When I was offered the opportunity to spend five days travelling through Finland with our good friends at Visit Finland, I obviously jumped at the chance. Checking the itinerary, I discovered that we would be flying into Levi and travelling to the most northerly point, crossing the border into Norway and as far as the Arctic Ocean!
Immediately accessing a map on my computer, I saw just how far north I would be – over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle to be exact. I have travelled quite extensively in the Southern Hemisphere, but this was new terrain for me. It did sound a bit daunting – the chilling word, ‘Arctic’ conjured up images that, I was to discover, do not reflect the incredible region, but it was also very exciting! I had no idea that it would be this most northerly destination that would truly capture my heart and remain the place I would return to at the drop of a hat given the opportunity.
Our trip encapsulated all things Finnish. The hospitality was second to none and the scenery simply stunning. I loved each location we visited, but there was no escaping the fact that as we made our way further north and the landscape began to change from gentle snow-covered forests and frozen lakes to wilder terrain and fell land, I began to feel increasingly relaxed.
Inhabited for over 10,000 years and the only municipality with a Sámi majority population, Utsjoki is a region steeped in Sámi culture where reindeer outnumber people and have done so for centuries.
The Holiday Village Valle Hotel is a Sámi owned accommodation and the hosts are rightfully proud of their rich heritage; there is a display of traditional costumes in the dining room and the guides still wear the gakti, the traditional Sámi costume, whenever possible and were visibly delighted to answer our questions regarding their fascinating culture.
The colours, patterns and decorations of the Sámi dress are used to signify the family relations and geographical origins of the wearer. Although Petteri and his son liked to wear the traditional gakti, it is more commonly now only used for ceremonial purposes, but it was wonderful to see it still in everyday use here.
The Sámi people consider the area to be of sacred significance and up here, away from the hustle and bustle of urban life, it’s easy to understand how the feeling of being at one with nature can be truly felt.
The famous Teno River is frozen in the winter and you can walk straight across it and into Norway on the far bank. If you would like to explore Norway, as we did, a scenic road trip can be taken to reach the Arctic Ocean. Here we boarded a fishing boat and went king crab fishing, catching a local delicacy which we later enjoyed with a delicious glass of white wine!
When not catching our own supper, the fantastic hotel restaurant served traditional Sámi dishes cooked using locally produced, gathered and hunted ingredients. The hotel was thoughtfully designed so that the restaurant and bedroom windows face north and these delicious meals were sometimes interrupted by the incredible Aurora making its appearance in the dark sky. Being this far north, well away from the light pollution of cities and towns, makes this a fantastic place to witness the Northern Lights and you don’t need to venture far to witness them dancing overhead!
The municipality of Utsjoki consists mainly of protected nature reserves and the locals make the most of this natural playground whatever the weather. The Arctic wilderness is the perfect place to explore and experience the beauty and culture of Lapland and cross-country skis, snowshoes, snowmobiles and husky sleds are used to traverse the fells to wonderful secret spots that your local guides have known about for generations. Wrapped in the warm outdoor winter clothing provided by our hosts and sitting around a campfire enjoying a hot drink is an experience never to be forgotten.
Of course, a reindeer experience is a must-do in this region. The owner, Petteri Valle, begins and ends his day feeding his own reindeer herd and offers a true insight into the life of a Sámi reindeer herder. You can also visit a local reindeer farm and enjoy a reindeer safari across the surrounding fells.
My visit was brief but Utsjoki is a place I would love to return to. Perhaps, it is because I grew up in the far northeast of England and spent my childhood weekends in the stunning landscapes of Northumberland, the largest national park in the UK – that I also fell in love with the north of Finland during my visit. It seems to be in the middle of nowhere yet offers complete comfort and rejuvenation. What’s not to like?
Image credits: Tarja Länsman & Explore Utsjoki, Klaus-Peter Kappest and Hote Village Valle, Minna Saastamoinen