The highlight of our visit to Lapland (at least for my wife) almost didn't happen, but more on that later. Our first full day in Rovaniemi, capital of Finnish Lapland, began with breakfast at the Guesthouse Borealis:
Fortified, we walked from the guesthouse to the train station, where we boarded a bus that would take us to the Arctic Circle...and the "official" Santa Claus Village that has been built around it:
Santa is available for consultations all year round, and there's no cost to sit down and have a chat with Father Christmas (who was quite proficient in English). The meeting is even live-streamed on the Internet, but you're not allowed to photograph the moment. Instead, official photos of your visit begin at an outrageous €30...and we felt compelled to capture the moment and bring it home, of course:
My daughter visited the Santa Claus Post Office - several of her relatives can expect Christmas cards from Lapland later this year:
Proof that we crossed the Arctic Circle, the southernmost line at which the sun doesn't set on at least one day a year. Evidence as well that it was pretty damn cold on a late February morning - the thermometer reads -12° Celsius (10° Fahrenheit):
One small corner of the village is set aside in a half-hearted attempt at providing information on Lapland's indigenous Sámi people, such as this example of a hut used to shelter livestock from the region's notorious summer mosquitoes:
Beer and a reindeer burger with fries for lunch:
The girls feel some pride in the village. There were lots of Asian tourists everywhere we went in Finland and Estonia, but nowhere more so than at Santa Claus Village:
Just walking around Santa Claus Village is free of charge, but engaging in any of the activities on offer (going down the world's longest ice slide, taking a reindeer or sled-dog ride etc.) will cost you dearly. One of the more reasonably-priced things to do is to let your younger one ride around a course on a child-sized snowmobile. Amber was a little hesitant at first...:
...but quickly got the hang of things, meaning that if should we ever move to an area with significant snowfalls in the winter, I'm going to pestered into getting my daughter her own snowmobile. The man who set her up on the vehicle was a former Nordic combined athlete who had competed in World Cup events in Salt Lake City and Vancouver:
It's possible to stay in cottages and even igloos in Santa Claus Village, but to do so and partake in all the activities there would necessitate taking out a second mortgage. Fortunately, Amber is now at that age where Santa is only...you know what I'm getting at. So after having spent around five hours at the village, we took the bus back into Rovaniemi, had dinner at an Italian restaurant and returned to our guesthouse to await the bus that would take us to see the Northern Lights.
We were picked up at 7:45 that evening on a tour organized by Lapland Welcome. Despite the fact we were already bundled up, the tour organizers issued everyone jump suits, hats, gloves and woolen socks:
Suitably attired, everyone got on the bus (there were around 35 people on the tour) and off we drove into the countryside, with our final destination being a hilltop which is supposedly one of the best spots for getting a clear view of the aurora borealis. And there we waited...and waited...and waited. The conditions that evening were ideal for seeing the Northern Lights, but nature was refusing to cooperate. Eventually, most of us retreated to tents, where we sat around fires roasting sausages and drinking hot chocolate while our Romanian guide told us stories of life in Finland:
Eventually, it was time to get back on the bus and return to Rovaniemi. I was disappointed at missing the opportunity to see the aurora borealis, but it still felt good to be outside in the very cold night air (as the bus pulled back into town, it passed by an electronic thermometer reading minus 24° Celsius, or -11° Fahrenheit; our guide told us that the temperature had dropped to almost -40°C one night a couple of weeks before) and to see so many stars in the night sky (a first for Amber). And then it happened - soon after the bus began the drive back to the city, a couple of Japanese guys on board started yelling for the bus to stop. Which it did at the next clearing, whereupon everyone disembarked to see the Northern Lights. My one single photograph of the momentous event:
Three things in my defense: 1.) You need a professional camera to do the Northern Lights any justice; 2.) I didn't want to remember the aurora borealis as having seen it only through a viewfinder. After the shot, I put the camera away and just stood watching in awe. And 3.) this is pretty much how the lights looked. They were a dull, dirty green shade, shimmering like curtains billowing in the breeze. The whole show probably lasted less than ten minutes, but it was worth the long wait. Kudos to Lapland Welcome for extending the tour past the originally scheduled five-hours so that everyone could have the opportunity to witness the spectacle that is the aurora borealis. I've never felt more content getting back home and into bed at three-thirty in the morning.
And in a further break, we were joined on our tour by Donald Burghardt, a professional photographer from the Netherlands who frequently travels to Lapland to get shots of the Northern Lights. Burghardt maintains a website and a Facebook page that are both worth checking out. He's also a very nice man who was staying at the same guesthouse, and he graciously gave me permission to use some of his shots from our outing on my blog. These two were taken on the hill, with yours truly sitting in the snow in the bottom left corner of the first pic (all these photos can be found here):
And this is his photograph from when the aurora borealis finally made its appearance in the early morning hours:
The funny thing is that my poor-quality photo is more indicative of how the lights actually look (or at least the way they did on the morning of the 22nd of February). The professionals use special filters and experiment with apertures and f.stops to produce the stunning displays like the one above. Regardless of how you view the aurora borealis, however, it's truly a spectacular sight. Scratching another item off of the bucket list...