It’s sleepy, its skiing is tame, and it gets bone-chillingly cold, but spoilt-for-choice ski writer Patrick Thorne still ranks Finnish Lapland’s unique and diverse snowsports experience in his worldwide top ten
Head north into the heroic Arctic landscapes of Santa Land and temperatures fall, really fall. Human habitation is scant in this white wilderness – for the visitor there’s a sense of adventure alien to the congested Alps and the resorts-by-numbers of the Rockies. There’s a magic in the air – the light takes on an ethereal blue glow, if you’re lucky the Northern Lights will put on a spectacular show.
Although cross-country skiing has long been big news here, Lapland’s growing status as a major wintersports destination is something new. That’s no surprise – slopes generally take short, unimaginative courses down gently rolling fells, lifts are genenerally drags and ski areas are small.
Not that you should write off the skiing and boarding here, unless you’re the type who can’t live without eight black runs before breakfast. Levi, the biggest area (with a vertical drop of just 325m!) has 45 runs covering about 40km including a World Cup-graded descent. The highest lifts at nearby Ylläs serve an area of similar dimensions. Iso-Syöte, Ruka and Saariselka each have about 20km of terrain, while Pyhä has some of the steepest runs in the country. While beginners, intermediates and families are the best matches for the terrain, there’s enough to keep most people busy for a few days, and other positives are a long, early starting season, resorts offering some of the cheapest skiing in Europe (a bit more than £80 buys a six-day pass over New Year in Ylläs), and that temperatures here (generally around freezing, but sometimes down to -20 degrees Celcius) preserve the snow’s integrity.
Recognising their terrain’s limitations, the Finns have also capitalised on the possibilities for new-school riding. Freestyle and boarding are both big here – Ruka was host of the Freestyle World Ski Championships in 2005 – and Saariselka’s ski area consists mainly of the country’s biggest terrain park.
But there’s far too much to do to spend every day pounding pistes and parks. Over the past decade the region has stepped up to service the burgeoning interest in the kind of alternative winter activities which Lapland’s epic, empty landscapes are well placed to offer. Blasphemy though it may be to say, you don’t even need to go near skis or a board to have a great winter holiday here.
Snowmobiling excursions are huge, from two-hour spins to day-long treks nipping 100km into night-time nothingness (don’t forget to pack your driving license!). Dog-sledding, ice karting, reindeer safaris, snowshoeing, and ice fishing are all available, plus of course little’uns-pleasing visits to Santa (just don’t let them find out there’s one in every town). Apres ski/sled/Santa is concentrated on a half-dozen jumping spots in each of the larger resorts. There’s a friendly, frontier atmosphere, and locals often party hard, especially late-season. Expect monster portions of reindeer, salmon, wild mushrooms and loganberries if you sign up for one of the excellent Lappish nights.
While ice hotels are popular and igloo chalets are popping up, those less given to polar exploration fantasies will be glad to hear that Lapland’s modern ski resorts are up to international standards, and many offer a dizzying array of indoor facilities so the cold needn’t stop play (although a traditional dip through a hole cut in a frozen river after parboiling yourself in a sauna is hard to beat). Kids go nuts for the tropical pools in indoor leisure complexes and all resorts are set up with the hardcore outwear you’ll need to enjoy sub-zero fun in the great outdoors.
Accommodation choices range from super log cabins to giant hotels and holiday complexes, and with five mainstream tour operators offering a range of packages, visiting, via four UK airports, is easy and affordable – a week’s Santa’s Winter Wonderland package in Yllas with Inghams starts at £301 based on six people sharing a four-room cabin. And much more choice is sure to follow. The first major tour op to service the area ten years ago, Inghams now reports that Lapland is one of the five best sellers among their 90 plus ski destinations, and Intrawest, the Canadian giant which brought us Whistler Blackcomb and California’s Mammoth among many other slick big-hitters, is currently giving the resort of Ruka a big-bucks extreme makeover.
Patrick Thorne visited Levi and Yllas with Inghams (020 8780 4433, www.inghams.co.uk) and Saariselka with Waymark Holidays (0870 9509800, www.waymarkholidays.com).