is a largish winter sports
center high up in
, some 250 km north of the Arctic Circle
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 liquor store
and a slew of hotel
s, 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 age
s and their glacier
s scraping back and forth has reduced what were once mountains into gentle rounded fell
), 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?
s nearby are excellent terrain for
, but somewhat puny
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
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
with Santa Claus
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
! 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.
In no particular order...
- The views from atop Kaunispää fell on a clear day
- Sledding down the legendary 1.5 km track from Kaunispää
- Tar-flavored vodka at the Panimo microbrewery
- Three-course meal (including river trout and pancakes with
cloudberry jam) cooked on the spot in a rustic Lappish kota tent
- You and yours alone in one of the jacuzzis at the Holiday Club spa