Many places bill themselves as a winter wonderland, but Sally Hall finds Lapland is the real deal.
It wasn’t a sight I’d expected almost 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Reindeers, I’d anticipated. Lots of snow. And maybe, if we were lucky, the Northern Lights.
And yet, here was something completely different. A man in the briefest of pants, diving into a capacious snow drift. It was 10.30am and we were crunching through the snow on our way back from breakfast, the slow dawn ethereal as pink fingers of light invaded the sky.
Then suddenly, there he was – launching himself from the porch of his log cabin into the heart of the drift.
Anywhere else and I would have taken him for an “in flagrante” lover fleeing an angry husband. But here in Finnish Lapland, you’re as likely to spot near-naked people scrubbing themselves with snow as you are to see husky sledders whizzing through the forest glades.
“It’s all part of our sauna tradition,” explained the hotel’s cross-country ski expert as he waxed our skis later that day. “To do it properly he would make an ice-hole in the lake.”
This far north, Finns regularly weather temperatures of up to minus 40C during the depths of winter – so it’s no wonder the sauna experience has developed a culture all of its own. There’s even an aisle in the supermarket selling aromatic herbs to place on the coals – and birch twigs to thwack each other with.
At Hotel Yllashumina, on the edge of Lake Akaslompolo, guests aren’t expected to follow the snow-scrubbing routine – unless they want to. The hotel is a picturesque collection of rustic wooden cabins and lodges clustered around a restaurant and pub (famed for its Finnish karaoke).
As soon as I set foot in Akaslompolo I felt like Lucy in CS Lewis’s novel The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, stepping out through the coats and straight into Narnia.Our lodge, set on the shore of the frozen lake, has its own private sauna. Every night we ease our aching bones with a blast of arid heat and a slug of chilled sloe gin. Next to the hotel’s main sauna (a log hut on stilts, lit by flickering lanterns) there’s an even more enticing alternative – the chance to skitter across the glittering snow on frozen toes to jump bravely into the outdoor hot-tub.
A giant wooden barrel heated by a wood-burning stove, the hot tub is in a prime position for viewing the Northern Lights. But while you’re waiting for that unearthly green incandescence to illuminate the night sky, it’s amazing just to see the snow sparkle like fairy dust before melting into the steaming water.
The following morning, we strap on our skis and head out into the wilderness. Our plan is to ski six miles through the silent woods and into the Pallas-Yllastunturi National Park, which encircles Akaslompolo and the fells of Yllas.
Stomping up the steepest parts of the tracks, my stomach growls. Cross-country skiing is hungry work. It’s minus 16C and my boyfriend’s eyelashes are crowned with frost, but we’re still sweating with the exertion.
The reward comes as we glide downhill into Kutujarvi – a gloriously picturesque valley illuminated by shafts of golden light. We stop to sit by the fire at the wooden Kota , where a couple of Finnish skiers are using toasting prongs to grill sausages over the embers.
But the log hut at Elamanluuku – one of a network of wilderness cafes that pepper the wintery vales of Yllas – offers something even better than grilled sausages – wild Angelica tea.
Angelica has been cultivated in Finland for almost 1,000 years, and was cherished by the Sami people as a digestive aid. Now the bearded woodsman who serves us promises something even more exciting. “We call it Finnish Viagra,” he winks.
In the enchanted silence of the journey home, we don’t see any woodland creatures. Just speedy Finns in their seventies, who all overtake us on their old-fashioned skis. But the next day we make up for the lack of wildlife with a safari courtesy of Rami’s Huskies.
First we visit the Lainio Snow Village, an echoing ice palace lit up eerily in pink and blue and with spectacular sculptures carved in the ice. Now in its 13th year, the palace is rebuilt every October from tonnes of ice. Overnight guests sleep in sculpted chambers with ice-hewn berths on which to lay their heads.
From here we ski to Rami’s place. A former woodsman, Rami built the log hut himself. With its roaring fire and reindeer skins, it’s a cosy place to enjoy a hot chocolate before togging up for the huskies. Setting out at 2.30pm, we catch a magnificent sunset as the dogs pelt through the snow. Like the White Witch herself, I nestle into the sleigh and let myself be pulled through Narnia.
After an hour we stop while Rami lights a fire, then tells tales of frostbite and husky lore as we grill our sausages. The journey back is a crepuscular hurtle through a slow-creeping dusk which is dream-like and hazy with the huskies’ steamy breath. Then I spot Rami’s hut, lit up like a fairytale with candles and lanterns.
This is the magical moment that out-enchants all the rest. I never want to go back through the wardrobe into real life again.
• Price: Slow holiday specialist Inntravel (www.inntravel.co.uk, 01653 617000) offers one week at Ylläshumina Hotel in Yllas from £958 per person based on two sharing, including return flights Manchester – Kittilä, connecting transfers (50 mins), seven nights’ half board accommodation and use of cross-country trails. Children from £478pp depending upon age. Departures from December 1 to April 13.
For holidays starting December 1 to 15 and January 5 to 26, prices include six days’ cross-country ski hire.
Rami’s Huskies: www.ramishuskies.fi/
Lainio Snow Village: www.snowvillage.fi/