Snow Adventure in Finland

It was a long journey.  The snow arrived in Skänninge the day after we left… which just so happened to be the first day we saw snow, when we woke up on our overnight train – typical!  Boy, was it a sight – how I had missed it!  There was snow EVERYWHERE!  The train itself had been comfortable enough, if a bit squishy with two suitcases crammed in there.  We had a small private compartment for the three of us and we watched shows on the iPad and slept in beds with not much room but then woke to snow flashing passed the window.  All too soon we were getting off at Luleå and making our way to the bus station – the bus was already there waiting, so only a very short transfer and no time to really play in the snow – too busy trying to drag 3 heavy suitcases through it!

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It was about a two and a half hour bus ride to Haparanda, by which time darkness had already fallen and guess what?  THERE WAS NO SNOW!  Mum and I were outraged!  Instead, we were greeted with ice, and plenty of it.  Turns out, I’m not a big fan of the ice.  Johan had told us there were two ways we could take home – a longer route which went under a tunnel and would avoid a lot of the ice… or the quick route – just over the ice and passed the service station.  Mum and I were quite happy to take the longer route, but Johan insisted that we would be fine with the quicker route and he would help us over the ice.  Well!  Help he did – we struggled and struggled with the suitcases, moving extra slow over the ice.  We came to a tiny ditch on the side of the road completely covered in thick layers of slippery ice and I insisted we turn back but no… we kept going.  And in the end, the route we took ended up longer than the “long” route because Mum and I were moving so slowly and cautiously so as not to slip over and break a leg!  It was not fun!  But we finally made it back to his apartment and into the warmth, starving.

Having survived the slippery walk, we didn’t feel too bad about the fact there wasn’t snow, because we weren’t staying, and it still had 3 days to arrive before we would return for New Year.  The bus we were taking to Rovaniemi that night was leaving at 8.30, and allowing ourselves extra time to get back to the bus station with 2 suitcases instead of 3 (as we had packed carefully to enable us to do so), we still had quite a bit of time.  We headed off to the supermarket to pick out a quick meal for dinner  and we found some instant pasta dishes, garlic bread and a hazelnut cake to top it off for dessert… some milk, and we were heading home, excited for our trip to Rovaniemi, were there was bound to be plenty of snow to jump in.

Well, as we’re heating up our two different pasta dishes in Johan’s tiny kitchen – one on the stove and one in the microwave, and double checking times, yes, bus leaves at 8.30, still plenty of time… it’s starting to occur to me that I’m sure that was not the bus time I wrote in my itinerary… we triple check the bus time.  And at the bottom of the page, there’a  footnote.  Times are in Finnish.  Oh no.  That means the bus is leaving at 7.30.  That means we’ve got about 40 minutes, with at least another 20 minute walk back to the bus station with our suitcases!  Into the freezer went the garlic bread and the cake, quickly shoveled down meals, pulled on all of our winter layers again and were out the door, two suitcases behind us, slippery roads ahead of us, though making sure to take the longer, less slippery route this time.

We somehow made it, and the bus was late anyway, so we waited around a while, still not convinced we had the right time, because the electronic timetable was showing something different again, but eventually the bus arrived and we were jumping on, very thankful to have made it.  And then it was about another 3 hours on a bus and we arrived just past 10 to snow galore again.  We were staying in a lovely little apartment someone was renting out, and he kindly picked us up, allowed us to grab breakfast meals and then it was pretty well straight to bed and he said he’d pick us up at 10, enabling us a bit more of a sleep in.

And sleep in we did.  I was rubbing my eyes awake at 9.45, glancing at the clock and saying aloud: “Er… I think we should be getting up now.” We had forgotten to set alarms, and we had gone to bed early without much to do, but the exhaustion from our holiday, and the sun only just rising… well.  Let’s just say the breakfast we had bought went untouched, we were quickly getting dressed, which takes long enough in itself – on went the thermals, the shirts, the fleece pants, the snow pants, the jumpers, the jackets and already he was messaging us saying he’s at the door!

Highly awake now in the cold morning air, the drive to the village center was a scenic one with green trees and leafless trees, but plenty of snow covered ground.  We were dropped off at the Santa Claus Village, caught glimpse of a squirrel, and hurried inside to be greeted with hundreds upon hundreds of souvenir shops housing everything from reindeer and husky toys, t-shirts… they quickly became some of the funnest shops I’ve explored.

We didn’t stay long in the Village, just enough to have a quick look around, before heading off to Santa Park, which is a 2km-and-half-hour walk away in the freezing cold, but on a path cut through the snow beside the road.  The cold wasn’t too much of a bother – we were enjoying the snow way too much!  At least, Mum and I were.  Johan… well, his mustache was freezing.  There is supposed to be a reindeer farm somewhere along this road, and while we passed two or three fences that could have been it, it was on the opposite side of the road to the path, and the piles of snow were much too big to just duck across and look – perhaps something if you’re visiting in summer.

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Santa Park, which is built underground in an old nuclear bomb shelter, is just picturesque!  Yes, it’s more aimed at children, but it’s just as fun and authentic as an adult.  Most of the workers are young (though claiming to be over 500), short, with pointy ears, noses and hats, and the acting is all very well done.  You get to visit Elf School and become an apprentice Elf, with a certificate, card from Santa and Santa Hat.  You can visit Mrs Claus’ Gingerbread Bakery, the Post Office, an Ice Gallery, and of course, meet Santa – it didn’t matter that it was the 28th of December, he was still there, perhaps a little less busy than usual!  They also have a fun little sleigh ride we rode at least twice that takes you through a snowy forest, right through to Santa’s workshop and home.

But we were booked on a 5 hour reindeer safari starting at 3.30 and we had to get back to the city.  We learnt the hard way that there are no buses from Santa Park to the main city – which was back another 15 minutes by car – and had the pleasure (not!) of booking an overpriced taxi so we could be back in time to meet with our tour group at Lapland Welcome.

They hurried us in to put on extra warm layers – mittens, muffler hats, two pairs of socks, bigger boots, replaced our jackets for an all-in-one jumpsuit.  I believe we kept on our snow pants for two-leg layers and afterwards we felt we should’ve kept our jackets on too!  It was FREEZING.  The coldest we had ever been in our lives and understandably, as we later discovered it was -27°!  Brrr!  It was a fun experience nonetheless… we had a bit of a drive to the reindeer farm, then they taught us to lasso a reindeer using a pair of antlers… there were just two others in our group, and they gave us multiple turns.  Everyone managed to lasso the antlers after a number of tries… Except me.  Shame.  Then it was time to meet and harness our reindeer!  

We would be taking 3 reindeer out, 2 to a sled, and the guides told us we couldn’t hope to feel the holes in the buckles of our reindeer harnesses with our mittens on which Mum was none to happy about, having wanted to harness up our reindeer, Jätti, meaning giant.  When her fingers were well and numb, and Johan and I were still trying to fiddle with cameras and GoPros in the cold, we were being ushered into the sleds.  Mum went in the front sleigh with the guide, and their reindeer, Valkokynsi (white claw), followed by the two other people, and finally Johan and I at the rear, tucked under a thin blanket and freezing.

If we had hoped the journey would warm us up, we were sorely mistaken.  It was at least a half hour trek, at just a walk as the reindeer followed the guides on foot, so the wind wasn’t too bad, but the cold was numbing.  Pretty soon we couldn’t feel our fingers or toes, and Johan and I had given up on the cameras, deciding it better to cuddle and enjoy the moment.  The sky was supposedly clear and full of a hundred stars as far as the eye could see… I wouldn’t know, because my glasses had fogged up completely and I was having immense trouble defogging them.   For most of the journey, I stared at reindeer butt, while Johan awed at the stars instead and our sled creaked away.Pic 9

It was a relief to get to our campfire, but still not as warm as we’d been hoping with our still-numb fingers and toes.  I quickly took off my glasses, and discovered they were completely frozen over – no wonder I couldn’t defog them!  Worried about heating them up too quickly over the fire, they got tucked away into the camera bag, deciding they’d be useless on the journey back.  We took off our gloves and warmed our hands whilst the guides cooked us sausages and pancakes over the open fire, with blueberry jam and hot chocolate – delicious and much appreciated!  We were also given the opportunity to feed the reindeer and none of us wanted to leave the warmth of the fire, before the guides reminded us that the more we warmed up, the colder we would be, and the sooner we left the quicker we could be back indoors.  So we all snuggled down into our sleds again and we were off.  My vision not too much better on the journey back without my glasses.  I discovered later after much trial and error my glasses fogged up a lot less without the muffler covering my face and with controlled breathing where I didn’t blow my breath up my face, so I’m sad I didn’t learn that sooner… I would’ve foregone the muffler and would have probably enjoyed the sleigh ride much more, despite the cold.

The gift shop at the end was small and pricey, but full of handmade wooden articles, etc.  I tried to suggest a carved wooden reindeer thermometer to Johan, but it was a bit too costly.  We journeyed back, talking with the other couple in our tour group, now with 5-year reindeer driving licenses in our hands – though how well that will hold up officially I’m not so sure!  We had a long walk back to our apartment, made longer by getting lost, and Johan’s insisting of wanting to take this photo which involved pulling out the tripod and waiting for long exposure times:

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We awoke the next day to… more snow!  To our glee, fresh snow had fallen overnight and it all looked 10x prettier with glistening white snow now settled on every branch of every tree.  The apartment owner again took us to Santa Village, but took a detour passed the town he grew up and it was all very pretty.  We dropped our suitcases off at Snowman World, where we would be spending our last night sleeping in an igloo, then explored the Village more thoroughly as we hadn’t the day before.

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They had overpriced reindeer sled rides for the kids, which involved a short ride around in a circle and we felt quite satisfied with our 5 hour safari from the night before, and fires everywhere to warm you up.  We visited the Main Post office which was ridiculously packed, you could barely move in there, and visited all the souvenir shops, going inside every single one, even though most sold similar things, envying over all the ludicrous price tags.  I was pricing up the reindeer toys – I wasn’t leaving without one!  And I found one, in a store that had 50% off every single item in store, making it easily the cheapest souvenir shop in the Village by far… except, they didn’t take card.  And there are no atms in the Village.  If we had of known that, we would have taken out cash in the city the previous day.  I settled on a different reindeer in a shop that did accept card, twice the price, but still the cheapest I could find by a few euros, and left happy.Pic 12Pic 13b

In the late afternoon, we made our way back to Santa Park, as tickets included 2-day entry and the only thing we had missed the previous day was the Elf Show.  We made it in time, and considering the rest of this marvelous place, were thoroughly disappointed with the Elf Show, which had no dialogue and a very confusing storyline (if any) with bizarre costumes you spent the whole show trying to work out.  If we had known, we wouldn’t have returned for this show, which was just 25 minutes of “what am I watching?”.  But nonetheless, we were back now and we visited everything again!  Johan and I made felt-and-wood-santa-and-elves which are all hammered up in a hut full of them (which we had neglected to do the day before, despite Mum having already done hers), and had our photo undercrossing the Arctic Circle.  We bought our certificate for doing so (a further €5) and were one of the last ones to leave.

We trekked back to Santa Village in the dark (well, there was plenty of lighting), and having eaten nothing since breakfast, settled on the cheapest place we could find – a service station opposite the village which offered wraps, hot dogs and pizzas – overly priced, but the cheapest place to eat you had the possibility of finding.  Our stomaches full, we headed excitedly through the Village, to Snowman World.  There had been no rush, as they don’t allow check in til 6 and it’s not recommended to go into your igloos before you’re ready to sleep, and we were again disappointed to find out that staying at Snowman World also allowed for 2-day entry tickets.  In all my research, I had thought it had only included one day either before or after your stay.  We would’ve been much better spending two days at Snowman World instead of Santa Park.  The ice slides were closed, but there was a tiny ice slide inside we rode up and down and checked out the snow sculptures and the empty Ice Bar and Restaurant.

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There were plenty of well-done snowman carvings in the snow, and we checked out all of the carvings in the 10 rooms as well.  Like a hotel, there was a big main room with doors coming off it into separate igloos.  We were quite pleased with the two we picked out, deciding them to have what were probably the best room carvings featuring reindeer.  All of the rooms also had lighting which you could change – yellows, blues, greens, reds… and, to our surprise, heated mattresses!  It was quite pleasant in doors though – they keep the temperature at -2 to -7° which is warmer than it is outside.  You also don’t sleep on ice beds as we’d been expecting – it’s just a wooden bed with reindeer-furs on top and there’s one ice bed in the main room on display – which is also just a block of ice surrounding the wooden bed.

So, we grabbed our sleeping bags, and as instructed, took off our shoes which are kept at the foot of the bed, took off our jackets which you put inside your sleeping back and sleep on top of, so they’re kept warm in the morning, and well, struggled into our sleeping bags!  Beanies and socks are kept on to keep you warm in the night, but I ended up too hot in my layers, and peeled them off during the night.  We had a bit more success than Mum – who we had filmed getting into her sleeping bag the wrong way!  And that’s the story of how we slept in an igloo!

We had a lovely buffet breakfast in the morning and stocked up, knowing that lately our days had consisted of skipping lunch, too busy doing everything else.  Snowman World, which I had thought was open to guests before the public, wouldn’t be opening until 10 or 11, so we made the decision to… trek back to Santa Park.  But not to the actual Park itself!  I had read a review on Trip Advisor which mentioned of a look out, which started at the base of the car park.  They had done it in summer and weren’t sure how hard it would be in winter, but we took the plunge, and are glad we did.  A short 20 minute hike up the hill, led us to this look out, and it was nice, but most of the snow had melted off the trees so if you can do it with snow, do!  You can see as far as the Village, and beyond.  Just be careful climbing up those ladders – the steps were very small and very slippery!

Pic 17aWe spotted two snowmobiles here and enjoyed jumping in deep snow, making snow angels and sliding back down the hill.  Then hiked back to Snowman World, excited to try ice slides and ice skating!  All in all, that meant making 5 trips to or from Santa Park, and over 10km of walking – great exercise!

Mum headed straight for the ice slides, whilst Johan headed onto the ice rink.  I was still unsure and nervous about the small ice rink with no railing, and watched and filmed Johan for a while, before deciding I couldn’t miss out.  I beckoned Johan over and he helped me into ice skates, which felt too loose and too tight at the same time, and struggled for a while getting the laces done up tight and secure enough.  And then… I had to walk from the hut with the ice skates, to the ice rink.  “Johan, HELP ME!!!” I was hanging so tightly onto him I’m surprised we both didn’t fall over, but we made it and I soon grabbed hold of a support frame, which they had 3 of, instead of the railings.

This was my first time ice skating, and Johan was trying not to show off as he skated around freely and I struggled to get moving, little kids much younger and shorter than me zooming around.  But I eventually got there.  A few times I let go of the frame and hung onto Johan for dear life instead, but I kind of told him I didn’t trust him (sorry honey! :P) and felt much better using the frame, and got faster with it, but didn’t let go, being too much of a wuss.  We spent quite some time here, going around and around in circles until I got the hang of it.  We only wished it had been a bigger rink – all the other ones we had seen in London and Stockholm had been much bigger so that was a bit of a disappointment – you were just gliding in tight circles the whole time.  Eventually Mum joined us and had a go – though not before going on the ice slides about 20 or 30 times – they had two which you rode on tubes.  One that went around a large corner, and one that leaped into the air and landed you on a giant inflatable bag like a jumping castle.

Pic 18 So getting late in day, Johan and I took off our skates and switched to the slides.  Amusingly, there are signs that say it’s best to wear a helmet, but there are none available for loan.  Nevertheless, we didn’t see any cracked heads when we were there.  My first try on the bag jump ended with my glasses very squashed onto my face, so I avoided that one, instead much preferring the longer ice slide which took you at crazy speeds around the corner and had mats at the end to slow you down.  It was thrilling!

A quick ride in a sled beside the ice rink, which was tethered to a pole where one person sat in the sled and the other ran  in a circle, and it was time for us to be thinking about returning to the city to get our bus back to Haparanda.  And guess what?  All tickets had to be purchased on the bus.  There was no way of pre-purchasing them online or at the Tourist Information, just had to buy a ticket on the bus, IN CASH.  So, another expensive taxi journey later, we were back in the main city directly outside the bus station, and took our leave from Rovaniemi, disappointed to leave after such a fantastic fun-filled day.

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