The second and final installment of our amazing trip to northern Finland in early December 2019.Rovaniemi. Fourteen months ago I had never heard of this small city located just four miles south of the Arctic Circle in Finland’s northern region of Lapland. Yet after months of planning and expectation, the name began to roll off my tongue and also come to mean grand adventure.
A confluence of events, accidents of history, turned this Arctic village into a major tourist destination. In the 1930s Rovaniemi was a good-sized trading town, a confluence for miners, loggers, and Sami reindeer herders. But during World War II, the town became a pawn between Russian and German aggression and from 1940 German forces occupied the town, building the airfield that has become Rovaniemi’s airport. As Germany’s fortunes changed, their troops’ scorched-earth tactics destroyed 90% of the city, leaving only 17 buildings standing. But in 1950 Eleanor Roosevelt made a surprise visit to survey the reconstruction efforts and the governor and mayor had a log cabin built in her honor. (And you can visit the Roosevelt Cabin today in Santa Claus Village). In 1984, the Finnish Tourism Board decided to market Lapland as the home of Santa Claus, and thus began the legend of Rovaniemi as a premier Christmas themed destination. The combination of Arctic activities and Santa Claus magic brings some 600,000 tourists a year to this city of 63,000.
Initially, we dreamed of staying in one of the glass igloos, but after looking at the prices and weighing the costs against the enjoyment, we went in a different direction. We were really lucky to find a wonderful room in a highly rated Airbnb right in the center of town. Our room at Lauri, the only 19th-century log house in Rovaniemi (not one of the 17 remaining after 1944, but was relocated to the city in 1968), had nine beds–enough for all of us and five friends, but there were few options in the city when we reserved in August. Most places other than some very pricey or characterless options were already fully booked. But the manor, located in a residential neighborhood, across from a school, and only two blocks the city center, was perfect.
We — myself, my daughter C, my best friend CZ and her son Little C — first arrived in Rovaniemi at 7:15 AM after traveling on the overnight Santa Express train from Helsinki. Traveling about ten minutes in a Santa-endorsed taxi, we were deposited at the Lauri guesthouse around eight in the morning. The hosts had given us a code that allowed us to store our luggage until we could check in later that day, and then there we were tired and hungry and a wee bit cold with children who could not pay attention because there was SNOW everywhere. We herded the kids to the one restaurant we knew would be open, a place in the nearby shopping mall. The walk took probably three times longer than it should have as C and Little C had to climb up, jump in, or touch every bit of snow along the way.
Our first day would be low key as we were all a bit knackered. Little C and I were both suffering from colds – he fell asleep in CZ’s lap and I felt as though I were still rocking to the rhythms of the train. We stayed put til 10 AM when we could make our way over to the Pilke Science Center. I would not have thought a museum on forestry and sustainable logging would be that intriguing, but the center is really well set up and kid-friendly. We easily spent a few hours here. Then we all headed back to our Airbnb to check-in and relax. CZ and I alternated time with the kids in the room so one of us could go out, do some shopping, and be child-free.
Day two was all about Santa Claus. Right after getting out of the taxi at the Santa Claus Village we made a beeline for Father Christmas’ office where we would have an opportunity to meet The Man himself. Though we waited about 20 minutes, this was not nearly as long as we expected and frankly, Santa was awesome. He is not your suburban mall Santa in a cheap red suit, but a more authentic working Santa with shirt sleeves and a traditional knitted vest and snow-covered elfish-like boots, comfy colorful socks, and a waist-length beard. He was engaging and though many were waiting to see him, we each got a bit of personal time with him. I love that he engaged the parents too.
We explored a bit around Santa’s office (i.e. the gift shop — don’t think for one second that I am some super-parent who is able to bypass such places), crossed and re-crossed the Arctic Circle, and then we had lunch at the Three Elves restaurant, where I was willingly tried a bit of CZ’s reindeer burger (much to C’s chagrin). The next stop was Snowman World (which I believe is created of ice and snow every year), where we enjoyed some beverages at the ice bar, some snow tubing, and admired the ice sculptures. Then we spent some time at the Elf’s Farm Yard petting zoo to meet a few reindeer resting after flying school, feed some very furry and ornery goats, then roast marshmallows over a fire in the Arctic version of a teepee, and C and Little C joined some other kids in sledding down a small hill. At about 4:30 PM we called it quits. That might seem early, but the sun had set already three hours before and we had been out and about in the cold for over six hours. And we needed to rest up for our next adventure…
Dog-sledding! Although visiting Santa was a key focus of the trip, something very special for the kids, dogsledding was the top activity on CZ and my Rovaniemi to-do lists. Driving a sleigh pulled by adorable and excited dogs across the snow was CZ’s and my ultimate bucket list activity on this ultimate bucket list vacation. We were as excited, if not more, than the kids. Ok, I am 100% positive we were more excited, we could especially see this as we changed into the tour organization- provided sleigh gear. C and Little C were not so keen on the ski suit, hats, socks, and boots that turned them into stiff-armed and legged zombie-like marshmallows. But once outside getting our dog-sled driving instruction in front of hundreds of uber-excited huskies, the kids too perked up.
As the tour operator led us to our sleighs, the excitement of the dogs was palpable. The dogs were barking keenly; they were jumping, leaping, straining against their harnesses, lots of tongues lolling and tails wagging. They could hardly wait to get going. These incredible dogs – Alaskan Huskies – can four together pull 150 kilos weight, average 10-14 kilometers per hour, and often run about 150 kilometers a day. To fuel this incredible energy, the dogs consume about 10,000 calories a day!! Sitting around is not in their nature. The most important part of our dog-sled driving training was the use of the brake!
CZ and I alternated our time driving the sled, 30 minutes each. It was exhilarating. The temperature on our dog-sled day was below freezing with snow flurries. As we slid our way through the forest and then out onto an open field, small, hard snow pelted my face, the only exposed part of my body. It kinda hurt and yet I could not wipe the ridiculous grin from my face. On several occasions, I laughed out loud with joy I could not contain. My 30 minutes felt like it was up in a split second and I didn’t want to give up the driving seat. This was hands down one of the best activities I have ever done in my life.
We had already learned that being cold can be tiring. It turns out driving a dog sled is also exhausting. So the combination meant that we were not keen on doing much else. We ate at a Japanese restaurant (none of these in Malawi!) for lunch and then the kids played in the snow in the city center. That evening CZ took both kids to a baking class in a traditional Finnish home while I hung out in the room watching Finnish television.
The following day we joined a tour to the Ranua Wildlife Park, an Arctic Zoo (and second northernmost zoo in the world), located an hour south of Rovaniemi. There were some cool Arctic animals there from the Arctic fox to the polar bear, the wolverine to the grey wolf, and a nice wooden walkway through the exhibits. I had never been to a wildlife park of this kind and I knew that this was something C and I would enjoy, but, to be honest, it was not quite as magical as I had hoped. I think in part as we were on a tour, and although we hung back from the group and walked at our own pace, we still were herded on and off the bus and through the disappointing buffet lunch. And Little C was definitely not so keen on the zoo and wanted to make sure we all felt his displeasure.
That evening C and I tried to have an evening of pseudo-normalcy, to do things we are unable to do in Malawi. We planned to eat dinner at McDonald’s (once the northernmost franchise in the world) and then go and see a movie. CZ and Little C do not partake of McD’s and Little C will not sit through a movie, so this was to be a mother-daughter outing. Unfortunately, the only age-appropriate movie was a universally panned movie about a dog, but C loves dogs so I was up for it. I had checked carefully that the film would be in English, but once there the ticket seller informed us that they had previously shown the English version but no one had come, so now it was in Finnish, and that was a no-go. But we did get our McD fix.
On Friday, our last full day in Rovaniemi, we returned to Santa Claus Village to get in a few more wintry activities. We took two sleighs pulled by reindeer – the kids in one and the adults in another (fifteen minutes to ourselves, hooray!). Although just a 1000 meter-ride through the village, the route slipping quietly along a path bounded by snow-covered silver birch trees was enchanting. I am not sure how the kids felt — they had indicated that the reindeer were too slow to their liking — but CZ and I would have been happy to be pulled along quite a bit longer.
To satisfy the kids’ need for speed, we headed next to the snowmobile park where children could take a spin around a track on their own. I expect for some parents it might seem crazy to let kids do this, but I expect the Finns know a thing or two about winter sports from an early age. The man running the course asked each child if they had driven a snowmobile before (many had!) and if they did not, he gave them some quick instruction on a model nearby. Both our kids kept their speeds moderate and reported the experience as top-notch.
After lunch we then headed over to Santa Park, a few kilometers away. While Santa Village is mostly outdoors and free to visit (you just pay for the experiences), Santa Park is entirely indoors. In fact, it is all underground. Surprisingly, the place was not crowded at all (the website had indicated popular times and days with large groups, so we planned our visit outside those times), and we had good seats for Elf School (where incredibly in-character performers took us through a fun activity), almost no wait for the miniature train ride, close to the stage view for a short acrobatic play, and waited all of five minutes to see Santa. It was not my favorite place in Rovaniemi, but it was enjoyable and a nice to be indoors for a change.
Our final day, Saturday, was a partial day as we would return to Helsinki on the overnight train departing Rovaniemi at 6 PM. Funnily enough, friends of mine with whom I served with in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and are now in Romania had booked a trip to Rovaniemi arriving by train the day we left, and even more improbably, had reserved at the same Airbnb. So when they arrived in town SP and their two kids came to relax in our room while RP went to pick up their rental car. All the kids seemed to instantly bond and I had a chance to catch up a little. After they headed off for the day we did our final packing, stored our luggage, and then headed out for Mexican food (Another thing we really cannot get in Malawi). We then spent a few hours at the Arktikum, a museum dedicated to exploring and sharing the nature, culture, and history of northern regions. C, Little C, and I grabbed the kids activity book at the front desk and headed off into the museum while CZ checked out the Christmas market in the lobby. I had to move a bit quicker through the exhibits with two kids keen on completing their activity than I would on my own, but the center is impressive and even displays on Arctic animals, the northern lights, and, surprisingly, northern bog biodiversity caught their attention. My favorite part was the northern light simulator. Well, it was more like sitting in a planetarium and watching a movie on the formation of the aurora borealis and legends surrounding the phenomenon. In Finnish, the name for the Northern Lights is “revontulet,” which means “fox fire” and is derived from a Sámi story of a magical fox running across the snow-covered fells whose tail would emit sparks of light. My daughter loves foxes, they are her new favorite animal, and I thought she would enjoy seeing the lights based on this tale. Unfortunately, during our visit there was only one night of even middling chance to see the lights, the night after our epic dog sledding, and all of us were just too tired. But the Artikum’s display kind of made up for it.
That night on the return train I marveled how this small city of 63,000 inhabitants, not only had risen from the ashes of war but had also ingeniously crafted a niche tourism industry. I also could not help but think how the small city had more restaurants, cultural activities, and entertainment venues than the nearly 1 million strong Malawi capital. It’s an unfair comparison, I know, given Rovaniemi’s location in developed Northern Europe, but the thought came to me nonetheless. However, I have to say once back in Helsinki for one more day, and being able to peel off a few layers of clothes (I wore three pairs of pants in Lapland – a pair of long underwear, then a pair of heavy leggings, then a pair of ski pants!!) and even more so to when I returned to the lush green warmth of Malawi in the rainy season, that I while glad for the opportunity to experience northern Finland in winter, I was also glad to be home.