FINLAND – While much of the world shivers at the prospect of a long, cold, dark winter, Finns greet the first snowflakes of the season with eager anticipation. Here Mother Nature turns an entire country into a brilliantly white crystalline playground filled with exhilarating and sometimes unusual activities. Small wonder that Finland has become Europe’s winter playground.
Love to ski?
No sport represents the Finnish passion for winter more than cross country skiing. Even today, the Finns’ love of their woodlands and lakes is deeply rooted in their rural heritage. Skis evolved here from being a primary means of transportation to becoming the most popular source of cold weather recreation for residents and tourists alike.
Outdoor loving travelers with an appetite for exercise can take cross country hut-to-hut ski tours by trekking through pristine nature through snow-laden forests and across frozen lakes.
Hut-to-hut tours feature rustic accommodations, sometimes with no electricity. On the other hand, because you’re in Finland, no amount of rusticity ever goes without a sauna at every location.
While much of Finland is relatively flat, all the familiar winter activities are available. These include plenty of opportunities to hit the slopes for downhill or alpine skiing. Just below the Arctic Circle in Kuusamo, Mt. Ruka is one of the most popular spots in the country for such traditional ski experiences.
Telemark skiing is another favorite. Perhaps the best way to describe it is that it’s like doing cross country skiing on downhill terrain. Like other forms of the sport, telemark is challenging. That’s because it demands stamina combined with rhythm, coordination and balance. The aim is to derive maximum pleasure from skimming across soufflés of powdery white snow.
For the bold of heart
Much of the fun in wintertime Finland, however, involves leaving traditional enterprises behind. Having done so, thrill-seekers strive to involve themselves in bold adventures unlike any in the world. They quickly discover that Finnish creativity has no peer.
Each February, the Finlandia Ski Race attracts nearly 10,000 participants from around the world for this marathon on skis. Beginning at the Lahti Ski Center about two hours northeast of Helsinki, this annual test of speed and endurance features two major competitions.
The first offers a 20-mile race, followed by the main event which is 47-miles long. For some, the race represents a commitment to a healthy lifestyle. But for most, the ultimate goal is to simply cross the “Finnish line.”
How about reindeer skiing, which is popular in Lapland? Just hook a bridle and tow-rope to your favorite reindeer and race across the tundra at breakneck speed.
Lapland is also home to annual reindeer round-ups. Just as bison proved integral to the lives of native Americans in the western United States for food, shelter and clothing, so too, are reindeer for the Lapps. Round-ups allow visitors to participate in herding reindeer, often by helicopter. The animals are separated for breeding or slaughter. Next, they are allocated to their new owners or released back into the wild.
Throughout the dark-shortened days of winter in Finland, ice sculpture contests are another popular diversion in many small villages.
Winter’s freezing temperatures don’t mean that Finns simply forget about summer or imagine it too far in the future to even dream about. Even as they enjoy winter fun, they also anticipate the range of activities in Finland that await once the snow finally begins to melt.
Golf, fishing, racing and swimming
Need a challenge? How about a round of snow golf where the “greens” become “whites” and balls are orange to make them easier to find. A little snow never prevents a dedicated Finnish duffer from making his appointed rounds.
And how about ice fishing in the winter or early spring? After all, the fish are still swimming underneath all of that frozen water on the surface. So why not drill a hole, set up a stool, get a hot glass of cider, fortified if necessary. Then, drop in a line and you’re in business.
Lest we forget, Finland offers horse racing, too. The intrepid trotters at Vermo run all year long.
Still longing for a swim? Finns chiseled out a regulation size pool in icy river or lake waters. Subsequently, all the events proceed just like they do summer. Save for the temperature, however. Competitions take place in breast stroke, butterfly, backstroke and freestyle.
Good luck: Icebreaking on the Sampo
Many travelers find cruising relaxing. So do the Finns. That’s why Finland offers unique ice-breaker cruises for more than half of the calendar year.
The best known and most popular of these voyages takes place aboard the Sampo. Named after a mythological object that causes good luck this retired government ice-breaker sails out of the seaport city of Kemi. It now takes travelers out to watch the ship chop up the ice, carving out channels for other vessels. During the tour, participants can choose to outfit themselves in brightly colored wetsuits and take a dip in the Gulf of Bothnia.
Unusual natural phenomena
Summer in Finland offers the rare phenomenon of the midnight sun. But even that cannot compete with the Aurora Borealis or Northern lights of winter. These spectacular displays are a regular feature during this time of year.
When conditions are exactly right, another phenomenon known as the “blue-moment” occurs. It happens just before sunset when eerie shades of blue envelop an area’s natural surroundings, creating an otherworldly atmosphere.
Whatever winter activities you like, you can find them in Finland
Try snowmobiling or dog-sledding. If no dogs are available, no matter, you can do a reindeer safari instead. Of course favorite sports sledding, skating remain available, along with traditional campfire cookouts.
Whatever your interests, be they offbeat, traditional, adventure or something in between, Finland welcomes visitors to the wonders of winter. The Finns refer to it as “snow-how.” That’s because in Finland, there’s no business like “snow” business.
— Headline image: Finland embraces winter like no other European country (Courtesy: Finnish Tourist Board)
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor is an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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