Jimmy and I had a once-in-a-lifetime kind of Christmas.
We only had to take a short hour and a half flight north to a destination that most people have to travel long, inconvenient routes to get to.
After a Bloody Mary in the airport lounge, we boarded our flight on the morning of Christmas Eve and were in the snow globe city of Ivalo, Finland before the afternoon.
We were then transported via bus another 40 km further north to the town of Nellim (pop. 180) to the Nellim Wilderness Hotel, where we were greeted with a hot lunch and a brief orientation.
Nellim sits in Lapland-the northernmost region of Finland, north of the arctic circle. Keep in mind that Finland is pancake-flat. The farther north you get, the darker and whiter, with large rolling fells; not a mountain insight. Ivalo -having an “airport” (a landing strip and a small detached terminal) is the hub for many wintertime resorts. Ralph Lauren even recently shot his winter ad campaign at one of the most popular resorts. They are best known for their ice hotels and those glass igloos you have seen all over Pinterest. These resorts generally book for the holidays nearly a year in advance and have the price tag that would make Santa squirm.
I feel like we found a hidden gem at the Nellim Wilderness hotel, as it is the farthest from Ivalo, sleeps a mere 70 people, and costs considerably less than most resorts in the area. The company is family owned, sits on Lake Inari- 9 km from the Russian border, is staffed by knowledgeable wilderness guides from both around the world and locally as well as the most friendly Finns I have met. They have expanded their original hotel to include a small “wilderness camp” which can only be reached by snowmobile, and another smaller hotel. The area is rich in Sami culture (indigenous Finnish peoples) and, as such, boasts long standing customs such as reindeer farming, year round fishing and traditional celebrations. When our adventure guides were not trained wilderness guides, they were locals with an ingrained knowledge and respect for the area.
The main hotel- where we stayed- is a renovated primary school. The main lodge contained a small reception/bar, a small fireplace surrounded by 6 chairs, a long dining hall and a buffet-style serving area connected to the kitchen. There were also apartments for the guides, a secondary small living room area with a TV and fire, and a sauna in the basement. On the grounds were a gift shop/equipment and supply room where you would go to pick up your snow gear, 2 buildings with hotel 4-5 hotel rooms (we stayed in one of these), a small yurt, a barbeque area, the “honeymoon cabin”, a few larger family-sized log cabins, and a few “Aurora bubbles- rooms with glass ceilings for viewing the elusive Northern Lights.
One of the best parts about this trip -especially that it was over Christmas- was that it felt very homey. We were only there for 3 nights, but by the time we had left, we were familiar with a few of the guides, the hotel staff knew us and some would chat with us as we sat after dinner, and met a handful of other travelers , with whom we sat and drank by the fire until the bar closed at 1am, every night. With the group dining tables and family-run atmosphere, I felt like I was back at summer camp- which was a great alternative to a Christmas at home! They even had gingerbread cookie decorating on Christmas Eve!
We were also fortunate enough to book some activities during our stay. The sun never fully rose, but it was surprisingly light due to the snow on the ground. Our days looked like this: we would wake up and be at breakfast when it opened at 9 am, met our guides around 930, and set off to explore. In the evenings, we would finish dinner by 730 pm, stick around to chat, and then be geared up to meet our guides by 830. We would be back in camp by 1130 and with plenty of time to thaw our toes by the fire and our souls with some spirited hot chocolate.
Day one -Christmas Day- we started with a husky safari! Our guide, and the owner of the husky farm, Matti took us on a quick snow mobile-drawn carriage to his home where is 56 pure bred pups were anxiously awaiting our arrival. He had given us an orientation on the sleds before leaving because , when we arrived, they were so ready to get going that we just jumped right in and got to mushing ! With a team of 6 dogs in front and Jimmy at the helm (and with all of his 6″2″ weight on the brake!) I snuggled into the sled, lined with a reindeer fur and draped with a wool blanket.
Our route took us mainly along the edge of the lake as well as through some forested regions. We stopped a few times, but the pups weren’t keen on that, so for the most part we did the 20 km loop all in one go!
When we returned to the farm, we got to pet our exhausted teams (who were so sweet!), and the little 4 month old puppies-in-training as well as his two huge Pyrenees Mastiff guard dogs (literally bred to fight bears). We also learned a lot about the teams; Matti knew the name of all 56 dogs, and he and his family took care of them all. He even talked about passing the trade on to his 1.5 year old son (Who was not affraid to wander around the dog pens and climb the snow mobile). He also told us that each dog eats 1kg (2.2 lbs) of meat or fish every night! At first it is hard to believe, but they work so hard, I am happy they get pampered a bit! Then it was back to camp for lunch, a and a nap! Watching those beautiful animals haul us around for 2 hours was exhausting!
Our other day activity was snowmobiling.
Lamu, the hotel co-owner, gave us an orientation and we each did a test drive before we headed out, each of us three couples paired on a snowmobile. Just as we started out, we encountered a small herd of reindeer grazing in the forest. We paused for a while and watched them as he told us that there are over 80 types of reindeer. Jimmy and I were very surprised at how much their coloring and antler shape varied. We even saw a pure white reindeer standing in the middle of the pathway, staring at us -she was stunning! After that, our first stop was an old logging luge that was used to shoot logs down to the lake for transport. Then we went up to the Finnish-Russian border, were we were permitted to take pictures with the hilarious sign, but not to go any closer towards “no man’s land.”
We then continued across the lake in a snow storm, following routes on the ice that we marked by tree branches. The Finns really think of it all and these are official “roads” to take on and across the expansive lake. We stopped for lunch at a yurt, where we attempted to ice fish, but were unsuccessful. We gave it a fair shot, but the warm fire inside called us away from the building blizzard.
In Finland, there is a law referred to as “everyman’s right” that permits all people to use, basically, all land and water as long as you respect nature and other people’s property. Included in this are well kept cabins, restrooms, and saunas managed by the forest service, that people are always welcome to use if they need it. This yurt was one of those properties, and was clean, well stocked with wood and also had a clean- though very basic- outhouse out back.
Lamu made us grilled cheese sandwiches on the fire, followed by fish soup that he had packed in- fresh caught in the lake the day before. He even made us crepes to finish off out “rustic” feast! All of this washed down with, of course, hot wildberry juice cider from a kettle on the fire.
After the blizzard had passed, we loaded back onto our machines and started the trek home. We stopped a little ways out on the lake, where Lamu allowed us to take the snowmobiles on some short fast “sprints”. Apparently his wife hates it when he does that because, well, we aren’t allowed.
Upon our return, Jimmy and I had beer by the fire while reading our books before heading for our reserved hour in the sauna.
Finally, our night time activities were geared around seeing those elusive Aurora Borealis- the Northern Lights. We saw them for a brief second on the night we arrived, but not enough to count it. The other two nights were very overcast and, thus, Northern Lights-less. Nonetheless, we still went on our nighttime snowmobile-drawn sled ride to the yurt to wait it out the first night as well as a 4km snowshoe trek through the woods by headlamp to a fire pit on a ridge the second night. Fun adventures where we met more interesting people, but we will have to make a return trip before we can officially say that we have witnessed one of nature’s greatest spectacles.
(Of course, the night we left was perfectly clear. Out friends shared some great pictures that they captured that night…)
One of the greatest things about traveling is not only that it opens your mind to other customs and cultures, but it exposes you to fascinating humans. You get a glimpse into how other people live and experience the world.
We ate Christmas dinner with an older couple from England who were both donning bright red Christmas sweaters with bells and sparkles. They were funny and candid and a pleasure to spend an evening with.
Most of our nights were spent with fellow adventurous couples, one American couple on their belated honeymoon, and an American and an Aussie couple both living in the UK, having great conversation and waiting for the auroras to show themselves.
One of my favorite people that we met on the trip was Carl, an incredibly spry 80 year old solo traveler from China (he looked maybe 65). He packed a small suitcase, had an eternal smile on his face and just loved to chat or cheer us on at the sledding hill (Yelling “HOLY GOALY! OH YEAH BABY!!!”). He had been traveling since his retirement at age 65, booking only one way flights and going home only when necessary. His next stop after Finland was Berlin followed by Dubai for New Years and then off to India. He had no plans after that.
So as you can see, our Christmas trip was nothing short of incredible. I am usually more one for a traditional Christmas at home, surrounded by family. But when that is an ocean away, this was one hell of a runner up!