We spent one afternoon in the capital city of Helsinki, mainly because I wanted to visit the Church in the Rock. That is "Temppeliaukion kirkko" in Finnish. (I have never seen a language like Finnish before- it was a complete mystery the entire weekend.)
Built in 1969, the interior was excavated and built out of solid rock and is bathed in natural light which enters through the skylight surrounding the center copper dome. It is a very cool marriage of nature and man-made structure, and I can see why it is a popular wedding venue. It seemed like a church that Frank Lloyd Wright would have designed.
We ate some dinner that evening at a Turkish buffet and headed to bed early at the Airport Hilton as our flight to Rovaniemi (on the Arctic Circle) was at 7:20 am. (Which felt like 6:20 because of the hour time change.) Ugh. So early. This is a happy Rob when we arrived at the Rovaniemi airport around 9 am. It was super cold, and dark, and snowy... and we were excited!
The airport shuttle took us to our cabin at Santa Claus Holiday Village. Yup, that's the name of where we stayed. And yes, Santa is there, year round, to be visited. We didn't share this info with our kids for obvious reasons.
We did actually consider staying in an Ice Hotel or igloo or some such place, but once I got to looking at the details (you sleep on a thin mat on ICE y'all, in a freezing cold room, with no indoor plumbing) we decided to go in a different direction. Our very comfy, cozy, very private, heated little cabin even came with a private sauna which we enjoyed daily after spending hours out in the Arctic.
This was the view out our front window.
And here is the cabin itself. I liked the little Christmas trees everywhere.
We spent most of the first day in Rovaniemi exploring our resort. This tower says "Arctic Circle" on it and there was a line of them through the middle of the village delineating exactly where the Arctic begins.
And this was the temperature that day. -11 degrees Celsius. All of the Finns that we met kept telling us how lucky we were to be there when the weather was so warm... and they weren't being sarcastic.
We ate lunch in a little cafe. I got IKEA-style meatballs and mashed potatoes and Rob had reindeer soup. Both dishes were just okay, resort-type food.
We found a model Sami house near the reindeer rides. We had seen one of these when we visited Sweden two years ago, but it was somehow more impressive when covered in snow and you could feel the warmth inside compared to outside, even without a fire going.
Speaking of reindeer, we did not take a reindeer sled ride, but it did look cozy. There are more reindeer in Lapland than there are people.
It was only light out between about 10:30 am and 3 pm, but the Christmas lights all around the resort village made it feel like we were inside a snow globe or something.
Rob was especially eager to get off the beaten path so we took a walk down the road a little ways, and suddenly were completely alone in a Winter wonderland.
There is an ice bar and some igloos you can stay in at the resort. You can visit the ice bar for about 25 Euros per person. Since we're far from being bar regulars, this wasn't high on our to-do list either. In fact, when planning this trip, Rob and I each picked one Lapland experience that we really wanted to do and those were the highlights of our trip.
Rob chose the Traditional Lappish Evening.
First, we were driven out to a remote lake. It was just the two of us and our two guides, a girl named Anina (Rob thinks she was college-aged, I think she looked 15) and a slightly older guy, like our age. (I never did understand his name when he said it, but if definitely started with a G, so let's call him Greg.) Next to the lake there was a cabin, and outdoor fire pit under a half-teepee, and a Yurt style sauna.
Right off the bat they walked us out to the middle of the lake to show us where we would be "swimming." The ice was about four inches thick, but they had a hole chopped out of it with an insulated cover over it to keep it from freezing back up. Then they dropped in a metal ladder with four steps down. There were chunks of ice floating in the very dark 2-3 meter (6-9 foot) deep water and the only light was from Greg's headlamp. Oh goody.
Then they cheerily took us back to the fire pit and built a fire with spruce and birch wood (I asked what it was because the wood smoke smelled so good) and threw on some sausages as a snack. We chatted about the Finnish language (the only word we need to know apparently is "Noni") and hypothermia (Greg shared his extensive and disturbing first-hand training experience in detail) and then enjoyed our snack, while we waited for the sauna to heat up.
Inside the sauna was nice and toasty. We stripped down to our swimsuits and waited what seemed like a very short time. In fact, when Greg came to get us, I asked for a few more minutes. The frozen lake wasn't going anywhere after all.
We finally emerged in our swimsuits and towels and quickly walked out to the hole in the middle of the lake. Rob got to go first, since this was his idea. It sounds simple, but really was painful. He, smartly, kept his sandals on and went down to the bottom rung of the ladder, then squatted down to go in up to his shoulders.
It happened so fast, I kinda missed the photo, but he definitely did it. Then he quickly climbed out and got his towel. And then the poor man stood there dripping wet and waited for me, to make sure I was okay. (Or possibly, to make sure I didn't back out?)
I went right after him, but didn't catch the memo to keep my sandals on. That would have been helpful as the metal rungs were covered in ice and very slippery. I had to share this photo because Greg told me to smile and for some reason, I listened to him!!! You can be sure my actual emotions were terror and panic.
I dunked in up to my shoulders (Greg had told us not to put our heads under, like I needed him to tell me that) and you can see that the ladder moved a bit. That scared me, as it felt like I was falling, and I tried to climb out fast. Somehow in that process I cut my hand on the ice or the ladder. Also it was hard to breathe, and I had to remind myself to go slow and be deliberate. I wouldn't call this a fun experience, but it was definitely a 'mind over matter' bucket list item. We scrambled back to the safety of the sauna as quick as our frozen feet could carry us and warmed up and changed clothes while Greg and Anina finished up dinner preparations at the cabin.
We then ate a surprisingly delicious dinner of Lappish specialties. (I suspect food tastes better when you are happy to be alive.) There was salmon that had been cooked over the fire, potatoes and onions (also cooked over the fire in a tinfoil packet,) a beet salad, a mushroom salad (that kinda tasted like potato salad) and bread with cheese. This was my first time eating salmon and beets and I liked them both a lot. I'm not a big fan of mushrooms, so the mushroom salad was a bit too much for me.) Then we sat and talked with Anina and Greg for a while longer (about growing up in the Arctic, local laws, etc) before they drove us back to our cabin around 10 pm. It was a very memorable evening and I slept like a rock!
The next day it was time for my pick of experiences, and I had chosen dog sledding. Rob and I were not initially thrilled that they made us wear their Arctic snowsuits and giant boots, but we snowsuited up! After a two minute driving lesson, our guide led us to our two-person sleds (there were about 15 people in the group.) Rob drove first.
The trail was mostly very well marked, and the dogs clearly knew the way, so it was quite simple other than the few times we had to stop because the entire group was stopping. Each sled had six dogs pulling it, and boy did they want to run! I loved the sections of the trail that went through the snowy forests.
We also drove out across a huge frozen lake and back. That part of the trail was just as beautiful, but a bit less enjoyable as the wind and blowing snow were whipping us the whole time. It was about this point I began to appreciate the giant Arctic snowsuit.
Our whole group stopped out on the lake to switch drivers if wanted and take some photos. You can see Rob has his hand up because he is trying to keep the snow from blowing on his face. Most of our dogs hated stopping and barked and whined and pulled to get going again. This black dog was hilarious though, he just seemed to be having a grand time the whole trip. He would nip at the snow, look back at us with his tongue hanging out, and just seemed to be on a fun little walk.
We drove around for about an hour and then came back to the "Husky Farm" for some warm juice and gingerbread cookies. The owner talked to us about his dogs and how they work one day on and have two days off to rest and where they retire to when their pulling days are done. All of the dogs we met were gentle, fit, and seemed happy. He then brought in this 3-month old puppy and handed him to Rob. He was very sweet, and very smelly. (About this point, Rob was glad for the Arctic snowsuit so his own clothes wouldn't smell like stinky puppy.) I really enjoyed the dog sledding and that is a bucket list item that I would gladly repeat.
We spent the last bit of our time in Lapland going on a walk in the woods, shopping for souvenirs, and enjoying the sauna some more. The main roads and paths were cleared, but if you got off the path the snow might suddenly come up above your knees. It snowed lightly but steadily the entire time we were there.
I am so glad that we went, and while there were moments when I thought, "Man, the kids would have loved this" there were plenty others when I knew we had made the right choice to come without them. Just thinking about how long it would have taken us to dress and undress everyone each time we went outside or came inside is enough!
Plus, it's rare for Rob and I to take this much time to just be together and enjoy one another's company. It was a great way to start off 2018!