There’s something intoxicating about summer in Lapland—the wide swath of territory making up the Arctic north of Finland and Sweden. Crisp, pure air; the smells of birch and pine forests; the big skies; and almost endless daylight. It is, however, a hard-earned reward: Long winters bring eight months of snow, so the short spring and explosive summer really feel like a triumphant return of life. It’s all about the great outdoors here. Folks from the urban south come for an uplifting dose of nature, hiking the trails in national parks and canoeing the cool rivers. Across the region there are several great bases for activity. Here, the highlights of the Finnish side of Lapland, plus a Swedish retreat.
Set near the Arctic Circle—north of this spot, there are entire summer days where the sun never sets—Rovaniemi is Lapland’s capital and gateway. The city suffered near-total destruction in World War II, but now it has modern architectural treasures that turn heads, such as the Arktikum museum. Its exhibits show how the world’s Arctic peoples cope with life in this harsh environment, and how flora and fauna adapt by changing color, hibernating and storing energy.
Rovaniemi’s most famous resident, Santa Claus, can be visited year-round at the Santa Claus Office. On display is a giant clock that Santa uses to stop time so he can visit all the world’s children on one night; the man himself chats with visitors in a range of languages. Letters posted to Father Christmas end up here: Among those displayed are brash requests for electronic goods and heart-rending pleas for parents’ health. In the middle of town, the restaurant Nili makes use of local resources, both in the decor (animal hides as seat covers, birch bark on the walls and ceilings) and in the food. Try the duo of reindeer meat—grilled steak and tenderly braised shoulder.
Highway 81 heads east from Rovaniemi into deep forest country, not far from the Russian border. The town of Kuusamo and the ski resort of Ruka are the main settlements. This part of Finland is known for its Eurasian brown bears, which tread remote trails and are thought to be too shy to bother hikers. The Karhunkierros (Bear’s Ring) Trail is a popular 50-mile walk with overnights in communal huts or cabins that can be reserved (a good resource is outdoors.fi ). The shorter Pieni Karhunkierros (Little Bear’s Ring) distills some of the region’s best scenery into a great one-day hike.
You can observe the shaggy beasts from the comfort and safety of a hut on an excursion with Karhu Kuusamo. To continue the theme—although some won’t have the heart—try the bear stew with honeyed vegetables on the menu at Riipisen Riistaravintola. This deservedly famous backwoodsy game restaurant also serves elk and grouse.
The ski village of Saariselkä is peaceful in summer, and close to Ivalo airport. At the edge of town, one of Europe’s last great wildernesses begins. The Urho Kekkonen National Park—an enormous tract of forest and marshland—is crisscrossed by wide rivers and perfect for hiking, from short to multiple day treks.
The Ivalojoki River, Lapland’s answer to the Klondike, makes for a great day of canoeing or white-water rafting. To meet huskies and reindeer, or to book a guided walk in the national park, visit the tourist office (1 Kelotie; saariselka.fi) or book with a local operator, such as Eräsetti Safaris or Lapland Safaris. For reindeer steak and arctic char grilled on a wood plank, try Pirkon Pirtti, a log cabin restaurant in the town center.
INARI AND LEMMENJOKI
No animal defines Lapland like the reindeer. Most are domesticated and nearly all are owned by the indigenous Sami—a modern people who round up their antlered charges using ATVs and snowmobiles, but still maintain strong links to, and respect for, Lapland’s natural world.
You can mingle with reindeer and learn about traditional Sami life in the tiny village of Inari. The Siida museum showcases their cooking, weaving and weaponry. Thirty miles southwest, you can hike, boat and even pan for gold in Lemmenjoki National Park. Inari Event is a culturally sensitive tour operator that runs excursions in the area. Or book a boat tour up the river and pan for gold with Heikki Paltto.
In the west, which has less forest cover, the summer’s rapid fertility is so pervasive you can almost hear the grasses and cloudberries growing. Tour operator Harriniva offers rafting, canoeing and fishing for pike and salmon, as well as guided walks. Dog lovers should visit Harriniva’s enormous community of huskies, kept for winter sledding.
Kilpisjärvi is at Finland’s northern tip, a 260-mile drive west of Inari through epic Lapland scenery. After a day hike to the spot where Finland, Sweden and Norway meet, you can return by boat across the lake. Or climb the mushroom-shaped Saana Fell. At 3,376 feet, it’s no Everest, but the views from the top are—like the rest of this northern gem—breathtaking.
Harriniva (Muonio; 011-358-16-530-0300; harriniva.fi
Arktikum museum: 4 Pohjoisranta; 011-358-16-322-3260; arktikum.fi
Santa Claus Office: 1 Joulumaantie; santaclauslive.com
Nili: 20 Valtakatu; 011-358-400-369-669
Karhu Kuusamo: Kuusamo; 011-358-400-210-681; karhukuusamo.com
Riipisen Riistaravintola: Ruka; 011-358-8-868-1219
Eräsetti Safaris: 7 Saariseläntie; 011-358-20-564-6990; erasettiwildnorth.fi
Lapland Safaris: 1 Kelotie; 011-358-16-668-901; lapinsafarit.fi
Pirkon Pirtti: 2 Honkapolku; 011-358-16-668-050
Siida museum: 46 Inarintie; 011-358-400-898-212; siida.fi
Inari Event: 38 Inarintie, Inari; 011-358-40-777-4339; visitinari.fi
Heikki Paltto: Njurgulahti; 011-358-16-673-413; lemmenjoki.org