Mother nature whacks a crispy gust to her face. She instinctively holds her breath, momentarily stunned and concerned. Will I survive here?
This isn’t even an exposed snowscape or mountain top; it’s just the airport car park.
The taxi driver hauls her cases into the boot with bare hands – bare hands in this weather?! – and she tumbles into the cosy cab. Vernon hops in behind her, along with another couple from the flight. Everyone is being terribly British, refusing to look at one another, so the 10-minute drive is an opportunity to drink in the landscape.
During that short time, Emmy’s soul is sold. She’s engulfed by the soft purity of the snow and stillness of the air. Stylised reindeer statues whisper an understated goodbye from Rovaniemi airport as they turn onto a road flanked by forests of slender silver birch and pine, graceful branches pointing downwards. She stares deep into the trees, moonlight reflecting off the snow to illuminate trunk after trunk until the line of vision gives way to black night. The beauty tightens her chest.
Then the scene is punctured by a collection of whimsical wooden chalets strewn with pink, green and blue lights. Santa Claus Village. The open ‘wow’ mouth that has occupied her face is replaced with an unavoidable smile. Imagine seeing this as a child…staple Christmas card stuff, but for real. Which is a ridiculous thought to have, really – the natural environment preceded Christmas paraphernalia, not the other way around.
This concept is the main driver of Emmy’s continuing love for Finnish Lapland; the undeniable connection to nature. It dictates everything and you instantly surrender because there’s no point trying to fight it. Yes, it’s cold; and despite layers of intensely researched technical outdoor clothing, that cold tiptoes to your skin eventually. But even Emmy, who isn’t known for being particularly (in fact, at all) cold tolerant, doesn’t resent it. She admires it. The Arctic Circle is doing its best to survive the climate devastation. Therefore, those icy fingers reaching her vital organs, sharp blasts through the ears and gnawing of hands and feet is paradoxically comforting.
The taxi pulls up at Apukka Resort’s main lodge, its amber lighting a welcoming beacon in the velvet snow. Fireside scent and hot air floods through veins as they collect their keys and are given a brochure of activities. Upon mentioning that they’ve already booked the husky ride for the following morning, holiday guide Salla exudes her enthusiasm for their choice and gives a heads up about the new puppies. Emmy steals a look at the impressive buffet, which is already in full swing at 7pm. They’re half-board, so this will be their dinner for the next four nights.
They load cases onto a wooden sled and head off to find their Aurora Chalet. There’s not a patch of earth to be seen, but paths are distinguishable as packed-down snow rather than knee-deep candyfloss. Yellow lamps are sparingly placed along the way and glow only gently, minimising light pollution. As the name of the chalets suggests, the resort is geared towards optimising the chance to catch the elusive Aurora Borealis. Emmy and Vernon have seen a very weak, fleeting display of the natural spectacle once before – New Year’s Eve 2018 in Iceland, the night before they got engaged. Therefore, given that this is their honeymoon following their wedding just 4 days ago, it would be a particularly sweet bonus to have a repeat performance.
Emmy has a quick shower in their digs, which is every inch the idyllic Nordic retreat featuring dainty patterns and woolly textures in a greyscale palette. It’s cosy yet clean and contemporary. A glass roof curves around the bed, hosting a panoramic view of the sky and vast frozen lake. There’s also the heartening touch of a bottle of sparkling wine and a congratulations card. They both delight over the design of the card; more greyscale, showing a snowy woodland scene complete with winter-coated hares.
“So, after all the hours we’ve spent discussing the interior design of our new house, this is basically my dream” Emmy says, gesturing with a pirouette.
They pile into boots and parkas and go to the lakeside. It’s hard to imagine that what appears to be an expanse of snowy ground is in fact a vat of water. During check-in Emmy had watched a looping video showing the resort in summer; people in rolled-up lumberjack shirt sleeves casting fishing lines off boats and picnicking on the shore. That picnic bench is now barely identifiable, resting under half a metre of snow. Like everything else here, it doesn’t seem in any rush to shake off the winter; it’s the time for peaceful restoration.
She starts bouncing on the spot, regretting her choice of thin leggings and no hat. There’s no room for being a naïve tourist here; you either dress appropriately and respect the climate, or you suffer.
Over delicious food from the buffet dinner, they study the activities brochure. In addition to the husky adventure they decide on a reindeer night safari and a snowmobile tour. The snowshoe trek and horse riding are put on the second-choice list – they sound amazing, but Emmy and Vernon don’t want to cram too much in at the expense of being able to relax and indulge in these incredible surroundings. Plus, they’d like to reflect on the wedding, which already feels like a too-good-to-be-true dream.
After sleeping like logs under the blanket of peace, it’s time for breakfast with a view. Long, gentle rays stretch over the horizon as the sun wakes up, polishing the white ground with a glimmering sheen and splashing exotic lilacs and pinks across the sky.
They make their way to the husky farm in unbroken winter sunshine, their excitable guide leading the way with his ice-blue eyes and infectious passion for his animals.
“If ever there was a case of an owner representing their dogs, it’s this guy” Emmy marvels as dozens of cream, brown and grey animals leap around in their pens, many of them with eyes sparkling the same blue as their master.
The technique for riding the simple sled seems easy in theory. You hold onto a wooden bar, legs astride on two skinny planks, remembering to stamp one foot on the central brake bar when turning corners and at any other time you need to slow the pace of the 5 speedy, intelligent creatures that you’re mercifully tied to.
It’s only when the sled shoots off that Emmy discovers how difficult it can be.
She’s opted to drive first, with Vernon reclining in the seat of the sled. He yelps with glee as the dogs hurtle forwards, following their master’s snowmobile as fast as they can. Emmy, on the other hand, emits the odd scream as she clutches on for dear life, her padded mittens providing little dexterity on the awkward wooden handlebar. Every bump on the ground provides an opportunity to be thrown off into the trees.
“What happens to you if I fall off?!” she yells, picturing her new husband carried off into the wilderness and lost forever, with driver to apply the brakes.
His answer offers the only solution:
“Thanks” she growls, concentrating every effort on her gripping power. Each time she moves her foot on and off the brake, there’s the added danger of slipping from the ice-covered planks.
Once the initial shock subsides, it becomes easier to appreciate the magic of zooming along, powered by canine strength, across a postcard vista. Whilst it’s predominantly white, the sun highlights every bit of colour today; deep greens of pine needles, soft sage on birch trunks, bold baby blue in the sky.
She’s just relishing the meditative sound of the sled scratching over packed snow when she feels the growing coldness in her hands. Oh god, I’m losing the small bit of grip I had…
But they love the exhilarating experience overall and it fortifies that ever-present connection to nature.
That evening, it’s time for reindeer – the activity dubbed ‘the romantic one’. It’s a clear night and pushing -170C when they head into the main lodge for dinner before the trek. When they reach the reindeer farm, it becomes clear that this is all about serenity and comfort. The reindeer herder ambles forward to meet them, soft-voiced and relaxed. Her long sheepskin overcoat, floor-length woollen skirt and huge furry flying hat make Emmy wonder whether this is how we should all dress in the Arctic; like the natives, in natural materials that have evolved to keep animals warm, instead of puffy primary-coloured synthetics.
Settled into their sleigh under heavy blankets, at eye-level with the snow either side of the track, the small convoy – just them and one other couple – glide into the forest. The majestic animal pulling Emmy and Vernon proves instantly troublesome, trying to nibble the ear of the guy in the other sleigh. They snigger while they take in the scene; the almost-full moon provides incredible illumination, tree trunks and reindeer fur glowing pale grey. It’s a muted Christmas card; glitter and chintz blown away so all that remains is the natural spirit of winter. It’s silent and starry, untouched snow undulating across the forest floor. The reindeer herder warns that, beautiful as it is, the lunar brightness lowers the chances of the Aurora coming out to play.
They stop outside a tepee; one of many tents dotted around the resort and surrounding land, each containing a fire pit and wood for anyone to use. The guide shares stories of her life and, contrary to Emmy’s assumption, she isn’t from a family of herders. Her career path was an obstinate decision after her mother refused her a pet pony when she was little. They also have her mother to thank for passing down the recipe for ‘snake bread’, dough for which is now pulled from a leather bag. She hands out chunks and demonstrates how to wrap it around sticks then toast it on the flames. Emmy, Vernon and the wife from the other couple were browning their bread when her husband ducked into the tent.
He searched for English words, slowly announcing in a thick Italian accent:
“There is…a large…arc?…in the sky. I think…Northern Lights?”
Everyone dumps their snakes and charges out. There’s a collective gasp at the neon green rainbow, passing from one horizon to the other. It’s relatively still for a while, checking that it’s holding their attention, giving just a few soundwave-like movements. Then, it launches into the main event. Whirling, ducking and jumping, occasionally bringing purple and red to join it on stage.
The Italian couple help the reindeer herder capture her first ever clear photo of the lights on her rudimentary phone, causing whooping from the warm, witty lady, while Vernon spends half an hour rolling in the snow to set up some incredible shots on his tripod.
It’s only day two of the holiday – day five of marriage – and their bucket list is shrinking rapidly.
The next morning casts an entirely different sunrise, with cashmere cream and taupe mist whispering across the lake’s snowy surface. After breakfasting in their favourite window seat, it’s time for snowmobiles. They’re confident, having ridden the them twice before in Iceland. Therefore, when Emmy overturns their vehicle and they plunge deep into the snow, flailing as they attempt to surface, it’s especially embarrassing.
There’s a change of tone for the next two days – it clouds over, but this isn’t the depressing event it may be in Britain. It serves to paint the landscape in monochrome, the trees just a few metres away defying logic to appear charcoal rather than evergreen and the sky sinking into the snow. The only colour is a streak of bright blue on the lake’s surface; a mistake by the painter, who accidentally dipped her brush in a glacial lagoon.
Their final day begins with an ill-fated morning at a national park, when a simple stroll turns into three hopelessly lost hours of wading through thigh-high snow. They take solace in Santa Claus Village that afternoon; somewhere Emmy is glad they’ve seen but wouldn’t have wanted to spend any longer at. It’s strange entering a kingdom of commercialism and colour after days in authentic winter wonderland. Twinkling lights in the Village’s trees somewhat distract from the natural beauty and the too-tame reindeer seem over-dressed in jingly, festive harnesses.
They then proceed to spend an entire day in an airport gate, followed by a night of emergency accommodation in Rovaniemi because their flight is delayed; but nothing can tinge the memories. The Arctic forest has proved unassumingly enchanting, casting a silent spell that ensures they’ll return as soon and as often as possible.