We’re not so different, Aussies and Finns.
We may reach for the air-con control in 30C heat, while Finns need heating in -30C, but we share a humour, and a bond with family and friends that seems to say: “If your life depends on me, you’ll be just fine.”
In Australia, we keep our word, just like the Finns.
It was on the promise to a Finnish mate that a group of Aussies, as well as a few Belgian friends, visited Finland in October.
We wanted to experience the northern lights, but not in the depths of winter.
“Don’t go to Finland,” a Norwegian friend joked. “All you’ll see is trees.”
She was right. I think we managed to see all of the alleged 77 billion of them during our stay, but who’s counting? We were more focused on the sky.
As aurora-watchers well know, there’s never a guarantee the Tricky Lady will come out to play.
But she did, and she was splendid.
Four nights in six she swirled and danced and draped herself high across the sky as we watched, transfixed; sometimes from outside while we shivered beyond words, sometimes from the warmth and comfort of our igloo.
Our journey, which took us to Levi and Rovaniemi in the country’s north, the central city of Oulu and Helsinki in the south, was born from a profound sadness.
More than a year earlier, a Finnish friend, journalist Antti Tiri from news agency STT, had died unexpectedly in Sydney during a two-year posting.
His death at 36 from an undiagnosed brain tumour threw his grieving friends and colleagues into each other’s arms as we struggled to comprehend the loss of such a beautiful, young man.
We spoke with Antti’s family, across time zones and languages, to try to help where we could. And we bonded. A bunch of almost a dozen Finns, Aussies and Belgians.
Then came the promise. We will all meet again in Finland.
First stop Levi, Finland’s largest ski resort in Lapland and north of the Arctic Circle, where for a week we stayed in rustic log cabins and glass igloos, designed for viewing the Aurora Borealis.
There may not yet have been snow, but we marvelled at the ancient rocks, quietly-running streams and dramatic wilderness of Levi Fell. It feels as though this place hasn’t been touched for centuries.
The reward at the end was seeing the lights illuminate Levi below, every bit as sparkling and magical as if the village had been blanketed in snow.
It was on these hikes that we learnt how Finns inherently understand survival. They showed us how to identify berries on the forest floor: cloudberries, lingonberries, crowberries, cranberries, juniper berries and, our favourite, wild blueberries.
In wooden huts known as kotas, we cooked up reindeer sausages and salmon (from the supermarket this time).
With Christmas just weeks away, and Santa’s official hometown of Rovaniemi just hours by road, we made a date with the guy.
But “the Real Santa” is hard to pinpoint; there is more than one. And he can be expensive. A photo with him can set you back around 25 euros ($A35), while the novelty of arranging a letter from the man himself is about 7.50 euros ($A10).
The capital of Lapland has other attractions, including the impressive Arktikum Science Museum, which brings Sami and Lappish history and their stories of survival to life.
Next, we were ready for the spiritual part of our journey: meeting the family of our friend Antti in Oulu.
At their woodland home by the peaceful Bothnian Sea, the Tiris welcomed us with open arms and, in what we have come to know as true Finnish hospitality, a table abundant with delicious food.
We spent time with this wonderful family, made an emotional visit to Antti’s grave, his childhood home and the centuries-old church where all his milestones, in life and in death, had been marked.
On our final evening with them, a stunning sunset over the water seemed to thank us for coming.
Finally we hit Helsinki, where we discovered trendy surprises from Kaffecentralen in Kamppi to the uber-chic Lilla Roberts Hotel and the recently-opened Allas Sea Pool and Loyly sauna.
This beautifully-constructed sauna by Helsinki harbour, and its heady smell of birch and spruce, reinforced the feeling that, even in the capital city, we remained close to nature.
Sauna culture to the Finns is as dear as beach culture to the Aussies, so it should not have been surprising to find saunas at every turn. But a sauna car flipping around on the harbour’s ferris wheel is certainly a unique idea.
Before our trip, we had not thought of Helsinki as a foodies’ paradise, but a visit to the bustling Market Square provided a range of pleasures, from reindeer and bear pate to an array of flavour-infused salmon.
We also visited Karl Fazer cafe, which satisfied our newfound taste for blueberry chocolate, and spent our last night in Finland enjoying a big band perform at Cafe Carusel.
We’re worlds apart, Australia and Finland, but we’re really not so different.
Except for the weather.
Getting there: There are lots of options, among them Qantas to Singapore, then Finnair to Helsinki. Finnair operates internal flights to Kittila (near Levi) and to Rovaniemi.
Staying there: Golden Crown glass igloos at Levi, high up over Levi Village, offer an incredible view of many of Finland’s billions of trees – and are an awesome way to catch the Aurora Borealis (should she be out). Details here.
In Helsinki, the oh-so-funky Hotel Lilla Roberts is close to the harbour and Market Square, and a lovely walk to Cafe Carusel.
Playing there: In the off-season, Levi Fell has many different treks – from easy to difficult – taking in the beauty of the region. In Helsinki, make Market Square and its ‘wild’ foods a destination.
* The writer travelled at her own expense.
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