If you long for an active winter break, but want an alternative to crowded pistes and predictable après, head to Saariselkä, at the very heart of Finnish Lapland. Here you'll experience a landscape of pristine, sub-zero silence, where the best way to appreciate the astonishing surroundings is to be outside in them – no matter how cold it is.
Don your thermals, layer up and discover the best activities to stay warm on a trip to this icy paradise.
Saariselkä's pristine terrain, covered in pine trees laden with snow © Gemma Graham / Lonely Planet
Outdoor-sports equipment has come a long way since the early days of the snowshoe, so if you have visions of strapping a pair of wooden tennis rackets to your feet, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise. Modern snowshoes are lightweight and effective, allowing you to steadily pad your way across open fells or explore pristine forest trails without sinking into the snow up to your armpits. You may never quite emulate the grace or stealth of the Arctic fox but, really, the clumsiness is all part of the fun.
For the ultimate atmospheric excursion, arrange to go out when it's dark – which is most of the day during winter at this latitude. As the darkness envelops you in its stillness, your head torch will cast an eerie blueish glow on trees burdened by the weight of snow, contorted into alien-like forms. Stop to gaze up at the inky sky and you might just catch sight of a shooting star or snatch a glimpse of that most elusive of beasts: the aurora borealis.
Cross-country skiing on one of the stunning trails in the Saariselkä region © Jukka Rapo/Getty Images
Although there is a modest number of downhill slopes in Saariselkä offering a decent diversion for beginners and intermediate skiers and snowboarders, those who really want to experience the beauty of the region should give cross-country skiing a shot.
It's an entirely different discipline to downhill skiing – from the streamlined footwear and narrow skis to the technique itself – so it’s well worth signing up for lessons to help you master the basics. You’ll learn a number of different skills on a small, circular training track before heading further afield to put what you’ve learned into practice on the well-groomed trails through the surrounding forests. There’s no denying that you’ll work up a sweat (all the better to stoke your appetite for a hearty post-skiing meal), but with temperatures dipping well below -30°C here in the depths of winter, it's a great way to fend off the cold.
A convoy of snowmobilers slows down under a pink sky to take instruction from their guide at dusk © Gemma Graham / Lonely Planet
One of the most exhilarating activities you can experience on the white stuff, snowmobiling is a must for ardent adrenaline junkies. The law in Finland requires you to have a driving licence to rent a snowmobile and to undertake a justifiably rigorous safety briefing before heading off on your adventure. But once the formalities are taken care of you’re in for a thrilling ride. One moment you'll be zipping through the forest to the soundtrack of your engine, and the next you'll be power-surfing over an undulating, barren fell, the fierce wind whipping the powdery snow into swirls as though it’s dry ice on a dancefloor.
You’ll be given appropriate equipment and clothing to offer some protection against the biting cold, but layering is key. Even with the balaclava supplied, there will be points when you believe the frigid Arctic wind might shear the nose clean off your face. And, despite turning the heat on the handlebars up to max, you’ll wonder if your fingers will ever regain any feeling at all. But when you turn to head back to base, the small caravan of snowmobiles ahead of you silhouetted against the blazing pink sky as the winter sun lingers stubbornly just under the horizon, you'll be raring to do it all again.
A sauna-goer emerges after a plunge in icy water beside a steam sauna in Urho Kekkonen National Park, close to Saariselkä © Norbert Eisele-Hein / Shutterstock
Relaxing in a traditional Finnish sauna
There’s no activity quite so characteristically Finnish – or as restorative – as a traditional smoke sauna. Forget the lacklustre sweatbox at your local gym; when you’ve experienced the Finnish way of doing things, you’ll understand why sauna culture is so intrinsic here. Once the wood-burner has the mercury teetering around 80°C, water is ladled on to the piping hot stones atop the stove to fill the sauna with soft, fragrant steam, known as löyly. After a preparatory shower, it's time to take a seat and feel the heat, and perhaps to flog yourself with the leafy birch branches (vasta) that are often to hand: the practice is said to boost circulation.
You could simply alternate between the sauna and a shower to cool down, but saunas on the banks of Lapland's frozen lakes and rivers offer an especially invigorating option: ice swimming. Once you've raised your core temperature sufficiently with a few cycles of sauna and shower, steel yourself for a mad dash to a swimming hole and dunk yourself in the breath-grabbingly icy water for a few seconds before running back to the warmth of the sauna. This extreme refreshment is admittedly not for the faint of heart, but the elation that follows is uniquely addictive. When in Lapland...
A cross-section of a traditional Sámi boot on display at Siida in Inari © Gemma Graham / Lonely Planet
Learning about the Sámi way of life
Lapland’s indigenous people, the Sámi, have inhabited the northern reaches of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia for thousands of years, and to understand Lapland is to understand the Sámi and their culture. Traditionally reindeer herders, today's Sámi, while maintaining this practice, work across the full spectrum of industries and through sustained efforts have fought to save their culture, languages and traditions from extinction.
You can learn more about the Sámi people at the fascinating Siida museum in Inari, around 70km from Saariselkä. The Sámi Cultural Centre, Sajos, is located here too, and is home to the Sámi Parliament.
Witnessing the aurora
Inspiring centuries of myths and legends, the aurora borealis represents nature at her most bewitching. While there are several ways of increasing your chances of a sighting, a lot still comes down to luck. Going on a northern lights safari with a guide, whether by snowmobile or mini-van, won't guarantee you'll see them, but the adventure of the experience alone is worth it, even if luck isn't on your side.
The anticipation mounts as your guide takes you away from any light pollution and deep into the biting wilderness, following tip-offs from other guides and forecasting apps. Along the way you'll learn about the science and how indigenous peoples made sense of the spectacle throughout the millennia. And then you might – just might – catch sight of a glowing wisp, growing stronger and lingering as a colourful streak, or dancing like billowing smoke across the black expanse of night.
Heated glass windows aid uninterrupted viewing of the vast Arctic skies in an aurora cabin at the Northern Lights Village © Gemma Graham / Lonely Planet
But perhaps the most luxurious (not to mention romantic) way to see the aurora is from the cosy confines of an aurora cabin, such as those at the excellent Northern Lights Village. While the front of each cabin is entirely enclosed for privacy, the back has a panorama of slanted glass windows under which you can lie on your bed and gaze skywards for as long as you can stay awake.
Making it happen
Saariselkä is a 30km hop from Ivalo Airport, which is served by airlines including Finnair, who fly direct from London Gatwick. Activities and excursions can be arranged through providers in the region such as Top Safaris. Much of Saariselkä's accommodation tends towards the luxurious; if you're not treating yourself to a stay in an aurora cabin, an equally special choice is the Star Arctic Hotel. Its position atop the Kaunispää mountain offers unparalleled views of the snowy, forested expanse below.
Gemma Graham travelled to Saariselkä with support from Inghams. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.