This article appeared in the March 2015 issue of Hi Blitz
So overcome was I with anxiety tinged with just a bit of superstition, that in the days that followed my decision to travel to Lapland, I was afraid to reveal to my friends that my real purpose of heading towards the Arctic Circle was to see the Northern Lights. After all, it wasn’t uncommon for people ravenous with wanderlust like me, to have undertaken this journey to Finland under inclement conditions only to come back with post cards of the Aurora Borealis instead of real memories or pictures of the dancing lights. And I was reluctant to jinx my chance of seeing the Northern Lights by announcing it to the world.
We flew from Mumbai to Istanbul or Turkish Airlines and then onwards to Rovaneimi in Lapland, the northernmost end of Finland.
The wintery white landscape that sparkled like diamond dust beneath the starlit skies was enough to imbue our weary senses with a feverish thrill as our plane touched the snowy tarmac, a little after nightfall.
Little did we know that what awaited us over the next four sleep deprived days would alter our perception of life, beauty, nature and paradise forever because never before had one imagined a land so pristinely beautiful that it almost seemed otherworldly.
After checking into our unpronounceable hotel Pohjanhovi we were driven in wi-fi enabled buses in the dark of the night (read 8pm) to the Sky hotel, one of Finland’s best dining destinations. Not only was I floored by the unexpectedly appetizing food served indoors at the restaurant but also by my own ability to stare at the star spangled sky atop a freezing al fresco terrace layered heavily with snow. This was done with help from a cup of brandy and constant movement of arms and feet resembling a Michael Jackson performance, to keep ones blood from freezing over.
The thing that struck me most of the landscape of Rovaniemi was that one had to pass through what seemed like a heavy forest smothered with powdery snow, to get to most attractions, making the overall experience even more romantic, by day as well as by night when the light of the moon wrapped Lapland in a veil of eerie yet calming darkness.
We traveled northwards and about an hour outside of Rovaniemi après dinner looking for the Northern Lights with a prayer on our lips and sleep deprivation in our eyes. My gut told me that after yearning to see the Northern Lights since the past twenty years of my life, it would hardly seem fair if I saw them this easily on my first night in Lapland. Sadly, my gut proved right and we headed back way past midnight feeling like war criminals made to stay awake as part of confessional exercise referred to as torture in certain communities.
On our first morning in Finland and thereafter, we woke up at the crack of dawn, at 9.15 am each morning. On our first day there we were herded in a bus to the Baltic seas, two hours outside of the city for the icebreaker cruise aboard a vessel called Sampo.
Operational since the early Sixties, Sampo ploughed open the frozen seas of Finland for trade vessels for 25 years before ending up as a tourist attraction. The colossal clash between the massive bulk of steel and the thick coat of ice is an extreme experience in its own right. What’s more is that you can spend an entire day clicking photographs of the white frozen beyond that will look no different than the white wall of your bedroom on your return to Bombay. But what can match the fabulous meals aboard the vessel, the icy winds outside it and the shards of ice below it as the mighty Sampo cruises along the frozen Bothnia Sea?
Here again, I said a little prayer for Mr. Remy Martin courtesy whom, most of us were kept alive on the deck of the boat.
Later, we were allowed to disembark in the middle of the frozen sea to take a plunge into the waters but only after slipping into a hideously fat rubber suit built to keep you warm and alive inside the waters. Since I am not tethered by vanity as such, I volunteered with a few others to look like the Teletubbies in those fat suits and floated about in the frozen waters till I could take it no more.
At night we were driven through the thick snow coated forest to an unbearably charming venue called the Be
ar’s Den, about 30 km out of the city. Numerous heads of state and other dignitaries have been hosted at Bear’s Den and I could see why the Fins were so proud of this beautiful lodge tucked away in the middle of nowhere.
This visit to Bear’s Den however, wasn’t for the faint hearted as it included an opportunity to partake in a traditional Finnish custom of allowing your body to get heated up in a sauna and then running out into the cold in swim suits and diving straight into the frozen river in front of the lodge.
This is something I would have happily ventured into if I was mature and brave or young and stupid; but since I am neither, my self preservation instinct stood firmly between me and this masochistic exercise and I happily cheered for the fearless among my group.
We kept looking towards the firmament for a sign of the Aurora Borealis but it was snowing heavily and there was no chance of seeing the lights in an overcast sky. On our way back to the hotel we were shown a DVD about the Aurora Borealis and we all came to the conclusion that if we did not spot the real thing, we could still claim that we saw the Northern Lights in Finland. We would, of course, leave out the finer details of where and how we saw them.
Our third day in Rovaneimi was spent zipping around on snowmobiles over the frozen Kemijoki River and enjoying reindeer paella and potato gratin by the bonfire. In the evening we descended upon the Arctic Ice Hotel, which as the name suggests has been chiseled entirely out of ice.
Not that one needed another reminder of the cold when one is in fact gallantly holidaying across the Arctic Circle, but one could not leave without taking a tour of this ephemeral architectural marvel. I walked through cavernous passages, chapels and rooms impeccably carved out of ice and drank what was served to me out of glasses made of guess what? Ice!
Realizing that I had a better chance at staying warm if I exited from the Ice hotel, I let some Finlandia vodka roll off my palette and headed towards the snowy, moon lit landscape outside only to discover that the Aurora Borealis was making an appearance yonder, towards the Northern horizon. I gasped with disbelief when I spotted the green hues dancing across the lower horizon and before I knew it the entire group had converged outside to aah and ooh at the dramatic skies above.
This also called for another celebratory round of vodka shots, of course, for everyone who had witnessed this rare phenomenon.
Our last day in Lapland was the kind of day that makes you thank the universe for your very existence. It was one of the most magical days that I have witnessed in my life where fresh snow, Santa Claus, husky and reindeer rides, berry juice and tea by the bonfire all came together to add to our bien etre’.
A short visit to Santa’ village in the morning ended up being an afternoon that we did not want to let go of as we meandered about in the powdery snow that fell generously from the skies. This village headquarters Santa Claus’s office where he meets and greets visitors from across the world and where sounds of Christmas Carols gently punctuate the air all through the year. This was also where we were treated to a gourmet Lappish meal inside Santamous restaurant. We sent postcards to our children from the post office next to Santa’s office and in our bid keep the child alive in all of us, eagerly clicked pictures with him. We also clicked pictures against the imaginary Arctic Circle line that passes through Santa’s village itself.
Later sitting in a sledge being driven by a pack of blue and brown-eyed huskies, we traversed through the curves and bends of a snow-laden tracks flanked by pine trees drenched in polar white snow. In that moment I felt that I was in the land of Narnia. This was the incandescent fairyland of happiness and wonders, where reindeers ran about, unafraid and where man not only respected nature, but also in fact, partnered with it.
The Shamans, who were the earliest inhabitants of this land, believed that everything had a soul. Thus, rocks and trees, foxes and reindeer, the Northern Lights in the sky and the knife in the reindeer herder’s hand all carry knowledge and wisdom within. Spirits are present in everything, wherever one wanders.
Could I ever leave such a mystical place and happily go back to the dirt and grime of the concrete jungle that is Mumbai? Let me put it this way, when our flight to Istanbul nearly got cancelled the next day, I wasn’t complaining. I was happy at the prospect of having to spend yet another day in this veritable winter’s wonderland, storm or no storm.
INFORMATION FOR THE BOX:
Our trip was organized by Yogi Shah of Villa Escape, Mumbai
There is enough vegetarian food to be had in Finland if you travel with Villa Escape. They make special provisions for it.
Dressing: Most Indians balk at the idea of being in sub zero climes but if one is better prepared to deal with snow, one can experience spring even in midst of a harsh winter. On a less philosophical note, four layers are all you need to keep you from turning into a frostbitten ghost of yourself. At least one merino inner layer, from head to toe, followed by some cotton layers and sealed with at least one snow proof outer layer, ideally with down filling is what will keep you protected.
Hotels: Hotel Santa and Hotel Pohjanhovi
Wifi: Practically every closed space in Lapland has free wifi including buses, restaurants, shopping malls and Santa’s village.