Harper's Bazaar (UK)
TO THE NORTH Avril Mair swaps Santa for skygazing in a cosy, snowy Arctic lair
A secret retreat hidden away in the snowy forest above the Arctic Circle is a dreamy lair from which to observe nature’s wonders in cossetting comfort
Itmust be said that a Christmas theme park is not the sort of location to which one usually directs the discerning reader of Harper’s Bazaar, even though it is in the most picturesque part of Finland, right on the edge of the Arctic Circle. Here, the air is icy cold and impossibly clear; the snow shimmers, crystalline in the pale sunshine, deeply drifted through tall pine forests. Light glimmers off frozen lakes and rivers. The silence is almost meditative. At night, the aurora borealis offers up a celestial spectacle that’s beyond any description; an elusive, ethereal and otherworldly performance. But still… this is the ‘Official Hometown of Santa Claus’. Also, Elf School. They’re hardly the most compelling reasons to travel to the capital of Lapland, two hours’ flight north of Helsinki, deep in the middle of nowhere, where wolves still roam wild and traffic on the single-lane highway is regularly halted by herds of reindeer.
But here – hidden away on a hill in the grounds of Rovaniemi’s SantaPark Arctic World – is the Arctic TreeHouse Hotel, which makes the journey more than worthwhile. It is surprisingly chic, in an unshowy, stripped-back Scandinavian sort of way, as well as incredibly photogenic. It is, basically, a collection of flat-roofed log cabins raised high on slender struts, clad in wooden shingles, with huge walls of glass facing towards the north where the natural light show likes to reveal itself.
Designed by Helsinki’s sustainable-architecture specialists Studio Puisto, these cabins are a part of the landscape – built within the woods, one scarcely visible from the next, their shingles almost indistinguishable from tree trunks – yet rise to offer a panoramic view over the trees towards the sky. Red squirrels, Arctic foxes and other shy species of wildlife wander beneath the picture window as you sit in centrally heated comfort, totally unobserved, high above it all. It’s like a cosy bird’s nest – albeit one with blond-timber walls, oiled oak floors, sheep-skin chairs, high-thread-count bedlinen and super-fast Wi-Fi. Who could ask for more out here? There’s even a minibar. Though it wouldn’t look out of place in an interiors magazine, this is not a haven of luxury in the accepted sense: it’s unique, remote and rustic. If you arrive at the reception building after dark, they’ll give you a torch to help find your room. Thermal underwear, heavy boots and Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cream are all required – there are also slightly alarming instructions about not leaving food around in case it attracts foraging bears. For much of winter, the sun only shows itself for a few hours each day and the temperature drops to a bonechilling minus 20 degrees Celcius. But for the adventurous, it’s a winter wonderland beyond compare.
According to local Sami folklore, auroras are created by a fox running over the fells of Lapland, whipping up snow with its tail and sending sparks into the sky. In less romantic but more scientific terms, the Northern Lights are caused by fast-moving electrically charged particles from the sun that are driven towards the poles by the planet’s magnetic field, resulting in emissions of various colours of light. Whichever you prefer, they are why people come from the ends of the Earth to the Arctic Circle (Father Christmas notwithstanding).
To see the aurora here, you can just stay in bed. The Arctic TreeHouse Hotel was designed for this, with artificial light pollution kept to a minimum around the cabins and purposefully low-level lighting inside. However, when days are filled with action – husky-sledding, sleigh rides, Nordic skiing on miles of track that ribbon through the nearby forests or, most thrillingly, racing snowmobiles along the deeply frozen Kemijoki and Ounasjoki rivers – then the temptation to drift off is too much. Instead, alerted by an aurora phone app, we climbed to a look-out spot at the top of Syvasen hill, on which the resort sits, and waited in the cold, cameras at the ready. Someone was burning pine logs in a firepit close by. The valley stretched out in front of us, miles of frozen whiteness seemingly asleep in the moonlight. Then, suddenly, the heavens were alive and moving, the darkness retreating to reveal eerie waves of colour, strange and spectral. It’s been a long time since I believed in magic at Christmas – but, finally, I do again.
Abercrombie & Kent (01242 547703; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers tailormade holidays; it can recreate this trip from £3,545 a person including flights, transfers and accommodation at Arctic TreeHouse Hotel.
Red squirrels and
Arctic foxes wander below the window. It’s like a cosy bird’s nest – albeit one with