Photos by Mary King

Home to saunas, midnight sun, the original Santa and streams of gold nuggets, Finland’s Lapland is a hot travel spot on the edge of the Arctic Circle. Mary King heads for the far north.

Some of you may find my morals questionable. After all, it' not every day that a complete stranger asks a member of the fairer sex to share a sauna with him and she readily accepts. But then, those who know me better will tell you that I'm not the sort who would ordinarily leap at such invitations. But when in Finland, do as the Finnish do, I told myself, casting prudish English inhibitions aside along with my bra and panties.

My Japanese travel partner sucked in air, obviously perturbed by such impulsiveness, but then this was no ordinary sauna-we were being given the rare opportunity to experience the creme de la creme of saunas, a traditional wooden one on a snowy riverbank in Lapland, the “Land of the Midnight Sun."


Hot stuff

The sauna is to Finns what the onsen is to Japanese. It is an integral part of the country's culture, with its roots going back some 2,000 years to a time when perspiration and heat were considered essential elements of magic. Its steam has soothed aching muscles after a hard day's labor, and its squeaky clean interior has served as a place for Finnish women to give birth. In ancient times, the first sauna shift was for men, the second for women and the third for fairies. This sacred place has also been used for such practical purposes as curing meat or drying out malt, hemp and flax.

Apart from its health benefits-improving blood circulation and cleansing the body of impurities-the sauna is a place to meditate and enjoy a simple sense of well-being. In this Nordic land of 5 million souls, there are some 1.5 million saunas of every style imaginable. Certainly any trip to Finland would be incomplete without sampling a fair share of the sauna smorgasbord. But there are definite rules of etiquette to be observed. "We have a proverb that says, 'You should behave in the sauna as you would in church,'" Timo Leinonen told me prior to my disrobing and entering the inferno.

In this Nordic land of 5 million souls, there are some 1.5 million saunas of every style imaginable. Certainly any trip to Finland would be incomplete without sampling a fair share of the sauna smorgasbord.

I have certainly never entered a house of God in my birthday suit, but Leinonen explained that the sanctity of the sauna is maintained by prohibiting noise, shouting and swearing. Like the snow on the banks outside, we gradually melted as the savusauna’s (smoke sauna) temperature hovered around the 90-degree mark. Sweat oozed from every pore but our host continued to throw water on the stones, sending out billowing clouds of fragrant birch. The aches and pains from a day of trekking through Lemmenjoki National Park, the largest forested national park in Europe, slowly disappeared, and we started to look forward to the following day's plan-gold-panning in one of the Lemmenjoki River's gold-rich tributaries.

Rudolph’s roost

Lemmenjoki National Park falls inside Sami territory, the land that belongs to the indigenous inhabitants of Finland who still earn their living from reindeer farming. The old reindeer roundup site by the Sallivaara Fell in the park is one of the great sites of olden times and considered one of Lapland's most culturally important spots. Here, the Sallivaara reindeer owners' association, which owns about 9,000 reindeer, offers visitors an opportunity to become acquainted with contemporary reindeer herding and its history. Many tourists come to the park to camp and traverse its vast wilderness by foot, cross-country ski, canoe and boat.

Others have been drawn to the area for more lucrative reasons. Lapland has seen three big gold rushes in the past 100 years. The first began in 1868 when 200 milligrams of gold were found in the Ivalo River. The second, in 1934, resulted from a dream that ultimately came true for Aslak Peltovuoman when he awakened and headed to the area in Tankavaara. The town's Gold Museum exhibits specimens of gold and other precious stones from the area. Meanwhile, the Lemmenjoki National Park became the third site of the 1940s gold rush and continues to be popular with prospectors today.

Although tourists are drawn to Lapland for its natural beauty, many cannot resist dropping in on Napapiiri, which claims to lie on the Arctic Circle, to meet the man whom Finns maintain is the real Santa Claus. Although other nations claim to be the true home of the jolly man in red, judging by the number of visitors-mainly Japanese-as well as the amount of mail-approximately 700,000 per year, with the top three letter-writing nations being the United Kingdom, Poland and Japan-it seems that most of the world agrees that the bona fide article can only be found in Lapland's Santa Park. Here, for both young and old alike, it really is Christmas every day.


Getting there

Finnair flies direct from Narita to Helsinki and from Helsinki to various locations throughout Finland. Reservations can me made online at or toll free at 0120-700915.


Where to stay

Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland, is home to hotels, bed and breakfasts, and the Santa Claus Sports Institute (tel: 358-0-16-334411). Check with tour operator Wild and Free at  for a comprehensive listing and exclusive information on staying with a Lappish host.



Tours of Finland and neighboring countries can be arranged by Wild and Free (tel: 358-16-316-301). Santa seekers should consult  or Santa Park at 



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