|Photos by Mary King
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Finnair flies direct from Narita to Helsinki and from
Helsinki to various locations throughout Finland. Reservations can me made
online at www.finnair.com
or toll free at 0120-700915.
Where to stay
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 www.fintravel.com
for a comprehensive listing and exclusive information on staying with a
of Finland and neighboring countries can be arranged by Wild and Free (tel:
358-16-316-301). Santa seekers should consult www.santaclausoffice.fi
or Santa Park at www.fintravel.com/santapark/eng.htm