I‘m fairly certain it’s on most travellers bucket list, but a trip to the winter wonderland that is Lapland offers so much more than just the hope the Aurora Borealis makes an appearance.
We travelled with a specialist travel agent based in Newcastle who is renowned for Northern Lights trips – The Aurora Zone. There are a number of specialist providers in the market for trips like these, and although you can organise a holiday like this yourself, I’d highly recommend using an agency who have many years experience rather than having to try and put all the necessary components in place yourself.
For a start, Lapland is not an easy place to get to from Scotland, and like us, you’ll probably have to fly south to start your journey. We flew via EasyJet departing Gatwick on a direct non-stop flight to Rovaniemi.
So, up at 4am for our 6.25am flight, and all was going well until two hours into the flight. The previous evening Lapland had been hit by a severe snowstorm and the pilot announced that we might have to divert to Helsinki to refuel, allowing the airport staff an opportunity to clear the runway. Thankfully this wasn’t necessary and we landed just ten minutes behind schedule. Further info on Rovaniemi Airport here.
Baggage collection was smooth and uneventful and we met our taxi driver within 20 minutes of the flight arriving. (Transfers were included in the price). I love local taxi drivers. They are fonts of knowledge and usually very interesting. On this occasion, we were driven by a recently retired Finnish Air Force Major who’d commanded the reactionary squadron that dealt with Russian incursions into Finnish airspace. What an interesting guy and an easy way to pass a 15-minute journey.
I mentioned the company we utilised for our travel arrangements previously, but it would be remiss of me not to recognise how extremely professional they were to deal with. From our very first enquiry to the last email containing a helpful reminder with checklists, nothing requested of them was too much trouble, even replying to an email on a Sunday! Now that’s dedication and a level of customer service you rarely find, but it’s the main benefit of dealing with a family-run business who care about their client’s in addition to their hard-won reputation as a market leader. Our package trip included all flights from Gatwick, airport transfers, accommodation, meals, cold weather clothing and three excursions: Dog mushing, a reindeer safari, and the snowtrain Aurora hunt.
You can find more about the holidays on offer via this link The Aurora Zone online.
Location – Apukka Resort:
I chose to stay at the Apukka Resort located some 15 minutes from Lapland’s main airport and city of Rovaniemi. Not only does this resort offer several choices of accommodation, but provides various experiences on-site, meaning you don’t have to travel elsewhere. See the resort website at this link.
Dog mushing trips, snowmobile safaris, reindeer experiences, ice fishing, Finnish sauna experiences, helicopter tours, horse riding and Aurora hunting are all available on-site.
I use the word resort lightly, as for many this denotes shops, attractions, nightlife and many other facilities, however, the Apukka Resort is based on the edge of a lake and surrounding forest in a wilderness setting. There’s one main central wooden chalet housing the reception area along with the Aitta Restaurant and bar, along with a small gift shop.
Radiating out from this hub is an assortment of accommodation options, including standard rooms in what appeared to be an older part of the resort, double bedroomed chalets, glass-ceilinged wooden cabins, Aurora wagons (small towable caravans) and three ice cabins that guests have the complimentary use of for one evening, subject to availability. You’ll also find the sauna complex nearby, but remember here in Finland, it’s a towel only event – and are you brave enough to roll in the snow?
Anyway, I digress somewhat. Cases duly unloaded, we checked in without any difficulty. Keys were provided for our two cabins, 202 and 203 and a map supplied as to where they were located on the large site. A member of staff was summoned to transport our luggage on a sledge while we trudged through the heavy snowdrifts behind him.
The cabins were well appointed and located right on the edge of the forest in perfect peace and seclusion, just what we’d hoped for. The entry hallway leads onto the main rooms – the bathroom, double bedroom, walk-in storage unit, a kitchen/diner and the living space. It was furnished to a good comfortable standard and we had absolutely everything we needed. The resort offers free Wi-Fi with excellent reception throughout the complex even in the cabins which are a good 500m distant from reception.
The chalet was well heated. The coldest temperature during our stay was -9C and despite that, inside our chalet, we were very comfortably warm. These are very typically Finnish in design and style with reindeer skin wallhangings, minimalistic furniture in neutral shades and colours of nature. The settee can be made up into a second double bed. The main bedroom is again typically Scandinavian with two separate mattresses, mattress toppers, separate duvets, unlike a UK double bed. However, if I could have, I’d have shipped the mattress back home it was that comfortable!
The bathroom/shower room was an excellent size with a wet floor area and ample storage as well as doubling up as a drying room. Don’t expect marble tiles and gold coloured taps – it’s much more basic than that but perfectly serviceable and provides everything you expect or need from a bathroom, including a power shower with unlimited hot water.
The walk-in closet contained a large selection of spare duvets, pillows and hanging space for jackets.
The double bedroom was of a good size with two side tables – well I say tables, actually, they were large wooden logs with reindeer skins on top. There was a large shelved built-in wardrobe, twin bedside lights for reading and plenty of warm bedding to keep even the coldest of snowflakes warm overnight.
The living room contained a three-seater settee, two armchairs, a coffee table and a 30 inch LCD television. The cabin was fitted with full secondary glazing which provided for around three and a half inches between the external and internal glazing panels ensuring the room stayed lovely and warm.
The kitchen was basic but again contained all the necessary white goods including a fridge, freezer, dishwasher and addition to a four ring hob, toaster, coffeemaker, microwave and kettle. We even had a selection of teas, coffees and hot chocolate sachets provided on our arrival.
Looking at my pics of the accommodation and you’ll see this isn’t five-star – but it’s not pretending to be – this is comfortable, serviceable accommodation that provides all you will need – and remember, if you’ve booked trips, some of these will be from 8pm to midnight, so basically you are only going to be sleeping here!
We arrived at approximately 1pm and were promptly advised that one of the included trips, the dog mushing adventure was to take place at 2pm that same day. If there was to be any criticism provided, given the day after our arrival we had nothing planned in terms of trips or experiences during the day, it would have been preferable to unpack and unwind on the day of arrival, particularly as we had been up since 4am that morning. Perhaps this constructive criticism will be helpful for future planning.
So cases dumped in the living room, off we trudged back to reception to be kitted out with the necessary winter clothing which is provided as part of the cost of this trip. We were ushered into a basement clothing room and fitted out with winter overalls, boots, hats and gloves – if you need them.
Please note there are no lockers provided in which to leave your own outdoor clothing and footwear in, so do bear in mind not to leave any valuables in your jacket. What might have been better would have been to be supplied with the kit specific to our holiday for the duration of our stay, however, then we would have been responsible for ensuring it was dried in time for any future excursions, so there is some sense in having to collect it and return it after each outing.
For the larger person, don’t worry about buying winter gear for fear the resort won’t have your size. The kit store has a selection of outdoor wear to fit up to a XXXXL or a 62″ chest) and a size 14 boot.
On the day of departure, checkout is 12 noon, however we were able to keep one cabin on until 3pm at no extra cost, which made a big difference, as our flight did not leave until 6.25pm.
During our holiday breakfast and dinner were included. Both are a buffet-style service although the Aitta restaurant does also have an à la carte option available at extra cost to guests. We found there was no need to pay any extra as there was plenty of choices available.
There is a table drinks service available or simply order at the bar. When checking in you will be requested to provide a credit card in order to charge extras to your room or you can ‘pay as you go’. The choice is yours.
Even for the pickiest of eaters, there’s something for everyone. Starters included a large selection of bread, a salad bar with several choices available, home-made soup is always on the menu along with the main hot selections which, during our stay, included moose, reindeer, chicken, salmon, rice, potatoes and a selection of vegetables. We had no complaints in respect of the food which was available.
If you’re on a half-board basis, like we were, make sure you obtain your dinner voucher from reception before finding a table as you’ll be asked for it.
The restaurant, which is furnished/decorated in a typical wooden log cabin style has some spectacular views across the lake which was frozen solid at the time of our visit, but I’m betting this location gets a lot of summer tourists also.
The restaurant can accommodate approximately 200 people. During our visit, the maximum number we ever saw at one sitting was around 14 diners. It was obviously a very quiet week – January 19 to the 25th, 2020.
One point of note is the staff, all, without exception were extremely friendly and helpful and are to be commended for their level of professionalism many others seek to reach in the service industry.
A choice of bread and rolls are available along with jams and honey, fruit juices, teas, coffees and hot chocolate. Then choose your cereal, muesli, yoghurt or fresh fruit. On the hot buffet, there were sausages, scrambled or boiled eggs, hash browns, beans and a selection of cold meats, salami and cheeses, pickles and vegetables along with pancakes, biscuits and pastries. You can fill up on this extensive breakfast to the extent you won’t need lunch.
It’s the type of breakfast where you can graze food for an hour, trying a bit of this and a bit of that. And believe me, when it’s snowing a blizzard outside, you’ll be quite happy to pass an hour or so in the warmth.
Breakfast is served from 7 to 10am, the à la carte menu is available from noon to 9pm, dinner from 6 to 9pm and lunch between 11am to 2pm. Reception is open from 7.30am to 10.30pm. The night porter service is on duty from 10.30pm to 7.30am via an emergency telephone located at the reception to cover lost room keys etc.
Be careful when buying drinks from the bar, for example – €23.50 for a gin and tonic, and two bottles of Sprite. The latter priced at €5.50 while the G&T was €12.50 so you have been warned. If you don’t want to be caught up paying these prices, then you’ll probably have to crack open the duty-free. The nearest supermarket is a 15-minute journey by taxi to Rovaniemi however be aware this will cost between €30-€40 per single journey. There is a bus stop located on the main road beside the resort entrance. The tap water is safe to drink and is supplied from groundwater as opposed to tanks so you don’t need to worry about having to use bottled water.
On the Monday afternoon with nothing planned we grabbed a taxi and headed into Rovaniemi for a look around. To be honest I never expected it to be as large. Rovaniemi is the official hometown of Santa Claus and the provincial capital of Lapland, situated on the Arctic Circle at the confluence of the rivers Kemijoki and Ounasjoki. Besides being a popular travel destination with around half a million visitors annually, the town is the commercial, educational, administrative, cultural and sports centre of Lapland. In terms of geographical area, Rovaniemi is the largest town in Europe, spanning 8,016 km² in total, a fair proportion of which is forest! You can visit the official tourist information website here.
The town has the usual shopping centres but it was nice to see they haven’t been invaded by the multinational chain companies. There are still plenty of small local shops – some of which were obviously catering to the tourist market. It was worth a visit for a few hours, especially so for Mrs M and our travelling friend Joan who located a specialist chocolate shop. I’m sure the pair of them must have a “chocolate radar”!
We didn’t bother visiting either of the two competing Santa villages and will leave that to the days if and when grandchildren make an appearance!
If you are travelling to Apukka on your own without a tour operator, be aware that booking is essential for all of the excursions, and if they are busy, you might find what you want to do is fully booked, or you have to go at a time that perhaps doesn’t suit you. The resort provides many of its trips/excursions to other tourists and not just its own guests, so it can get busy in high season. And hence my reason for booking the snowmobile trip here in the UK prior to travelling. All experiences and trips can be booked at reception, where all staff speak excellent English and can organise most things for you, including taxis.
Apukka husky adventure:
Aurora Zone grade their holidays according to the level of activity required by guests, which is helpful. These are active, balanced, set your own and relaxed. This way, those customers, like me, whose total daily walk extends to a tea break between the kitchen and desk can choose a trip that does not require a huge amount of exertion.
So, be aware that the husky experience requires you to walk approximately one mile to reach the kennel area. For anyone who is disabled, elderly, unfit or who may have booked up expecting to be transported from door-to-door, this is not the case. However, the walk through the forest was delightful, at your own pace and so peacefully quiet you could hear a pin drop.
This excursion is a once-in-a-lifetime bucket list item. Taking charge of a team of powerful Siberian Huskies as they drag you through an 8km snow-covered forested trail is an experience like no other.
We received a safety briefing in advance from the experienced staff who lead the way on a snowmobile which the dogs chased/followed. Be prepared for a tumble or two as the sledge sometimes gets caught in a snowbank as the enthusiastic team try to take you ‘off-piste’ or, like me, you over lean into the corner! But it’s all great fun and the snow’s soft. Each sledge has a driver and a passenger who can change over halfway around the course should they choose to do so. What a blast it was standing on two wooden runners, hurtling down a track curtained by pine trees pulled by a team of six Siberian Huskies who seemed to have unlimited reserves of energy. This year an 8km trail, next year the Iditarod!
At the end of it all, we were cold, sweating (it’s remarkable how much exertion there is controlling the team), and high on the adrenaline kick we’d just received. It was time to slow things down and what better way than to warm up by an open fire in an original Sami tepee or Lavvu with a hot drink and some biscuits. Then before leaving the area, if you’re lucky, like us, you’ll get to visit the puppies.
We were luckier than most because there was only the three of us on our trip so it was essentially a private dog sledding experience we gained. Would I recommend it – I think you’ve already worked that out by now. Priced at €130 per adult or €65 for children may sound expensive, but believe me, it really was worth every euro paid and, more importantly, this was one of the excursions/trips included in the price of our holiday.
The plan was to venture forth into the forest being pulled by sleigh to seek out the elusive Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis. Mother Nature wasn’t playing ball and the evening we were out was beset by a mix of rain and sleet as the temperature crept up from -6 to +2C. However, it was only rain and suited up in the supplied waterproof clothing meant we were still warm and dry as we set off in a reindeer caravan of six sledges.
The local reindeer herder led the group as we all boarded the wooden sledges pulled by our individual animals as we set off along a 6km trail to a Sami tepee, where we made a stop for refreshments in a forest clearing.
Although a very peaceful and relaxing excursion, listening to the swish of the sleighs runners on the snow as we travelled through the forest accompanied by the angry hoot of a disturbed owl, it was very dark with no moon due to the cloud cover, so there really wasn’t much to see. The reindeer plodded on at a sedate pace and we’d been told that’s because it was so warm. had it been -25C they’d have been racing along! Although appearing tame we had been told not to try and pet them, flash photography, however, was fine apparently!
So off we went nice and steady along the well-trodden route into the forest. The sleigh accommodates up to 2 people each and are supplied with a reindeer hide to sit on and a woollen blanket to keep the cold out. Be warned though you’ll have to do a sort of weeble roll to get out of them they are that low to the ground.
We soon arrived at the Kota tepee and our guide had a nice log fire started in no time. We were then given sticks and a blob of dough. It was explained that baking ‘snake bread’ is a traditional Sami custom where you roll the dough into a long ‘snake’ shape, wrap it around your stick and then bake it on the wooden log fire while sipping out of a traditional wooden mug filled with steaming hot chocolate. And then things went up a level as our guide brought out the toasties and doughnuts to be warmed over the fire.
Our guide was very knowledgeable about her reindeer and Finn horses, the latter apparently, an endangered breed as she happily answered questions from guests. Before long it was time to get back in our sleigh for the return journey. This excursion can be booked on-site at a cost of €125 per adult or €63 for children, but was included in our holiday cost.
The trip lasted two and a half hours rather than the advertised three, but I suspect it was cut slightly short due to the weather conditions which were not the best. I’m sure that had we had some moonlight or the Aurora we would have spent more time in the forest and it would have been a very special trip indeed. As it was, it was raining and dark and certainly not conducive to the romantic element of the trip that’s advertised. But, that said, it was still an experience you won’t get at home. How many of us have been in a reindeer pulled sleigh trekking through a snow-covered forest?
Well, this experience ticked all the right boxes! It’s very definitely a ‘big boys toys’ dream come true. I mean who wouldn’t like to hurtle through the forest on a snowmobile capable of speeds to 60mph? I for one jumped at the chance and there was no need to ask twice! But, as mentioned earlier, because it wasn’t included in the holiday, I booked it as an optional extra via The Aurora Zone in the UK, to ensure I could get a space.
Following a brief introduction and safety briefing, we were ready for the off. Although not before the obligatory warning that should we crash one causing any damage not covered by Apukka’s insurance we may well be liable for costs of up to €1000. The hire fee of between €99 for a ‘two-up’ ride or €139 for a single driver can be paid in the UK as I did prior to departure. Children can ride for a reduced fee or can be pulled in a sleigh by the guide.
All snowmobiles looked brand-new and were in excellent mechanical and cosmetic order. It’s nice to see an organisation taking care of their assets rather than running them into the ground until they are so worn and aged that their reliability is called into question.
Our two-hour trip actually turned into a two and a half hours at no extra cost. We travelled through the forest across frozen lakes and into the wilderness. And like the dog mushing, there were only two other guests on my trip essentially making this a private excursion.
Partway through, our excellent guide Timo stopped for a warmup and some hot blackcurrant, biscuits and chocolates. Not that we were really in need of any great warmup as the machines are fitted with both hot air footwells and heated handgrips. However, it was a perfect opportunity to find out more about the area and Timo was a wealth of knowledge and exceptionally friendly.
It can be a bit of a bumpy ride at times and therefore if you’re pregnant, suffer from back pain or have another pre-existing injury, then it might be better that you sit this one out.
There are very few experiences in life which will give you the same sense of exhilaration as you zip about the winter wonderland that is Lapland on a snowmobile.
All in all I’d highly recommend this excursion as it allows you to see some of natures best features that you couldn’t see otherwise, and is just one more of those bucket list items you can tick off your list.
Aurora Borealis & Snowtrain trip:
For most people, I suspect, no trip to Finland would be complete without seeing the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. However, the truth of the matter is, unless you’re very lucky the chances are you’ll see nothing as a high proportion of nights have cloud cover. Statistics tend to suggest that between January and March, there is a higher chance of cold clear night air which makes viewing the lights much more likely. Like us, if you go out on a trip like this with a mindset of, if it happens good and well, you’ll not be disappointed.
For some we spoke with, it seemed to me that they had a completely unrealistic expectation that mother nature would play to their whim and the aurora would appear on request! The fact it didn’t “ruined” their holiday apparently, whereas for us, seeing them was simply a bonus to an already fantastic experience, and was simply the icing on the cake to our trip. A special 60th birthday treat for Mrs M, who had been hoping she would see this light spectacle in her lifetime.
Unfortunately, on our first two nights, the weather didn’t play ball as it snowed heavily. Tuesday, our last day, dawned clear and bright and there was much hope and anticipation for later that evening. Regularly checking the local weather service and an aurora app, all was looking good. We had a snowtrain safari booked – it’s basically a heated pod which takes nine passengers and is towed by snowmobile out into the forest – to search for the lights
We all met up at 8.30pm, boarded and set off on our next adventure. We trundled through the forest for around 3km until we arrived at a clearing which once again featured a traditional Sami tepee.
Out we clambered and as if by magic, the skies above started to show some slight changes of colour with light grey tinges. Difficult to see at first, but soon we had slashes of green dancing across the sky, shimmering, moving, getting brighter before disappearing and reappearing in a different spot. It was mystical, like no other light show in the world. There’s little more can be said about this other than it was a magical experience and if you’re lucky I hope you get to see this spectacle at least once in your lifetime.
On the night they appeared they were not easy to see with the human eye until they strengthened up. You’ll need an SLR camera with manual settings and an understanding of how to operate it in order to keep the shutter open long enough to capture the experience. However, if you don’t have such a camera, don’t worry, your snowtrain guide takes images and then forwards them via email to you later.
So, was it a value for money trip? All things considered, I’m voting a huge yes simply because the variety of excursions and trips were such, that it’s something most people will only ever do once in a lifetime, and like Mrs M, who has been waiting 60 years to see the Aurora Borealis, how do you put a monetary value on such a dream?
We had an amazing time and cannot recommend it highly enough in terms of both location, the resort, the staff, the different excursions we experienced, and the overall friendliness, not forgetting the service provided by the tour operator which all came together to form the recipe for a perfect holiday.
If you’re thinking of a winter break with something different look no further, Finland is the place to go. Suitable for adults and families alike, everyone can join in regardless of age. And, did I mention we slept the sleep of babes – must’ve been all the fresh air!
Apukka’s motto is: “And nature fulfils the rest”- never was that truer than on this holiday.