Celia Dillow, winner of Bradt’s New Travel Writer of the Year competition 2019, describes her prize holiday to a land of wolves, untouched nature and spiced gingerbread.
‘Welcome to Lapland’, said the steward when we landed. ‘You will walk to the terminal building, so please put all your clothes on.’ I felt giddy with the romance of it – the actual Arctic! Explorers go there. It is the land of the wolf and the bear; fiery skies, deep cold and ancient, nomadic ways. I had dreamed of this land, read her stories and studied her maps. And now we had landed at the tiny airport of Ivalo in Finland, which is 300km north of the Arctic Circle and 200km south of the Arctic Ocean.
We stayed on the shores of Lake Inari. It is more than 1000km² in size and, importantly at this time of year, frozen to a depth of 30cm. It is safe to drive a car across, maybe even a tractor. Our log cabin hotel was soft with golden light and silver candles, reindeer skins and antlers.
Staff were friendly; their uniforms echoed the black, red and green of the traditional Inari Sámi costume. We ate well: smoked reindeer stew; Arctic char with dill potatoes; spiced gingerbread cookies and berries from the forest. But the focus was on the wilderness setting. Kitted out with layers of no-nonsense clothing, snowsuits, boots, balaclavas and gloves, we were ready for the polar landscape.
Days were spent hours outdoors in the constant half-dark. We learnt that it is much more difficult to drive a snow-mobile than it looks – but riding pillion is fantastic. Also, there is such a thing as ‘nice and cold’. Apparently -5 is ‘just right’, the snow is dry and acts as an insulating blanket. Any warmer and it gets wet.
We tried snow-shoeing, which is a satisfyingly vigorous activity. As we swished our way through the taiga forest, or picked ourselves out of the snowdrifts, nature felt near and untouched. Siberian jays were companionable in the frozen treetops. There were ravens in the air and reindeer scraping for lichen on the forest floor.
Half an hour’s walk around the lake brought us to the village of Inari, the Sámi capital. Thickly quilted in snow, surrounded by pines and twinkling with lights, it ticked every Christmassy box. Here we found Siida, the national museum of the Finnish Sámi population. It is a shining place full of nature and culture; hearth and history; spirit and song.
This was a short break that packed a big punch. Finland is staggeringly beautiful, warmly hospitable and addicted to its outdoors lifestyle. You can visit the big man in red if you like, but it is definitely not all about Father Christmas.
My trip was arranged by Wexas Travel, as part of the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year prize. I have entered the competition many times and every year I would read the winning entries and wonder what happened to the winners? Did they take their trip? What was it like? Did they write about their experience – and where could we read it?
Eventually, last year, I won. Perhaps dogged determination and attrition paid off? Anyway, I did take the trip and it was wonderful. And I have written about it – not only here, but in a feature that will run later in Traveller Magazine.