Living in Hong Kong, we’re privileged to have easy access to the most luxurious tropical holidays, from the bamboo tree houses of Bali to spirit-lifting yoga retreats along the coast of Vietnam and over-water bungalows on the azure waters of the Maldives. But all that sun and surf can be wearisome in its own way, and with the mercury rising here in Hong Kong, our wanderlust has drifted instead to thoughts of a powder-white landscape and steaming mugs of hot cocoa by the fireplace.
While the nearby Niseko is always a solid choice for a weekend ski trip, if you find yourself with a week or more free this Christmas or Chinese New Year (now’s a prime time to book to avoid the exorbitant mark-ups), we’d recommend planning a trip a little further abroad: more specifically, a subarctic expedition deep into the white wilderness of Lapland in northern Finland.
Lying right on the fringe of the Arctic Circle and bordering Sweden, Norway, Russia and the Baltic Sea, words can’t quite capture Lapland’s winter wonderland: for miles on end, imagine nothing but a pure white blanket broken only by wide swaths of conifer forests (trees cover almost 75% of the land), frozen-over lakes (nearing 200,000 total bodies of water in Finland) and the odd log cabin with a lone curl of smoke unfurling into the still and tranquil air. At night, the pink-streaked sunsets fade slowly into an inky, star-speckled sky broken only by the mysterious appearance of the polar lights dancing across the sky.
Perhaps one of the most serene places on earth, the charm of northern Finland exists in its mixture of pristine, unspoilt nature, delightfully idiosyncratic people, and off-the-beaten track adventures. Whether you stick to Lapland’s unofficial capital of Rovaniemi or venture to popular towns such as Kemi, Inari and Saariselkä — here’s how to make a most out of a trip to this otherworldly realm.
What to Do
Frolick through the ice fields of Finland on husky expeditions, reindeer sleds and snowmobiles while seeking out the elusive Northern Lights.
Go husky sledding
There’s no better way to carve a trail through the white-blanketed forest floors than on a sled pulled by a team of Siberian or Alaskan Huskies. Learn to become a professional dog musher as you power your way across frozen lakes and through snow-capped forests, with 6-8 dogs per 2-person sled. Switching off halfway, each person will get to drive for about 30-45 min, while the other burrows under thick blankets on the sledge. At the halfway point, you’ll enjoy a steaming bowl of soup inside a traditional Sámi tent, with plenty of time to cuddle up to the affectionate canines outside as they romp around on their mid-morning break. There are multiple tour operators around the area, so make sure you shop around for the best prices.
Hunt for the Aurora Borealis
No Northern adventure is complete without a hunt for the mysterious dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis. Caused by electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere, the phenomena casts an eerie glow across the night sky (more pale yellowish-green in real life than the bright neon green as refracted through a camera lens) — a top bucket list experience for anyone venturing towards the North Pole. The season spans from mid-August to early-April; and while they statistically appear about once every two nights, a matter of catching them on your trip really boils down to sheer luck. We recommend jumping on a snowmobile tour (try Safartica for their well-organised and affordable tours) with experienced Aurora hunters who can chase the faintest glimmers in the sky to lead you to prime viewing locations for a greater chance at this magical encounter.
Spend the night in an igloo
The idea of spending the night in a freezing subarctic den might not sound like your cup of tea, but the unique and somewhat bizarre experience is a true once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Arctic SnowHotel is carved from snow and ice each year, and guests can choose from double, triple or family rooms from standard rooms to decorated suites. During the day, grab a pair of snowshoes and explore the beautiful frozen expanse out back of the hotel; at night, throw back a few shots of Finlandia vodka at the Ice Bar, followed by a multi-course meal at the Ice Restaurant served entirely on frozen plates. A soothing trip to the sauna should warm you up before grabbing a warm fleece sleeping bag and bunkering down in your ice cabin for the night. And if you can’t hack it ’til morning, there’s always a warm changing room right next door.
Get up close with wild reindeer
Meet the fabled animals while visiting a working reindeer farm followed by a sleigh ride through the snowy forests. We recommend Christmas House Safaris, which offers a 2-hour tour (approx. HK$1,015 per adult) with pick-up/drop-off from your hotel in central Rovaniemi. The reindeer sleigh ride is a slow and steady, almost spiritual journey through the forest, but perhaps the best part comes at the end when the guides will regale you with fascinating tales of life as a reindeer herder — all while huddled around a traditional “kota” bonfire sipping hot berry juice.
Visit the home of Santa Claus
Believe it or not, Rovaniemi is the official home of Saint Nicholas himself, with more than half a million letters from eager children delivered to his post office in Santa Claus Village every year. A quick 10-minute bus ride from the city centre will take you to his abode, where you can join the queue — manned by busy elves — to meet Father Christmas himself. Even the biggest skeptics are likely to revert to their excitable 5-year-old selves when seated on the knee of jolly Saint Nick himself, complete with a long, lush (and presumably very well attached) curly white beard. Afterwards, head to the post office to mail letters out with Santa Claus’ official stamp.
Explore the history of Lapland at Arktikum
A three-story museum, Arktikum is not just for book worms and science geeks — the curated exhibitions here will give you a thoughtful and comprehensive look into the history of the region and the way of life of the local Sámi people. A range of rotating exhibitions highlight different aspects of Northern and Arctic life, whether you’re interested in delving into the specific customs of the Sámi, or learning about the habitats of local wildlife. Dive deep into exhibits that explore The Lapland War, the history of Petsamo and the seasonal tradition of foraging for cloudberries.
Where to Eat
While great food in Helsinki abounds, you’ll have to dig a little deeper to discover delicious eats in the more barren north. Follow our guide below for hunting down tasty morsels in the wilderness, from reindeer to wild bear.
This popular restaurant in the heart of Rovaniemi’s town centre has earned its reputation with both locals and tourists alike. The restaurant may appear a bit touristy with its antler lights and bear rugs, but the local Lappish fare is consistent and hearty. Kick off your meal with local delicacies such as alder-smoked salmon with ginger sour cream and fresh asparagus cream soup with birch foam; then tuck into heartier mains such as arctic char and traditional sautéed reindeer with homemade lingonberry jam. If you’re feeling adventurous, the bear burger is worth a go paired with a tart cranberry coleslaw. Dessert wraps up with homemade oven cheese or ice cream with lingonberry granola, capped off by the exceptionally friendly service and cosy surrounds.
Nili Restaurant, Valtakatu 20, 96200 Rovaniemi, Finland, +358 40 0369669
This sensibly named restaurant offers Finnish cuisine with an elevated touch — a departure from the conventional home-style comfort food characteristic to Lapland. Pure ingredients are allowed to shine, from premium quality Finnish beef to reindeer, willow grouse and salmon. The salad with shiitake mushrooms, red onion and lingonberry vinaigrette is a forager’s treat, while the smoked reindeer tongue and salt-cured reindeer roast draw out the versatile and unique characteristics of the rare meat. A small selection of wines go down well to counteract the rich flavours in some of the more substantial mains, from warm smoked salmon with Hollandaise to chanterelle pasta coated in Västerbotten cheese.
Arctic Restaurant, Arctic Light Hotel, Valtakatu 18, 96200 Rovaniemi, Finland, +358 20 1710 100
If you aren’t able to book yourself in for a few nights at the uber-luxe Arctic Treehouse Hotel, you can still scope out the stylish Scandi-inspired treehouses followed by dinner at the resort’s signature restaurant, Rakas. Park yourself at a table under the pinecone-shaped pendant lights and bask in the view of the snow-covered pines brushing up against the windowsill as you dine on Lappish potatoes with white-roe dressing, salted reindeer, onion-ale tarts and glazed arctic ocean fish. For desserts, it’s a toss-up between going savoury with the Finnish cheese board or ending on a sweet note with the heavenly apple and cloudberry cobbler with pine ice cream.
Rakas, Tarvantie 3, 96910 Rovaniemi, Finland, +358 50 5176 952
Craving Asian flavours after too many consecutive nights of Finnish fare? This creative sushi spot under the same owners as Nili is conveniently located right across the street from its sister restaurant. In addition to nigiri and fresh sashimi, you’ll encounter unconventional mash-ups which nod to local cuisine, from ruby-hued reindeer nigiri to a hearty stir-fry of bear meat, vegetables and noodles which riffs off of Japanese yakisoba. Decorated with fairy lights and framed by large windows looking out onto the snowy street, the cosy restaurant is ideal for enjoying a casual dinner and a carafe of sake with a spot of people-watching.
Ravintola Himo, Valtakatu 23, 96200 Rovaniemi, Finland, +358 40 5088 282
Santa’s Salmon Place
Don’t leave Santa Claus Village without a trip to this tiny teepee just across from the post office. The long line out the door is proof of the spot-on execution of their signature dish: a generous salmon steak grilled over an open fire served with salad and warm bread. For less than HK$200 per person, nothing could be simpler or more satisfying after a long day out in the frigid temperatures.
Santa’s Salmon Place, Santa Claus Village, Tähtikuja 1, 96930 Rovaniemi, Finland, +358 46 5451 507
Where to Stay
Seek warmth, a full belly and a good night’s sleep inside these cosy winter accommodations.
Northern Lights Village
Seeing the Aurora Lights is never a guarantee, but a journey further north to the town of Saariselkä can significantly increase your chances, far away from the light pollution of Rovaniemi. Catch the magical flames of the sky from your own heated glass-roofed Aurora cabin at Northern Lights Village, which blends modern comforts with chic Scandinavian design. Laid out in neat rows, the Aurora Cabins feature laser-heated glass which can be defogged at the touch of a button from your night stand for prime viewing conditions (for an extra fee, you can also request a wake-up call from the concierge if the lights appear in the middle of the night).
For the cold weather-weary, the resort features a spacious buffet restaurant with a roaring central fireplace and plenty of nooks and sofas for lounging about with a good book or a cocktail. The all-day Lappish cuisine is a hearty antidote to the arctic temperatures, but if you’re up for braving the cold you can make a booking at the Ice Bar and Restaurant next door (make sure to reserve ahead). A 15-minute walk will take you to the Saariselkä town centre, a small but quaint strip dotted with hotels and restaurants, a supermarket for stocking up on snacks for your snow cabin, a kid-friendly Angry Birds activity park, and local tour offices for booking everything from snowmobiling safaris to ice fishing. We’d recommend staying at least 2-3 nights here to make the most out of your trip.
Aurora Cabins from HK$1,500–4,000 depending on the season. Northern Lights Village, Rovaniementie 3222E, 99830 Saariselkä, Finland, +358 16 4691 200
Arctic Light Hotel
The first five-star hotel in Rovaniemi, Arctic Light Hotel is a beacon of modern comfort and luxury juxtaposed against the stark wilderness of Lapland. Located in the heart of Rovaniemi, the family-owned hotel was converted from a 1950s building which served as the former City Hall of Rovaniemi, opening its doors as a stylish Arctic getaway in 2015. The hotel has been cleverly designed to incorporate Arctic themes — think plush fur rugs and cushions to twinkling star lights — while providing a warm and cosy refuge from the winter tundra. Rooms are surprisingly large with a separate lounge area and en-suite bathrooms, as well as modern amenities such as flat-screen TVs and coffee machines.
The hotel is a hive for fine cuisine, with three dining outlets including a lounge bar and glass-covered terrace. The Arctic Boulevard restaurant offers a variety of rare game meats from the northern forests and fells, while a lush breakfast buffet sees an assortment of health-boosting fresh berry shooters, home-made bread and muffins, cold cuts and cheeses. Staff are warm and hospitable, keen to help with private sauna bookings and arrange tours from mountain biking to moose watching. Nearby attractions include Arktikum and Santa Claus Village, both accessible by public bus right out front of the hotel.
Double rooms from HK$1,320–1,765 depending on the season. Arctic Light Hotel, Valtakatu 18, 96200 Rovaniemi, Finland, +358 20 1710 100
Lapland’s unofficial capital of Rovaniemi is easily accessible by 1-hour flight, bus or car from Helsinki (direct flights from Hong Kong starting from HK$6,000+ on Finnair).