?) winter into some normal winter days. We were approaching Levi, Finland’s most popular ski and adventure activity destination in its most buzzing season and the thought of some winter adventure action on guaranteed powder was sending chilling thrills up my spine.
Barely off the plane and armed with an obligatory wardrobe of thermals and snow suits, we saunter off Santa style, on an easy going reindeer sled ride in the nearby Lapp village. With matted horns that stand like a fanciful hair-do atop its head, this docile-looking animal is a hardy creature of the cold. I need to stretch my feet and walk around the farm square dotted with old barns and all-wood huts, some more than two hundred years old.
Levi alone has 240 kilometers of cross-country ski tracks on undulating flats with lovely fells and black runs, offering the bigger challenge, always lingering close by. The tracks cross little villages like Lapp and give the skiers passing by a breather to stop for a coffee or a bite.
Our perch for these two brief days is the Levi Spirit resort huddled in a beautiful forest of pines straddling the frozen Ounas River. The well-appointed villas are the hallmark of understated luxury totally in sync with the forested surroundings.
The pace of the rides is to accelerate with a bang as we go snowmobiling after an excellent lunch of fresh Arctic tuna grilled to perfection. Boondocking around the lovely Finnish countryside crossing frozen lakes, swamps and forests, on ski-driven powered scooters, we chart a fine hour-long route almost to our next halt where ice swimming (its not as masochistic as it sounds) and sauna are next on the ice adventure menu. My adrenaline is running high with this most exhilarating of all rides as we turn into Sammun Tupa, Levi’s oldest ski café, where we are greeted with a traditional yodelling-like Yoikush rendition, a form of Sami folk music, which is also one of Europe’s oldest living music traditions.
Our lovely Finnish guide Friida Turku regales us with old tales of the sauna tradition in Finland as we muster the courage to take on the ice swimming challenge. Though we don’t abide by the Finnish protocol of going nude for the saunas (it’s actually more hygienic!), skimpy Caribbean swimwear is not much of a match either especially when it’s a steep walk, bare feet to the smoke hole that awaits us, in the frozen lake below. I am admittedly energised by the idea that this rather odd-sounding tradition of alternating ice-cold dips with warm saunas provides an addictive energy boost by actually throwing the circulation into high gear. I manage the icy dip without uttering expletives, but running towards the wads of undisturbed snow and throwing myself on it to make ‘snow angels’ sends me gasping back for the sauna. I have to vouch for its effectiveness though. I did feel high after the experience, though it could have been the effect of the beer I gulped before the dare.
Finnish cuisine is often a mix of traditional and fine dining. The stellar meal at the café above bears ample testimony of that. Since Rudolph is the staple and fresh fish aplenty, the meal kicks off with an array of fish starters — excellent Arctic char tartare, raw pickled white fish, white fish roe and smoked salmon. The main course of veal sausages and root vegetables is incidental after this, at least for my somewhat spoilt taste buds.
Barely had I sunk into the warmth of my bed that night than my alarm sounded off the sunrise call. Another beautiful day dawned as I froze my eyelashes admiring its alpenglow rise above the riverside fell. A spot of dog sledding is next on the cards as we drive through Lapp country with everything glowing in the beautiful light. My visit is timed between the extreme seasons, when the sun never really rises too high in the sky, throwing a mellow light on the land all day long. In the summer months tofollow, it won’t dip below the horizon atall, leaving the Finns in a perpetual stateof illumination.
With 12 raring-to-go lean Siberian huskies to each old-fashioned wooden sled, Johanna, our musher, lets go of the brakes. Our sled is soon talking to the wind. All I can hear is the loud whooshing sound of wind and the sound of paws crunching on snow as we bounce and glide through a narrow forest track at the speed of lightning. It opens out on the vast frozen surface of Lake Munajarvi beside which sat the pretty Kongas village. The huskies clip over the frozen surface in seemingly effortless leaps before we disappear into the magical woods again. Suitably impressed and stirred by this Arctic mode of transport, we proceed to meet some of the friendly canines and wolves at the husky park.
The crisp clean air and all the action whips up colossal appetites and we dive into Tiikun’s fairy tale teepee (dismantalable nomadic home) where she is preparing a traditional Sami meal around her wood-fired hearth. Her grandfather, a reindeer herder like most Samis of Lapland, owned 10,000 reindeers. Old vintage photos of her family (Samis are the largest indigenous ethnic tribe in Europe) dot the conical walls of her teepee. It’s a simple traditional Sami meal from the days when you ate to live, not vice versa. Not much can grow at these temperatures anyways! We are served steamed shavings of veal, peppered with nothing more than salt, on a bed of mashed potatoes and some local beer. The dessert is again a simple Sami delicacy — cheese flambé served with cloudberry preserve. Sami stories are a little crazy, quips Friida when I ask for the meaning of the poem engraved on my table. “The moon will show its butt from behind the cloud giving the crazy man a task for the night,” it said. It probably stems from the Sami view of man and nature being inseparable, I muse. Tiikun regales us with stories of her ancestors — their shaman traditions, the Samis’ rootedness with nature and their unique ethnicity. Nature belongs to everyone in Lapland. So I can happily go berry-picking in someone else’s property without seeking their permission.
Tired but not beaten, I take the plunge for the last adventure on our list. Formula 1-style ice karting on a small-scale ice racetrack, where technical skill beats speed any day. I am soon to find this out as I am left manoeuvering slick icy corners on a surface with little gripping power. The race to the finish line without bumping off someone is a feat, especially for a speed junkie like me. We top off our two days in Lapland (which felt like five) with a mouth-watering meal, which is a lesson in evolution from Tiikun’s simple fare. Crab Cappuccino followed by a well-marinated veal and wild boar patty served with the perfect lingonberry compote.
For a country that wears its solitude like a prized gem, seeking it out even more than what its unique geography naturally imposes on it, Finland is an other-worldly, lonely place. You can hear it in nooks and crannies and in the voices of the locals you talk to, though as a visitor it’s unlikely to affect you. It’s also the kind that makes you yodel in your sleep. As I float somewhere in the twilight zone that night, my vivid imagination wrests up a colorful display of eclectic colors running amuck on the horizon. The aurora borealis is lurking somewhere in the night sky. Perhaps a window seat on the plane in the deep of a clear night might accord me the privilege of seeing it.
The information Getting there
Levi: I stayed at Levi Spirit(Rs 38,000 a night per villa, levispirit.fi/en), high-end luxury villas well suited for a group. You can also look up holiday apartments and log cabins for rent at holidaylettings.co.uk/levi.
Helsinki: Holiday Inn (Rs 8,000 doubles including breakfast, finland.holidayinn.com)
Ski season lasts from November to April. The country’s two main ski resorts are Yllas and Levi, within an hour of each other. You can hire equipment from Neon Sun (neonsun.fi).
Reindeer rides are a fun activity (from Rs 640 to Rs 8,000 per person, lapinkyla.fi).
Other winter activities include Ice Karting(awa.fi/en), horseriding, snowshoe excursions and ice fishing (levi.fi/en).
Levi has 886km of snowmobile routes. You need a driving licence from your country (from Rs 6,000 per person, kinossafaris.com). I would highly recommend the Northern Lights snowmobile night safari(from Rs 9,000 per person for a 3-4 hour safari,polestarsafaris.com/levi)
Levi husky park rides are also popular (Rs 4,200 per person, polarspeed.fi).