Due to the French civil service strike many flights were being delayed or cancelled. We were relieved when our flight from Nice to Helsinki had not been affected. Once up in the air we were addressed by our friendly pilot, sounding very much like a tour guide as he explained the different mountains and villages we would see from the left and right side of the aircraft throughout the trip. We flew over the northern alps of Italy and passed over Austria, Germany, Poland and the Baltic Sea before reaching Finland. It was a rather scenic flight.
We landed in Helsinki around 4pm and it was already dark outside (and very cold). Without too much hassle we caught the train to the city centre and located our airbnb apartment. We were based just across the road from a Lidl supermarket, so we stocked up on supplies. Our apartment was super cosy and came with a fantastic home theatre system, so we had a relaxed night watching Netflix on the big screen.
We had two full days to explore Helsinki. Our winter clothing seemed to be working well enough, although the blustery winds at times left our faces feeling rather numb. It was convenient having our accommodation centrally located, as we were able to venture on several short trips – coming home in between to warm up! The city was celebrating ‘Finland Independence Day’ on the first day which meant many shops were closed. However, the holiday also marked the start of the Christmas festivities. We visited the Christmas markets twice – once in daylight and again in darkness, to admire the twinkling lights.
We walked along the port and later around the beach (clearly the wrong season to be at the beach). Although we did see many people swimming in the heated and ice pools near the harbour.
On Sunday we checked-out and took the train back to Helsinki airport, ready to depart to Rovaniemi. Out on the runway our plane had a fascinating detour to the ‘deicing station’, where we watched crew pump foamy orange anti-freeze all over the aircraft from our window seat.
It was only a short 1-hour flight, but it felt like we were landing on a different planet! Everything was completely white. The pine trees dusted in snow lining the runway made it look like a winter wonderland. Of course, Rovaniemi is the home of Christmas. After getting everything organised at the rental car desk, we soon found ourselves exiting the warmth of the airport to the frozen outdoors. The cars outside were all covered in snow and ice. Luckily, the rental car company had left the engine running on our little Mazda.
Since it was still daylight we decided before checking in at our airbnb to go straight to Santa’s Village (which was only a couple of kms from the airport). It was a pretty magical place with all the snow! It’s funny how we’ve never experienced Christmas in the winter before yet having all the snow around made it feel like Christmas to us …from all those movies and Christmas songs. We spent a few hours in the village looking at the shops and of course crossing the arctic circle.
The first experience we paid for was a reindeer sleigh ride through the forest. The reindeer looked very cute with their colourful harnesses. Our driver tucked us in with our fur blanket and we enjoyed a scenic 15-minute ride through the woodlands.
Of course, you can’t go to the village without stopping in to see the big man in red! It’s free to visit Santa, but of course they try to make up for it by charging insanely inflated prices for the photo and video footage taken during your visit. We managed to get a few free photos through various means…
Next, we made our way to our airbnb. We had a very charming cottage with an attached sauna room (a Finnish wood-burning style) which we utilised regularly during our stay.
Later that night we had a Northern-Lights tour (pre-booked). A bonus of booking with a tour company is that they supply you with the proper winter clothing. The tour drove us 45 minutes out of town to a rural area where we climbed to the top of a hill to a great vantage spot for viewing the aurora borealis. It was a large group (about 30 people) so it took a long time to get everyone organised. Our guide gave us many pointers on how to set up our camera to get the best shot of the phenomenon. Unfortunately, there was too much cloud cover. Occasionally we could see faint white lines glowing behind the clouds showing that something was happening – but we weren’t able to see it. Whenever the -10degree temperature got too much we could retreat inside the tepee and sit next to the fire to warm up (or cook a snack on the flames).
The next day we drove out of town to visit the Ranua Wildlife Park (Rovaniemi Zoo). It was a super scenic drive with very little traffic. Again, we couldn’t help feel like we were in a winter wonderland.
At the zoo we were able to get closer to many arctic animals. It was also a beautiful walk with light snow falling throughout most of our visit. Some parts of the path were very icy and extremely slippery, so we had to take our time (especially after I slipped over at the beginning racing to see the beavers).
One of the most impressive parts of the zoo was the birds. We weren’t expecting the birds to be very exciting … but were quickly taken by the beauty of the arctic owls. The owls were tricky to spot in their enclosures. At the Snowy Owl enclosure, we were sure we were looking at an ice sculpture… until it twisted its head towards us!
Another highlight was of course the polar bears. By the time we reached this part of the zoo the snow was falling more steadily. The snow made it feel more genuine when observing these arctic beauties …however, with all the fresh crisp white snow around, we soon realised polar bears aren’t really white. But on inspecting our camera lens we discovered that snowflakes really do form in different patterns!
When we finally finished up at the zoo and headed back home it was already getting dark (and it was only 3:15pm). During our stay the daylight hours were as small as 2.5hours – super confusing for our body clocks.
The next day was the coldest during our stay! We had pre-booked a husky sledding tour. It was an early start and with a temperature of -15degrees we were grateful to be rugging up in the company’s winter gear. After a quick safety briefing and sledding instructions, we were assigned a team of huskies and a sled. I took the reins for the first half of the journey before Kadin took over. It was extremely cold, and with the speed of the dogs the tears in our eyes turned to icicles! Even though we had merino gloves and heavy-duty mittens on our hands, it didn’t take long for our hands to go numb, making it super painful when it was your turn to drive the sled! But the scenery was spectacular, with the sun rising and setting during our ride. Our doggies were a cute team; we had the odd bunch of five. According to our guide our leader dog is unable to run alongside a companion and works best when out the front of the pack. Every time the sleds came to a stop, we could see his character come out while tangling up the rest of the team. I was a little heavy on the brakes at times, and one particular doggie at the back of the pack would look over his shoulder at me as if to say, “are you serious?” – reminding me to ease off the brake, making it much easier for the team to pull. The dogs were very impressive to watch.
When we got back to the start of the track, we were able to spend some time with our dogs. They loved getting pats and many of them looked as snow-blasted as us! After thanking our team of huskies, we went inside a nearby yurt to enjoy hot berry juice, gingerbread biscuits, a toasty campfire and learn more about the huskies from our guide. On our way back to town a wild young reindeer ran in front of the bus on the road, leading the way for several minutes before dashing off into the woods again.
We relaxed for the remainder of the day, enjoying our Finnish sauna at home while the temperature continued to plummet. After dinner we rugged up, thawed out the car and made our way out of town to hunt for the Northern Lights. It was the only clear day forecasted during our stay. We drove to a known location north of the city, away from the light pollution and overlooking a frozen lake (looking north of course). As soon as we arrived, we could see a little bit of activity happening in the sky (and it was only 9:30pm). The single streak of green only lasted for about 10 minutes before disappearing. We didn’t have the big snow suits provided by the tour companies, so we had to sit in our car with the heater running instead while we watched the sky and waited for more action. We stayed until 12:30am with no more action …although we watched the temperature plummet to a whopping -23degrees! After stepping out to find out what that crazy temperature feels like, we called it a night.
The next morning, we awoke to clouds again – and lots of snow! With a pre-booked snow mobile tour, we had another early morning. After a short drive out of town we reached the snow mobiles. We were given a short safety briefing and instructions before taking off – following our guides and team along the roads. Kadin drove our mobile first. The whole time there was heavy snow falling. Unfortunately, the roads were super bumpy which slowed us down a bit. We stopped at a large frozen lake where our guide gave us hot berry juice and gingerbread biscuits. We had some fun making snow angels before we swapped over drivers. I got a bit throttle happy and lost control of our snow mobile on one of the corners, crashing us into a wall of snow (luckily missing the wooden sign and causing no damage).
For our last day we explored Rovaniemi town. The weather had warmed up to +2degrees. This made everything extremely slippery as the snow melted. After skidding around town for a bit, we ended up getting our car and drove to some of the scenic spots in town.
In the afternoon we retreated to Santa’s Village once again. We were able to enjoy the village Christmas lights with the darkness and do some last-minute shopping.
The next day we checked-out and embarked on a weird day of travel. Flying to Budapest via London … meaning three different countries and time zones (flying 3 hours west then 2 hours east).
Have fun at work!