It only took 30 seconds after stepping off our tour bus for my eyelashes to freeze. Not surprising given the fact that we had set foot into minus 13-degree Fahrenheit temperatures, in late January, nearly 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Finland. Hours later I found myself steaming in the heat of a 180-degree sauna — only to jump into a 32-degree ice hole to cool off again.
From the bustling streets of Helsinki to remote wilderness in the Arctic Circle, the dramatic experiences and exciting excursions I took part in during my time in Finland were unforgettable.
For groups looking for adventure, awe and authenticity, Finland checks all the boxes.
Bustling city center
Even in the dead of winter, Helsinki is an epicenter of entertainment. In the main shopping and restaurant district, we found a plentiful mix of brand-name stores and boutiques, casual and fine dining, and cafes and bars to relax. Throughout the city, we were able to take self-guided walks to soak in the neoclassical architecture and the hundreds of sculptures scattered through public greenspaces. And one of my favorite experiences was a ferry ride to the 271-year-old sea fortress on Suomenlinna Island for dinner of locally harvested fish and produce.
Another cool four-season experience downtown involves taking a dip in the Allas Sea Pool, a public pool and sauna venue in the heart of Helsinki. I was in for a surprise when I learned that one of the three pools our group was swimming in was filled with water pumped straight from the icy Baltic sea. In authentic Finnish fashion, the local’s winter swimming tradition had us heating up in a 175- to 195-degree sauna before sliding into the 35-degree water. It was freezing yet incredibly refreshing.
During the night, the streets of Helsinki came alive. We strolled through Market Square, a public space featuring a daily market full of art, food and cafe vendors, as strings of white holiday lights illuminated the snowy walkway next to South Harbour.
As we made our way back to our boutique hotel, Hotel Haven, music poured out of cozy pubs and candle-lit restaurants and onto the chilly streets.
One of my favorite things to do while traveling is escape into nature. Doing so allows you to get a glimpse of what life is like away from the hustle and bustle of the city, and it shows you a side of the country that urban areas can’t embody: wildlife.
Lucky for me, our group made it to one of Finland’s 40 national parks located just a stone’s throw away from the Finnish capital. We took a quick 35-minute bus ride northwest of Helsinki to Nuuksio National Park, a 45-square-kilometer (17 square-miles) scenic woodland area that provides a remote escape into wilderness.
As we entered the park, a sleek and modern Scandinavian building — The Haltia Nature Center — emerged from between the trees. We stopped inside to rent snowshoes and pick up trail maps but got caught up in admiration over the center’s extensive and elaborate exhibits. Paying homage to Finnish nature, the exhibits covered topics including local sustainability, native plants and animals, and the country’s expansive national park system.
Stepping onto the Haukankierros Trail, the winter silence engulfed me. A fresh layer of snow blanketed the entire forest floor and not a single tree was left uncovered.
We trekked — snowshoes on our feet — around the almost 2 ½-mile loop trail. Along the way, we climbed out onto bluffs overlooking Lake Haukkalampi, crossed over wooden bridges above small streams and even spotted a few frozen waterfalls tucked away behind the dense tree line.
At the end of the hike, our group stopped at one of many warming huts scattered around the park to heat up. Inside the three-walled, wooden structure we found chopped firewood and small benches surrounding a stone fire pit — making the perfect place to sit and prepare a kettle of water for coffee and tea.
Great White North
Located at the northern tip of Finland, the city of Ivalo embodies the true spirit of ‘winter wonderland’: tall and skinny pine trees caked in frozen snowfall, white forests so dense you can’t see through the edge of the tree line and reindeer popping their heads out of the snow-covered foliage to continue on their path.
Even in peak season, no more than 500 people inhabit the town of Ivalo. They stay to support the groups of tourists that flock to the area to experience the charm of winter in the “Great White North.”
One of the most unforgettable experiences, dog sledding with outfitter Wild North Huskies, gave us the opportunity to see the backcountry of this northern Arctic region, also known as Finnish Lapland. On top of the wooden toboggan, we each took turns either enjoying the ride or steering the pack of six dogs ahead down curvy, single-track trails between tall stands of pine trees.
Our group also had the chance to encounter reindeer — one of Finland’s most beloved creatures — at a native village guided by outfitter Lapland Safaris. We learned how special reindeer are not only to locals, but to the native people of Finland: the Sámi. At the Sámi village, we toured the grounds and the reindeer farm to learn about how the animals have long-been a resource for food, clothing, support and companionship.
Ending our trip, we sat cozy under wool blankets as reindeer pulled our sleigh through a snowfield. Listening to the Sámi guides share stories about the rich history of Finnish tradition and ancestry as we drifted along, the sun slowly dipped — casting a purple-and-pink hue across the Arctic sky.
For more information, go to Visit Finland – Finland Convention Bureau at visitfinland.com.
Article by Erica Zazo