Exploring Finland, Part 1: Why I won’t be taking the Santa Express again

To me, Finland always seemed like one of those faraway places that only existed in the pages of a book. Like, when you crawl to the very back of your wardrobe and find yourself in Narnia.

For a while there, Finland was my Narnia. Well, Finnish Lapland, to be precise. A place I very much wanted to see, but one that felt more like a fantasy than somewhere I could actually go.

Because, a couple of years ago, we started planning a winter trip to Scandinavia. I know, I know, technically Finland isn’t part of Scandinavia at all. [But, it certainly feels as Scandic as Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, so why not, right?]

However, our trip was quickly becoming a logistical nightmare. We didn’t have enough days up our sleeve to fit everything in, largely because travel times in and out of Lapland were pretty darn long. So, we gave up on that idea and hit up Canada and the United States instead. Total cop-out, I know!

But, our desire to explore Finland did not end with the throwing of that trip in the metaphorical bin. So, we tried again. Upon planning our Scandic trip the second time around, things slowly — and magically — started falling into place. This time, we were more realistic with our timeframes and spent a bit more effort researching transport options and routes.

In total, we gave ourselves three weeks in Scandinavia, with a full week dedicated to exploring Finland.

The journey from Sweden to Finland

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We were really keen to see the archipelagoes of Stockholm, and we quite enjoy ferry travel, so booked ourselves on a boat to Turku, Finland. The ferry takes 12 hours, either during the day or overnight. Regardless of which option you choose, I highly recommend paying a bit extra for a cabin. Even though we travelled during the day, it was so nice having our own private base to return to whenever we wanted, and also somewhere we could store our luggage and freshen up.

There are a number of eateries, along with free entertainment, a day spa, and duty-free shopping, offering many opportunities to while away your time on board.

We spent the night in Turku, but could easily have stayed longer. After checking into our hotel, we wandered along the river and crossed a beautiful bridge decorated for Christmas. Christmas trees and fairy lights covered the bridge, and the most lovely and haunting Nordic soundtrack played in the background. We enjoyed dessert and drinks at the hotel before retiring for the night.

The next day, we realised that our international roaming didn’t include Finland, so we spent most of the morning sorting out Finnish sim cards. In the end, it proved to be a silver lining, as they came with unlimited data — bonus!
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Frozen in Helsinki

In the afternoon we took the two-hour train ride to Helsinki. For most of the trip, we had an entire carriage to ourselves and felt very first class, haha.

The main thing I remember about Helsinki is the freezing cold temperatures. I feel like it was the coldest place we have visited so far. And we’ve been to a lot of cold places! We spent most of our time indoors shopping and at the movies just to keep warm. If we had more time in Helsinki we may have made more of an effort to explore, but for us, it was pretty much a stopover on our way to Lapland.

You see, one of the things we really wanted to do in Finland was the Santa Claus Express train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi.
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The not so Santa Express

The Santa Express is a double-decker overnight train to Finnish Lapland. We thought it would be magical, or at least a little bit Christmassy. Unfortunately, the name was totally deceiving — it was just a run of the mill train. And not a very good one, at that.

The train was supposed to depart Helsinki at 9.50pm, but ended up being delayed until 10.30pm. No big deal, except the train station was freezing cold and partially outdoors. There wasn’t really anywhere warm to wait, where we could still keep an eye on the tracks. There were no announcements in regards to the delay, either, so it really was a waiting game where we took it in turns to see if the train had arrived yet.

We weren’t on board for long when we noticed a nasty smell. Sewerage. Apparently, the pipes on our particular carriage had frozen and burst, and we were told we’d probably have to move to another carriage, but that never happened. Lucky for us, we were on the top level of the train. The poor buggers underneath us would have had an even less enjoyable time. Although, in saying that, if anyone was offered a different cabin or carriage for the night, it would have been them.

It was pitch black on departure, and our room was fairly cramped but comfortable enough. We’ve been on a couple of overnight trains so far, so knew what to expect. Although, the lack of Santa Claus was disappointing, for a trip called the Santa Claus Express. The only Christmassy thing we noticed were some snowflakes on our duvets.

There were further delays along the route, so by the time we arrived in Rovaniemi, we were 2.5 hours late.

Luckily for us, that wasn’t an issue, as Rovaniemi was our final destination.
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We made it to Finnish Lapland!

Our hire car was booked for the Lapland leg of our journey, but we were unable to find a kiosk or staff member to help us at Rovaniemi station. We ended up having to call the rental agency, who sent a guy over with our car. Whether true or not, he told us that cars in Finland don’t come with a spare tire, so we were forced to pay for insurance. Normally we just rely on our travel insurance to cover rental cars, but as we’d be driving in Lapland, on the other side of the road, in the middle of winter, we didn’t want to risk it.

Finally, we arrived at our airbnb, which was situated on the outskirts of Rovaniemi. Read: the middle of nowhere. The sun was just setting as we pulled up the driveway, and the house sat right on the edge of a magnificent frozen lake. The whole area was covered in deep snow, and there were even a couple of snowmen to greet us.

Our hosts, Harri and Hannele, were waiting for us inside. They went above and beyond, showing us around, and letting us know how everything worked and where to get the best groceries. They really took us in like family!

Our “home” in Rovaniemi could not have been more perfect. We rested, wandered in the snow, took full advantage of their indoor sauna, and got plenty of photographs of the most amazing sunrises and sunsets over the lake. Our nights were spent in front of the fire with home cooked meals, and we kept our eyes on the night sky.
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We caught a glimpse of the Northern Lights, which I was super excited about. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to satiate my bucket list, so it still remains for now.
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Ranua Wildlife Park

The Ranua Wildlife Park is about an hour drive from Rovaniemi, and so worth the visit! We enjoyed wandering the trail in the freezing cold, and spying Arctic Fox, Owls, Grey Wolves, Lynx, Moose, Ox, Beavers, Deer, Boar, Wolverine, and so much more!
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Is Finnish Lapland on your bucket list?

Or, have you been there before? I’d love to hear your experience!


Trip Details

Transport

Stockhom > Turku: Viking Grace, Viking Line; 12-hour day trip
Turku > Helsinki: Regional Train (using our Eurail Pass); 2 hours
Helsinki > Rovaniemi: Santa Claus Express (using our Eurail Pass, although you do have to pay extra for a bed); 13 hours

Lodging

Turku: Radisson Blu Marina Hotel
Helsinki: Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel
Rovaniemi: airbnb

What’s for Eating?

Helsinki: Hard Rock Cafe (duh! If there’s a Hard Rock on our radar, we’re there) | Iguana (delicious Mexican food)

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Author: Michelle

Michelle Harvey is a kiwi traveller, writer, photographer, list-maker, coffee drinker, and wanderer. Winter holidays are her favourite kind.

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