Friday, May 13, 2022

Making Memories with Moms 2022 ✈ Finnish Lapland

This pandemic has certainly been a good reminder that life is short, life is capricious. Therefore, we have been more intentional about spending time and making memories with our loved ones over the past few years. Both our moms enjoy traveling but haven't been able to travel overseas over the past 2 years, so we decided to invite our moms to join us on our trips this year, and continue to make more memories together. =)

This 'Making Memories with Moms' journey started with a visit to Denmark and Finland with MIL, checking off the last 2 'main' Nordic countries on our travel list. My journey then continued with a 2nd visit to the Maldives, this time around with my mom. We are well aware that the pandemic ain't over yet, and with all things going on in the world now, we definitely do not take for granted the opportunity and ability to travel abroad these days.



When the Russia-Ukraine war broke out at the end of February, we certainly had concerns on whether our trip would be impacted. Even though the 2 countries we were visiting (i.e. Denmark, Finland) were not directly involved in the war, and we had already taken Poland off our itinerary due to the testing requirements, we were still slightly concerned about Finland since it borders Russia and NATO was a sensitive topic. We followed the news to keep ourselves up-to-date on the situation in Europe, and it was sad to see the lives of many Ukrainians upended overnight by the war. However, that was also one of the reasons we decided to go ahead with our trip. One thing we have learned from the pandemic and this war is that life is unpredictable no matter how well we plan, which is the reason why we have been more intentional about living in the present, doing things we want while we can, and cherishing the peace and freedom we have.


20 Mar 2022 (Sun): Dusseldorf - Rovaniemi

Following our quick stop in Copenhagen and an overnight transit in Dusseldorf, we continued our journey to Finland by taking the 8.45am Eurowings flight to Rovaniemi. This flight was part of our United award redemption so we only had to pay for the taxes.

Landed at Rovaniemi airport (Santa's Official Home Airport) at 12.40pm, and we were out of the airport by 1pm. Finland is an hour ahead of Germany so we lost an hour flying in. 

Since the airport was close to Santa Claus Village (5-8 min), we decided to go straight to the Santa Claus Village before checking into our apartment in town. Since we had all our luggage with us, we decided to take a cab from the airport. The journey took only approximately 5 min and costed EUR16 ($18). We found out very quickly that taking a cab was a good decision because there ain't no way we could lug our luggage in snow.

The cab driver dropped us off at the luggage storage in the Balmiur store. The official website showed only this luggage storage location and that it closes at 6pm. However, when we got there, we were told that they will close at 4pm so we had only less than 3 hours for sightseeing before we had to collect our luggage. It costed EUR5/bag/day. We found out later that there were other luggage storage locations within the village which we could have used. Oh well. We were also hoping to get some souvenirs from the Santa's chocolate and candy shop upstairs but they were closed on Sundays. =(

Quick photo stop at the Central Square in front of the Santa Claus Office.

In Rovaniemi, the Arctic Circle runs through Santa Claus Village is clearly marked. The Arctic Circle sign is another popular photo spot here. As you can see from our outfit, the weather was surprisingly warm (7°C) for this time of the year. We were glad it wasn't too cold but the downside was a lot of snow had melted so the ground was 'slushy'.

One of the popular things to do in Santa Claus village is to post a postcard (with the special Arctic Circle postmark) from the Santa Claus Main Post Office. We picked out the postcards we wanted, paid for the postcards and got the stamps at the cashier, then wrote our postcard greetings. Tip: Have your list of addresses beforehand to make it quicker. There are 2 mail boxes - 'Christmas Mail' or 'Normal Mail'. We opted for the Normal Mail and the kiddos in Malaysia received their postcards within about 2 weeks. 

Another popular activity here is to see Santa at the Christmas House. Entrance is free but there is a fee to take photos/videos with Santa. We didn't really care about taking photos with Santa so we just took a quick peek of Santa from the side.  

There is a Reindeer Farm in the village where visitors could go for Reindeer Sleigh Rides. The cost was EUR18/adult for 400M Reindeer Path, EUR29/adult for 1KM Forest Path, and EUR70/adult for 3KM Winter Adventure. And no, we didn't go on the sleigh ride.

Snowy sceneries around Santa Claus village. No snow on the trees as we were there at the end of winter season and it hasn't been snowing the past few days.

Had our late lunch at Three Elves Restaurant in the village. Since reindeer meat is one of the treats of Finland Lapland, we ordered Reindeer Meatballs, Grilled Reindeer Roast, and House Reindeer Burger. We thought about going to the popular Santa's Salmon Place Restaurant initially but we decided not to as there was a line and we didn't want to be in the crowded and small restaurant.

After enjoying our meal, we collected our luggage from the storage place and took the 4pm Santa Claus bus to the city center. The bus ride took approx. 30 minutes and cost only EUR 4/pax, which was way cheaper than our 5 minutes cab ride from the airport...lol! The walk from the bus stop to the apartment we booked was only 240m (3 min) but it certainly wasn't easy to lug our luggage through slushy snow. We ended up walking on the road instead of the sidewalks. Fortunately, there weren't a lot of traffic in that area.

We booked this apartment (Sampo Studios - Deluxe Apartment) via booking.com for the first 2 nights of our stay in Rovaniemi. We chose this place mainly because of its convenient location, which was within walking distance to all the tour companies. Even though the exterior of the apartment didn't look appealing, and it took us a few minutes to figure out how to use the old-school elevator, the interior was actually very cozy and comfortable. Check-in was easy and 'contactless' as we were given instructions on how to collect the keys prior to our arrival. The apartment was also well-equipped with a full kitchen and washing machine. Complimentary coffee, tea, hot chocolate, oatmeal, noodles, rye crisps, and jam were also provided.

After a short rest in the apartment, we geared up with our warm gears and walked about to the Nordic Odyssey office at 8pm for our Northern Lights tour. The tour company does provide free pick-up service but since our accommodation was less than 1km away from their office, we were asked to go directly to their office ourselves. 

We took the 4.5 hours Northern Lights Photography Hunting Experience in Rovaniemi for EUR85/adult, which includes campfire with snacks provided and pictures taken during the tour. We could also rent winter overalls and boots for an extra cost of EUR5/set, but since it wasn't too cold that night (approx. -1°C to -5°C), what we brought was sufficient. I wore 3 layers of Uniqlo Heattech undershirt, 2 layers of leggings, 1 thick jacket, 1 ski pants, earmuffs, scarf, gloves, 2 pairs of socks, boot, and brought several hand and leg warmers.

We decided to book a Northern Lights tour mainly because seeing the Northern Lights was one of the main purpose of this trip, and since we had no experience nor car to go hunt for the Northern lights and didn't have a professional camera, we figured it was worth using a tour to increase our chances of seeing the Northern Lights and also 
get better photos. There are many Northern Lights tour that we could choose from but we chose Nordic Odyssey because their group sizes are capped at 8 people, the review was good, and the price was very reasonable. We opted to do the tour on our first night in Rovaniemi because the Aurora forecast app showed KP index of 4 (higher chances of seeing Aurora) on Sunday and Monday night, so we had Monday night as a back up if we failed to see Aurora on the first night.

Our guide for the night was Timo. The benefit of using a tour is that the guide is familiar with the area and knows where to take us. The basic criteria for aurora hunting is to be far from the city lights (no light pollution) and with open space (e.g. lake). We arrived at the first lake around 9pm but didn't stay long as the weather looked cloudy in that area. Our van got stuck in the snow when we were leaving so all of us had to get off and help push the van...lol!

Our guide then drove another 20min to another lake to try our luck. When we arrived at the 2nd lake around 10.20pm, the sky was clear and we were able to see the stars, looked promising. While we were waiting, I took the opportunity to play around with the night mode of my iPhone 13 mini to capture the stars and the moon. The bottom right photo was actually the moon, not the sun. The bright moon was another thing we were worried about as it would reduce the visibility of aurora. A tip for those who are planning a trip to see aurora, remember to avoid dates when it's full moon as it will impact the visibility.

While waiting, our guide made a fire to keep us warm and prepared some Finnish snacks (sausage with wrap and hot chocolate). The other 5 people in our group were university students and were nice to hangout with. We waited for about 1.5 hour at this lake and still had no luck with aurora so we made the decision to move on. Looking back at the bottom left photo, it looks like there was aurora at the lake but a very faint one.

As we were on our way to the next location, our guide spotted aurora and immediately pulled over at the side of a road to set up his camera. I quickly set up my tripod and iPhone as well. At this point, it was already 12.20am, which meant we've been out for 4 hours. The aurora started slow but started dancing around 12.40am and lasted for about an hour. I was able to capture the photos above with just my iPhone's night mode, and the quality was pretty good. I also bought the NightCap app which wasn't as good for the camera but was great for timelapse. P.S. This was my first time ever seeing auroras.

These were the photos taken by the guide with his professional camera.

The guide also helped to take as many photos as we wanted. =) We ended our aurora hunt around 1.30am and got back to our apartment around 2am. All in all, our tour lasted for around 6 hours, which was more than scheduled. Thanks to our guide for going 'out of the way' (literally) to help us fulfill our dreams of seeing the aurora. 

These were the 3 stops our tour guide made for the aurora hunt. The last stop (stop C in the photo above) was where we saw the aurora.


21 Mar 2022 (Mon): Rovaniemi - Arctic SnowHotel and Glass Igloos

After a successful aurora hunt the night before, we had another busy 2nd day in Rovaniemi. We booked the Full-day Snowmobile Safari to Ice Hotel tour with Safartica for EUR199 + EUR15 self liability insurance per pax. I wanted to visit the Ice Hotel and MIL wanted to try snowmobiling so we found this tour which was perfect as we would have the opportunity to go on a long snowmobile safari from Rovaniemi to the Arctic SnowHotel, tour around the SnowHotel, have glow-fried salmon for lunch at the hotel, then snowmobile back to the city.

Our tour was scheduled to begin at 10am and since our accommodation was less than 1km (5 min walk) from Safartica's office, we were asked to meet at their office at 9.35am. We left our apartment at 9.15am and got there early. There was a big group of people when we arrived but fortunately we were not on the same tour as that group. After the big group departed, we headed in to collect our winter clothing, which included thermal overall, winter boots, wool socks, beanie and gloves. 

The snowmobiles were parked at an open area not too far from Safartica's office. We were given a short briefing on how to operate the snowmobile. There were a total of 7 people in our tour group. As we had odd numbers in our group, hubby and I shared a snowmobile while MIL got to ride the snowmobile solo without having to pay extra. =) 

We started riding at 10.15am and the journey to the Arctic SnowHotel took about 2 hours. Hubby rode all the way while I was busy taking photos and videos along the journey. The difficulty level for this tour was indicated as 'Challenging' mainly because of the long ride. It was good that we had a few rest and photo stops along the way.  

We arrived at the Arctic SnowHotel around 12.10pm and was given a tour around the SnowHotel where we learned about the construction of the icy masterpiece. This hotel is one of the biggest snow hotel in the Nordic countries with 30 rooms and is only opened in the winter.

I lost count of how many different rooms we visited but each of the rooms had different designs. We learnt that the snow hotel is rebuilt every year and each room is hand-carved by artist. Blocks of ice dug out of the lake the previous winter and are kept frozen to build the hotel at the beginning of the next winter. I suppose these rooms are bookable but it looked like none of the rooms were occupied during our visit. 

Apart from hotel rooms with different designs, the snowhotel also had an Ice Bar where the shot glasses are made out of ice and you could smash it after finishing the drink. 

There is also a Ice Restaurant that could fit 150 people. 

And a cool (literally) Ice Chapel where people actually come and get married here.

After ending our tour of the snow hotel at 1pm, we had lunch at the Kota restaurant. 

We were served the restaurant's specialty dish...glow-fried salmon and dessert, which are included as part of our tour. The food was surprisingly good and the atmosphere in the wooden tepee was warm and cozy.

After enjoying our lunch, we hopped back onto our snowmobiles and headed by to the city at 2pm. Before our tour started, our guide had told us to follow his track as there could be places where the snowmobile could get stuck in snow. Lo and behold, our guide's snowmobile got stuck in the snow on our way back and the 3 guys in our group had to help pull it up. For 2 days in a row we had to bail out our guides...hahaha! Our guide also had to increase the power of our snowmobiles as there were parts of the frozen lake that were too slushy and we had to ride faster to avoid getting stuck. I switched with hubby and drove for a short while on the way back and almost went off track...lol! Fortunately, we made it back to the city at 3.30pm without any mishaps. 

We didn't do much for the rest of the day after getting back to our apartment. We received multiple aurora alerts on the Aurora app but we weren't able to see it from our apartment as it was too bright in the city. 


22 Mar 2022 (Tues): Rovaniemi - Hotel Metsahirvas

We stopped by the supermarket close to our apartment to pick up some groceries before taking a cab to the other hotel. We didn't cook much in the apartment but the price of the groceries, especially salmon,  seemed pretty reasonable. Spotted PwC Rovaniemi next to the supermarket...lol!

For our final night in Roveniemi, we booked Hotel Metsähirvas, which was located 20 minutes away from the city. I only knew about this hotel because of the Chase Travel Portal, and it was one of the lowest price ones with very good reviews. We initially wanted to stay in Hotel Metsähirvas for all 3 nights in Rovaniemi but since the tour companies didn't provide complimentary pick-up from this hotel as it was more than 10km away from the city, we decided to stay in the city for the first 2 nights. Besides, Sampo Studios was also fully booked for the 3rd night anyway so we'd have to move either way. 

Even though we could have taken a bus to the hotel, we've learnt from experience that lugging our luggage in snow is almost impossible so we opted to take a cab for EUR50/way. Definitely not cheap but we didn't mind spending a bit more for convenience.

This building used to be a Forest Guard School, a military hospital, German headquarters, and was refurbished into a hotel few years ago. We chose to stay here for our last day in Rovaniemi just to enjoy the nature. We booked the Triple Room originally, but got a free upgrade to the suite, which was spacious and has a well-equipped kitchen. =)

We didn't have anything planned to do at this hotel, so we just took a walk around the hotel area. The hotel is by a big frozen lake, and there is a small fireplace which would be the perfect place to wait for the aurora. We also found a hole in the ice with wooden ladders for ice swimming.

Since the hotel's location was quite secluded, we decided to have the buffet dinner at the hotel restaurant for EUR35/pax. The food, especially the salmon, was good.

One of the main reasons we chose this hotel was for its location...far from the city and by a lake, the perfect set up for aurora hunting. Yes we may have been able to save some $$ if we had come to this hotel on our first night instead of taking the tour. But taking the tour on our first night was actually a good thing because our guide taught us quite a lot about how to hunt for aurora and take photos. For example, which direction to look in the sky, how to see if it's cloudy, how to use our camera to spot aurora (the aurora color is not as vibrant when looking with our bare eyes), and how to take photos of the aurora with low light, and the fact that there is at least 3 meters of frozen ice on the lake so we didn't need to panic when we hear cracking sounds on the lake, we won't fall into the lake...lol!

We had several aurora apps installed on our phones, but the best and most useful one in our opinion was the Aurora Alert - Rovaniemi app. We had our aurora alert notifications on and when we received the first alert for the night around 9.30pm, showing intensity of 3, we quickly grabbed our jackets and camera, and ran out to the lake. I could already see the aurora with my bare eyes even before reaching the lake, and started shouting for hubby to run faster. P.S. Aurora doesn't last long so we had no time to waste. 

I quickly set up my tripod and camera in the middle of the lake and started taking photos and timelapse. The aurora was much stronger and clearer than the ones we saw on the first night and it lasted a good two hours before fading away. I conveniently sat down on the frozen lake to watch the aurora as my timelapse was running. The temperature was around -2°C, but I guess I was too excited to feel cold. It's hard to describe how I felt seeing the auroras but I was certainly in awe of mother nature, and made it a point to sit back, take it all in, and enjoy the moment. I'm definitely thankful, happy and content. We called it a night around 12.30am as the clouds started rolling in.


23 Mar 2022 (Wed): Hotel Metsahirvas - Saariselka

Our hotel provided complimentary breakfast which we turned into brunch before checking out of the hotel at 10.45am.

We called the same cab driver who dropped us off to pick us up from the hotel to Rovaniemi bus station for EUR46 to catch the 11.45pm bus from Rovaniemi to Saariselkä. We booked the bus tickets on Matkahuolto website for EUR38.50/pax.

We decided to make a 2nd stop in Lapland by traveling further north and spend 2 nights in Saariselkä to increase our chances of seeing northern lights. We also intentionally booked our flight out of Ivalo (which was the closest airport to Saariselkä) to Helsinki.

The bus was pretty empty and comfortable for the 3hr 45min journey. There was supposed to be wifi on the bus but it wasn't working so I pretty much napped the whole way and took only some photos of the winter sceneries along the way.

We arrived Saariselkä town at 3.20pm to a bus stop covered in snow...lol! We were supposed to pick up our keys from the shopping center but was informed the day before that the shopping center was burnt down in a fire that happened a month ago. As such, we collected our keys from the temporary pick-up point nearby instead. It's sad that the place was destroyed by the fire but I was a lil' annoyed that they only informed us about this a day before our check-in date as we had planned to pick up some groceries and souvenirs at this supermarket before heading to our chalet. 

Our chalet was located about 5-8 min drive from Saariselkä town so we took a cab (EUR15/way) to our chalet after collecting the keys. As you can see from the flyer, the shopping center used to be the central hub for the town but they're all gone now.

We booked the One-Bedroom Apartment 73 - Outa at Aparthotel Kuukkeli Aurora for our 2 nights in Saariselkä. This place caught my eye because it looked cool...a log cabin in the woods surrounded by snowy sceneries. How often do we get to stay in places like this?

The interior is warm and cozy. We had our own living room, bedroom, bathroom and fully-equipped kitchen in our apartment but share the sauna with the other apartment next door. However, we never saw our 'neighbor' so we had the sauna to ourselves.

So much snow everywhere! There is a common sauna and indoor swimming pool. We had a sauna in our own apartment so we didn't use the common one.

As mentioned earlier, one of the main reasons we decided to travel further up north was to increase our chances of seeing aurora but we knew our chances were low when we saw that it was forecasted to snow both nights we were there. We actually didn't mind the snow since we were already lucky to see aurora for 2 nights in Rovaniemi, but no there was no snow, just cloudy and no aurora. 


24 Mar 2022 (Thurs): Aparthotel Kuukkeli Aurora 

We didn't have anything planned for our time in Saariselkä. Our plan was to hangout, chill out, and enjoy the snowy sceneries in our log cabin. 

It was a beautiful day so we went for walk around the hotel and took photos of...more snow! This area is also popular for cross-country skiing.

My signature jumpshot. =)

Finnish sauna experience in our private sauna. We spent more time trying to figure out how to heat up the sauna than the time we spent enjoying it...lol!


25 Mar 2022 (Fri): Aparthotel Kuukkeli Aurora - Ivalo - Helsinki

Early start for the day as we had to go to Ivalo airport, which was located about 20 min away, to catch our 9am flight to Helsinki. We booked the cab the night before for pick up at 6.30am and arrived early at the airport around 6.50am.

We arrived so early that the check-in counters weren't even opened yet.

We booked our flights from Ivalo to Helsinki with 6,000 British Airways Avios points and taxes of $43. Found out that we also get to check a bag for free by redeeming miles.

Goodbye Ivalo, goodbye Lapland, goodbye snowy-land!

That's a wrap for our 6D5N in Lapland. Thankful to be able to see aurora for 2 nights, and to have the opportunity to experience many different things in this snowy-land. Next and final stop...Helsinki.

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