By Betty Gordon
© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.
This time of year, sweetly sincere letters from good little girls and boys begin arriving at a destination in northern Finland, meant to be read by a rotund man with a lengthy white beard, a red suit and a jolly laugh.
The letters — thousands of them — sometimes written in colorful crayon and with imaginative spellings, plead with the recipient (and his helpful elves) for dolls in frilly dresses, rough-and-tough trucks … or the latest electronic equipment.
The idea of dropping in on Santa Claus and his reindeer lures some visitors to Rovaniemi, a city of about 60,000 that is Finnish Lapland’s capital. If you’re traveling with children, especially in late fall and early winter, you may not be able to avoid engaging in activities related to St. Nicholas in the “official hometown of Santa Claus.”
I visited Rovaniemi in May 2013 as part of a two-week independent tour of Finland. Full disclosure: I did not make my way to Santa Claus’s abode, but rather pursued more historical interests.
Finland is one of those destinations where you want to organize your trip with an eye on the weather. If you like extreme cold, ample snow and little daylight, this is the time of year to visit. If you prefer warmer temperatures — it rarely gets really hot — and the prospect of experiencing the midnight sun, then plan for late spring and summer.
Rovaniemi is located at the confluence of the Ounasjoki and Kemijoki rivers, and if you look at the map long enough, you can make out the head of a reindeer in right profile, with the rivers standing in for antlers. (My Lonely Planet guidebook tipped me off to this; otherwise I doubt it would have occurred to me.)
Santa Claus Village, about four miles north of town, is open year-round, but a winter visit when snow covers the ground is probably more atmospheric. Santa has office hours daily, except for a few holidays, including those special ones in December. At the post office, you can see some of the millions of letters that have been sent to Santa from 194 countries. The elves have a more limited schedule, so check before you go if you want to see the worker bees. You can also buy paperwork here that certifies that you have crossed the Arctic Circle.
On a more adult level, visitors can learn some basics about Sámi culture at the excellent Arktikum museum, about a 15-minute walk from the city center. Nearly an entire wing is devoted to Lapland and its inhabitants, though the exhibit isn’t as extensive as at the Siida museum in Inari, in far northern Finland, about 800 miles from Helsinki.
(Lapland is a geographic region that stretches across northern Finland, Sweden, Norway and the Kola Peninsula of northwest Russia. It is the traditional home of the Sámi people, sometimes referred to as Lapps, a term which they consider offensive.)
In a small gallery, you can listen to five different Sámi yoiks (individualized storytelling chants) from the very traditional to the modern. Another wing concentrates on Arctic nature, with considerable attention paid to man’s harmful effect on the environment.
Next door is the Science Centre Pilke, featuring a heavy emphasis on sustainable forestry. The Korundi House of Culture, about a 10-minute walk away, is home to an art museum with works of a decidedly modern slant.
Close to the Arktikum is the distinctive Lumberjack’s Candle Bridge, completed in 1989, which spans the Kemijoki River. Its two lighted towers are meant to resemble candles. The steel-cable-stayed bridge and the lumberjack statue in Jatkanpuisto Park at the western end of the bridge pay tribute to the forestry industry’s importance to the region.
About two miles from the center of town you’ll find the Forestry Museum of Lapland, a small open-air facility deep in the woods. As visitors wander among the period-furnished buildings, which span from the 1870s to the 1950s, they will come away with a better understanding of the hardships and isolation of lumberjack life. The old photographs are of particular interest. (The museum is open only in the summer months.)
In 1944, Rovaniemi was 90 percent destroyed by the retreating German army. Among the World War II casualties was the Church of Rovaniemi. With financial aid from congregations in Sweden and the United States, the evangelical Lutheran church was rebuilt by 1950. The cross-topped steeple is more than 160 feet tall and the sanctuary can accommodate about 1,000 worshippers.
In the cemetery behind the church are two monuments. One commemorates war heroes and the other, at the far end, remembers the 20,000 Rovaniemi civilians evacuated to neutral Sweden in 1944.
No trip to Finland is complete without trying some form of reindeer meat. On the recommendation of two Australian women I met in Inari, and my guidebook, I headed for Restaurant Nili, a rustic wooden building where the decor included antler chandeliers and reindeer skins thrown over the back some booths. (Nili is the Sámi word for an elevated food storage building.)
My entree of butter-sautéed reindeer scaloppine arrived mounded atop a half-inch-thick circle of buttered mashed potatoes, accompanied by dill pickle spears and a juicy dollop of deep red lingonberries. The reindeer meat was melt-in-your-mouth tender, and the meal filling and heavy.
Outfitters are ready to take you on a variety of experiences such as skiing (downhill and cross-country), snowmobiling, snowshoe hiking, reindeer or husky safaris, ice fishing, and ice and snow karting. In summer, you can play golf, go canoeing or kayaking, spend an evening moose-watching, go on an overnight brown bear-watching expedition or travel to Pyha-Luosto National Park and an amethyst mine, in addition to other options. But be warned, many of these excursions cost in excess of $100 per person.
An Italian woman I met at my hotel went moose watching, an excursion that didn’t depart until 9 p.m. She was back at the hotel around 2 a.m. — without having seen any moose. The outfitter took her out again the next night at no charge, and this time they did see Bullwinkle’s relatives.
If I had done my trip during the winter, I might have made my way to Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, about 24 miles south of Ivalo (the nearest airport; closer to Inari than to Rovaniemi, which are about 230 miles apart). In addition to 40 log cabins, it has chilly snow igloos that can accommodate up to five people (sleeping bags are provided), and glass igloos (they look like turtles nestled in the snow) for one or two people. The added attraction of the heated glass igloos is that guests can lie in bed and watch the mystical aurora borealis (northern lights) undulating across the sky.
Rovaniemi tourist information: www.visitrovaniemi.fi
Santa Park: www.santapark.com
Arktikum Museum and Arctic Science Centre: http://www.arktikum.fi/EN/
Restaurant Nili: www.nili.fi
Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort: http://www.kakslauttanen.fi/en/