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Lapland

 
 


This trip took us 3200kms (2000 miles) north for 9 days during the winter of 2010.

We started off on the 15th of February, and made it to Tallinn (that road through Estonia is some of the most boring scenery on the planet) during the first day, where we stayed for the night. In theory, you can start out early and make it pretty far in Finland on the first day, but we didn't want to, because a night in Tallinn is very cheap, while a night in say, Helsinki, is very expensive.

Talking about expensive, this is the tone at which the whole region sings. A hotel room that was 42 euros in Tallinn would be 142 euros in Helsinki. Sweden is worse. A roadside motel in Kiruna, northern Sweden, would cost about 140 euros (about $190). That's a motel. A fancier room would be well over $200, and our room at the art suite in Ice Hotel cost $600. Both dog sled and snowmobile tours cost $700 (both for two). The restaurant at the ice hotel offered daily menus at 70 euros to 100 euros, with a wine taster for an additional 50 euros... would you like to make a reservation? No thanks, I'll try the burger joint.

On the second day, we rode across the sea with Tallink and then drove all across Finland to Kemi, right at the north of Gulf of Bothnia. While it was pretty white in Latvia already, the change of scenery was slow, but dramatic. Things went from white to blindingly white. This was just a taster still. Early on the third day we drove across the arctic circle. No sign, no fanfare. Driving across the arctic circle here is very straightforward (unlike Alaska, where you can't drive a regular rental car on the Dalton Highway). In fact, here (in Northern Europe) you can drive further north than anywhere else on the planet, and the roads are ridiculously good. I have no idea how they manage to keep them free of snow for 50km stretches with no inhabitants. In Latvia, we can't even manage it in cities.

We spent a total of 5 days north of the Arctic Circle.

What happened in those 5 days, was magic. Ice Hotel, Snowmobile, Moose, Reindeer, Ice Fishing, Dog Sled ride, "ahh, I'm blind!" white winter views, and of course, the most famous mountain in Finland - Levi, where we finally managed to learn some downhill skiing.

In Levi, temperatures dropped to -35C (-30F), a personal record. This was in the evening, so during the night it could've gone as low as -40 (the magical number where both temperature scales are the same). At 11AM I tried starting the car when it was -30C (-22F) outside, and after making some very uneasy sounds for a few seconds, it did start (+1 for Toyota). Most Finns have engine heaters that they hook up to power outlets. If there's no power outlet, like at some shops, they just leave the car running. That's right, you drive to get your groceries, and leave your car running while you're inside shopping, for fear of not being able to start it again. When we finished skiing at 6PM, it was -27C (-17F) and every hair on my face was frozen white - imagine what the wind chill is when you're going down the hill at that temperature.

I was certainly hoping to see the aurora borealis, and I was following all forecasts, but alas, it did not happen. It had gone into some kind of a quiet phase for couple of weeks right at the time we were there (there was not a single moderate or even low forecast from the 15th of Feb to the 4th of March - how much more unlucky can you get). It was a real pity, because we had both the perfect weather and the perfect location several times to see it. According to the sun cycles, 2012 is going to be a big year for auroras, so I'll hopefully see one then.

Was this trip worth it? Certainly. However, if you don't have enough money, don't bother coming. We paid over $500 for petrol and no less than $130 per night for hotel for any of the 6 nights up in the north (and an average of $215/night). The food is also expensive, and you can just forget about souvenirs. Since its winter, most tourists are locals and budget accommodation options are basically non-existent. Then again, you have to keep things in perspective - no 1-week trip north of the arctic circle during the polar winter is going to be a walk in the park. If you go to Fairbanks, Alaska, you're still hundreds of miles south of this place. If you want to spend time north of the arctic circle, this is probably the most convenient place to do it with a lot of attractions and things to do, and since you're not bound by horribly expensive arctic flights as elsewhere, this might just also be the cheapest place.

Oh yes, and the ride home was boring. Later we found out it was possible to take a car train (load your car on a train), and that's what we'll probably do next time we go there.

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