Just 3hrs from Scotland via Helsinki lies Kuusamo, a land of hills and lakes at the heart of Finnish Lapland aflame just now in fiery oranges and golds that will warm your soul so much you will forget all about the Sun, Sea and Sand in a second.
Late Friday evening I touch down at Kuusamo airport, in the North of Finland and the heart of Lapland. Re-vitalised from the hit of crisp fresh air as I step off the twin turboprop plane I am instantly aware of darkness and conclude I am literally in the middle of nowhere. As I bundle into my transfer to my hotel and gaze out the window to explore, all I can see is stars.
My base is the Holiday Club Kuusamon Tropiiki, a family friendly hotel and holiday house
resort between Ruka and Kuusamo. Nestled amidst magnificent landscapes by the breathtaking Petäjälampi pond, it offers an array of activities, mountain biking, bowling, an Angry Birds theme park and apartments even come with their own private sauna.
It is 5am and I am hiking up what feels like a mountain, ill prepared using my iPhone torch and compass app to somehow navigate the ultimate sunrise spot through the maze of pine trees. Chuffed but a little chilly, I am rewarded for my hard efforts as black, turns to blue and new rays reveal Ruska in all its glory. As far as the eye can see, are tree tops, whose leaves have changed to so many different orange, yellow and reddish tones, that even a Farrow and Ball paint chart would be put to shame. As the sun rises, miles and miles of forest are lit up and the landscape looks like a Monet on fire. It is at this moment, I learn that Ruska, the Finnish word, to describe the turning of the leaves is not just something you see but something you feel.
Kuusamo is surrounded by 5 unique national parks, 4,000 lakes, 3 big rivers and 17,000 reindeer, which makes me feel microscopic as I ramble through Oulanka National Park with a guide who is helping us pick our own food for dinner. After I have filled my wicker basket full of mushrooms and berries, I am taken into one of the free wilderness huts on offer to hikers in various parts of the park. Sipping steaming hot blackcurrant juice, around the crackling wood fire, listening to other Finnish hikers chatter in the little wooden hut, I wonder to myself is this all a fairytale.
As I peer out of the glass window from the hut, I start rubbing my eyes in disbelief, concerned I’ve eaten the wrong type of mushroom. About 100 yards in front of me are three little bears emerging from the the woods, behind their mother. Just two kilometres from the Russian border in Eastern Kuusamo, between June and September, you can safely watch wild bears in their natural habitat play amongst the orange pine trees.
I arrive at Isokenkaisten Klubi, a family run wilderness hotel, situated amongst miles of forest and by the peaceful, clear-water Lake Heikinjärvi. Isokenkaisten Klubi offers traditional Finnish experiences including foraging, a seven star sauna experience and cooking lessons.
As I open the little wooden door to the Lappish Hut, known as a Kota, I pray that my cooking lesson is going to be easier than trying to pronounce the hotel name. Before any recipes are exchanged we are greeted with homemade herbal teas around a fire, and the cosiness of it all is heartwarming. Watching the Finnish cook hammer wooden pegs to secure local caught salmon into a board to cook over the fire is almost a meditative experience. I want to take a picture but feel like getting out my Apple device will break the spell of it all.
After dinner, I arrange a shift work pattern of alarms to wake up during the night every two hours in an attempt to see the Northern Lights.
This is what new mothers must feel like. I am exhausted. Four wake up calls and zero sightings. Katijana, my Sauna elf, reassures me I will wake up once I’ve been for a swim in the lake. It is one degree outside.
I learn quickly that a Sauna Elf is basically someone who is going to teach me how to Sauna properly. Despite Sauna being the only Finnish word to make it into the English language we have been doing it all wrong. Katijana is not the only one who looks like an elf. Definitely the first time I have worn a hat in a sauna let alone with a swimsuit, but not one to break others traditions I go along with it. I am experiencing my first proper Sauna.
Sauna is to Finns what going to the Pub is to Brits. It is a culture, a lifestyle, a way to socialise with friends and relax after work. Having experienced the sauna at the gym, I give myself five minutes tops. One and a half hours later I am about leave the sauna for my third lake swim. The sauna is heated by wood fire and not only have I embraced it, I have been whipped with birch leaves to improve my circulation. I feel like I’ve been for a run and had a massage at the same time. Invigorated and relaxed.
As I sit at dinner on my last night, I feel a huge wash of gratitude towards nature. Picking berries, watching bears, drinking tea around the fire. I never expected to feel such a sense of warmth in a cool climate. I turn to the person next to me and say “This has been such an incredible experience, I don’t even mind I didn’t get to see the northern lights”, she smiles and nods in agreement. I throw on my coat, cocoon myself in my scarf, step out in to the darkness, and there they are.