What you should know about seeing the northern lights in Lapland, Finland

  • Europe
  • Tuesday, 26 Feb 2019

The frozen lake in Inari.

It came to a point where it looked like we would not be blessed with a view of the famed northern lights. Cloudy nights, one after another. We could only look up and sigh.

You would never know for certain if you will view the spectacular aurora borealis. So it is best if you visit Inari in Finland with an open mind, give yourself at least several nights with a few activities lined up to colour your days.

I had few preconceptions of Lapland (Finland’s northern region) before we embarked on this journey: reindeer, short days in winter, lots of snow and sub-zero temperatures. We flew into Helsinki end-February and took a connecting local flight north to Ivalo. Then we were driven for 45 minutes by pre-booked van to our hotel in Inari.

The air, while cold, was crisp and pure in the sunshine. It was the first time I saw people using push-skis, which are fixed skis with a handlebar. You could rent one for an hour or two to give it a try. One elderly woman was going so fast she was far away by the time I took out my camera.

My other half rode a snow mobile for the first time. I did not want to ride pillion as it looked rather bumpy. One young woman rode pillion with her husband and said it was uncomfortable and not so much fun as she could not really see where they were going.

A reindeer sleigh ride sounded more my cup of tea. We were lent thermal overalls and boots to put on before being driven to the countryside. The herder told us about his reindeer and how only the males are made to pull the sleighs while the females are free to roam on a farm or in the forest and have their babies. Our Blixen was a cute and cheeky one who kept wanting to overtake the next sleigh instead of pulling in a single file. But the sleighs and pulling reindeer were attached by ropes, so our reindeer ofen ended up trotting right next to the people in the sleigh in front of us.

They were suitably amused.

A walk in the picturesque woods: sunny but cold.
Only several males are made to pull sleighs; the females are free to roam and have babies.

We stayed at Hotel Kultahovi which has a restaurant with an interesting menu. If you’re game, you could give reindeer meat, tongue and heart a try. Spruce shoots and edible moss are also part of the beautiful plating. Meals are understandably quite expensive, so if you prefer to spend less on food, you could go to the cafe at a petrol station for lunch: sandwiches, french fries, burgers and other hot food. The one in the area opposite our hotel even offered a small buffet for a reasonable price. It also served good coffee and pastries at teatime.

The village centre of Inari itself boasts a mini-market, a souvenir shop, a few restaurants and hotels. Buy your Finnish souvenirs and chocolates from the supermarket – much more affordable and authentic. Still, it was interesting to browse the souvenir shop: a small can of dried reindeer poop was offered for 4 euros (RM19).

Finnish food exotic to foreigners include reindeer meat, tongue, heart and blood, spruce shoots and edible lichens.
The frozen lake in Inari.

In the mini-market, I bought a Moomin shopping bag, some liquorice chocolates and sweets, and a tub of liquorice ice-cream. We could not finish the delicious 800ml tub of grey-coloured ice-cream, so we opened our window and stashed it on the sill outside as it was -5C° in the daytime and -15C° at night. Luckily no reindeer, or other animals, came to lick the ice-cream.

Since a snow mobile outing didn’t attract me, I walked around the village by myself and chatted with an elderly man who was walking his two dogs. He told of how he would go sunbathing on one of the islands in the lake in summer. It was interesting to see residential areas and how many had push-skis parked outside their front doors. Getting an idea of how the locals live is always a priority when I visit another country or region.

There is a beautiful forest nearby, a Sami cultural centre and community hall, and an outdoor museum. The vast lake was frozen at the time we went, so a cruise was out of the question.

There are also some places where they rent out chalets with a glass roof so you could view the northern lights in the warmth of your abode. It is said that Japanese couples try to conceive under the aurora borealis for special blessings or luck for the baby.

On our second last night, part of the sky cleared up and we saw faint hints of the aurora borealis. With hope shored up, we eagerly awaited our final night. It was then or never!

The aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, is a beautiful natural phenomenon.

There it was – the greens and pinks in all their glory. We could even view the aurora from just outside our hotel, apart from the lakeside. You could capture it with a good camera on slow shutter speed. But watch your fingers when they creep out to press the shutter button – it could very well be -15C° at night. After 15 minutes of viewing, running to a cafe to get warmed was a temporary solution. It makes sense not to stray too far from a cafe or hotel, so you could go in and out again.

The gods of the northern lights must have smiled down upon us cold-averse tropical mortals.

What you should know:

Best times to view the northern lights in Lapland, Finland: From late autumn to early spring, especially around spring and summer equinoxes (March 20 and Sept 22); 9pm to 11.30pm.

Best cities to fly from to Ivalo: Helsinki (twice daily); other cities in Europe might have charter flights during peak season. Pre-book your transport from Ivalo airport to your hotel in Inari.

Accommodation: Hotel Inari (by the lake), Hotel Kultahovi (10 minutes’ walk to the lake); inns, chalets and guest houses nearby which you can Google for.

What to bring: Balaclava, long socks, thermal gloves, thermal underwear (top and long johns if you have them; if not, wear two layers), flashlight for night walks, woollen scarf and beanie, well-lined coat with a hood, warm shoes or boots with good traction (if you sign up for local trips or outings, you will be lent thermal overalls and snow boots).

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