It took three holiday seasons for me to finally celebrate a Christmas on this side of the Atlantic. We have been dreaming of taking a Nordic trip since before we moved here, when we saw a picture of the snow-covered Christmas trees on Instagram three years ago, and with our time running out, we finally made it a reality. After a Monday work day, we were off for a week of planes, trains, and ferries in the far north.
Tuesday morning, we took the familiar drive over to Frankfurt International. We had to park in holiday parking and barely squeezed into the full parking lot. After a half an hour wait, it was a comfy flight up to Helsinki. Believe it or not, we actually sat by each other and got free coffee! Three hours later, we landed in Helsinki in the early afternoon where the sun was already starting to set. We took a quick bus ride to the city center on the Finnair city bus and checked into the Scandic Simonkenttä, just a few minutes away from the train station.
We grabbed our handy dandy Rick Steve’s book and headed out to the city. Already dark, we did the walking tour by streetlight, working in reverse from the train station, past the statue of the blacksmiths, beyond the Stockmann Department Store, and down the Esplanade. We got a quick picture of the Havis Amanda statue then took a left towards the Senate Square. We admired the statue of Czar Alexandar II (very popular in Finland) and the perched Lutheran Cathedral, then climbed the imposing steps to get a view over the city. We left the walking tour course to circle the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral (Ryan was a big fan of the onion domes) before turning back around and wandering through the city in reverse.
Being Christmas Eve, most places were closed for dinner. Our options were some sushi restaurants, the Holiday Inn, or MÁS at our own hotel. We opted for the latter option and, once our fingers and toes were numb, we made our way back to the hotel and tucked in for some Spanish tapas. We warmed up with patatas bravas, green mussels with parmesean, ceviche, and chorizo, followed by spicy grilled tuna with a mango sauce and some full-bodied rioja wine. Not quite your normal Christmas feast but far be it for me to complain. We ended the night with a few minutes in a Finnish sauna to really warm up before going to bed early.
Christmas day, we packed up our bags at 7:00 AM and made our way down to a very quick breakfast before the five minute walk back to the train station. Carrying everything on our backs, we loaded into the 8-hour train to Rovaniemi in the Lapland. We paid the extra $10 for the first class seats, which paid for itself in the form of free coffee and tea in the carriage. Settling in for a few hours of reading and gazing out the window at the slowly deepening snow drifts, we watched the Finnish country wizz by at 200 km/h. The trip flew by and in what seemed like no time, we unloaded with hundreds of other visitors at 5:15 pm and walked up the hill to check into an AirBnB in a quiet block of apartments.
Our host, Aatu, had been extremely helpful in planning our arrival, booking reservations, and getting ideas for the trip. We would hear about AirBnB a few other times during our time in Rovaniemi. Some places, AirBnB has a bit of a reputation for taking business away from hotels and overcrowding residential areas. Not so in Rovaniemi. According to everyone we spoke to, AirBnB was a miracle for the over-strapped hotels in the small town. The crowds of tourists that pour in for the holiday season overwhelm the available lodgings and locals are happy to make some extra cash by renting out their living spaces for a few weeks in the winter. We were happy to be on the other end of the bargain as we settled into the comfortable, quiet apartment.
Christmas reservations were a bit too hard to come by so, rather than having Chinese food or sushi, we decided to head across the street to the grocery store to pick up some staples: salami, rye bread, cheese, smoked salmon, eggs, beer, apples, and Karelian pastries. It felt like it was nearly midnight since the sun had been down for 4 hours but it was still before 6:00 so we took a break to walk around the city, enjoying the Christmas lights and commenting on how it wasn’t as cold as we thought it would be. We would live to regret that comment. After that, we made our gourmet Christmas dinner, called Ryan’s family and called it a night.
Our big day full of activities got started at 8:00 am the day after Christmas. After breakfast at our AirBnB, we got picked up by a tour company in Rovaniemi. We had a quick stop off at the crowded office to get all decked out in cold weather gear before we got back to the car to head out to Parpalandia husky farm for dog sledding. We got a little lost on the way so we had to pull into a driveway to ask for directions. Standing in the driveway, working on his sauna in the 20 degree weather was a Finn in shorts and a t-shirt. Our guide (from Denmark) got out to ask for directions (we needed to go one corner further) and made a joke about Finns when he got back in the car. As we drove towards the husky farm, we passed a mother, pushing her infant along the road, through the inches of snow, seemingly unfazed by the weather.
We could hear the dogs before they could see them. Our guide, Alex, was a dog-sledder who had lived in Alaska, Canada, and Norway. He and his French girlfriend were living in Finland just for the season. While the husky owners got the four sleds set up, Alex told us all about Siberian versus Alaskan huskies. We got a quick lesson on how to drive (basically, use the break. Don’t let them run away and don’t let the sled run into the dogs or you’ll break their legs). The dogs were going nuts while we were getting settled in. As we were repeatedly told, the dogs were too hot and their hearts are going too fast. They just wanted to run! Then, we finally got into our sled and, after letting the other three sleds go first, we were off.
Ryan drove first and I sat, tucked under a blanket, worried about running into the sled in front of us. According to Alex, the smart dogs were positioned in the front and the brute strength was in back so there really wasn’t much for us to do except keep them from running too fast. We apologized to them every time we had to break. The dogs would look back at us as though asking why they couldn’t go faster but we were following a large, slow sled, packed with a family of four. Passing was not allowed (the dogs would have tried to fight) so we kept ourselves safely in back and, whenever we could, we let the dogs run. We went 5 km through the most incredible, snow covered scenery. The snow clinging to the tree tops seemed fake. After I felt confident that we weren’t going to tip the sled, I relaxed into the trip before the halfway point. After 5 kilometers, we switched, a guide took some pictures for us and then it was my turn to drive.
The one hour excursion flew by. We tried our best to get pictures and videos while also appreciating the movie set scenery. Driving was far easier than I realized (the dogs did most everything) and I let myself relax and tried to keep my fingers and toes warm during my half an hour. Before we knew it, we were back at the husky farm. We were told by one of the owners that we were the best drivers of the group. I would be tempted to think he said that to everyone but one guy nearly tipped his sled to get a selfie with his daughter and, a few seconds after saying that, another man let his dogs run away. The owner zipped past on his snowmobile to stop the dogs from running over some kids with their sled.
After giving the dogs some love, we all crowded into a small hut, thoroughly warmed up by the blazing fire in the middle. We had some hot blueberry juice, sausages cooked over the fire and cookies. I slipped off my boots to get some feeling back in my toes and made mental plans for a future wood hut in a dream snow-covered getaway. After eating our fill, we climbed in the car and headed back to the city. We arrived around 1:30 PM and the sun was already going down. We had dinner reservations at 5:30 so we climbed in a taxi and went straight to Santa Claus village.
We passed a few hours walking around the Christmas village, snapping pictures of the snow village, reindeer rides, and glittering shops. We hopped across the Arctic circle a few times (the line runs right through the village) as we explored. We stopped by Santa’s post office, which receives 500,000 letters a year from 199 countries. We bought a post card there and then grabbed a taxi back to the city. We still had a little time before dinner so we spent some time warming up and relaxing before our dinner at The Arctic Restaurant in Rovaniemi. We had gotten the recommendation from Aatu and we definitely were not disappointed. Giving ourselves a true Christmas treat, we ordered the Chef’s menu and the wine pairing to share. We spent the next two hours being surprised as the chef’s sent out five dishes from their menu.
We started with the king crab soup, paired with a glass of Mülheimer Sonnenlay Riesling. The waitress was about to describe the wine to us but stopped when she saw the grins on our faces. “That winery is three miles from our house,” we explained. Safe to say, we are fairly familiar with its characteristics. After that, we were surprised with mushrooms with lingonberry sauce paired with a French Pinot Noir, followed by reindeer two ways (roast and tongue) with a Spanish red. The main course was a sizable chunk of salmon with local root vegetables paired with a Spanish white and ended with some cream and berries. Because we had been talking to our waitress, she brought us a cloudberry liquor, her favorite, as well as a blueberry for dessert. We were stuffed but left every plate all-but-licked clean. To work it off, we took a last walk along the river before heading back to the apartment. It seemed like the middle of the night (yes, that’s a common theme of the trip) but it was actually only eight o’clock. We got caught up watching a documentary on North Korea before we finally went to bed.
Our last day in the Lapland started at 8:00 AM. We made breakfast, packed and cleaned up, and headed out for our transfer at 9:50 AM. The sky was just starting to lighten as we got in the car. We went back to the office to pile on some warm clothing for the clear (and cold) day. Then we headed out to a lake about half an hour away from the city, chatting with our guide from Alicante, Spain. When we got there, we strapped on our snow shoes and got a overview of the day before we took off towards the frozen lake, stomping through the snow. The sun was rising, turning the hills behind us pink. The clear sky also meant it was also much colder than the previous two cloudy days. Like I said, our comments about it not being so cold definitely came back to bite us.
We hiked out along the shore line while another group was ice fishing and still another was floating in holes in the ice. One of the guides (from Argentina) took our picture as the sun was starting to go down. Yes, we saw both the sunrise and sunset from the ice. It never actually made it over the horizon. After walking around for about an hour, trying to stay warm, we huddled around a fire on the ice and enjoyed a steady trickle of food – sausages, corn on the cob, carrot pancakes, gingerbread cookies with marshmallows, and salmon soup. Finally, we headed back to the car with numb fingers and toes. This time, it took about half an hour in a warm cafe (with some hot chocolate and cake!) to finally get feeling back in all our limbs. We had all our gear on our backs but still decided to take one more hike through the city, enjoying the glittering snow and the magical-looking trees, before we got some Subway for dinner (exotic, I know) and finally walked the fifteen minutes to the train station.
Our train arrived about ten minutes after we did and we made our way to the very first carriage and settled into our cozy little sleeper car. Costing about the same as a night at a hotel, we were happy to double up sleeping and transportation in our comfortable room on wheels. Complete with bunk beds, blankets, pillows, towels, a seat with a window and a private shower/toilet, it was all we could ask for in a train trip. The train took off at 6:00 PM and we enjoyed some snacks before we showered and curled up in our bunks for a comfortable, if not totally restful, night of sleep.
The night flew by and, eight hours after falling asleep, we woke up (on my birthday!) an hour outside Helsinki. That left us enough time to get dressed, brush our teeth, and pack up before we arrived. We had some time to kill so we took an hour to have coffee and porridge in the train station. Then we loaded our backpacks onto our backs and took the 40-minute walk through the quiet city to get to the ferry terminal. The ferry terminal had great views over the water so we watched the boats come and go for an hour before our ferry came in. We herded on board with the rest of the day trippers and settled in by a window for the 2-hour ferry to Estonia.
Once again, transportation did double duty. We had lunch on the ferry (meatballs and falafel as well as a dressing-heavy Caesar salad) before disembarking. We walked through the medieval old town to our hotel, the Meriton Old Town Garden Inn, and dropped our bags. Then we headed back out to walk around. We explored the Rick Steve’s walk, trying to get some dinner reservations for my birthday as we went. The sixth time (but my second choice) was the charm during the busy holiday season. In the meantime, we saw the must-sees of the restored Hanseatic town.
There was Fat Margaret, the Three Sisters, and the Old Hansa restaurant. We climbed the old city wall and saw pictures from through the years before we did some shopping at an amber store. We headed up to the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral (an eyesore to Estonians since it was set up to cast a shadow over their parliament building when Estonia was part of the Russian Empire), before walking down the hill, through the Christmas market and finally heading back to warm up before dinner. I got to celebrate my birthday with a country-style Estonian dinner at The Golden Piglet. We treated ourselves to a not-quite-healthy dinner of fried black rye bread, pigs’ ears, moose and mushroom stewed in dark beer, Christmas sausages, pea soup, and glögi ice cream and Tallinn cheesecake for dessert, all paired with a honey ale, copper ale, and a dark beer.
The last day of our Northern adventure was a true day of planes, ferries, and automobiles. We had a filling breakfast at the hotel (complete with gingerbread cookies!), packed up, and walked back through the city to ferry terminal D. We boarded the large ship, said good bye to Estonia and played scrabble while we sailed across the Baltic. We got to Helsinki by lunchtime and took a last stroll through the modern city, stopping by Joe and the Juice for some lunch before ending our day full of public transportation with a bus ride to the airport and a 5:00 PM flight back home. We got back by 9:00 PM, just in time to unpack, prep for one day of work (for Ryan, not for me!) before another trip, this time to celebrate New Years. Stay tuned!