Someone from a mild climate has no idea what sub-zero temperatures feel like. Clifford Roberts* offers a few guidelines if you’re headed for the fantastic town of Rovaniemi.
Sometime last year my wife and I decided we’d like to see the Northern Lights and that’s how we ended up in Rovaniemi, the commercial centre of Finland’s northernmost province. When we began our research however, we found it difficult to get information that explained what we could expect from our perspective.
Three months before departure to the land of the Sami, I found myself watching Lapland Safaris’ online videos of how to operate a snowmobile and husky sled; I read countless blog posts. It was surreal to be immersed in a world of snow and sub-zero temperatures while the temperature outside my office window was somewhere in the vicinity of 30°C (86°F).
Even though Lapland Safaris’ tips on how to dress in winter were very useful, my perception of cold weather and how to prepare for it is very different to someone who lives with snow and ice for months. South Africa is a water-scarce country with only very few mountain areas that get heavy snow. A couple of humble ski slopes in Lesotho merely antagonise the die-hards. Temperatures in Cape Town where I live, rarely get to freezing; most people here have never even touched snow.
I had never felt moisture in my nose crystallise with the first intake of icy air or stepped onto a pedestrian crossing covered in transparent ice. I reckon many others are in the same boat, which is the reason for these tips.
- I never expected to get thirsty surrounded as I was by frozen water and cold. You’ll want to keep a water bottle close at hand.
- Advice on clothing is always tricky because we all react differently to cold and heat. Most activity and sights are located within the CBD, so if you’re in town for a few days you’ll probably spend days out and about. Rovaniemi is a very walkable town. Fortunately, you don’t need to go out and spend money hard-core Arctic clothes and shoes. Our typical day-wear included thick socks, long-sleeved thermal top and underwear; jeans, shirt and fleece or jersey; an insulated, wind-resistant jacket; a beanie and scarf or buff; and, a pair of good mittens. The perfect combo is thin gloves inside mittens. As for footgear, wear shoes that can repel water and have good rubber soles. They don’t have to be snow boots, but ordinary sneakers can get wet and you don’t want cold feet. As for excursions further afield, Lapland Safaris provided everything necessary for dealing with extreme conditions – head to toe.
- Most people come to Rovaniemi for Santa Claus Village, the Northern Lights, the huskies, snowmobiling and reindeer. But there’s a lot more really worth seeing. I can recommend the Pilke Science Centre and Arktikum Science Museum, which are neighbours and give brilliant insight into the region and the Arctic; the historic Marttiini factory knife shop; and, the Rovaniemi Art Museum. We found Google Maps very useful in directing us to the various sights. Free wifi is widely available in hotels and restaurants. Use it and don’t forget your charger.
- Rovaniemi has taxis, but the bus from the airport is the cheapest transport and stops within metres of most of the small town’s hotels. Keep in mind however that you might wait an hour for another to arrive if you miss it. The stop is right outside the airport front door. The bus is generally packed, so make sure you get there as soon as you’ve collected your luggage.
- Given the dramatic change in climate to your own country, you may well develop the sniffles. Take along some basic medicine to alleviate the symptoms if you don’t want to use the local pharmacy. Better still, pep up your system with vitamins before you arrive.
- The town is dark and gloomy in December and January, but from February the days are much longer. You might want to read up briefly on how to take the best photographs in these kinds of conditions because flash photography and auto aren’t necessarily the best settings for getting blur-free shots.
- Cost is always a consideration when you’re on holiday; by all means, try the sautéed reindeer meat at one of the town’s excellent restaurants, but few people will be able to afford that every night. There are supermarkets located in the shopping malls that stock a wide variety of supplies including fresh fruit and vegetables and pre-cooked meals.
- Pack a bathing costume. Our hotel, the Rantasipi Pohjanhovi, has a pool and saunas. You might also want to try some ice-swimming, which is available on the other side of the Kemi River at the town beach.
- Book your excursions before you arrive in Rovaniemi. While there are a number of tour operators in Rovaniemi, our experience booking through Lapland Safaris website was very good. Many of the trips sell out quickly.
- If like us, you are hoping to tick the Northern Lights from your bucket list, heed this warning. In the entire week that we were in and around Rovaniemi we never had skies clear enough to see the stellar display. It’s a natural phenomenon and sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes not. It was however the smallest dent in our experience. My advice is: go to Rovaniemi to see the snow, ride with huskies, experience the reindeer and get to know the people. For us, that alone made the trip worthwhile. For the Northern Lights, we’ll just have to wait a little longer.
*Work never suited Clifford Roberts, so he became a writer, traveller and sipper of fine South African spirits. Track him down on twitter @CliffordRobots.