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Rediscover the joys of winter in remote, chilly Ivalo

  • 2004-01-29
  • By Steven Paulikas
IVALO - It's winter, and your friends are jetting off to the Canaries or the Greek isles-how banal!

We may have entered the deep-freeze phase of the long Baltic winter, but the true secret to overcoming a frost-induced depression is to delve head-on into winter's many pleasures, not run away from them.
And no place says winter like the Finnish Lapland. It may sound crazy, but a particular class of holidaymaker is rediscovering what winter was meant to be in Ivalo, the unofficial capital of the Finnish far north.
Situated almost 300 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, Ivalo combines the feel of a rugged and untamed frontier with a Finnish emphasis on efficiency and comfort.
The nearby resort town of Saariselka offers visitors a range of accommodation options, but the tourism facilities in and around Ivalo are designed to allow guests to maximize their enjoyment of the region's greatest resource-its uniquely stunning natural surroundings.
The cheery Killopaa Fell Center, situated only a few meters from the entrance to the Urho Kekkonen National Park, one of Finland's largest, is one such ideal location for those interested in winter activities.
Cross-country (Nordic) skiing reigns as king of winter sports here-and with good reason. For enthusiasts, the abundance of fine powder produced by the cold, dry climate (dry air makes -20 degrees Celsius remarkably bearable) is, quite simply, unsurpassable. And the long Arctic nights (the sun officially sets in early December and doesn't rise again until mid-January) are less inhibiting than one would think, as all major trails are well lit.
In addition to the cross-country skiing, other high-impact activities include downhill skiing and snowboarding on Saariselka's medium-difficulty slopes, skiskating, and snowshoeing through the region's untouched wilderness.
For those who prefer a slightly more sedentary yet equally active approach to discovering the Lappish winter, outdoor outfitters offer snowmobile and even reindeer safaris. On the longest such trip, adventurers zoom all the way up to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, only 230 kilometers to the north.
One of the most distinct draws of a ski or safari trip in the Finnish Lapland is the opportunity to connect with one of the most hauntingly beautiful places in Europe.
Swooshing atop the area's perfect power, skiers are surrounded by the storybook Lappish landscape, carpeted in a sparse forest of scraggly pines and brush. While other larger game hibernate during the winter, moose, reindeer, and arctic ptarmigan routinely come face-to-face with people. However, the presence of the more bashful wolves is only evident from their eerie howling.
Ivalo may not exactly be a place to sunbathe, but the impossibly short days have their own brand of charm, as the timid sunlight casts subtle hues of gray, green, and white unthinkable farther south.
Moreover, short days mean long nights and more viewing possibilities for those wishing to gaze at the northern lights. The eerie plumes of green, pink, and yellow light are visible, on average, on one in seven winter nights, making it statistically one of the best permanently inhabited viewing points on the globe.
Another unexpected treat to be found in Lapland is its cuisine. The ubiquitous reindeer features in a number of tasty dishes (including reindeer pizza), while fresh lake trout and ptarmigan also appear on menus. And don't forget the lingonberries, found in everything from pancake syrup to your morning juice.
Getting to Ivalo from the Baltic capitals is easier than one might think, although slightly pricey - a one-stop connection from, for instance, Vilnius on Finnair costs around 400 euros.
Travelers on a budget, however, can take surface transportation to Helsinki and fly directly from Vantaa Airport for as little as 120 euros round trip. Staying overnight after a ferry ride in a less expensive location near the port, such as the spiffy Eurohostel, can give trekkers fresh back from Ivalo a bit of time to readjust to city life.
Travel formalities aside, a journey to the Ivalo region is nothing less than an exercise in healing the weary winter soul. The quietly spectacular scenery, active lifestyle, and friendly people are a testament to the joy of snow and darkness, something easily overlooked in Tallinn, Riga, or Vilnius.