When I chat about Lapland to my friends back at home or to my guests during the summer months, everyone has thousands of questions about living way up in the north of Finland, 200km above the Arctic Circle. How cold does it get? (Very!) Is it dark all the time? (No!) What is the best age to take my children/grandchildren to see Santa? (Any age!… Though you don’t have to take kids!) Why do you spend 6 months there, surely everyone goes in December…….?
Well, they are not wrong, a lot of people do come to Lapland during December but many people have discovered the delights the other winter months have to offer!
In Ylläs, throughout the winter season Inghams offer a full excursion program including husky sledding, reindeer sleigh rides, snowmobile safari’s and snow shoe walks. There is downhill and cross country skiing available which actually gets better as the winter goes on with more runs and trails opening up each month. The Northern Lights certainly don’t just appear in December! I would like to dispel the myth that Lapland is only for Christmas and prove that there really is something for everyone throughout the winter in Ylläs!
We offer the Santa Break holidays which are perfect for families with younger children. They can meet Santa and enjoy a visit to his workshop as well as having a chance to try some of the “mini” excursions, designed specifically for the younger ones who tend to feel the cold a little quicker than grownups. As well as the excitement of meeting Santa, children get incredibly excited by the similarities between Lapland and Arendelle, the Kingdom in the film ‘Frozen’. They have a chance not only to meet Rudolph’s friends, but now also Sven and his friends too – some even attempt to make their very own Olaf!
A Santa Break holiday isn’t just for families, it is also a perfect short break for those just looking to get away before Christmas to a beautiful Winter Wonderland, and it’s an excellent time of year for those in search of the Northern Lights.
During December coming to Lapland for a week long stay is definitely not just for skiers, it is for those looking for a Christmassy winter wonderland experience. With a week here there is plenty of time to enjoy a whole range of arctic activities as well as meeting Santa – there is so much to do, you certainly won’t be bored!
From around the 14th of December every year the sun stops rising in Ylläs and will not be seen again until well into the New Year. This can mistakenly be taken to mean that it will be dark from then on; this is not the case! The sun will no longer break the horizon, but it does still provide light. For around 3 hours a day it is light, a sort of dusk like twilight which often brings with it some amazing pastel coloured skies. This time of the year is known as ‘Kaamos’, or Polar nights. Even when it is dark it is still very easy to see; the moonlight reflects off the snow which really does ‘brighten the darkness’!
After a day out husky sledding or snow shoe walking, what could be better than coming home to your own log cabin out in the woodlands and enjoying a drink in front of your log fire? There is no need for fairy lights to feel Christmassy, just look out of the window – everything sparkles! When temperatures are low even the air sparkles; you will see where the idea for fairy lights came from. And whilst looking out of your cabin window, don’t be surprised if you see a reindeer strolling by or even if the mysterious Northern Lights put in an appearance. One big advantage of the shorter days is that the Northern Lights have more time to be spotted!
Downhill skiing in December is limited to the floodlit slopes; great for beginners but possibly a bit restricted for those who already have the basics mastered. For anyone who is wanting a chance to try out skiing or snowboarding for the first time it is easy to arrange a ‘Taster Session’ once you arrive to fit in with your other plans. Cross Country tracks are gradually opened throughout December and there are also floodlit trails to enjoy.
Christmas in Lapland is celebrated by locals on the 24th December. In Ylläs, all of the street lights get turned off at around 3pm on the 24th and the streets and paths are lit by candles. A lot of the locals make ice lanterns to decorate their houses. Lappish Christmas decoration tend to look very different to the type we might be used to with most of them being made out of straw. Inghams guests are all invited to join the Christmas Party on the evening of the 25th, where dinner includes some traditional Finnish Christmas dishes as well as a few things you might expect back at home. And even though he is exhausted from delivering presents to boys and girls all over the world, Santa is so happy that you have come to visit him that he pops in after dinner to wish you a very Merry Christmas.
New Year is brought in in 2 different ways. On the Southern side of the fell, Ylläsjärvi brings in the New Year with a bang, setting off fireworks at the bottom of the slopes next to the Saaga Hotel. Äkäslompolo goes for a quieter start, with thousands of lanterns being set off to bring peace to the New Year.
The first week of January is usually quite busy, but then the festive period has passed and things begin to quieten down. January is generally a very relaxed mont, and perfect for anyone looking for a real Winter Wonderland experience.
Days are still quite short, but gradually get longer as the sun starts to break the horizon again. Ylläsjärvi and the Saaga Hotel are the first to get glimpses of the sun and as the month progresses the sun can be seen more and more on that side of the fell. During the day the kaamos skies still appear with beautiful colours and the long nights provide plenty of time for Northern Light spotting. The local street lights are turned off at 10pm every evening to help to decrease the light pollution; excellent for the environment but also great news for those in search of the Northern Lights.
By January there is usually an excellent choice of cross country trails open and more of the trail cafes have started to open their doors aswell. There is a very good ‘Learn to Cross Country’ package available to pre-book through Inghams which is a great way to give this sport a try. If you enjoy walking or hiking through beautiful scenery, then this is perfect for you. The instructor will teach you the techniques and take you out to explore the wilderness in the surrounding area. The lessons are 1 ½ hours each day which gives you plenty of time to explore more on your skis after the lesson, or time to enjoy some of the other activities on offer. The downhill slopes are still quite limited by the daylight hours, but the ‘Kuru’ connection between the two sides of the fell tends to start opening for a little longer by the end of the month, making the open slopes on the opposite side of the fell more accessible.
Personally I think January is the best for snow shoeing. There are numerous well marked tracks leading out from the villages, and with the beautiful skies that the sunlight in January often brings, it is a great time to take the paths up to the top of the fells to enjoy amazing views and sunsets. Reindeer sleigh rides, snowmobile expeditions…. There are so many amazing things to try; mushing your own husky team through the arctic wilderness is a truly unforgettable experience! If you fancy trying something totally different you could spend the night at Lainio SnowVillage, a hotel constructed entirely from ice and snow (think James Bond in Die Another Day…)– though if you think that sounds a little too adventurous you could just go and visit it one evening and return to the warmth of your cabin or hotel again!
The end of January sees one of the annual highlights on the Ylläs calendar: The Ylläs Jazz & Blues Festival. Over the last weekend in January the villages of Ylläs come alive with music. Almost every hotel, bar, café and restaurant play host to different bands from all over the world. There is a great atmosphere in the village and people come from far and wide to enjoy it.
Days are starting to get longer very quickly now. By Valentine’s Day the sun is rising high enough even to be seen at the Y1 ski centre on the north side of the fell. The month usually begins very quietly and is a great time to enjoy a winter wonderland holiday filled with different activities and excursions.
On the eighth week of the year, usually coinciding with half term in the UK, the Finnish ‘Ski Holidays’ start. Week 8 sees the Helsinki area head north to ski, followed by ‘Middle’ Finland in week 9 and Northern Finland in week 10. Although this does mean that the area is busier than usual, it in no way compares to the crowds often found in some resorts in the Alps at this time. What it usually means is that you may encounter a short queue for a ski lift leading out from one of the ski centres, you may see other people out using the cross country trails and you may find a couple of people ahead of you at the supermarket checkout. It certainly doesn’t mean the villages become crowded, in fact because most people stay in cabins spread out through the woodlands, it is often hard to work out where all the cars in the supermarket car park have come from and where they disappear to again!
In February there is good news for skiers. The downhill ski area opens fully at the start of the eighth week of the year; daylight hours now mean that the floodlights are no longer required so all runs and lifts can open. Cross Country buses also start operating a one way service to two different destinations. This means that cross country skiers can get further afield and really make the most of the huge cross country ski area.
March is a great time for skiers. The slopes and trails don’t tend to be particularly busy, but the full areas are open. As the days get much longer the sun tends to shine a lot more and often March sees temperatures starting to rise gradually, though still below freezing usually so the snow stays in perfect condition. Rather than venturing inside to enjoy a drink to warm up, by March the Lavu shelters dotted around the cross country trails and ski slopes become much more popular. You can sit around the open fireplace to keep warm, boil up some coffee or berry juice, or even toast a sausage for your lunch.
Arctic hare become more common, if you don’t spot one you may well see their tracks. The Kukkeli, or Siberian Jay, also becomes a much more common sight. March is a great time for winter walking or snow shoeing out of the villages to enjoy the nature and wildlife of the National Park. The Kellokas National Park Centre is open all winter and has an excellent exhibition about the wildlife and history of the National Park, a great way to find out more about this wonderful area. They also show various films about the region, including Ylläs through the seasons.
As the days are so long, as well as enjoying the wilderness and skiing, there is plenty of time still to enjoy the unique arctic activities and experiences like husky sledding, snowmobiling and Lainio SnowVillage. The journey to the reindeer safari is a great way to take in the local scenery. Upon arrival there you will be greeted by traditional Sami reindeer herders who will tell you a little more about the Sami culture, as well as taking you out through the forest in your reindeer sleigh.
In April it usually starts to feel like spring has arrived. The temperature slowly rises and days are very long. The downhill ski area starts to open at 9am and close at 7pm, so there is plenty of time to enjoy the slopes. Cross country skiers can enjoy the trails in daylight from very early in the morning until late evening.
As the days warm up, the snow in the villages slowly starts to melt. The conditions on the slopes and trails is usually still excellent but in the village, pavements start to appear again and trees are no longer snow covered, you could say that Ylläs starts to look and feel a little more like a ski resort!
With the gradual rise in temperature, it is not uncommon to be able to sit outside a bar or cafe and enjoy the sunshine in April – as long as you are wrapped up well, as temperatures are often still below zero! Even though Spring is starting, it is still possible to enjoy activities and excursions as well as the skiing. With very limited darkness there is less time in which to search for the Northern Lights, though this certainly doesn’t mean you won’t see them still!
Temperature-wise, it doesn’t really matter when you come to Finland during the winter. Although December and January are historically the coldest months of the year, this definitely does not mean it is going to be -25 everyday! The temperature can change quite dramatically in just a matter of hours whether it is December or April. The cold in Lapland is a very dry cold and totally different to the ‘damp’ cold that we experience in the UK. I find -15 in Finland much more pleasant than +3 in the UK, as it is crisp and dry. If you layer up properly, you stay warm! A hat is vital, and don’t forget about hands; glove liners are available for just a couple of pounds from sports shops and mittens are better than gloves for keeping your hands warm. A pair of thermal boots can easily be hired in resort, as can a thermal suit; a perfect outer layer, but do layer up inside it, and don’t forget some warm socks! As the Finns say, there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Go prepared for low temperatures which ever month you choose and you’ll have a truly fantastic arctic adventure!
Words by Cath Wood, Resort representative in Balestrand.