Finnish Lapland: an affordable winter wonderland

by David.Cawley

For affordable and uncrowded ski slopes, travel to Levi in Finnish Lapland where you can stay in an ice hotel and spot the Northern Lights

Often associated with quick visits to Santa prior to Christmas, Lapland is perhaps not the first place to spring to mind when considering a winter sports break. But Finnish Lapland, 200km north of the Arctic Circle, is certainly worth a look if clean air, affordable prices and minimal queuing for the facilities are a priority.

Deep in the heart of Europe’s last official remaining wilderness, the ski resort of Levi is only a 15 minute drive from Kittila International Airport. Barely just a town in stature, Levi punches way above its weight when it comes to exhilarating and entertaining things to do for those who like to play and party hard.

Whatever the time of year, the town bursts with all kinds of heart quickening things for all ages to take part in, but it’s the winter sports season when the town really comes into its own. During the extended winter months between November and May, Fins, Germans and Russian all arrive here to throw themselves into some of the most affordable, uncrowded and accessible ‘ski-sure’ slopes and trails in Europe.

Dominating the landscape, Levi Fell comes with a vertical drop of 325m and is ideal for all skiing levels - from beginners right through the experience spectrum to the international skiing stars who regularly congregate here for their World Championships.

Free buses connect the 44 pistes, which even during their peak winter periods rarely get crowded. The costs too are a cause to stand up and take notice. Equipment rental come in at €25; passes at €23 and the ski school cheaper than almost everywhere else in Europe. But in Levi it’s not just the usual high adrenalin ski and board experiences that dominate the landscape.

For something a little more sedate, day and night illuminated cross-country skiing tracks stretch a total of 230km and offer a choice of easy and challenging routes. The locals also offer safaris through the stunning local wilderness by reindeer, where herding and lassoing are included in the experience before setting off on a sled through the snowy forests. Driving a team of four to six huskys through the still, soundless pine forests and endless plains is also an option as is ice fishing and, of course, for some steamy ‘r and r’ there are more choices of that great Finnish invention - the sauna - than you shake a birch twig at.

For those who prefer the smell of gasoline and the feel of a throttle, winter rally car driving and snowmobile safaris also offer the rider a chance to get in amongst and over the forests, valleys and frozen lakes surrounding the Fell.

Après ski

For the almost compulsory après activities, there’s also a healthy choice of lively nightlife and restaurants clustered in the small centre. Popular and lively bars to join in another great Lappish tradition - extreme fun - is the large and lively Areena and Porocks which hosts an eclectic assortment of cabaret aimed at the more mature of age.

This is Aurora Borealis spotting territory too, and it’s the winter months when the displays are at their most vibrant, though even the wisest and most aged locals refuse to pinpoint exact times and dates. Funnily enough it’s the smokers who are usually the most likely to witness the spectacle. Since the smoking ban was introduced, having to go outside for a puff has meant it’s tobacco users who give themselves the best chance during the evening hours to catch this natural light show.

After a night of local vodka merriment, one of the best ways to clear your head is to get out amongst the seemingly limitless winter wilderness and fill your lungs with some of the cleanest air in Europe beneath the possibility of a Northern Lights show.

Where to stay

A short journey away, buried deep within the nearby Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park is the Snow Village Ice Hotel. Keen to capitalise on two of Lapland’s infinite recourses - ice and the long winter nights, the Ice Hotel is the sparkling brainchild of Rami Kurtakko. Taking only two weeks to build, its half a km of twinkling ice-crystal corridors connect 31 funky individually styled rooms created by local artists. All contain Polar quality sleeping bags and, unlike most other ice hotels, dry sprung mattresses come as standard as opposed to a simple solid ice shelf. Two metre thick walls keep the rooms eerily quiet.

There is a bar (“Can I get ice with that?”, “It’s a good way to break the ice” have all been heard before) and a restaurant employing reindeer skins for seating. Most of the public areas are decorated with ice sculptures with guests encouraged to create their own, albeit temporary, frozen masterpieces.

For those who prefer their interiors a little more traditional a large two-storey tepee has been built nearby. It comes with its own alfresco hot tub and the tantalising prospect of watching the Northern Light display while marinating in the foaming water with a loved one. The location of a nearby chapel visible through the snow covered pine and birch forest makes this and a night at snow village a popular wedding and honeymoon combination.

Summer time, the locals in these parts say: “Is for fishing and making love". Winter is for "less fishing”. But a winter break in Levi and its unspoilt scenic wonderland wilderness offers plenty of pulsating activities other than just keeping each other warm.

David.Cawley

I’m a freelance travel journalist and member of the British Guild of Travel Writers specialising in UK destination writing that contribute to guidebooks, newspaper and magazine articles across the globe. Publications include, Thomas Cook, Britain Magazine, Heritage Magazine, Ryanair, Stars & Stripes, Compass Guides, Daily Mail online, MSN, WTG and 10Best.  My face for radio also occasionally  pays dividends – though not cash - when I’m asked into BBC and Independent radio studios to blather on all things travel.

With a degree in History and Archaeology that's actually been put to practical use, I also spend my spare time as a tour guide ‘harrying’ York and Yorkshire with overseas visitors taking them to places not often covered in mainstream travel itineraries.

As a card carrying, banner waving English northerner now living on the North Yorkshire border, I spend long days and nights ambling and poking my Roman nose into York’s ancient streets and hidden alleyways. When it’s time to rest my head I've been lucky enough to hit the city’s most expensive thread dense, chocolate topped hotel pillows as well as it’s more budget bolsters.

My York

Where I grab a beer: Sadly past the age where my drinking needs to be accompanied by pounding backbeats, The Three Legged Mare is one of my favourite places to head for those traditional pub pleasures of ambient noise made up of conversational murmurings accompanied and helped along by an intriguing choice of brews. Head to my York nightlife for some of my other suggestions.

Where I head for a warm drink: If the sun is out then it’s down to the small riverside terrace of La Place Verte for some seriously good D.I.Y Belgian hot chocolate. For coffee or tea infusions the calm and refinement of Grays Court is also hard to beat rain or shine.

My favourite dining spot: Another tough call amongst a vast buffet of good places to eat but the panache, quality and sheer joy of J Baker's Bistro Moderne  is currently hard to resist. A recent return to the elegant D.C.H was also a good reminder of what a fine place this is too.

Best place for people watching: Busy St Helen’s Square corrals local shoppers, tourists, city workers and a collection of street entertainers whose talents or otherwise bring the crowds to a temporary halt.

Most breathtaking view: Loins girded, I make the 275 step ascent to the top of York Minster for some literally breathtaking and blustery views across the city and Vale of York beyond.

My favourite stroll: Has to be around the wonderfully preserved York City Walls that corset the heart of York, where  its vistas offer a wonderful and ever-changing overview of York’s streets and rooftops. It takes me about an hour to do the loop and I find it best done early before the day trippers arrive or late in the day when they start to make their way back to the coach parks or train station. The New Walk along the Ouse is not too shabby either.

The best spot for peace and quiet: I head to the grassy and riverside spaces of Museum Gardens where close by the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey I can sit and watch the river traffic chug by. Like strolling the walls the best time is first or last thing in the day. Rowntree Park, just outside the centre comes a close second.

Secret shopping: The popular Stonegate and Petergate areas have their charm and rewards but for a small collection of retro clothing and foodie rewards away from the crowds I head to the lesser trod Fossgate. More details of these and more can be found on my Shopping in York.

Don’t leave without...a plan to come back. There's way too much to see and do in one visit