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Saariselkä is a largish winter sports center high up in Finnish Lapland, some 250 km north of the Arctic Circle and nearly 1000 kilometers away from the southern capital Helsinki. Nestled in a valley, Saariselkä is a compact strip of a village with one gas station, one supermarket, one liquor store and a slew of hotels and restaurants, but it's quite manageable on foot and located only 30 km away from the town of Ivalo and its airport.

Geography and History

A succession of ice ages and their glaciers scraping back and forth has reduced what were once mountains into gentle rounded fells (Finnish tunturi), barely reaching 500m. The valleys between them are sparsely forested, but the exposed summits are treeless.

Aside from the occasional Sámi reindeer herder, there wasn't much human activity in these parts until Konrad Planting struck gold at the nearby Lutto River in 1865. The Finnish gold rush started soon thereafter and the first claim in Saariselkä was staked in 1871. Enough gold was found that by 1902 the mining company Prospektor set up its headquarters here and hacked a cart trail down to Sodankylä, some 100 kilometers away.

The gold rush slowly faded away, but in the 1960s the area started to gradually develop into a tourist attraction. Hotels and restaurants were built, skiing lifts were put up, and in 1983 the region stretching from Saariselkä to the Russian border -- favorite hunting grounds of former president Urho Kaleva Kekkonen -- were turned into the UKK National Park.

These days Saariselkä is a part of the municipality of Inari, which has some 7,700 inhabitants (including some 2,200 Sámi) on 17,321 square kilometers of land. Not too crowded, eh?

Activities

The fells nearby are excellent terrain for cross-country skiing, sledding and hiking, but somewhat puny for downhill since the maximum differential is on the order of 300 meters. Alas, this is about as good as it gets in flat Finland...

Many tourists, especially the Japanese, come to Saariselkä to gawk at the aurora borealis. While they occur with a probability as high as 75% every night in season (November to March or so), they are all too often obscured behind a bank of clouds so don't count on it. But there's plenty of standard Lappish tourist fare to keep you occupied during the day as well, ranging from husky safaris and reindeer-pulled sleighs to snowmobile and snowshow treks through the countryside.

There are quite a few possibilities for after-ski as well, all the hotels have restaurants and discos, and there's even a local microbrewery with a side line in distilled spirits as well. However, Saariselkä has a deserved reputation for catering to the middle-aged market, standard musical fare is melodramatic Finnish tango and even the food is all reindeer and snow grouse. Hip snowboarding youngsters tend to head for Levi or Ruka instead.

Getting There and Around

The easiest method is to take a Finnair flight from Helsinki to Ivalo airport (1:40, price €100-250 depending on the season), and then a connecting 20-minute bus ride into town. Direct buses from the south are cheaper but involve sitting on your ass for over 15 hours; an overnight train to Rovaniemi and a bus for the last 3 hours is a less painful but not particularly cheap alternative.

Once in Saariselkä, you can pretty much walk anywhere you want to, but if you have gear in tow just hop aboard the (free!) Ski Bus, which shuttles between the village and the slopes once an hour or so.

When to Go

Christmas with Santa Claus in Lapland sounds appealing, but it's not; it's the coldest (-40°C at worst) and darkest time of the year, since the sun quite literally does not rise at all. (This is, however, a good time to see the aurora.) By the end of February both the weather and the lighting improve, with temperatures on the better side of -10°C and nearly 12 hours of light a day, although the sun is low and it still feels like perpetual dusk! But the Finns only start to pack in at Easter, when things really start to heat up and it's possible to ski in bright sunshine wearing only a T-shirt. It takes quite some time for the accumulated snow (as much as 2 meters) to melt off, and skiing may well be possible as late as May.

Summer and fall bring on the curse of the Lappish mosquito, and if you think this sounds like a trivial nuisance you have never had to face up to the hordes that inhabit Lapland. Only hardcore hikers and fishermen visit Saariselkä then.

Top Picks

In no particular order...
  1. The views from atop Kaunispää fell on a clear day
  2. Sledding down the legendary 1.5 km track from Kaunispää
  3. Tar-flavored vodka at the Panimo microbrewery
  4. Three-course meal (including river trout and pancakes with cloudberry jam) cooked on the spot in a rustic Lappish kota tent
  5. You and yours alone in one of the jacuzzis at the Holiday Club spa
References

www.saariselka.fi
Personal experience

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