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Finland Travel Guide

My Favorite Experience in Finland Was NOT the Northern Lights

Have you ever heard of snow floating?

There was nothing graceful about me in the Finnish Lapland. Wrapped in three layers, cap, mittens, scarf, and snow boots, I dawdled in the snow like a penguin to chase the Northern Lights. Amidst tall pine trees with silver tips and nothingness of the wilderness, it was atrociously cold. My neck gaiter was damp, thanks to my eyes and nose which had become leaky faucets. My arms had constant goosebumps with unshaved seasonal arm hair erect. My feet were starting to lose feeling after standing on freshly snowed paths. 

December in Rovaniemi, Finland, is not for the faint-hearted. The cold seeps into your bones and you’re just uncomfortable. Not in the way that you have become used to in the few days of breathing in this weather, but hyperaware of every inch of your body that’s exposed. I never thought I’d use “bone-chilling” non-metaphorically, yet here we were, in Rovaniemi. 

The capital of Lapland falls within the Arctic Circle and it’s the official home of Santa Claus. Although you can meet him any day of the year, winter brings families in spades to the famed Santa Claus Village. The local population is merely 62,000, but every year, this snow globe of a city sees an influx of half a million tourists. Apart from the obvious Santa charm, it’s the landscape that mesmerizes—towering pines with a dusting of snow, huskies and reindeer fleeting in and out of photographs, and the perennial glow of lights after darkness takes over the whitewashed city at 3 pm. 

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We also “braved the cold” for the Northern Lights that are predicted to be dazzling this winter season. Scientists have said that in 2024, the world will see the most spectacular displays in 20 years as solar activity increases and Aurora will make itself show near and far.

Anticlimactic Auroras

A barbeque fire was roaring in a small wooden cabin surrounded by snow. Like a statue on a wooden log, I roasted sausage and corn along with other female travelers in the group and our three guides. As I cupped the hot berry tea in the shelter, one of our guides helped with the cooking and serving. The wind was howling outside. With temperatures dropping to -10 degrees Fahrenheit (or more, I was too frozen to check), I appreciated the log that much more when I had a refuge from the pinching wind. 

About a quarter of an hour later, our photographer-cum-guide appeared at the door to tell us that the clouds appeared to be disappearing. The show was starting. It was exciting to be there, watching the dark skies dotted with tiny specks. The moon wasn’t in sight, another happy coincidence because any light dims the auroras. We were away from the city’s light pollution, so everything was aligned for a good viewing. 

But to my surprise, the sights seemed much more vibrant, greener on my iPhone camera. With the naked eye, it was still special—just not as much as social media had portrayed. I was lucky to see it on my first attempt, I still remind myself, and it didn’t take much chasing either. But was I mesmerized as I am with just the stars? Not really. The reason was also another Instagram fad of trying to capture every streak of green in the sky. Everyone wanted multiple pictures, including the photographer who encouraged documenting over experiencing. 

Maybe I expected more; maybe I was deceived by social media; or maybe I’m just high maintenance and discontent. But as I looked at the dancing greens in the sky, with people rushing to be in front of the guide’s camera setup, I quickly became unenchanted. So, I experimented with my camera too and captured the Northern Lights in different ways—with a hut, with a tree, with the stars.

We stayed at an igloo hotel, where an alarm blew in the middle of the night with an aurora alert and I witnessed the show from my bed, at peace and ensconced in a duvet. That was my once-in-a-lifetime experience, however dim the lights might have been. 

Related: 12 Ways Most People Screw Up Their Photos of the Northern Lights

The Icebreaker 

“It’s a literal icebreaker experience,” my friend joked when I shared my Finland itinerary with her. She had assumed it was about getting to know other people on the trip, but I was going onboard Sampo, a 250-foot icebreaking ship. 

On our drive to Kemi, north of Denmark, trees were lined up like a welcome party on the sides of the road and the orangish sky was a prize. The shy, elusive sun wasn’t going to come out of its room in the sky, but made us aware of its presence with its glow. The landscape after stepping in Kemi was gorgeous—all shades of white. We walked on the crunch of snow and twigs and checked in for the experience. Then, a short drive to the port, where Sampo, in all her regal glory, waited.

2-Sailing On the Sampo
7-Sighting the elusive sun in Helsinki
Moshe Einhorn/iStockApeksha BhatejaApeksha Bhateja

The ship was built in 1960, and named after its predecessor in the same job. She spent her pre-tourism life ensuring that the Arctic conditions didn’t render trade impossible—the ports in Finland freeze in winter and it’s essential to break the ice to keep these water passages open and functioning. 

Sampo was retired in the 1980s and freed from state ownership when the merchant ships it was supposed to assist grew bigger in size. Back in Kemi, she became the star of tourism—offering waylaid tourists a day on the Gulf of Bothnia from December to March.

You hear it before you see it. The sound of the ship crushing ice as it glides smoothly. Stand on one of its many decks if you dare (temperatures can go down to -30 degrees Fahrenheit in this part of the world) and you’ll see pieces of cracked, greyish ice floating on the sea floor. Around, all-consuming, terrifying white–another shade but much more intimidating than the snow beneath the feet at Kemi. A restaurant on board (more like a pop-up) sold tea, coffee, cup noodles, and a range of other snacks. I was shocked when I paid 3.50 euros for a small cup of warm water—I consumed every single drop of this overcharged elixir of life.

My favorite part was the tour of the ship, where we followed a guide, who took us to the captain’s salon, the engine room, the control room, the bridge, and the various decks and the crew’s old sleeping quarters. You’re introduced to the captain of the ship and its crew members on board, and the men in white also answer your questions (like, “What does this lever do?”).

Then came the adventurous part: snow floating. The ship takes a halt for an hour before heading home and when that happens, passengers can step down onto the ice, in the middle of the ocean and walk. The other option? Don stark red survival suits and float on your back in icy, pitch-black water. 

Apeksha Bhateja

The ship stood, a parent on its guard, while we went to play. I’m afraid of water and I don’t swim, so the floating experience was out of question—they push you in and pull you out and you have very little control in those heavy suits. So many passengers did it, not more than five minutes, and it looked undoubtedly cool.

Meanwhile, I was standing on the Baltic Sea in Arctic conditions. There was nothing around us and after the last shades of light died out, I was jolted by how far I was from home, and from anything else. Black is seemingly the color of nothingness, a place where light doesn’t penetrate, but this expanse of white was emptiness, the lack of color and life. 

Sniffling in the cold, I took out my phone and tried to translate to camera what I was thinking, but you need a subject and a focus (and skills) and in the field of frozen white, I had neither. 

Six thousand kilometers from where I grew up, I left my footprints on a frozen sea. What a warming thought!