Friday, 24 January 2014

There are few better reasons to travel than to immerse yourself in other cultures!

The Reindeer Racing World Champion
There are few better reasons to travel than to immerse oneself in other cultures. It doesn’t really matter where you travel, even on the Costas, digging a little bit deeper will reveal some remarkable secrets.

One place where the local culture takes precedence over almost everything else is Lapland, be it Finnish, Swedish or Norwegian Lapland. Here, the ways of Europe’s only remaining indigenous race, the Sámi, remain very much to the fore and for me, one of the most fascinating and exhilarating has got to be reindeer racing.

A recent trip to Luosto in Finnish Lapland just happened to coincide with the races arriving in the self same village so under an ice blue sky, we joined what the locals laughingly call “the crowds” down by the huge oval track. During the summer, this area would be a lake or a swamp but here in late March, it was snow-covered, perfect for reindeer racing because the jockeys don’t ride atop their animals, they ski behind them.

Each race brought its own buzz of excitement as Sámi jockeys, crouched low in aerodynamic poses and clad in multi-coloured, figure hugging ski suits raced each other at speeds approaching 40mph – it’s little wonder that Father Christmas can deliver all those presents in one night – reindeer are fast. Despite the bumpy surface and the pace at which each contest was run, both riders and reindeer remained steadfastly sure footed rendering crash helmets redundant. We thrilled as men and beasts sped past in a blur of colour accompanied by an increasingly ferocious and unintelligible tannoy commentary in one of the three remaining Sámi tongues.

The races went by at a furious pace but after an hour or so, a murmur began to grow in the crowd along with an almost tangible increase in anticipation. Our host explained,

“The world champion is up next.”

Now that is the sort of thing you want to hear at any sporting event and it occurred to me that what we were about to see was the reindeer racing of say Michael Schumacher with Ferrari or Tony McCoy competing in their particular fields.We watched slack-jawed as the tape went up and the competitors accelerated away from us towards the long 180 degree turn some 800 or 1000 metres from our vantage point. It was difficult to see who was leading but as the runners emerged from the bend it was clear that there would only be one winner of this particular race. Indeed, as he sped across the finishing line, the electronic timing board flashed up what was easily the quickest time of the day. Our champion had lived up to his billing and then some.

That seemed to satisfy the crowd for while the racing continued it became evident that many of them had come with the intent of seeing the champion race. Content with his commanding performance, the spectators started drifting towards the various tents and stalls that make up the event caravan. Rather like the Tour de France, this caravan follows the series of races throughout the season although the merchandise on offer differs dramatically, with cold weather garments, shoes and knives very much to the fore along with traditional Sámi handicrafts. You could also buy any manner of reindeer and elk meat; cold smoked, wind dried, warm smoked, salami, you name it and a similar array of tinned fish, vendace being particularly popular in Finnish Lapland although personally, I can’t stand the stuff!

The whole event was so very Sámi, a celebration of a culture that has largely moved on from nomadic reindeer herding but retains its greatest traditions and, equally importantly, teaches its younger generation to preserve those traditions. It was a privilege to witness such an event.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Snowmobiling in Finnish Lapland

Snowmobiling at Harriniva has to be my favourite experience so far. Exploring beautiful winter landscapes whilst speeding over frozen lakes, slowly maneuvering around trees and along snowy forest trails is pretty exhilarating. It’s not as easy as I first imagined it would be, it takes a lot of control and concentration, but it’s so much fun!!

On some of the longer safaris you snowmobile to the fells surrounding Harriniva which provide a wonderful vantage point from which to admire the scenery. I travelled to Harriniva at the very beginning of April and although the temperatures were getting relatively mild (in comparison to the extremes earlier in the year) and the trees weren't heavy with snow, the setting was still very much a winter wilderness and one to be admired! 

Retreating to the sauna and outdoor Jacuzzi afterwards was certainly an added bonus!

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The Husky safari that never was - Karasjok

Personally I am not a huge believer in spirituality, for example I have never experienced people or places having auras or special meanings however when I met Sven Engholm the owner and head Musher at Engholm in Karasjok I was completely blown away by the sheer presence of this incredible man. 

Upon arrival at the husky farm I (as usual) headed straight out to greet the dogs and look for any unsuspecting puppies for a cuddle.  It was here in the middle of around 50 howling huskies that a sudden quiet ensued (absolutely unheard of in a husky yard – especially with visitors) and I saw a man coming out from the main cabin and walk towards us across the dog yard.  Completely unassuming Sven introduced himself and instantly I was in awe of this gentleman.  If I wasn't already aware of his incredible accomplishments I would have had no idea I was in the presence of Norwegian Mushing royalty (winning the hardest husky race in Norway 11 times will give an individual that kind of reputation).

Sven Engholm
We were invited to tour the log cabins that surround the husky yard and which were all built and furnished by Sven himself from wood found in the forests in the Karasjok area. Sitting in the communal cabin there was simply so much to look at and take in! From the reindeer antlers being used as cup holders to the carved wooden table and stools fashioned from tree trunks. 

As Sven spoke about his life with the dogs you could so clearly see the passion and the enthusiasm he has for this way of life and it was completely infectious! After around an hour sitting inside and chatting about the dogs and the types of tours he runs for musher enthusiasts we went back to meet some of the best behaved huskies I have ever laid eyes on. 

It is one of my biggest regrets that, on this occasion, we didn't have to go out and explore the Arctic wilderness around Karasjok as so many of our happy clients have done in the past.  One day I will go back to Karasjok – my boss just hopes it won’t be for the whole winter season as one of Sven’s assistants!

Monday, 28 October 2013

Harriniva- 9km Husky Safari


I thought Harriniva had it all. Great accommodation, great location and great activities.

The pine clad rooms were really warm and cosy. It was hard to believe it was minus 20 outside. If it wasn't for the temperature gauge outside our room window I would never have known.

The food was excellent. Tried my first ever reindeer steak. Wow

I also loved the calm, unspoilt surroundings. It amazed me to see guests leave the hotel and head off across the frozen river on cross country skies to follow the miles of well marked trails that criss-cross Finnish Lapland.

That's the beauty of Harriniva you can enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of the hotel after your day's activities, have a few drinks in the bar, go for a sauna, book treatments at the wellness centre or head out for yet more wilderness.

Personally, the perfect ending to a perfect day was sitting in the outside Jacuzzi at 9pm with a view over the frozen Muonio River that runs between Finnish and Swedish Lapland. Very civilised!

As soon as we arrived at the Hotel we could already hear the huskies. As we walked through the entrance of the Arctic Dog Sled Centre I couldn't believe how many huskies there were. The dogs are really playful, some sat quietly in the snow enjoying the sun, but as soon as they got their harness on they were ready to go.

We got an introduction on how to handle the dogs, and how to drive the dog sled. I was a bit worried at first about forgetting the hand signs because I was so excited, but the guides were really good and made sure everyone was happy and understood before we set off. I decided to sit in the sled for the first half, and I have to say I couldn't stop laughing. As soon as my colleague took her foot off the break, we were off. I never expected the dogs to go as fast as they did. It was brilliant. As we headed out over the frozen lakes the dogs ran at a good pace, although some were keen to head off track into the deeper snow.

We stopped half way which allowed the dogs to have a rest, but as some were ready for the off we had to keep our feet firmly on the breaks. It was my colleagues turn to sit in the sled and me to drive. I enjoyed this just as much, and it took only a few minutes to feel confident that I could handle the sled. I particularly enjoyed the twisting trails through the snowy forest which require concentration and a foot ready near or on the brake to slow the dogs into the sharper turns. 

Loved it!


(Images: Antti Pietikainen)

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Snowmobiling at Harriniva

It was a beautiful sunny day, with clear ice-blue skies. A perfect day to go snowmobiling across snow covered frozen lakes, and wintery forests. This was my first visit to Finnish Lapland, and I couldn't believe how calm and unspoiled the surroundings were. Snowmobiling was a brilliant way to get to see the scenery. I decided to swap half way to ride as a passenger. Personally I enjoyed this better, as I was able to sit back and take everything in (still holding on tight!).
Snowmobiling at sunset (Antti Pietikainen)
Our guide was fantastic, and would occasionally stop to point out some of the wildlife tracks en-route. However, my favourite part has to be when we stopped off at Santa's cabin. Unfortunately he wasn't home, it was April and Santa was apparently sunning himself in the Bahamas!
Snowmobile adventure (Antti Pietikainen)
I had never driven a snowmobile, or been a passenger on one before. But I have to say, it was a truly amazing experience, and one I will never forget.
Taking a break (Antti Pietikainen)

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

My favourite things...

Having been lucky enough to see most of our winter destinations (perk of the job you may say) choosing a favourite destination is almost impossible. There is one place however that has really stood out for me recently.  In March 2013 I visited the Lulea region of Swedish Lapland and I am not sure whether I have ever returned home more excited about a destination.
Huskies (Pier Rynback)
The activities on offer provide some truly remarkable experiences including one of the most wonderful dog sledding trips I have come across anywhere. There are opportunities to witness some of Lapland’s wonders such as the frozen pack ice and the ever mesmerising Northern Lights. You can stay in unique places such as the awe inspiring Tree Hotel and the Aurora Camp – ‘glamping’ at its best - and there’s exceptionally comfortable accommodation at Sorbyn and Pine Bay Lodge. It was however the people that live and work there that were, above all else, the reason for my enthusiasm.
Sorbyn Lodge (Graeme Richardson)
Lulea is a region where small independent and family run businesses with huge amounts of integrity have come together to work to promote their region and create incredible memories for any visitors. They are passionate and enthusiastic, dedicated to their region and so keen to show you all that it has to offer.  This is tourism on a smaller scale than many areas and fuelled by a community spirit amongst the providers that I doubt that I will encounter again. The region has so much to offer in terms of accommodation, landscape and experiences that create life long memories but the people that provide all of these things are the key to the success. 
Sunset Lulea (GraemeRichardson)

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

My Favourite Destination

After joining The White Circle I went out to Luosto to assist our clients as the company’s representative accompanying a flight we had chartered over February half term.  I stayed in the small village of Luosto at the Tunturi Hotel and to this day it was one of the best weeks of my life.  A real highlight of my job is to visit as many of the destinations as possible and spend one or two days cramming as much as possible into my time. However, it was at Luosto that I really began to appreciate the slower pace of life, the friendly local people and the immense joy in the simplest of activities you may never even have considered.

I believe that there really is something for everyone at Luosto from enjoying the swimming pool, sauna and spa facilities at the Tunturi Hotel to curling up of a roaring log fire in a private log cabin to standing on the frozen lake behind the hotel, camera at the ready waiting for the spectacular Aurora Borealis.  

There are a number of downhill ski slopes in the village which are perfect for beginners or those (like me!) who are just a bit rusty and want to get some practice in.  It is at night that the ski slopes really come into their own… one of the things we advise clients who are keen on seeing the Northern Lights is to be outside and as active as possible (to keep warm).  I defy anyone to spend a few hours running up and sledging down the floodlit slopes to tell me they are cold! It is so much fun and really takes everyone back to their childhood. 

There’s the added advantage to night time sledging in that if the Northern Lights do appear you are far more likely to see them than those sitting in the hotel restaurant hoping to catch a glimpse out of the window. Nevertheless, my advice is to get away from the slopes if the lights do appear. The lake behind the hotel (approx. 400 metres from the ski slopes) is a much darker place and will enhance the view considerably.

The activities at Luosto are varied in duration and type and there really is something for everyone. If you just want to sample an activity they normally last from an hour (perfect for young kids or anybody who just wants a taster)  and go up to five or six hour snowmobile safaris  (a whole day in some cases).  A snowmobile trip to the only working Amethyst mine in Europe was one of my highlights and I still have the gem I dug up there sitting proudly on my desk in the office. 

So, it is with great confidence that I can say Luosto is my favourite destination*

*the above statement may be slightly biased as Amy witnessed her ultimate Aurora display during her first night at Luosto which coincidentally interrupted a fantastic sledging race.