TRAVEL: Finland – a great winter holiday destination
When John Lennon exhorted us to ‘turn off your mind, relax and float downstream’ back in the Sixties, he had some kind of drug-enhanced, out-of-body enlightenment in mind – the down-to-earth Finns have a far more practical, and literal, approach to the experience.
A winter family holiday to northern Finland, on the very edge of the Arctic Circle, isn’t exactly where you’d expect to find yourself floating on your back down an icy-cold river – but believe me, it’s huge fun...
Let me explain: the activity of ‘Floating’ involves donning Michelin Man-type drysuits with integral wellies, plus helmets and life vests, wading into a river up to your waist – then lying on your back and, literally, enjoying the John Lennon experience.
It’s not cold, it’s not scary. It’s genuinely relaxing and gently euphoric – just one of the surprising activities you can dive into during a week at the resort of Ruka in northern Finland.
If Floating’s not your bag, why not sample a ‘real’ sauna? The Finns invented the sauna, and they take the experience very seriously – even the rooms in the comfortable hotel/apartment complex where we stayed in Ruka featured an integral sauna in the bathroom.
An exhilarating 20-kilometre or so ride through the snow-covered wilderness on a snowmobile took us to a remote icebound lake and some wooden buildings – one of which housed a traditional wood-fired Finnish sauna, which gives a ‘softer’ heat than a modern electric-powered version. Twenty minutes or so in the sauna and you are ready to dash across the snow to the lake, where you can plunge into the icy water down steps into a large hole cut in the three-foot-thick ice...
Yes, I wasn’t keen to begin with – at least, not the icy plunge bit – but once you’ve been gently cooking in the sauna it starts to make a bit more sense, and really is exhilarating (and optional, if you just don’t fancy it).
Ruka is a purpose-built resort on the edge of the only serious hills I could spot in this remote part of northern Finland, rising out of the huge wilderness of lakes and pine forests. So naturally the enterprising Finns have turned it into a ski resort – after all, with the short summers and long winters, the snow’s there in abundance for a lot longer than it is in the Alps.
The Alps, of course, it ain’t, and the fact the Finns refer to them as ‘fells’ is a clue to their height and size – imagine the Dunstable Downs covered in heavy snow and pine trees and you’ll be not far from the mark.
So the skiing isn’t extreme – in fact it’s fairly tame, although they’ve managed to create one run steep enough to call a black. But this isn’t the point – the Finns have made fantastic use of the skiable area to create 20-odd kilometres of immaculately groomed pistes the average intermediate will enjoy. And being on the edge of the Arctic Circle you can pretty much guarantee there will always be plenty of good-quality snow to ski on.
They’re also much more relaxed about the whole skiing thing than other parts of the world – for example, outside the restaurants at the foot of many of the runs they thoughtfully provide an open fire where you can cook your own sausages or burgers. Can’t imagine the ‘Picnic Interdit’ French ever lightening up to allow anything as laid-back and helpful as that, more’s the pity...
Ruka’s a family resort, so when the kids tire of skiing, how about a husky sledge ride? The husky farm is a few miles out of town, deep in the forest, and is an experience in itself – dozens of excited dogs in ‘free range’ pens outside (they really prefer to be outdoors) just aching to be part of the six-dog team that will pull your sledge round the five-kilometre course through the deep snow.
An adult can ‘drive’ and a couple of kids will fit in the sledge as the dogs pull you – sometimes quite fast – along the trail. It’s fun and gets the adrenaline going – and you really feel the dogs are loving it, too.
And then, of course, no trip to Lapland, as this part of Finland is also called, would be complete without a visit to see Santa Claus – conveniently rested after his Christmas exertions and available to receive visitors.
It’s a charming and relaxed experience – a completely different world from the usual frantic and tacky pre-Christmas shopping centre Santa experience, and young children will love it.
If all this isn’t enough to keep you busy during your week you could always try a sedate reindeer sledge ride, or slow down completely and go ice fishing through a hole drilled through the thick ice of a remote Finnish wilderness lake – I hope you have more success in actually catching something than I did...
For more information on Crystal holidays to northern Finland visit www.crystalski.co.uk