Usually at this time of a year we would go some place warm, but not this time! I guess we both agreed it makes more sense to stay in Europe considering the fact we only had 11 days of time for our holiday. That would not have been enough for the other destination we had in mind (a much more warmer one ;)). So, we said, why not do something completely different this time, why not go to the north! Since this year´s winter was a really poor one, with not much snow, going to Finland seemed like a great idea!
When: March 2016
Visited: Helsinki, Rovaniemi, Tankavaara, Kakslauttanen, Saariselkä, Inari, Ivalo, Nellim, Levi
How: trains, bus, rented car
Stayed in: hotels, guesthouse, cottage
DRIVING & TRANSPORT
We booked the flights to Helsinki and decided to only spend a weekend there, then we were off to the north. A TRAIN took us to Rovaniemi where we picked up the CAR and made a nice circle to Saariselkä, Inari, Levi and back to Rovaniemi from where a NIGHT TRAIN brought us back to the AIRPORT.
CAR DRIVING was absolutely no problem as the cars have great TYRES WITH SPIKES and the roads were in a good condition. We did not drive in the night and were looking out for possible REINDEER crossing the roads, but we met none on the way. We paid 350€ for a Mercedes A for 6 days (btw the price was the same as for a Citroen, so Gin had to go with the better one) including a child seat for Lu. We only had to fill up the tank once, the GAS PRICE was the same as at home in Germany.
We have booked the trains in advance – Lu was TRAVELLING FOR FREE (all kids under 6 do) and we were able to reserve the seats in a FAMILY CARRIAGE which was great for the 10hrs ride one way. For the way back we had a SLEEPING BERTH, which saved up one night in a hotel. Initially we wanted to travel around north with BUSES, but it turned out they were pretty expensive. Children (4 years and older) had to pay half price also, and in our case renting the car made much more sense also in the financial way. Plus it gave us the freedom of stopping anywhere and anytime.
Huh, we had no clue what to expect. I was already in Finland long time ago but honestly, I could not remember exactly what we ate, we were also camping so we were cooking on our own at that time. Maybe it was the fact we did not have any big expectations, but we found the food really tasty and somehow similar to what our grandmothers would cook on a weekend – but with an interesting twist to it, nice herbs and best quality FISH, especially SALMON. We did try out many local specialities, amongst them REINDEER MEAT, salmon in many varieties (also in a SOUP), lots of RYE BREAD, special pastry and much more.
This photo might give you a clue about what the dishes look like but it you wish to read more about it, click on this button which takes you to a special post about FOOD IN FINLAND:read more about FOOD IN FINLAND
WITH THE KIDS
If I´m honest, this trip was not the best possible one to do with a 4-year old. He did have fun as there was lots of SNOW and mom & dad were the whole time around, FRESH AIR and lots of WINTER FUN was for sure also healthy, the FOOD was nice and there were no health risks or any other dangers we could come across. It was more the fact that there were many really GREAT ACITIVITIES ADULTS COULD DO, but not a 4-year old. Like going for an Aurora hunt. I don´t think children could stand 4 hours at that low temperatures starring in the sky and watching for the lights to come. Also, the smallest ones might not enjoy dog sledding, cross-country skiing nor a sauna session. So, yes, if we look at it like this, us parents had more to do here as Lu. Often, we were SWITCHING TURNS at doing something, because it was just impossible for the 3 of us to do it together. This somehow rarely happened on our previous travels. I would say Finland is a great destination for kids above 8 years lets say – they are then big enough to join you on pretty much everything. I´m speaking for the winter now, I think in the summer it does not matter so much, you can take them to the lakes with no problems ;).
So, I´m not saying you should not go with your little ones, it just might be better to wait a few years 😉 We don´t regret going there as we all found a way keeping everyone happy and we´re very grateful for everything we experienced, it´s one of the best countries for a great winter holiday and also Lu had his fun, he was actually happy enough to play with piles of snow as we did not have much of it this season back at home. And the highlight of seeing SANTA´S HOME, reindeer and some other things made it all up for the things he could not do with us ;).
WHAT WE SAW & DID
So, we landed in Helsinki on a Friday and had almost 2 FULL DAYS TO EXPLORE the city. Coming in from the AIRPORT was super easy, there is the so-called RING LINE, so the best way is to take a train to the main railway station in Helsinki. Once in the city we visited all the main attractions, the CATHEDRAL, the main MARKET SQUARE and MARKET HALL, the famous UNDERGROUND CHURCH and some other sights. We also took a boat to the SUOMENLINNA ISLAND which is an UNESCO World Heritage site, did some SHOPPING and had our first typical Finnish dishes.
There is already an extra post about our time in HELSINKI, so if you wish to find out more about how we spent our time in the city, click this button:
HELSINKI – ROVANIEMI
We started the Sunday morning with a delicious BREAKFAST and were off to the TRAIN STATION soon after it. Luckily our hotel was close to the station so we did not have to walk much – it was actually snowing that morning! The station itself is nice and I´m sure you will find something to do even if you need to wait a while for your train.
The 10 HOURS TRAIN RIDE TO ROVANIEMI, which is located about 850 kilometres north of Helsinki was a piece of cake. Firstly because we got the seats in a special FAMILY CARRIAGE with a play room, and secondly because it was a nice sunny day and we had the chance to observe the BEAUTIFUL NATURE! Birch woods and little red houses – that was simply something we don´t get to see often and therefore very interesting.
INTER CITY TRAINS in Finland are just the best! We were in Switzerland just 2 months ago and the country is famous for its trains – but I must say, the CHILDREN section was slightly better here. So cool, the playroom with a slide and a little library, a little train and climbing walls. Also a toilet at the same floor and safety doors at the stairs. Nothing to complain about! It´s also a great chance to speak to other parents ;). We were the only tourists though, amongst the Finnish families, which was kind of great and we learned some basic Finnish words, also Lu ;).
Just a few more VIEWS through the train window! Beautiful nature, lakes and woods everywhere. The lakes were still frozen at the time of our visit, it must be beautiful in the summer ;).
Rovaniemi, so to say the ENTRANCE TO LAPPLAND, is a great place to absorb some history and general knowledge about Finland´s northern part. Lu was most interested in visiting Santa´s home, but first he had to join us at the famous ARKTIKUM, the science MUSEUM about the Arctic region, showing and explaining everything one needs to know about this area. Entry fee is very reasonable for what you get! Really a nice display and well worth visiting. Don´t forget, Monday´s it is closed.
And finally, we arrived in the SANTA´S VILLAGE. It´s just around 8km from the city, you can also go there with a BUS which stops at many points in the town. I was already here long time ago in the summer months, but I did not remember much. Anyway it looked much different in the winter, I´m sure. Basically the village is built exactly on the ARCTIC CIRCLE LINE, so you get to cross it quite a few time. There are numerous RESTAURANTS, SHOPS and possibilities to spend your free time more actively. You can even sleep here in a HOTEL. We first visited the main house where you can meet Santa in person. For a PHOTO with him, you will have to pay 40€ though. Yeah, really a rip off, but on the other hand there is no entry fee for the village, so it´s up to you. We did not do it.
Instead we visited the POST OFFICE where Santa holds all the letters from all over the world – you can also get a stamp in your passport and send a card or a letter with a special STAMP. The Japanese seemed to love this part and were very eager writing maaany postcards.
There is also a nice little PLAYGROUND on site and if you wander a little further you will find a HUSKY FARM, where you can take a ride (we didn´t here), you can also rent snow mobiles or do some other winter activities.
The NAPAPIIRI ARCTIC CIRCLE LINE is marked with a few pillars, in the summer you can also see the line drawn on the floor.
We were on our way to Saariselka and this was also the FIRST DAY OF CAR DRIVING on this trip for us. The sun was shining so we had nothing to worry about, the distance was also not all that big and we could squeeze in a few stops. We were searching for a REINDEER FARM which was marked on the road map we bought, but it turned out that one was either closed on the day, or abandoned.
So, we stopped at TANKAVAARA GOLD VILLAGE – which I´m sure it´s very interesting if you visit in the SUMMER. You can even try your luck at GOLD FINDING for an extra fee and can take everything you find! Well, in the winter time, the water pans are of course closed so we were left with the museum and the visitors centre. We were kind of the only guests! Which was good, but also kind of unusual ;). Great place to stop – especially in the summer.
Finally we were here! The place where we hoped to see Aurora, meet the huskies & reindeer and just enjoy the nature, staying in a WOODEN COTTAGE with a private SAUNA! The whole place smelled of PINE TREES and had a fairytale touch to it as there was much fresh SNOW. Just perfect!
SAARISELKÄ, IVALO and INARI are the 3 most populated villages/towns in northern Finland and in the WINTERTIME Saariselkä is probably the most famous one. It´s really a nice village close to the ski slopes and a great place to start a day on one of the many many CROSS-COUNTRY TRACKS – it is also the perfect place to go DOG SLEDDING with HUSKY, visit REINDEER FARMS, go ICEFISHING or watch the POLAR LIGHTS. We tried to do a little bit of everything ;).
The first nights we went joined an organised AURORA HUNT TOUR, which meant we were driven all the way to the RUSSIAN BORDER with a bigger car (for 6 persons) in the hope to spot some movement in the sky. At the end we had much luck, because the weather was not really very good, we had FULL MOON and the general Aurora activity was not too strong, but we managed to see it anyway!
It´s really not so easy to see it as it might appear, there are many things which have to happen at the same time – if you wish to READ MORE ABOUT AURORA BOREALIS and how is the best way to spot it click on the button and read a special post about it here:
Seeing Aurora was definitely one of the HIGHLIGHTS OF THIS TRIP, but right after it we can put the DOG SLEDDING / HUSKY SAFARI! This was soooo cool! The dogs were just CRAZY AND SO FAST, you could really see that they loved it and also needed to run and move. Even when we stopped they wanted to continue and were pulling like crazy ;). Again, we did this separately so I went on my own while Gin stayed with Lu, This meant I had no partner and had to do it all on my own. They took one dog away, so I had 4. As there was nobody sitting in my sleigh and I´m also not the heaviest one, we were going reaaaaaly fast. And that was much fun but also hard work! I had a serious muscle ache the next day ;).
There were around 160 huskies on that FARM, they were kept outside, no cages, but inside a huge fenced area and looked very good . We´ve also had the chance to meet a few little ones, just a couple of week old ones.. Such great dogs and a wonderful experience!
The whole thing lasted almost 2 HOURS, but you can take a longer tour. We were going through the woods and plains where there was literately nothing and it was just the 6 of us, which made it really magical. No signs of any kind of mass tourism, just you, the dogs and the nature.
You can also SKI in Saariselka, but what we found much better were the CROSS-COUNTRY TRACKS – there were sooo many and the looked just perfect even for the beginners or those with less experiences. Besides, there was also a BEGINNERS SKI PLACE and a CHILDREN SLOPE!
And what can be better than a hot SAUNA after a day in the snow? Hardly anything. This was so relaxing and the amazing pine smell made it just perfect again!
Besides the winter sports, Saariselkä is also a good place to buy some SOUVENIRS – I got some great MARIMEKKO FABRICS fabric and hand made SAMI GLOVES, which I´m sure I will use the next winter. The village is also nice for EVENING WALKS, everything seems so PEACEFUL and safe like in some kind of fairy tale.
Similar to dog sledding safari but muuuuch slower, you can take part at a RENDEER RIDE. Reindeer were used to TRANSPORT the belongings of the SAMI PEOPLE as they were often changing locations in the winter an summer months. Today, this role is not as much present, but the reindeer are still used for this purposes sometimes, mostly to take the tourists for an amazingly peaceful ride in the nature. This is GREAT FOR KIDS also!
The LAST EVENING in Saariselka – we went for an amazing dinner and enjoyed the walk back to the cabin while the sun was going down. This was a great place to stay, we could have stayed a couple of days more and still found stuff to do. So if you have time, you can easily plan a week just here!
The FAMOUS RESORT where you can spend a night in a GLASS IGLOO is rather expensive, with rates per night going up to around 350-400€ PER NIGHT in the high season – if you cannot or simply don´t want to spend all that money, but still want to see the place, you can easily do so. Just around 10km SOUTH OF SAARISELKÄ you will find the reception, just park the car and WALK AROUND – nobody seems to mind. The PARKING LOT is also a start for some of the cross country trails so it´s OK to leave the car. The location is truly amazing and we´ve heard from some who actually slept there that they´ve seen the NORTHERN LIGHTS just through the glass roof at night – that must be amazing and probably even worth the money, but there is no guaranty you will see them of course ;).
The same resort offers also WOODEN COTTAGES which are a bit less expensive but I would not stay here unless you have a rented car – there is just NOTHING AROUND it and the public transport is also not the best around here.
IVALO & INARI
From Saariselkä you can easily do a day trip toward the INARI LAKE – here you can also do many interesting activities like ICE FISHING and also DOG SLEDDING, plus it´s a great place to watch out for the NORTHERN LIGHTS. In the SUMMER this is a very popular place, as the lake has over 3000 ISLANDS and is just perfect for water activities. This is also an important CENTRE of the INDIGENOUS SAMI PEOPLE, so it´s well worth visiting.
It was time to turn back towards the south and after a couple of hours car driving we ended up in the BIGGEST FINNISH SKI RESORT, LEVI. It was a very cold morning and the roads were frozen, but still no problem for our car with the best tyres ever ;).
The most famous Finnish ski place has definitely deserved its repoutation – it´s a great VILLAGE with a very pristine winter ski feeling to it, just like in Austria or anywhere else with SKIING TRADITION. Apres ski parties included ;). We made an exception here and stayed at the beautiful bigger HOTEL DIRECTLY AT THE SKI SLOPE, so if we wanted to go to the town we had to take the GONDOLAS. The place was great because ewe were surrounded by nature and could directly ski off in the morning (if we had our skies with). In the village there are many SPORTS SHOPS and SKI GEAR RENTALS – the ski slopes are also great for beginners, but also as an experienced skier you won´t be bored. The highlight is the snow park which was really nicely done!
Just next to the Levi Panorama hotel you will find a great INDOOR/OUTDOOR EXHIBITION CENTRE called SAMILAND – again, reasonable entry fee for what you get. It´s a nice introduction to traditional Sami life and outside you can see some of the houses built in traditional ways and you can feed the reindeer if you like. All in all, a nice way to spend a good hour.
ARCTIC SNOW HOTEL
It was already OUR LAST DAY ON THE ROAD and we had to leave Levi and drive to ROVANIEMI to catch the NIGHT TRAIN. We had the whole day for a relatively short journey so we didn´t have to hurry at all. We had more than enough time to stop at a very known ARCTIC HOTEL on the way.
Here, you can spend a night in WOODEN/GLASS IGLOOS, or you take the much more adventurous option and sleep inside one of the amazing rooms inside the ICE HOTEL. The ice hotel is MADE EVERY YEAR FROM SCRATCH and so it also looks a bit differently every year. ALL ROOMS HAVE DIFFERENT DESIGNS and instead of doors they have curtains. Toilets are outside of course ;).
But there are not just rooms, there is also a RESTAURANT, an ICE BAR and even a CHURCH! Rooms are divided into SUITES, FAMILY ROOMS and STANDARD ROOMS. But even if you are not spending the night, you can go in AS A DAY VISITOR and check it out for a fee of 15€ – it´s worth taking a look. We were there on a Sunday afternoon and most of the guests have checked out so the place was basically free and we could check out almost all the rooms. It´s really amazing how much effort it put into making it look this nice, and that just for a few months of the year. Just wow.
BACK TO HELSINKI
So, that was it almost. We had the last meal, a very funny one (SALMON PIZZA) at Rovaniemi train station as we waited for the train to come. Our SLEEPING BERTH was super comfortable although small, but very practical, there was even a little sink inside and a special place for skies (if we had some). A wake up call you could set and enough electrical plugs as well as numerous straps for the luggage. Had a great night sleep and woke up to an ORANGE SUNRISE while passing the same birch woods we passed 10 days prior. We arrived to HELSINKI around 9AM and went straight to the AIRPORT. Everything worked out without problems and once we were back in FRANKFURT we could already smell the spring which was nice ;).
TO CONCLUDE– this was a very different holiday to what we usually do at this time of the year, but we found it a nice change! There was LOTS OF “FIRSTS” FOR US ON THIS TRIP, with seeing the NORTHERN LIGHTS and blazing around the woods with HUSKYS being the two obvious HIGHLIGHTS. It´s definitely a gem for all of those who love the OUTDOORS and NATURE! We loved the fact that it was not so overcrowded, we have seen almost no tourist buses and sometimes felt like we were the only non-Finnish people in the place. And again, we are really happy to have had nice weather and were able to experience everything we wanted! Maybe we return some day (in the summer) ;).
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