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02 July 2016Last updated
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Finding happiness in Finland

Lapland is the most magical winter wonderland there is – after all, Santa lives there – but Judy Cogan discovers a Finland that’s just as spectacular and enjoyable as a summer destination

By Judy Cogan
18 Mar 2016 | 12:00 am
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  • The massive Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, located 250m above the Arctic Circle, offers all kinds of activities for the adventurous visitor.

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  • Lapland is not only the best place to enjoy the Northern Lights experience; it’s also where Santa Claus lives in a glittering home.

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  • The Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort lies enroute to North Cape, which is often referred to as the northernmost tip of Europe.

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A pinch-yourself moment. It sums up a few fleeting seconds so special you have to give yourself a quick squeeze, or maybe tug at your hair to prove you’re not dreaming.

I was wide awake, and sitting on the veranda of a rather grand log cabin in northern Finland – Lapland, in fact – a well-known winter wonderland that borders Sweden, Norway, Russia and the Baltic Sea and is famous for skiing, Santa Claus and the Northern Lights. But it was mid-summer, when 24-hour sunlight replaces those dark winter days.

Built in kelo pine (wood exclusive to Lapland and dried out from already dead standing trees), the inside of my Queen Suite cabin – in the vast Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort 250m above the Arctic Circle, in the northeast corner of Lapland – was void of any technology (no Wi-Fi for starters) but was far from basic. Still, the rich velvety drapes, heaped hand-stitched cushions and four-poster bed with its sinking-sand-soft mattress hadn’t managed to lull me to sleep. How could it when, earlier, at 11.45pm, the sky above the silent wilderness outside was still drenched in an ethereal bright white light? 
It had seemed wrong to block out this magically misplaced sunlight for sleep.

So, I’d pulled on a cosy dressing gown and padded outside to drink up the view. The midnight sun (in its fullest form) only shines above the Arctic Circle, but these bright summer nights stretch across the whole country. And I’ve heard that very, very late at night the sun dips below the horizon before quickly rising again seconds later creating a beautiful blur between sunset and sunrise.

Now, settled outside on the giant veranda, I breathed in a lungful of fresh air and looked out to the still glassy lake lying ahead just visible through a row of rugged fir trees. That’s when I saw it – a lone reindeer sloping past, with soft truffle-coloured fur, wearing its fuzzy arched antlers like a crown. I held my breath as it crunched fallen twigs and bark with its hooves and lazily swung its head in my direction, before moving on. Cue pinch. It seemed like an eternity before I exhaled.

I immediately pushed thoughts of the piping hot bowl of reindeer stew I’d devoured at dinner out of my mind (when you order steak in a restaurant, you don’t expect a cow to casually wander past later) and put this down as an unforgettable moment. And they came in abundance during my stay at the resort, which is just as spectacular in the summertime. You need to not only add this mysterious pocket of the world to your list of places to visit, but push it right to the top.

The man who saw the light

The resort would never have existed had Jussi Eiramo not run out of petrol in the summer of 1973 on the way back from a fishing trip in Utsjoki, Finland’s northernmost village. He had no choice but to stop and set up camp for the night on the fringes of this wild landscape. And he’s said that he woke up on the roadside feeling like he’d come home.

It’s no wonder really as this area of northern Finland is the one of the cleanest and safest places in the world. The water is so pure you can drink it straight from the streams and lakes and the air feels like it’s cleansing your lungs with every breath. That’s before you take in the beautiful views.

Jussi (who now looks suspiciously like Santa Claus) spent his first summer living in the same tent. He explored the surrounding area and built a small cabin, where he lived in the second year. A basic café serving coffee to people passing on the way to North Cape (on the coast of Magerøya island in Northern Norway, referred to as the northernmost tip of Europe) kick-started his plans and over the years Kakslauttanen grew and grew.

Jussi added log cabins then later Igloo Village (53 cosy glass-and-snow igloos, perfect for admiring the northern sky), the luxurious wedding chamber, a family-friendly 10-person Sivakka, four suites, Santa’s home and Celebration house – Finland’s largest log building, which holds up to 250 people and is a popular wedding venue.

Feeling the Finnish heat

Every type of accommodation on offer at Kakslauttanen, from the more basic cabins to luxe honeymoon suites, comes with a fitted sauna. It’s as important as the bathroom as far as Finns are concerned. In fact, saunas are a big part of Finland’s culture and heritage – there are nearly three million saunas in the country and Finland has a population of 5.2 million – so that’s nearly one in every household and, according to the tourism board, there’s even one in the country’s Parliament building.

Summertime is the best time to try the smoked sauna and swimming tradition, whereby you sit in a sauna for as long as you can handle before running outside, down the jetty and plunging into the lake to cool off. In the winter at Kakslauttanen they say they cut a hole in the ice if they have to, so in August, I had it easy!

Here there are three separate smoked saunas (savusauna) that hold 100 people between them (the largest sauna on-site is the biggest in the world) and are huddled together backing onto the stunning fresh water lake.

To explain this experience, it’s important to understand the difference between a smoked sauna – the most traditional type set in cabin without a chimney – and the modern ones we’re all used to seeing in spas. Wood is burned (rather than rocks heated up) on a large stove and smoke billows around the room.

When the sauna is hot enough (it can take six to eight hours to heat up) vents are opened and the smoke spills out ready for people to soak in. The heat from the oven keeps the sauna hot.

It’s not for the faint-hearted though. One minute you are sitting in what feels like a giant dark oven, the next you’re bursting through the door in a sooty sweat and running down the jetty. Don’t think twice about jumping in! The water is cold even in summer (despite all that sunlight), but I hesitated and had to run back into the sauna to warm up and try again.

Gold rush

Kakslauttanen has so many summer activities on offer you’ll never be bored. Try everything from horseback safaris to quad biking, hiking and mountain biking. And remember, it is light all day and night, which means you have more time to pack in all the things you want to do. Even kids don’t go to bed early in Finland during the summer – winter is for sleeping, they say, and summer is for playing.

It’s good to start with more traditional ways to while away a morning or evening. Gold panning is the ideal activity to learn about Finnish culture and maybe even get rich quick! Gold panning has been carried out at Kakslauttanen for centuries, with thousands of kilograms of gold being discovered in the waters of Lapland’s gold fields over the decades. A recent peak was the gold rush that hit Finland in the late 1940s. Even today, people visit to chase after what is considered to be the world’s purest gold, found in and around the nearby Lemmenjoki and Ivalojoki Rivers. Try your hand at the sivving technique at the resort or take a 15-minute drive to the Tankavaara Gold Village (www.tankavaara.fi) where it’s guaranteed everyone will strike gold.

A dog lover’s delight

Husky safaris are also a must-do. But they aren’t just about ploughing through crisp snowy wonderlands in winter months. In the summer, you can enjoy exhilarating husky-drawn sleigh rides – the skis are replaced by wheels to accommodate the grassy, rocky terrain of this rugged wilderness.

But if you really want to feel the strength and skill of these beautiful dogs, try husky hiking. You’ll be given your own husky to walk on the hike – or rather the husky will be given you to walk on the hike. Gentle revving quickly turns into a speedy drag race (running and yelling in my case) across exposed rolling fells. They just take off! 
But this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for dog lovers and hikers alike. The dogs are playful, friendly and good at their job, which is getting you places quickly.

If you want to see these gorgeous blue-eyed creatures en masse without such exertion though, visit the resort’s on-site Husky Farm where you can play with the dogs and learn how to get them harnessed up and ready for trekking.

A walk in the wilderness

The location of the resort is hard to knock. 
It lies on the northeast corner of Lapland, bordering Russia and Northern Norway. You’d be right in feeling you’re in the middle of the wilderness when staying here, because you are, but it is close to two major national parks that are definitely worth visiting.

The first is Urho Kekkonen – Finland’s second-largest national park – and is only five kilometres away. It offers 2,250 square kilometres of pristine, breathtaking fell country, which is perfect for hiking, trekking and boating all summer.

Lemmenjoki is the country’s largest national park at 2,850 square kilometres, and roughly an hour-and-a-half away by road from the resort. Transport there and back is available – just ask at reception.

The park is a particularly special sun-drenched spot in the summer with the Lemmenjoki running through it. It is also the homeland of Lapland’s indigenous Sami or Lapp people, who set up home there centuries ago. It’s wild, yet tranquil and best navigated by canoe along the wide stunning river towards the valley, which is lined with lush greenery.

The riverside is popular for hiking, trekking and swimming too with plenty of ground to explore. You can even visit an existing Sami family reindeer herding farm. In Lapland, with its sparse population of roughly 56,800 people, there are 34,500 reindeers, so there’s plenty of them to look after (and farm for skin and meat or tourism). Usually, the mother in the family is a felt artisan and specialises in Sami crafts, costumes and paintings, which are inspired by nature and available for sale in a quaint on-site shop.

So don’t wait for Christmas. Lapland is the perfect escape from Dubai’s breathless summer heat and you can embrace the great outdoors, which may be sparse and mostly void of people, but filled with potential pinch-yourself moments at every turn.

Travel facts

1. There’s a fantastic offer by Turkish Airlines on the cards at the moment that you must avail of! Fly to Helsinki from Dubai at just Dh2,600 return. Visit www.turkishairlines.com.

From Helsinki, take a Finnair flight to Ivalo, the northernmost airport in Finland. Return fares start at Dh1,603. Norwegian too operates flights to Ivalo from the Finnish capital.

2. The Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort is a 30-minute drive from Ivalo airport. Return transfers are provided by the resort at about Dh100. Glass-roof mini buses are also available for group hire.

3. There are two restaurants within the vast Arctic property. The Kelo restaurant and Aurora in the West Village both serve traditional lappish cuisine. Also the resort provides everything you need clothing-wise such as overcoats and boots. Visit www.kakslauttanen.fi.

By Judy Cogan

By Judy Cogan