Okay, I’m gonna be totally honest with you, my dear readers: I don’t much like winter. Cold, snow, darkness, wearing way too much clothing so I don’t freeze – bleh! I don’t mind having four seasons, per se, and winter can be fun for – I dunno – two or three weeks, maybe? You get the idea.
So naturally, I decided to visit the Arctic. In January. Because why not? Guess I’m a glutton for punishment, because the whole trip was even my idea – no one had to convince me!
Anyway, I hoped to catch a glimpse of the northern lights, learn a little about the Sámi people, see some reindeer, go dog sledding, etc. You know, the standard Arctic stuff. I’d see it, say ‘cool’, check it off my list and head home, never to return (at least not in winter).
So, imagine my surprise when I fell in love with the place! I mean this seriously: despite the cold, the darkness and some crazy coronavirus restrictions, it was AWESOME! And I can’t wait to tell you all about it, so let’s get started!
Inari will appeal to:
- Nature lovers
- Cross-country skiers (in winter)
- Bicyclists and hikers
- Those interested in indigenous cultures
- Anyone who wants to see the aurora borealis!
Inari, a municipality in northern Lapland, Finland, is waaay above the Arctic circle. It’s the farthest north I’ve ever been, by a long shot, and almost as far north in Finland as you can get.
As you might expect, this far north there are very few people. In an area larger than the US state of Connecticut, the population is only about 7,000. Tourism is a major source of income, but it’s all very small scale – no chain hotels in sight! And once you get outside the main villages of Ivalo, Inari and Saariselkä, you are truly in nature and it is absolutely beautiful.
One thing Inari is not (and this goes for all of Finland, actually), is inexpensive. Unless you’re from Scandinavia or Switzerland, you should expect to pay more than you’re used to for just about everything. That said, everything was to quite a high standard, and service was generally quite good. Oh, and a tip for budget travelers: look around for private lodging deals on sites like Airbnb and Booking.com – they are much more affordable than hotels, and if you self-cater you can reduce your costs significantly.
As an arctic community, Inari is all too familiar with climate change. The temperatures are rising here faster than almost anywhere else, and (as an example) the reindeer herding culture of the Sámi people is in danger of fading into history. This is due to the increase in unseasonably warm winters, when snow can thaw and then re-freeze, making it difficult or impossible for reindeer to reach the lichen underneath, which sustains them through the long winter.
Visiting this place not only helped me understand the beauty of the Arctic and its cultures; it also made me realize just how fragile it is, and all that stands to be lost in the polar regions as our planet continues to warm.
As visitors, of course we can and should do all the little things like eating local as much as possible, supporting local businesses, moving around less by fossil fuel powered means when possible, and so on. But for me, experiencing this delicate ecosystem motivated me even more to do whatever I can in general, to ensure beautiful places on our planet like this one can survive and be enjoyed by future generations.
Things to do
There’s lots to see and do in Inari, but as you’d expect it very much depends on the time of year. Since I was there in winter, I’ll start with that.
Just because it’s cold and (mostly) dark, don’t think for a second that a visit in wintertime means you’ll spend all your time hibernating! Make sure you bring some VERY warm clothing, because there’s a lot of outdoor activities available including cross-country skiing, snow biking (yes, you read that right), dog sledding, ice fishing and reindeer sleigh rides. The landscape is a gorgeous winter wonderland, and even during polar night (the five or six weeks in December and January when the sun doesn’t rise), when it’s clear the daytime skies are like a beautiful painting. And don’t forget, during those long nights the northern lights put on regular sky shows, and you can take excursions away from town lights to get the best possible views. (Note: we didn’t need to do this, as we were treated to an awesome spectacle of light on our very first night!)
In summer, warm daytime temperatures and midnight sun beckon to hikers and mountain bikers, and the giant Lake Inarijärvi and the Lemmenjoki River offer canoeing, kayaking, boat cruises and fishing trips. There is also a very strong foraging culture, and guides can take you on excursions to pick berries and mushrooms, while learning about the forest ecosystem.
Spring and Autumn offer a mix of both summer and winter activities depending upon the exact time, with a better balance between daylight and darkness and cool temperatures.
And finally, one must-do indoor activity (which I sadly missed because the building was closed for renovations) is a visit to the Siida, the Sámi Museum and Northern Lapland Nature Centre. It was already mentioned as a fantastic place to learn about the Sámi peoples, and I’m sure when the renovations are complete (Spring 2022) it will be even better!
My Tips & Picks
NOTE: I received no compensation or discounts of any kind for these reviews. They are my honest opinion of places I visited!
Upscale Lodging Tip: The newly-opened (2021) Aurora Queen Resort in Saariselkä has (so far) 14 beautifully appointed ‘igloos’, spaced well apart and surrounded by abundant trees to provide the feeling of ultimate privacy. It has a full restaurant and lounge area with excellent food, and offers a full assortment of excursions to its guests. The couple who run the place are extremely friendly and welcoming, and with its sustainable wooden construction and geothermal heating, it’s a real winner!
Unique Lodging Tip: Care to sleep (safely!) on a frozen lake, cozy and warm inside your own mobile cabin on skis? If you visit during winter, then give Lake Inari Mobile Cabins a try! Your evening begins with an optional dinner in a round cabin with central fire. There’s also time for a visit to their back-to-basics but totally cool wood-fired sauna cabin, before your home for the night (with heating and portable toilet) is towed out onto the lake, with you inside, by snowmobile for the night. You’re brought back in the morning, just in time for a freshly prepared breakfast. Full facilities for relaxing, showering, cooking (if you wish to self-cater in the evening), etc., are also available. It’s not luxurious, but it is a totally unique experience from start to finish!
Restaurant Tip: Ravintola Aanaar in Inari village serves up traditional Lappish cuisine with a modern twist. They seek to use local, traditional ingredients to the greatest extent possible, including all parts of reindeer (the traditional source of meat, which I might add is also very sustainable!), local fish, berries, local herbal plants and even lichen. If you’re a meat eater and feeling just a little adventurous, their roasted reindeer smoked with pine needles, and served with reindeer blood dumpling, reindeer marrow with berry crumble, lichen with bilberry and Lappish potato purée is a must-try! I normally do not care for blood or marrow anything, but I tried it anyway, and I must say it was all really tasty. The reindeer in particular was amazingly good! Vegetarians and even vegans shouldn’t fret, however; you will also find options on their small but still varied menu.
Planning Your Visit
Getting there: The local airport just outside Ivalo village has regular flights to/from Helsinki, as well as occasional flights to/from Frankfurt, London-Gatwick, Manchester and Paris Orly. Fun fact: it’s the northernmost airport not only in Finland, but in the entire European Union! Buses also make the trip from the regional capital of Rovaniemi, a journey of about 3 hours.
Getting around: If you’re staying either in one of the villages or in a hotel with a full restaurant and activities desk, it’s definitely possible to visit the area without a car. Due to coronavirus restrictions at the time, and the fact that my mother was with us and we moved lodgings twice during our stay, we decided to rent a car at Ivalo airport. Driving in the area is easy and straightforward, and even during winter a regular 2-wheel drive vehicle and a little extra caution is all you’ll need.
When to go: As I said above, Inari is a beautiful place to visit in any season. Your decision on when to go should be based on what you want to see and do. Dog sledding and seeing the aurora means October to March, hiking and midnight (or near midnight) sun means April to September.
Thanks for reading, hope you’ve enjoyed learning about this month’s destination!