Ticking off the bucket list in Saariselkä, Lapland
When you’re planning a bucket list holiday, you want to take away a bunch of great memories that you will never forget. Treat the trip as a once in a lifetime experience and do as many exciting things as you can at your destination. Lapland is one of those destinations – a winter wonderland full of exciting activities that will leave you with a desire to head back for more. We recently spent a week staying in and near the town of Saariselkä, Lapland and certainly ticked off those bucket list activities. One of those experiences was to sleep in a Glass Igloo – you can read all about that here.
Located in the far north of Finnish Lapland, Saariselkä is small town that’s really geared up for the winter tourism trade. There are hotels and resorts of varying sizes to suit all budgets. It is surrounded by some of the most beautiful winter scenery you are likely to see. Endless pine forests stretching out across the landscape, broken up by barren fells scattered with pine trees laden with snow and ice. Combine this with pastel pink sunsets and (perhaps) a glimpse of the Northern Lights, and you have yourself a location where, despite the cold temperatures, you will want to spend as much time as possible outdoors.
I’ll admit that the basis around planning the trip originally was to see the Northern Lights. We didn’t. After a few cloudy nights, we gave up hope and it wasn’t meant to be. Thankfully, given the the chances of seeing the aurora is hit and miss, we had made sure to pack our week full of opportunities to experience some of the best things to do in Lapland, which I will run through below. It’s not all about Santa in Lapland, although that’s obviously a great reason to take the kids. For adults, there are are adrenalin filled excursions, beautiful hiking opportunities and traditional Finnish activities that shouldn’t be missed. Here is my list of the best winter activities in Saariselkä, Lapland.
1. Take a ride on the longest Toboggan Run in Lapland
Being from the UK, my experience of tobogganing is limited. Seizing the opportunity as a child when we had more than an inch of snow, we’d grab our sledges and head for a nearby field that had a slope where you could pick up enough speed to get to the bottom. This probably happened about five times in my childhood and I’ve never been on a toboggan since. So when I found out that Saariselkä was home to the longest toboggan run in Lapland, it was an opportunity not to miss. I’m a bit of a thrill junkie and always looking for an exciting activity to get the adrenalin pumping, so this looked just the ticket.
Saariselkä Ski and Sports Resort
Saariselkä Ski and Sports Resort is the Northernmost ski resort in Europe. Located on the outskirts of the town and easily accessible from the main E75 road, it’s the ideal place to head for some winter sports. It’s located between two fells, has 15 slopes of which some are suitable for all skill levels. But we weren’t here for the skiing. The Ski Store offers a Winterpark ticket which includes a two hour lift pass for the chair lift and toboggan rental. With this ticket, you can also try ice skating and snow tubing.
We grabbed our bright yellow toboggans and headed off towards the chair lift. The lift transports you to the top of the Kaunispää fell. When you reach the top you experience just how exposed these fells are. Everything was frozen solid. The buildings (and everything else) were covered in thick ice and snow.
After wandering around a little while, we located the start of the 1.2 km toboggan run. A long slope stretched out in front of us, heading down towards the town far below. The toboggan run was illuminated which was actually a great way to be able to guide yourself in the right direction. The other thing we needed to remember was that at the halfway point, the run splits into two directions. One of these heads back to the ski resort, and the other to the town. If you were to go wrong at this point, there is a long walk at the end!
The Toboggan Run experience
Off we went on our first run. I have to admit I was a little apprehensive having not been on a toboggan for years. You pick up speed pretty damn quickly! Using my feet for brakes and steering, I careered down the slope and remembered to turn left at the fork. There are a few spots where the toboggan run levels out, and if you don’t have enough speed, you’ll need to get up and walk a small section. This happened to me a few times, mostly due to other rides (or snowboarders) getting in my way.
We managed to have three rides during our allotted 2 hour chair lift pass, and it was an amazing experience. Not just for the adrenalin rush when you picked up speed, but to take in the scenery which was gorgeous. I didn’t fall off once but can’t say the same for Pete, who went tumbling into the side more than once. I think this was due to his glasses actually freezing up along the way. Make sure you wrap up warm before you go though. I was mostly covered up, but my eyelashes were frozen when I reached the bottom!
I should add, that if you are staying in a hotel in town, some will have toboggans available to use. If you can find your way to the top, technically you wouldn’t have to pay to use the toboggan run. For us though, the convenience of hiring the toboggan from the Ski resort and using the chairlift worked best.
Here’s a video of the entire toboggan run. This was the slowest of the three runs I did – thanks to the other riders.
The Winterpark ticket at Saariselkä Ski and Sports Resort costs 25€, which includes a two hour lift pass for the chair lift and toboggan rental.
2. Have dinner in an Ice Restaurant
I’ve been to an Ice Bar in London for drinks a couple of times. I like the concept. It’s ‘cool’ and quirky. But ultimately, when you look around, you become more and more aware that you are in a building or marquee of some sort. It kinda kills the experience a little bit. For that reason, one of the things I really wanted to experience was dinner at an Ice Restaurant. We spent two nights at the Northern Lights Village on the outskirts of Saariselkä, which conveniently had an Ice Restaurant on site. We booked this experience for dinner one evening.
Made entirely of snow and ice, this place had the authenticity I was looking for. The arched doorway opened into the domed structure with a central feature bar made entirely of ice. There was an awesome tree sculpture behind the bar, also made of ice, which doubled as a bottle shelving unit.
Around the edges of the restaurant were a number of dining tables made of (yes, you’ve guessed it) ice. The wooden stools were covered in reindeer hide rugs for warmth, and blankets were also available. There were further sculptures in the room as well as carvings in the walls. With nice lighting, as well as table accessories, the whole scene was really beautiful.
The Ice Restaurant specialised in local flavours and delicacies, to give you a true taste of Lapland. There was a choice of four set menus – all with three courses. I chose a menu which consisted of a mushroom soup with delicious rye bread as a starter, a roasted reindeer sirloin filé with vegetables and cranberries as a main. My dessert choice was a Blueberry Cheesecake. All courses were beautifully presented and absolutely delicious. I had never tried reindeer beforehand. The meat was tender and really tasty.
All of this was washed down with a local beer and a warming coffee. Incidentally, by the end of the meal, the beer had frozen into a slush due to the surrounding temperature, which I believe was about -5C. The restaurant reservations are for a two hour time slot, but we were finished in about an hour and headed back to the warmth of the main bar area and settled near the fireplace.
It was a fantastic experience, but spending an hour there convinced me that I probably wouldn’t cope very well with sleeping overnight in an ice room. Ditched that from my bucket list!
Prices for the Ice Restaurant experience range between 52€ and 72€, per person, depending on which menu option you choose. As were were staying at the Northern Lights Village on a half board basis, we only had to pay a reduced upgrade cost. Sittings are 5 – 7pm, or 7 – 9pm. After 9pm, the Ice Bar is open for drinks to guests.
3. Go on a gentle Reindeer Sleigh Ride
You can’t go to Lapland without spending some time with the reindeer, right? These majestic creatures are part and parcel of a Lapland trip. Whether it’s a Santa visit with the kids, or for the big kids amongst us who want to experience as much as we can, you have to see the reindeer. We did actually see some wild reindeer while we were driving one day. They were wandering across the road in front of us, before they headed up the fell.
If you don’t happen to see them in the wilderness though, there are many tour operators that organise reindeer safaris. A reindeer sleigh ride is a somewhat gentle and calming experience. They are not in a rush. It’s a super slow meander through some gorgeous forest scenery. We only did a short sleigh ride, due to trying to cram a lot of activities in, but it was enough.
The Reindeer Safari started with an introduction about the reindeer, and how they are used in Lapland. Whether that be as working reindeer, for meat, or for their hide, we were provided with lots of information before we headed off to meet them prior to our ride. The sleigh ride itself was very relaxing – it left the paddock before heading out onto a circular route through the forest. The sleigh’s are are large, and you are provided with reindeer hide or a blanket for warmth. There was also a chance at the end to get up close with the reindeer, although if I honest, I think we enjoyed it more than them!
We booked our Reindeer Safari through Northern Lights Village. Prices range between 69€ and 145€ per person, depending on the length of your excursion.
4. Take a Husky Safari through the forests
For an animal activity that’s a little more fast paced than the Reindeer Safari, the next activity on our list was a Husky Safari. Where the reindeer are fairly laid back and chilled out during your experience, the Siberian Huskies are excitable and eager to race on through the forests!
Our trip started with a transfer to a Husky Farm deep in the forests outside of Saariselkä, where we were greeted and briefed by one of the handlers. It was clear from the start that this was going to be more of an interactive experience, and not a gentle relaxing ride on a sleigh. The sleighs area made for two people. One person is seated while the other stands to the rear, steering, braking, and aiding the huskies up hill. You see, five huskies, despite their size and strength are not really capable of dragging a combined weight of almost 30 stone up hills without some help. This ranged from some gentle encouragement, to pushing along with one leg, to a full on run behind the sleigh to help them. I was bloody exhausted!
Nevertheless, it was a hugely enjoyable experience. The huskies were absolutely stunning dogs, some with icy blue eyes. We had a trouble maker in our pack. A smaller female in the middle of the pack, kept looking around at us during the whole ride. We imagined she was checking we were ok, or looking back for some encouragement. Turns out that was not the case. Every time she turned around, she was nibbling at her harness in a bid for freedom. She has pretty much chewed her way out of it on the 45 minute journey! Apparently she does it all the time.
There were also puppies at farm. Gorgeous tiny husky puppies, which we had a chance to see before our shuttle took us back to the resort.
We booked our Husky Safari through Northern Lights Village. Prices range between 105€ and 199€ per person, depending on the length of your excursion.
5. Hike up the Fells and appreciate the silence
With all of the ‘bucket list’ excursions available on offer in Saariselkä, Lapland it can be very tempting to fill your itinerary without leaving any time to explore at your leisure. If there is one thing I urge you to do, it’s to get out in the wilderness and take a walk. Kiilopää is the perfect place to do this. Located about 16km south of Saariselkä, Fell Centre Kiilopää is the perfect base for lots of outdoor winter activites, and getting out to explore the landscpaes of Urho Kekkonen National Park. This is the second largest national park in Finland. We stayed overnight at the Hotel Niilanpää, which was part of the complex. From this location, there was access to the hiking trails, snowshoeing and cross country skiing routes, all of which were well maintained and signposted.
We took the 3km round trip hike to the top of the Ahopää fell a few times during our stay. It was possibly one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. Pristine powdery white snow, dotted with pine trees along fairly gentle trail, until the steeper section which headed to the top of the fell. During our hikes, we saw reindeer on the fell as well as Willow Grouse hidden under the trees.
The most fascinating thing for me about the hike was the silence. Apart from the crunching of the snow, when you stopped still you could hear, well, nothing. Complete silence. Combining this with the cold, clean air, it was so refreshing. I truly fell in love with the place.
Once we had arrived at the top of the fell, the 360 degree views were staggering. Endless forests stretching out over the undulating landscape. Across our three hikes, we had some snow and low cloud, we had clear blue skies and we also saw a pretty awesome sunset scene. Please, please visit when you are in the area.
For more information on the area and accommodation, check out the Suomen Latu Kiilopää website.
6. Whizz through the forests on a Snowmobile Safari
Another day, another ‘safari’. No animals this time, but instead, the Snowmobile. Yet another bucket list experience to do while in Saariselkä, Lapland. Our experience started in the centre of Saariselkä where we were briefed on the safety of riding the snowmobiles and provided with snow suits and helmets. It can get really cold while out on the snowmobiles, so snow suits and thick gloves are a necessity.
The snowmobiles are suitable for two people and if you choose to go in pairs, you will both get the opportunity to drive during the safari. Our two hour Snowmobile Safari headed out of Saariselkä, following the red X markers dotted around the landscape (which are the snowmobile routes). We lucked out and there was only one other couple (and the guide) on our trip – sometimes there can be around 30 snowmobiles on one excursion.
The route took us up to the frozen fells, deep into the forests and along open stretches of snow where we could pick up speed and get a real feel for it. It was a really exciting experience, but far more bumpy than I was expecting! We covered about 50 km during the journey, with a couple of stopping points where we swapped drivers. The guide would point out some details about the landscapes and where we were in relation to our starting point. It was an awesome experience.
We booked our Snowmobile Safari through Northern Lights Village. Prices range between 115€ and 170€ per person, depending on the length of your excursion.
7. Experience the Finnish tradition of a Smoke Sauna and Ice Pool
Last but not least, we come to the Finnish tradition of smoke saunas and ice swimming. If it’s a cultural tradition, you have to take part, right? Of course you do. I struggle to get into a swimming pool that’s cold, let alone a freezing cold natural lake in the Lappish wilderness. I’m such a wimp. I was determined to give this a try though, despite my reservations!
The tradition of saunas is integral to Finnish culture and has always been seen as a way of life. The smoke sauna is the most traditional type of sauna – nothing better than the smell of burning wood as you approach the building. Fully prepared to immerse myself into the experience, I stepped out into the freezing temperatures from the changing room, grabbed a wooden seat pad and headed into the sweltering sauna. The idea is that you spend around ten minutes in the smoke sauna then head outside and take a dip in the ice cold water, where the average water temperature is approx. -1 ºC!
The sauna was fairly empty at first, but soon filled up to a level that was more cosy that I was 100% comfortable with! Great start. It was also hot. Very very hot. As more water was thrown on, the steam and heat would hit the back of my throat. It was really quite full on. Not so much enjoyable, but exhilarating.
Did I wimp out?
And then it was time. Time to prove that I wasn’t such a wimp. My earlier Twitter and Facebook polls had confirmed that my friends and followers were pretty sure that I wasn’t going to do this! I headed outside, walked across the cold wooden deck to the steps of the pool and headed down. I’d like to tell you I had a little swim, but I didn’t! I climbed down the steps, dunked down as far as my shoulders, before thinking ‘No, no, no’, turned around and climbed back up! It was freezing! But I did it, and I felt a little bit proud. There is video evidence, but the world does not need to see this.
We experienced the smoke sauna at the Kiilopää Fell Centre. The price to use the facility is 10€ for overnight guests and 13€ for everyone else. The smoke sauna operates on selected days only.
There are many more winter activities to do in Saariselkä, Lapland as well as the seven listed above. Why not try Aurora Hunting (let’s not dwell on that), Ice fishing and other cultural activities. All resorts will have excursions available. For the smaller hotels that do not offer them, they will be able to recommend local tour operators.
For an in-depth look at our one week Lapland Itinerary, take a look at this post here.
Have you been to Lapland? What was your favourite activity?
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