It’s 12 degrees below zero and we’re in the middle of a massive field of snow, sitting in front of a newly built fire inside a traditionally built laavu, or open tepee. Across from us here in Tromsø city sits Johan Isak Turi, a Sami tribal whose family has herded reindeer for generations across Finland and northern Norway. Now working with tour operator Tromsø Lapland, he’s just cooked us a simple but satisfying meal of sautéed reindeer, recounted the most amazing stories about his ancestral way of life, and as we cuddle up on deerskin rugs with a warm drink in our hands, he breaks into a haunting love song in a language whose words we can’t decipher, although the emotions shine through as brightly as the stars above.
It’s one of the most memorable encounters of my life. Over the next two weeks, as I tramp through snowy fields in Finnish Lapland and marvel at the breathtaking Christmas-card snowscapes all around, I discover that Scandinavia has no shortage of turbo-charged romantic experiences.
Sunny beaches might be the more usual choice for some, but when you live in one of the hottest countries on the planet, it’s the cold weather that’s exotic.
And unlike anywhere south of the Baltic Sea, northern Europeans really know how to deal with the cold. “We laugh when we read about Germany grinding to a halt because of heavy snow,” one guide taking us on a midnight walk through a moonlit woodland said. Over two weeks in Finnmark, the northernmost Norwegian province, and in Lapland in northern Finland, we learn how to stay warm: dress in layers, get insulated shoes, wear wool next to your skin and you’ll be all right even in the snow.
It takes some getting used to, this cold, but since the winter lasts five months in Scandinavia, running through to April, the natives don’t let the cold or darkness stop them living life to the fullest. One of the joys of a romantic holiday is creating shared memories, and from going crabbing after dark to driving a snowmobile through stark white forests, there are plenty of new things to try even in temperatures far below zero.
We’re in Tromsø to see the aurora borealis. The city, which sits above the Arctic Circle, is consistently rated one of the best places to see the Northern Lights dance across the skies, but frustratingly, although it’s a bright, clear night, someone’s forgotten to turn the switch on tonight. The lights are a geomagnetic natural phenomenon that can be seen only at polar latitudes and under specific temperature and weather conditions. This winter offers the best chance in 12 years to spot them, but as one of the guides who accompanied us on another aborted attempt at aurora watching in the Finnish city of Rovaniemi said, you still need to be incredibly lucky to see the lights at all. “The weather changes very quickly at these latitudes,” he explained, putting the success ratio at one in three times. “That’s why they’re rare,” he added.
Although the Northern Lights are the high point, there are other delights to be had around the region. Guaranteed to generate an “Awww!” is a ride across the tundra in a sleigh drawn by huskies — as we found out in the town of Kirkenes, pretty much at the top of Norway and bordering Russia.
After a short lesson in communicating with these beautiful, affectionate creatures, we’re off, lurching across the snow as a team of seven dogs pulls us forward across the frozen lake. These blue-eyed beauties are nimble and sure-footed and go surprisingly fast across great distances, over plains and mounds, through the trees and across frozen lakes. Sitting one behind the other in the sleigh bed since neither of us wants to drive, we get a sense of how people must have lived thousands of years ago, crossing these regions in search of food or friends. Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales come rushing back, and I think of little Gerda running through the cold snow in search of her luckless playmate Kai, kidnapped by the Snow Queen.
Nowadays, she’d probably travel across the whitelands in a snowmobile. Across The Unbroken Snow, an exhibition at the Siida museum of Sami life at Inari in Finland, tells of how these motorised monsters brought the Sami up to speed with the rest of the planet when they were introduced in the Sixties. Husbands and fathers could now come home each night instead of spending weeks in the snowy wilderness, and suddenly dog and reindeer sleds were little more than charming fodder for tourists.
Technology also means today’s traveller can enjoy his creature comforts in several fine hotels — Norwegian chain Rica even lays on gluten-free bread and special Pakistani omelettes at its fabulous breakfast spreads — but sometimes, the simple options are best.
Old-style log cabins, for instance, are tailor-made for romance. You can light a fire indoors and bed down in front of it, or admire the stars from a warm spa bath just outside your door. Many of these come equipped with personal saunas to cater to the national pastime in Scandinavia.
Our favourite log cabin was at Kakslauttanen, a picture-perfect Christmas-card village just outside the winter resort of Saariselkä, in Finnish Lapland.
We only spent a night here on our grand winter tour, but these far-flung resorts are wonderful places to stay a week or more, perhaps rediscovering what makes your partner tick. Not only is the weather perfect for going skiing, building snowmen or visiting the new Angry Birds theme park, you can also tie the knot at their specially built snow chapel.
It’s also the perfect place to honeymoon: their unique glass igloos offer a night under the stars — or indeed the Northern Lights — with warm beds and indoor plumbing. The glass shell of this futuristic dwelling insulates the interior — like the owner, Jussi Eiramo, says: “It’s minus 21 outside and plus 21 inside.”
We were on cruise from Tromsø north to Kirkenes when we finally saw the dramatic lights. Travel agent Patrick Coyle of the UK-based Mighty Fine Company, who helped with our itinerary, said the best chance of seeing the aurora would be on board the Hurtigruten coastal ferry. And he was right: on the first night of a two-day trip, we’d just fallen asleep when we were woken up by a banging on the door: the lights were clearly visible.
On the top deck, right in front of us, the sky was lit up by ethereal rainbows — unlike anything else we’d ever seen. Not too many people were on board our ship, so we had one of nature’s most wonderful events pretty much all to ourselves. For well over an hour, the lights shone and danced, dimming and brightening, going from green to amber to red and back. Photographs intensify the lights, but in real life, even mid-level illuminations are impressive. Travellers describe them as humbling, uplifting and spiritual — they were all of these and more. Months later, neither of us can forget the sight — and our relationship is stronger for having shared the magic.
Love on the ice
Sleeping in the cold is a rite of passage in Scandinavia. At Kirkenes’ Snowhotel, it’s as cold as the Snow Queen’s breath indoors, where temperatures average minus four degrees Celsius. After a local-style dinner of barbecued sausages and baked potatoes, we settle in for the night in a glittering white room built entirely from compressed snow. Each of the 20 hotel rooms feature a themed mural inspired by mythical creatures or man-made wonders — ours has one of the Taj Mahal! We bed down in individual sleeping bags and are told that to stay warm, we should sleep in very few clothes — the bags keep the body heat in and if you wear too many layers, the bags don’t heat up. It’s an adventurous night all right — a bit like sleeping in a shroud and nothing like you’d experience in Dubai. By 7am, we can’t take it anymore and jump into the sauna, after which we receive certificates of survival. It’s usually women who book the Snowhotel, its owner says — they think the idea exciting and drag their hapless husbands along.