Reindeer are one of the icons of Lapland © Andreas Gradin, Shutterstock
Children know this snowy winter wonderland as the home of Santa Claus and his illustrious red-nosed reindeer, Rudolph, who take to the starry skies over Lapland every Christmas Eve to deliver presents and goodies to homes across the globe, a truly remarkable feat of aviation, timetabling and largesse.
For a place that doesn’t officially exist, Lapland is famous the world over. Children know this snowy winter wonderland as the home of Santa Claus and his illustrious red-nosed reindeer, Rudolph, who take to the starry skies over Lapland every Christmas Eve to deliver presents and goodies to homes across the globe, a truly remarkable feat of aviation, timetabling and largesse that leaves even the world’s favourite airlines lost for words. However, beyond the popular image of Lapland, little is known about this mysterious region lost somewhere on the very fringes of Europe. It’s the aim of this author to unlock some of the secrets of this vast, forgotten corner of the continent, larger in size than the entire United Kingdom.
First-time visitors are often astonished at the sheer variety of Lapland’s landscapes: classic Norwegian fjords amid some of the most awe-inspiring mountain scenery anywhere in Europe; sweeping forests of pine and spruce that cloak the great inland plateaux of Swedish Lapland; and austere, treeless fells surrounded by steely grey lakes and unforgiving marshes give Finnish Lapland its very individual character.
This is Scandinavia at its most elemental. Thanks to good road, rail and air links, travel between the different regions of Lapland is straightforward, making it perfectly possible to visit Santa Claus in Finland, spend a night at the Icehotel in Sweden and go island-hopping in Norway all on the same trip. True, winter temperatures can plummet to –30°C and below, but public transport in Lapland is reliable, accommodation is warm and snug and eating out offers up a variety of options; reindeer, a local source of low-fat nutrition that’s been consumed by generations of Laplanders, could even be on the menu. Inevitably, the indigenous inhabitants of Lapland, the Sami (who dislike the name ‘Lapps’, which was imposed on them by insensitive southerners) are today a minority in their own land and make up barely 7% of the total population. The promotion of Sami culture is widespread and efforts to save the nine different dialects of the Sami tongue from extinction have (so far) been successful. Travel across Lapland and sooner or later you’ll see Sami in their brightly coloured traditional dress – this is sometimes put on for tourists, but at key festivals in the Sami calendar wearing these clothes is a sign of pride and fraternity. The nomadic lifestyle may have all but disappeared but there’s still a strong sense of community, which reaches across national borders.
Lapland may be at its most magical during the long winter months when daylight is in short supply – it’s the perfect time to head out on a snowmobile tour or a dog-sled safari, or to curl up with a good book beside a wood-burning stove inside a log cabin – but it’s equally alluring in summer, with the midnight sun and the quality of the light in the northern sky.
Inextricably drawn to lost places, I first travelled to Lapland in 1983 and have been a regular visitor ever since. There’s quite simply something about the sheer austerity of the nature – and, at times, the gruffness of the people who choose to live inside the Arctic Circle – that fascinates me. Lapland may be at its most magical during the long winter months when daylight is in short supply and snow lies thick on the ground – it’s certainly the perfect time to head out on a snowmobile tour or a dog-sled safari, or, indeed, to curl up with a good book beside a wood-burning stove inside a log cabin – but it’s equally alluring in summer when the midnight sun and the quality of the light in the northern sky are perhaps two of the most difficult things about Lapland to qualify on paper. Visit Norwegian, Swedish or Finnish Lapland and you’ll take away much more than Santa Claus could ever give you.
Ever since mistakenly studying Swedish at university (I actually signed up to do Spanish but went to the wrong lecture room), I have been fascinated by Scandinavia. It’s still an area of Europe which is little known and little discovered. Yet, that is precisely its charm. In today’s world there are few places where you can travel for hours through vast areas of untouched nature without seeing a soul. When I lived in Sweden during the mid-1990s, I travelled frequently to Lapland, in both winter and summer, and soon understood that this was a very special part of Scandinavia. Lapland remains, however, a vague concept to most people.
The range of landscapes you’ll encounter is enormous, everything from barren treeless upland plateaux, to densely forested river valleys, to jagged mountain peaks and sea cliffs.
Don’t underestimate distances up here: Lapland is truly huge and, accordingly, there’s plenty to fill a holiday of two weeks or more – after all, Lapland has much more to offer than being the home of Santa Claus. The range of landscapes you’ll encounter is enormous, everything from barren treeless upland plateaux, to densely forested river valleys, to jagged mountain peaks and sea cliffs. As a Scandinavian specialist, it is with great pride that I recommend a visit to Lapland – it’s a chance to experience nature in the raw like nowhere else in Europe. Listen to the whisper of the wind through the birch trees and breathe the crisp air heavy with the scent of pine, and you’re well on the way to understanding what Lapland is all about.