Into the magic circle

The Arctic Circle is often portrayed as barren and inhospitable. But for less far-flung explorers, it offers both natural wonders and, increasingly, touristic delights, as Katja Pantzar reports

You have to get lucky. It was at Pyhä-Luosto resort, about an hour and a half from the Arctic Circle and just before midnight on a crisp (which, to Scandinavians, is to say -20C) clear winter evening. You could hear a crackling sound that was followed by arcs of light in hues of red, yellow and blue dancing across the sky.

What we witnessed, slack-jawed, of course, were the Northern Lights, a spectacular natural phenomenon that people from around the world travel to the Arctic to see. Though they don’t perform to schedule, there’s a very good chance of seeing the aurora borealis, as the phenomenon is more technically known (as named by Galileo), during the next two years since scientists are predicting a massive solar storm during 2012 that will set off the lights to maximum effect - the strongest in 50 years.

While the cause may go unnoticed - in lay terms, solar winds send charged particles the 93 million miles towards the Earth, colliding with the atmosphere, producing energy given off as light - a visit to northern Scandinavia from September to March could make for spectacular viewing, with possibilities increasing the further north you go.

It is perhaps little wonder that these illuminations are big business in Lapland, the Nordic landmass above the Arctic Circle (although officially only Finland and Sweden refer to their uppermost reaches as Lapland). According to the Arctic indigenous people, the Saami, who have inhabited the region for more than 5,000 years, it extends west into Norway and east into Russia making for a vast wintery wilderness. Just the Finnish part of Lapland alone is bigger than Belgium, Holland and Switzerland put together.

Certainly the word “Arctic” conjures up images of fresh white snow and healthy outdoorsy Nordic types. But the national tourism organisations of Sweden, Finland and Norway all market the region year round as a travel destination. It definitely has more than its fair share of wondrous weirdnesses. The upswing of midwinter’s polar night - when the sun doesn’t appear for days on end - is the midnight sun, that mind-boggling period in the Arctic when the sun shines for almost 24 hours a day from early-June to late-July.

Go for some ice hole swimming. It’s believed to improve circulation

Indeed, the Scandinavian Arctic is increasingly big business. Visit Norway promotes midnight sun safaris, while Visit Sweden bills the northern part of Sweden not only as the place to enjoy the extremes of light but as “Europe’s last remaining wilderness”. Certainly such organisations, along with Scandinavian travel agencies, promote summer Lapland for its pristine landscapes and naturerelated activities. Fells and mountains are suited to hiking and mountain biking. A myriad network of rivers caters to white water rafting, canoeing, fishing and even gold prospecting. Exotic wildlife is also a draw - close to 200,000 reindeer inhabit the upper reaches of Finland alone.

But winter wonders - and deep, almost tangible peace and quiet - are still what many travellers to the region seek. The region has as many reindeer as people, so celebrities including pop-star Madonna and footballer David Beckham have been spotted in Finnish Lapland during recent winters - the area’s appeal is the anonymity afforded not only by the lack of people, but also by disguising layers of cold weather clothing and the Nordic respect for privacy.

A variety of snow-related safaris are part of the unique lure. Husky sledriding, essentially being pulled by a team of husky dogs through the wilds, is an effective way to cover distances while taking in the scenery, or to travel to lakeside saunas, countered by some initially questionable but incredibly invigorating ice hole swimming. It’s also believed to improve circulation, as well freezing waters might.

But tourism’s emphasis of the unspoiled great outdoors does not mean it passes up the opportunity to add to the region’s quirkiness. Lapland’s premier man-made tourist attraction, its much-imitated Ice Hotel in northern Sweden, is a case in point. Each year the hotel is built anew out of several tons of ice blocks specially harvested from the nearby Torne River. Every wall, surface, ceiling, bar, art gallery, fibre optic chandelier and room - yes, including the reindeer-skin covered beds, pictures, furniture - is carved out of ice, all of which will have melted into the river come spring. Cooling air con is not required as temperatures in the rooms average about -6oC, cold enough that guests are advised to leave their luggage with reception: in your room it will freeze.

Nor is the industry slow to make the most of Lapland most famous resident, especially at this time of year. Many countries lay claim to Santa Claus, but Finland has been most successful in marketing the concept. The city of Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland, is cited as his official home, while Finnair’s recent £8.5-million rebrand was inspired by the area. “The spirit of Lapland is in the airline’s DNA,” as Jarkko Konttinen, head of Finnair’s global branding team puts it. And he isn’t kidding. If you thought Santa used a flying sleigh, think again - Finnair has, it will tell you, been the official carrier of Santa since 1983.

Certainly, if it is easy to go to into Arctic territories and, refreshingly for any urbanite, see few people at all, one fat, red-suited familiar face is all the more inescapable in the run up to Christmas. On the Arctic Circle, Rovaniemi houses Santa Claus Village, the area’s largest theme park, with its Santa Claus Post Office having its very own stamp. For those who aren’t Santaphiles, the onsite design factory outlets stock coveted Scandinavian design brand such as Marimekko, Iittala, Arabia and Hackmann, and provide a respite from the masses of children, many from the UK, who have been flown in for the day to meet St Nicholas.

However, those who have made the trip to see the man - even if it is by jet rather than flying sleigh - may find they come away with more than a well-stuffed stocking. The nearby SantaPark, located in a man-made cavern, runs an elf school where the tricks of the Christmas trade - including gingerbread decorating - are taught.