Wind whips my face, turning my cheeks a rich shade of peach like the blush-colored clouds that surround the mountain peak. It's 10:30 a.m., but you wouldn't know it. I'm in Lapland, the northernmost region in Finland where the sun rises for barely two hours in winter (if at all), and I'm snowshoeing to the peak of Levi mountain to glimpse the bizarre phenomenon of a noon sunrise.
While American tourists have been flocking to Iceland in record numbers in recent years, Lapland has remained relatively under-the-radar. But that won't last for long. Finnair, the country's flag carrier, is now offering flights for as little as €36 one-way from Helsinki (roughly $44), making it quicker, easier, and more affordable than ever to explore the winter wonderland.
Our time in Kittilä is brief, but in barely a weekend, I've had more bucket-list experiences than I've had in the past year. The options are exhaustive and exhilarating: glimpsing the northern lights from a glass-ceiling igloo hotel, gliding across a frozen lake on a reindeer-led sleigh, plunging into a freezing lake after a traditional sauna session, or snowshoeing to the peak of a mountain to watch the sleepy sun breach the horizon.
Don't be deterred by Lapland's remote location—while it might appear to be on the outskirts of Europe, it's surprisingly accessible. For East Coasters, a direct flight into Helsinki takes just eight hours. After spending a few days exploring the galleries, restaurants, and saunas in Finland's capital city, jump on a quick flight to Lapland. Finnair's latest upgrades make the voyage even more appealing. The design-conscious carrier is poised to launch a new business-class experience, with amenities designed by one of Finland's most famous brands, Marimekko. Then there's the food: The airline has partnered with Swedish chef Tommy Myllymäki to reimagine business-class cuisine (the Jerusalem artichoke is a must), while the Culinary Team of Finland makes economy meals a little more luxe (think lamb with oven-baked turnips).
Meeting the Locals
As our plane circles the airport in Kittilä, a ski destination about 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle, I find it hard to imagine any wildlife thriving in the dark, frigid landscape below. But Lapland's extreme temperatures attract some of the most beautiful and ethereal animals on earth: Regal reindeer pad through the powder-soft snow, huskies bite the air in anticipation of their next ride, and arctic foxes bristle their bushy tales as they dart through a labyrinth of pine trees.
Our first adventure is one that's been on my bucket list for years: dogsledding. When we arrive at Levi Husky Park, I'm nervous about stepping off the coach, let alone speeding through the snow with my raw, wind-whipped skin exposed to the elements. It's a brisk 2º Fahrenheit today, and even by Lapland standards, that's cold. A word for anyone planning a trip that includes outdoor activities: Pack actual ski gear. My NYC-ready wool-lined gloves and coat might as well have been made of cotton. Thankfully our local hosts ready the sleds with reindeer-fur rugs and thick woolen throws.
With a sudden jolt, we're off. The pack of husky pups thunder across the snow in a bolt for freedom, carrying with them our tiny wooden sled that bumps and thuds across the ice. The scenery is breathtakingly silent and blinding: Pine trees appear smeared with a thick layer of frosting, and a once-liquid lake forms a frozen playground for our sled to traverse. It's over in a second—just long enough to snap a few photos without suffering frostbite.
The other locals you must get aquainted with during your trip are reindeer. The majestic creatures are decidedly calmer than their husky-pup neighbors at the park, so they're a great alternative if you'd rather take a slower ride through the snow. After riding with reindeer and playing with the pups, we venture indoors for a steaming mug of cider and to thaw our cold hands. It's wonderful to tear through the forest and see the wildlife up close, but sometimes a snowcapped landscape is best appreciated through a window while sitting in a comfortable chair by the fire.
Winter in Lapland can mean an average daytime temperature of 15º Fahrenheit, so it's important to pick your accommodations wisely. At the end of a long day of skiing and sledding, you'll want to thaw out in a plush room. Lodging options vary a lot depending on the purpose of your trip. Midrange accommodations near the ski fields are popular, but the standout options are worth the investment. Add these three boutique hotels to your Lapland bucket list:
Northern Lights Ranch: Located in the ski-resort town of Levi, this hotel is perfect for couples who want to glimpse the northern lights without braving the cold. Opt for a Sky View Cabin, a private log cabin with floor-to-ceiling heated windows and a glass ceiling to watch the light display from bed. Going all out? Ask for the cabin with a private outdoor hot tub.
Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort: Popular among honeymooners, this enviable resort is famous for its glass igloos. The two- or four-person igloos are available to book during peak northern-light season (August to April).
Seaside Glass Villa: These cozy glass villas are Kemi Tourism's take on glamping, offering an affordable and scenic place to stay near the famous Snow Castle.
Exploring the Landscape
Day breaks as I stand at the top of Levi mountain, and the shy sun casts the landscape below in a rosy glow. It's a fleeting moment, though—two hours later, it dips back below the horizon, casting the mellow tangerine rays of sunset. It's over: possibly the quickest but most rewarding sunrise/sunset I've ever glimpsed.
Luxury lodging and adrenaline-fueled adventures aside, the true beauty of Finnish Lapland is the region's unbelievable landscape. For someone who grew up in Sydney, Australia, it's a wondrous place to behold in person. And while Lapland is breathtaking during the winter, the forests truly transform when the snow melts.
It's a destination for all seasons. In spring, the forests and fields turn a rich, verdant green, and the sky sings with migrating birds; summer heralds the "midnight sun" with nonstop daylight for 45 days; and fall is harvest time when orange cloudberries dot the landscape and forests are ablaze with bright foliage.