As Sini harnessed up the huskies they were all yelping with excitement, but once we set off and the forest closed in around us they fell silent. Now the only sound was the soft patter of their paws as they raced ahead, dragging our wooden sledge through the snow. It felt good to be back in Lapland, the last wilderness in Europe, where temperatures can drop to –40C, where the population density is barely one person per square kilometre and where the natural world still reigns supreme.
I’d been to Lapland once before, husky sledging, but that was across the border in Sweden, 300 miles away. This time I’d come to Finland for the centenary of its independence — and what better place to spend it than at Jávri Lodge, in the heart of Finnish Lapland, where the country’s longest serving president, Urho Kekkonen, used to hole up and hide away?
A Finnish couple called Juha and Katja have done it up, turning it into a chic boutique hotel with floor-to-ceiling windows and a glass lobby that doubles as the dining room. I came here before Christmas for a sneak preview, and I was sulking when I was told there wasn’t room for me upstairs. I soon cheered up when I discovered my downstairs room was Kekkonen’s bedroom. The walls were bare wood. Shuttered windows looked out onto forest. I can’t recall the last time I spent such a peaceful night.
For somewhere so far away — 660 miles north of Helsinki, 150 miles inside the Arctic Circle — Jávri is remarkably easy to get to. Finnair has just started direct flights from Gatwick to Finland’s northernmost airport, Ivalo (we flew out on the maiden flight, surrounded by frenetic kids and their weary parents, off to visit Santa). From Ivalo, it’s less than 20 miles on good roads, an easy half-hour drive. Jávri is on the edge of a small town called Saariselkä, a winter sports resort with all the usual après-ski facilities — fairly anodyne but perfectly pleasant, in an exit-through-the-gift-shop kind of way.
Doubles may cost more than a grand a night, but I can’t think of a nicer place in which to spend that amount of money. The price includes full board and the food is divine – Nordic twist, fresh fish from the lake and the tenderest reindeer. You get a free run of the wine cellar, and a wonderful Yamaha grand piano. It feels like staying in someone’s home.
Juha and Katja are charming, and passionate about this historic project. Like a lot of Finns, they’re rather shy and terribly sincere. In fact, there’s something almost childlike about them. Juha grew up in this remote region (he remembers seeing helicopters flying overhead, bringing mysterious VIPs to Jávri) and he loves his homeland. When I asked him how he felt about this place, he had to leave the room to dry his eyes as he had been moved to tears.
That room rate also includes daily activities, in the company of superb guides. Thanks to their patience and encouragement they got me doing things I never could have done before. We drove snowmobiles through snowy forests, and went ice fishing for our lunch on a frozen lake. We didn’t catch anything (I’ve always been a useless fisherman) but I drove my snowmobile there and back without any mishaps — well, apart from tipping it over on top of me when I starting off again after lunch. I ended up flat on my face, in an icy heap beneath it. My guide, a gentle giant called Jaane, picked me up, dusted me down and helped me climb back on again.
Even more remarkably, having never put on a pair of skis before, I had a go at cross-country skiing and found I loved it (people who know about these things tell me it’s a lot less scary than downhill). Despite ending up on my backside half a dozen times — actually, make that a dozen — after an hour or so, my teacher Hele said I was beginning to get the hang of it.
Back in the hotel that evening I should have been flushed with success, but I couldn’t stop shivering. It was my own stupid fault — I hadn’t worn enough layers, the most basic mistake you can make in Lapland. Now I couldn’t warm up. I went to my room for a lie down but that just seemed to make it worse.
I went back into the lobby and bumped into Juha. I mumbled something about catching a chill, but there was more to it than that. People from big cities who come here can find the wilderness overwhelming, he told me, gently. Nature is powerful here, and they’re not used to it. They find it exhilarating, but sometimes it can be shocking too. Yes, that’s it, I said. That’s exactly how I felt today.
And as I thanked him for his kindness and wished him farewell, I found that this time, to my surprise, it was my eyes that were wet with tears.