One of the unexpected joys of living in Finland (and there are many) is Santa mania. According to This is Finland, Finns have been claiming that Santa lives in Finland since 1927. Reindeer, after all, can’t survive winter at the North Pole, but they can in Lapland! It follows that Santa’s Village, located in Rovaniemi right on the edge of the Arctic Circle, is a major tourist destination for those who decide to make a winter trek to Finland. Many families with children add a visit to Rovaniemi to their winter itinerary, taking the scenic overnight train north and visiting Santa, Mrs. Claus, and the elves. From what I’ve heard, it is pure magic for the children, and includes ample shopping and activities to keep adults entertained as well.
But when flight prices to Ivalo (even further north than Rovaniemi) dipped to under $100US this fall, I couldn’t resist booking a slightly different Christmas adventure. Unlike last year, when the snow came hard and fast from mid-November onwards, and our white Christmas included nearly three feet of snow, November and December this year were gray and wet. So we were anxious for a little snow, perhaps a glimpse of the Northern Lights, and a memorable arctic adventure for my in-laws who were coming for what will likely be their first and only visit to Finland.
The Nellim Wilderness Hotel was exactly what we had in mind. After the 90 minute flight to Ivalo, a cheerful member of the hotel staff picked us and our gear up and took us the additional 50km to tiny Nellim. On the southern edge of Lake Inari, Nellim is the kind of place you only visit to get away from civilization–there are no malls, no restaurants to speak of, and certainly more reindeer than people!
The lodge itself is made up of several buildings. The main building houses the restaurant where guests share a hearty and traditional breakfast and dinner (most lunches are eaten on-the-go during the various outings). This is not gourmet fare, and there’s no menu–you get what you get, typically meat, potatoes, soup, salad and bread at dinner and some sort of egg dish with cereals, fruit, yogurt and porridge for breakfast. This is probably not the best location for picky eaters or folks with a lot of dietary restrictions, but if you can be flexible on the food front, the excellent guided adventures more than make up for it.
The other buildings are a short walk (50m) away and include multi-room mini-suites and small apartments, some of which include kitchenettes, fire places, and small living rooms. Our two-room suite was very clean and warm, but again, think hunting lodge, not The Ritz, when you imagine this place.
Each day, you can choose from activities including cross-country skiing (trails leave from the grounds of the lodge and there is even a fairly good sized loop of lighted trail, which is helpful when it gets dark at 1:30pm), sledding, ice-fishing, snowmobiling, snow-shoeing, and dog-sledding. Nellim has over 70 dogs on site and driving the dog sled has to have been one of the coolest experiences of my life. If reading White Fang when you were 8 engendered even an inkling of adventurous desire, driving your own sled out on frozen Lake Inari is something to add to your bucket list!
Since our party of six included two children under the age of 8 and two grandparents with slight mobility issues, we were nervous about how to balance the adventure vacation Matt & I wanted with the needs of everyone else. This is where Nellim Wilderness Hotel really shone! They were flexible and I’m pretty sure they invented tours just to accommodate our slightly special needs. They’re equipped with sledges that can be pulled behind the snowmobiles so that the children could go meet a Lappish reindeer herder and pet a reindeer, and they’re patient enough to give even the little ones a go on the dog sleds. Skis and snowshoes are available on-site if you don’t have your own, and they had an excellent assortment of winter gear that could supplement what people who winter outside Finland have on hand.
Each night, the guides take groups out to the Russian border (which is quite close by!) to look for the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. Although the displays we witnessed were on the mild side, just seeing the entire Milky Way with virtually no light pollution was an experience. Even if you don’t want to go on the paid outings, it’s easy enough to see the lights from the grounds, especially if you walk a few hundred meters from the buildings to escape the small bit of light there.
If you want the outdoor adventure, but really can’t miss Santa’s village, you can still visit the Ivalo area. Just 35km south of Ivalo is Hotel Kakslauttanen, which boasts a Santa’s Village and Igloos as well. We didn’t visit it on this trip, but maybe next time (and yes, the kids are already asking when we can go back!).