Patrick Thorne travelled to the resorts of Pyhä and Ruka in Lapland to check out the skiing as well as the wealth of other winter activities on offer.
If you’ve ever been enchanted by tales of Arctic exploration, the excitement of dog-sledding, fancied seeing the northern lights or just wanted to pay a house call on Santa after he’s made so any visits to your house over the years, then Lapland is for you.
Yes it’s cold, but usually a more comfortable dry cold rather than our windy wet sort, and your accommodation will probably have a sauna. Yes it’s dark, but everything is floodlit giving a nice ethereal quality, and by March it’s lighter than in the UK or the Alps. And no, it’s not expensive – a lift pass here typically costs 20-30 percent less than at big ski resorts in mainland Europe.
I travelled to the resorts of Pyhä and Ruka with my son Robert, taking a package holiday with Crystal, to check out those activities, many of which are organised by local company Snow Games although can be booked as part of the Crystal package.
“Finland is different, that’s for sure and the Finnish people are one of the most hospitable folk in the world,” said Ian Davis, Crystal Ski’s Product Director. “This is the second year we’ve offered Finland in our programme and it has quickly grown in popularity, especially the unique activity weeks where we include four different activities at a reduced price. These have been received well and the bookings have exceeded our expectations.”
The two resorts are quite different: Pyhä a small traditional Finnish resort known for its more challenging terrain; Ruka a purpose-built modern centre with a pedestrianised village and slope layout all designed by Ecosoign – the ski resort design company responsible for Whistler Blackcomb among many others. Ruka is host to a big World Cup Freestyle ski competition each December.
Cabin in Pyha, Lapland
Copyright: Pyha ski resort
What Lapland is in particular, for most skiers, is very different to what they’ve experienced before. Most of the well known ski areas in the region, which take up the northern half of Finland, crossing onto the Arctic Circle, are on small ancient rounded mountains known as ‘fells’ and rather similar in scale to the English Lake district or the Scottish Highlands. Most runs are of easy to moderate standard although there are challenging descents too. Skiing among the snow encased trees at the top of the fells is a particularly surreal, magical experience; sometimes their snowy branches oddly shaped to make it easy to believe in trolls or giants.
Pyhä’s ski area is the smaller of the two resorts with 12km of piste and 14 runs – almost all beginner or intermediate level and a 280m vertical. There’s also an excellent terrain park and it has a reputation for some of the country’s most challenging off-piste descents and mogul runs like Huttu-Ukko are among Finland's steepest and have hosted the Freestyle Skiing World Championships.
Ruka is one of Finland’s three leading resorts (along with Levi and Ylläs). There are 30 runs spread over 20km and a 201m vertical – all small scale again compared to most resorts in the Alps, but plenty for beginners and less demanding intermediates. There are world-class terrain parks and more challenging runs including the steep Battery Run.
If you are an advanced skier in Lapland for a week and planning to do nothing but skiing, you may be feeling frustrated by day three, but if you combine a few hours of skiing each day with other activities, as most do, you’ll find plenty to keep you entertained. And with the slopes open to 7pm each evening, instead of closing at 4pm as in the Alps, you can enjoy an activity or two during your day and still fit in 4-6 hours on the slopes before and/or after.
Skiing with the ghost trees in Lapland
Copyright: Patrick Thorne
Few things can beat the excitement of a visit to a husky farm where more than 100 huskies of all types – Siberian, Alaskan and various crosses bred for speed, strength and stamina – bark like crazy as they hear you arrive. They’re all friendly dogs, but born to run so aren’t usually that interested in heavy petting from drooling dog-lovers, they just want to get moving!
Your dog sleigh is anchored to a tree and once the dogs are harnessed (there’s usually six in a team) and your trip will depend on what you pay for: from a short 2km around a frozen lake to a more challenging 5-20km trek through the forest and even multi-day overnight adventures.
Successfully riding the dog sleigh relies on shifting your balance as with a motorbike, using the brake to avoid sliding in to the dogs on downhill sections or before taking a bend, and sometimes running to help the dogs on the uphill stretches, but make sure you hang on at the top so you’re not left flat on your face as they race on. It’s both an exhilarating and beautiful experience as you speed through the wilderness.
Dog sledding in Lapland
Copyright: Patrick Thorne
Finding out about the hard but free life of a reindeer herder in the modern era is fascinating, and the excursion is better still when you get a reindeer sleigh ride at the end. Near Pyha, reindeer farmer Anssi Kiiskinen explains that there are more reindeer than people in Lapland and they roam free, although all are owned by one family or another. How to tell them apart? A complex language of ear clippings identifies which reindeer belongs to which family. How to find them? They come together at various times of the year which is when the herders identify which new calves belong to which mother/family. You’ll learn many other reindeer issues – how Finnish insurance companies pay out car and reindeer owners when the two collide as they unfortunately, occasionally do and how the fees can increase if the accident is with a high-value reindeer, such as a trained racing reindeer – not one of Santa’s, but a reindeer capable of competing in races running at more than 50mph and potentially valued at €50,000 (£42,000), as after all a day-old reindeer could outstrip Usain Bolt.
The actual safari through the forest, in a guided caravan on sleighs strung together, does not go so fast, thankfully, but recreates the traditional way that the locals used to move or transport goods around the region in winter.
Reindeer safari in Lapland
Copyright: Patrick Thorne
The northern lights are, at best, an incredible, spectacular sight in the night sky of the far north. But don’t assume that heading to Lapland means you will see them. On average the aurora is visible once every three nights, but that may not correspond with clear skies. Snowfall or cloud cover is more common than a cold, clear night – the best conditions for seeing it.
The good news is that the intensity of the northern lights runs on an 11-year-cycle, depending on solar activity, and this is currently at a high point. They’re therefore likely to be the most spectacular during 2013 than they’ve been since around 2002, or will be again until 2024. NASA is even saying that this cycle is the brightest of the past five – in other words the best since the mid-1950s.
You just have to get your timing right (which is impossible to plan ahead) and opt for an area away from light pollution.
Northern Lights in Lapland
Ice climbing may sound intimidating to those of us who are not drawn to scrambling up precipices at the best of times, but it’s actually surprisingly easy in your ski wear, even for complete novices, and a lot of fun.
Pyhä is blessed with having both an expert ice climber, Artturi Kröger of Bliss Adventure, who has also climbed and trekked all over the world, and a rather magical, peaceful spot just 50 metres from the main pistes where you can unclip your skis, clip on the crampons, put on a harness, connect the rope, grab your ice axes and you're away. Well, if you can drag yourself away from the warm camp fire.
Successful ice climbing is driven from your feet, the patient Artturi explains, as he takes the strain on the other end of your rope. It’s a case of kicking into the ice with the weight of your ski boots in the crampons then, as they grip, step up and swing your ice axes looking for existing holes to get a grip above your head, before stepping up with the next kick of your boot.
You can make quick progress then enjoy an ice abseil down. Children love it and for small children there are special child-sized axes and a climbing course too.
Try ice climbing in Lapland
Europe’s only amethyst mine is located on top of a fell close to Pyhä. The amethysts are some of the world’s oldest rocks, having lain there waiting for you to dig them up for two billion years. People have known the amethysts were there for centuries and the fell was a sacred place before Christianity arrived in the region with tribal shaman visiting the site and collecting the ‘sacred’ stones, but the shallow mine itself was only created two decades ago and is run by the community.
It’s a 10-minute snowmobile ride to the top – you can drive the snowmobile yourself or be pulled in a sleigh behind one – then after an interesting talk and warm berry drink (a staple at all Lappish events and activities) it’s down the mine with the little metal hammer to dig, ideally 30cm down to where ‘your’ amethyst has been waiting for you all those billions of years.
It would perhaps be a little strange for an adult to meet Santa without having a starry-eyed child with you as an excuse, but when it is done well, as at Santa’s Secret Cottage close to Ruka, adults are taken right back to their childhoods and it’s very easy to believe.
After driving through the woods your visit begins with some sledging by the frozen lake and then cooking sausages over an open fire, listening out for Santa to ring his bell, at which point you can go up to the cottage, open the door, walk in and meet Santa and Mrs Claus and have a chat about anything you like. All the questions you ever wanted to ask Santa can be answered by the man himself, there’s no shifty politician evading answering your most searching queries!
After that there’s a bit of ginger-biscuit baking then Christmas-card making and learning to sing a Christmas song in Finnish, all with Santa and Mrs Claus, then after a few of the best hours of your life, it’s time for farewell hugs and to leave with those biscuits, Santa’s signature and no doubt lots of photos as your souvenirs.
Patrick and Robert meeting Santa in Lapland
Copyright: Patrick Thorne
Once known for expensive alcohol and rather limited nightlife, Lapland has been overtaken on price by hotels and bars in the Alps, and Ruka provides the slightly surreal experience of Swiss fondue dining at the Alphut (+358 (0)8 8600 300) or US Native American themed eating in the Colorado restaurant (+358 (0)20 775 9405) all within the Lapland environment. If you do still hanker after something locally sourced and prepared there are plenty of reindeer and mushroom themed meals, none more so than at the wonderful Rukatonttu (+358 (0)40 1910702), a few hundred metres from the centre of Ruka where you can dine on ‘Yields of the Lake’ or ‘Flowers of the Forest’ for example, with most of the ingredients caught right outside.
You could even eat endangered species in the UK, such as capercallie (apparently abundant in Lapland) or even bear steak, at another restaurant, Riipisen, near the Kelo lift’s base station, a specialty restaurant for game.
There are also plenty of other activities to try in or near Ruka – ice karting and snowmobiling among them, and there’s also an indoor bowling complex.
We travelled with Crystal Ski who offer package holidays to Ruka and another resort Iso-Syöte with weekly flights on Sunday from Gatwick to the nearby airport of Kuusamo, a 25-minute transfer away.
Crystal Ski (0871 231 2256) offers a week’s stay at the four-star Ruka Village Ski Inn Hotel and Apartments from £462 per person (based on four sharing) including flights and transfers, self-catering; breakfast or half-board options available.
You can also book direct to stay in Pyhä where Pyhä Hotels and Suites (00 358 400 101 695) offer excellent accommodation right on top of the fell with the restaurant facing north, away from light pollution, for a great view of the aurora while you dine. Inghams will offer Pyhä for 2013-14 and have already launched their programme for next winter with early booking offers.