Finnish Lapland is the Bucket-List Adventure that Just Screams Christmas

Sleighs. Reindeer. Crystallized pines and an endless blanket of powdery snow. In Finnish Lapland, you’ll find the classic cues of winter at every turn. But there’s more beneath the frozen surface, as we learn from enterprising locals putting their own spin on the far north.

By Peter Jon Lindberg
Photographed by Simon Roberts

Dec 25, 2020

PAYTYRRR, WAKE UP!!! No time for pants—let’s go!!!”

Janne’s mittened fist came thumping on my door like John Bonham on a floor tom, boomp boomp boomp boomp boomp. How long had I been asleep? What time was it? Where were my pants, anyway?

Oh right: I’d left them in the mudroom before bed, along with my boots and five layers of Lycra and wet wool. After a rowdy welcome dinner of fish soup and grilled reindeer steak, Janne Honkanen, my host, had coaxed me out for a midnight hike across fields of moonlit snow, followed by a soak in the hot tub, where he regaled me with tales of hunting trophies and youthful indiscretions. There had been many of both. Eventually I begged off to bed, overcome by hot bubbles and jet lag—but Janne, tireless, pressed on. Last I saw him he was headed for the forest sauna, bottle of beer tucked into his sealskin parka. Now he was at my bedroom door, giddily shouting me awake.

A view of the northern lights from the terrace at Octola

“It’s time, Paytyrr! Au-ROOAAR-aaa is here!!!”

Aurora! Time indeed. I grabbed the only clothing in reach and bolted for the door.

Which is how I came to be standing knee-deep in snow, wearing only a sweater, socks, and long underwear, confounded by the most implausible sky. It was 2 a.m. in February in Finnish Lapland, yet with all that was unfolding above me, I hardly noticed the cold.

TRAVELERS COME TO LAPLAND to learn how insanely fun winter can be, and to see for themselves what the earth’s sky can do. Which is to say, far more than they imagined. Not only after dark, when the aurora borealis sometimes emerges, but throughout the day, as its crystalline dome shifts from violet to deep blue and back again, while a low-hanging sun sets the snow glittering like phosphorescence.

There’s no finer place to watch it all transpire than at Octola, an exclusive resort that has, until now, been kept largely under wraps. The 10-room chalet sits on a hilltop overlooking 300 hectares of privately owned forest, not far from Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland. The Arctic Circle cuts right through this corner of Finland. And while the region has plenty of mass-market hotels, Octola is one of the rare grown-up entries, its design a tasteful fusion of Modernist glass house and rustic wilderness lodge, with geothermally heated floors, vast picture windows, rough-hewn pine walls, and artfully tossed reindeer-hide throws.

The whole operation was created by 40-year-old Janne Honkanen, whose story is as improbable as the Nordic sky. If you happen to follow hard-core snowmobile racing, you may know the name: Janne was a teen racing phenom before a near-fatal crash derailed his career at 19. Three years later, Janne nearly died again, when doctors discovered a tumor on his brain. After surgery and a long recovery, in 2009 Janne created Luxury Action, an adventure-travel company that arranges experiences across the Arctic region, including stays in tricked-out igloos near the North Pole.

Octola was the brand’s first proper resort. Since he opened it in 2018, Janne has relied on word of mouth among an elite clientele, who typically buy the place out for hundreds of thousands of dollars a week. (A new two-bedroom villa, which opened this month, will be available for a more modest sum.) Most are repeat guests, among them a number of royals. Janne makes it clear Octola isn’t for everyone. Last year he turned down an inquiry from a famous American reality-TV family. (“I want people who can respect the power of our wilderness.”)

Having passed Janne’s vetting, my photographer friend Simon Roberts and I arrived at Octola last February. Janne stood waiting outside the lodge when we pulled up. He was dressed head to toe in spectacular seal fur—sealskin pants, sealskin parka, sealskin cap with fuzzy earflaps—looking like a cuddly Visigoth. Sealskin, Janne told us, is second only to reindeer hide in warmth. Actually, he clarified, polar bear fur is the warmest, but that’s illegal in this part of the world. “Except in Greenland,” he added. (You just know he owns a polar bear coat.)

Janne grew up in Finnish Lapland and speaks with a rrrrrrolling-R accent, pronouncing my name like my Swedish grandfather used to, but much louder. Janne is nothing if not voluble. I liked him immediately.

AFTER A SPELLBOUND HOUR gazing at the northern lights in my long johns, followed by less than three hours of sleep, I awoke the next morning to snow-reflected sunlight and the strong smell of coffee. (Finns, it is said, drink more coffee than any other people on earth, and theirs is almost uniformly delicious.) In the dining room I found Janne wide awake, glugging down a tall glass of…was that milk?

“When I don’t drink beer, I drink milk!” he said proudly. I laughed, but he wasn’t joking. Sonny Rollins’s sax warbled while a fire crackled in the hearth. The table was laid with Pentik tableware, a pitcher of passion-fruit-and-sea-buckthorn juice, and a basket of croissants and rye flatbread. On the stove was an earthenware crockpot of overnight oats topped with cloudberries. If this wasn’t the definition of hygge, I don’t know what is.

Aleksi Kärkkäinen, the resident chef, appeared with a platter of smoked salmon and lacy fried eggs. Janne introduced our guide, Timo Haapa-aro, a Luxury Action veteran clearly in love with his home and with the outdoors. Nourished by our epic breakfast, Timo, Simon, and I set off to meet the huskies.

Coffee and Finnish pancakes, cooked over a fire and served with lingonberries
and cream, at Octola.

A mad wolf chorus greeted us as we stepped out of the SUV. Husky trainer Pekka Syrjänen’s pack is relatively small, only 43 dogs, but if you’ve ever heard 43 dogs howling at once, you know it might as well be 500. They were comically excited to see us, licking our fur-framed faces, sky-blue eyes wide with anticipation.

In winter, racing dogs can run up to 200 kilometers a day. These dogs need to run; the only time they calm down is when they’re hurtling headlong down a snowy track, focused on whatever’s ahead. Suddenly their yapping ceases and the world goes quiet, save for the scrape of steel rails on ice—and barreling along on a primitive wooden sled feels, somehow, strangely peaceful.

We took turns driving. Leading my team were two sturdy Siberian huskies named Darth Vader and Johnnie Walker. They seemed reliable enough. I was more worried about the two hyperactive “wheel dogs” in back, who spent the ride nipping at each other until their reins got all entangled. But they were adorable, and their energy was a plus: within minutes I was way out ahead of the others, with Pekka waving at me to slow down.

We raced across a snowscape that looked like a blown-out photograph. Light seemed to emanate from every object, like a million tiny suns. Every branch and twig was encased in ice, as if the trees were made of glass.

I slowed to a stop, intent on a photograph. My team lay down for a rest, tongues lapping at the snow. But, while fiddling with my aperture, I inadvertently let up on the brake. This was their cue. The pack burst into motion before I even clocked it, sending me tumbling off, camera flying. Within seconds the dogs were 100 meters up the track. Pekka’s sled whizzed past in pursuit. After a wild chase he managed to catch the runaways. They weren’t even breathing heavily.

TRAVELING IN LAPLAND is a constant back-and-forth between moving very, very fast and sitting very, very still. With seven months of snow covering endless forests and frozen rivers and lakes, the region has become a playground for extreme winter sports, from snowboarding to ice climbing. But, given the remarkably low population density (nearly one-third of Finland’s land area with just over three percent of its people), it’s also incredibly peaceful, possessed of almost eerie silence and stillness.

Our second morning at Octola found us on a 30-kilometer snowmobile safari, with Janne recapturing his teenage glory by driving at absurd speeds while popping exuberant wheelies. My bones were still vibrating hours later. That afternoon, Timo took us onto the frozen Ounasjoki River for a three-hour meditation session masquerading as an ice-fishing trip. (No fish, but I did get a sunburn, and some peace of mind.)

Lapland has become a pioneer in the madcap sport of “ice racing,” which involves glorified dune buggies circling a frozen track at breakneck speeds. Janne, no surprise, is crazy for this. He designed his own quarter-mile course, carved into snowdrifts on the river, where guests can unleash their inner rally driver using 100-horsepower Can-Am Maverick ATVs. After a few test laps, Simon and I felt confident in our buggy, and soon we were swerving, spinning out, and slamming (harmlessly) into walls of soft packed snow, laughing all the way.

There was also snowshoeing across infinite fields; hikes in search of the elusive Arctic fox (we spotted two); more hijinks with the dogs; and, at the end of each day, a rejuvenating turn in one of Octola’s wood-fired saunas.

And there was Aleksi’s simple, assured cooking: sautéed chanterelles, a velvety pumpkin soup with kale fritters, pan-seared trout from the river down the hill. Even the reindeer—which can be tough and gamy—was sensational, grilled low and slow like a buttery rib eye.

On our final day, we rode to the far corner of the property for lunch inside a handsome lavvu, the log-framed tepee used by the native Sámi people. Aleksi set to work building a fire in the stove, and the aroma of butter and woodsmoke soon filled the tent. From his cast-iron skillet came crêpelike Finnish pancakes, which we ladled with lingonberries and clotted cream. There was more coffee—always—and a steaming wild-berry tisane, or what the Finns simply call “hot juice.”

THE SÁMI, now scattered throughout northern Scandinavia, Finland, and Russia, are among the oldest indigenous peoples still in Europe, having settled this region some 3,500 years ago. While the population now numbers less than 100,000, with just 10 percent living in Finland, interest in Sámi culture has grown, especially when it comes to the strange, beguiling music known as joik.

“It started as a way to keep yourself company, singing to your herd when you were alone in the woods,” Henry Valle told us. A fourth-generation reindeer herder, Henry joined us for lunch to share insights on his Sámi heritage, including joik, of which he is a skilled practitioner. In flickering firelight, we sat transfixed as he sang us a haunting melody—a sound somewhere between yodeling and throat-singing, with curious, almost Middle Eastern flourishes.

Joik may have originated among lonely herders, but those wordless melodies soon became a means of storytelling for a people who lacked a written language. As Henry explained, a joik song is performed to honor something or someone, be it a lover, an ancestor, or the wilderness itself. One does not joik “about” something, but rather joiks that which they’re celebrating. Each recitation is different, for a joik is not composed so much as conjured, like free-form jazz.

There are two schools of joik: the traditional, “mumbling” style, which Henry sang to us, is largely improvised off a pentatonic scale; the contemporary iteration is more dramatic, and crafted for performance. Joik-inspired singers have made respectable showings in the Eurovision Song Contest, and there’s even a competition devoted entirely to joik, called (no joke) the Sámi Grand Prix.

IF OCTOLA IS the brash, next-gen upstart, pushing Lapland’s definition of luxury, then Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort is the originator—and a fitting complement to its younger, pricier rival. A three-hour drive north of Octola, about 250 kilometers above the Arctic Circle and a snowball’s throw from the Russian border, this is one of Finland’s largest, most popular resorts, drawing guests from as far afield as India, Taiwan, Bahrain and Brazil.

When Kakslauttanen opened in 1974, it, too, had just 10 rooms. The previous year, owner Jussi Eiramo had been driving home from a fishing trip when, in the middle of nowhere, he ran out of gas and was forced to camp for the night. Captivated by the beauty of the place, he acquired a parcel of land and set up a small roadside café and guesthouse. Today Kakslauttanen has expanded to 485 hectares and 450 beds, some of them in the famous “glass igloos” that Eiramo pioneered and that have since been copied across Scandinavia. (I found the igloos too cramped for comfort, but no doubt honeymooners will book them anyway. They are great for aurora-gazing, with just a glass roof and a cozy reindeer throw between you and the night sky.)

Half a century in, the resort is a well-oiled machine, thanks to its owner’s tireless improvements and innovations. As large and slickly run as it is, there’s still something reassuringly homespun about Kakslauttanen, with its folksy bric-a-brac and abundant Santa Claus kitsch. While Octola channels an Architectural Digest shoot, much of Kakslauttanen still manages to look like a cozy Finnish B&B.

Then again, you’re not there for the décor. Kakslauttanen is really all about unbridled playtime. (Or bridled! Nothing beats riding a horse across fresh powder.) Simon and I ran the full gamut of activities during our three-night stay, from reindeer safaris to husky sledding, Nordic skiing to fireside joik recitals, and the obligatory nightly sauna. Most energizing of all was a post-sauna plunge in the lake—racing down the icy path from the spa in stocking feet (so as not to slip) and lowering myself into a manhole-sized opening in meter-thick ice, until I was up to my neck in what felt like a blenderful of frozen margaritas. Within seconds I couldn’t feel a thing. This made it much more pleasant.

Reindeer getting ready for sleighing, a popular activity at Kakslauttanen

HONESTLY, I’M NOT GOING to tell you much about the northern lights. I could try, and fail, and neither of us would be satisfied. I’ll just say that, as a reasonably jaded 49-year-old, I didn’t expect the aurora to move me as much as it did. But only a corpse would fail to feel that tingle down the neck, that pounding of the heart, that momentary sense of panic while standing dumbstruck, watching the sky set itself on fire.

Our first sighting would have been enough. But incredibly, we got an even better view the next night, and another the night after that, for a total of five spectacular showings. Simon and I couldn’t believe our luck: we met guests who’d been in Lapland for two weeks but hadn’t yet caught a glimpse.

Each night brought a whole new set of colors, spectral flares, and undulating shapes. But our final night at Kakslauttanen was perhaps the best, since by then we had the hang of it. No more panic, no more jet lag, no more trying in vain to shoot with an iPhone. Now we could relax. All we had to do was step out into the silent night, flop down spread-eagled in the snow, adjust our eyes to the chilly dark, and let the show begin.

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