Tiny village offers glimpse into Finnish Lapland

Associate editor Paul Felt traveled to Finnish Lapland and visited Inari, a small village in Finland's far north. His report follows:

o fan of winter, I've never had as much fun playing in the snow as I did in Inari. The day I arrived happened to be my 30th birthday, so, you see, I am no kid.

As my roughly 90-minute flight from Helsinki landed in Ivalo, north of the Arctic Circle in the Finnish Lapland, I had my first sight of a true winter wonderland.

Snow wasn't just in the mountains but in the lowlands, as well, covering the roads.

In contrast to the icy blanket over Lapland, I found the natives I talked, sang, danced and drank with here to be some of the warmest, most friendly people I've met anywhere.

Like Hawaii, Finnish Lapland as a tourist center benefits from the cultural influence of an earlier civilization rich in hospitality, pride and tradition.

Inari, an artsy village north of the Ivalo airport where I would stay two nights, is the cultural center of a people known as Sami, or Lapps, the native inhabitants of the Lapland.

Sami ancestry dates back 9,000 years here, according to the Siida Museum of Sami culture, the town's major tourist attraction.

Reindeer and a sled train pass a balloon and wind-sculpture festival on a frozen lake near Inari.Even before visiting the museum, I learned from talking with locals that native Sami culture has made a resurgence and now is celebrated, particularly in Finland. Finns of Lapp descent can even take classes in the Sami language.

En route to Inari with Tuija, the local tourist manager, I stopped at a balloon and wind-sculpture festival.

There I saw people dressed in fabulous outfits made of reindeer hides, from headpieces to boots. I also heard my first joik, a chanted song that is part of Sami tradition.

At this gathering to inaugurate an installation of wind sculptures on a frozen lake, the "joiker" called out a song that reminded me of a Native American ceremony.

The joik seemed like a call of the wild, as much directed out at the vast frozen lake, evergreen trees and sky as the audience nearby.

Toward the end of his song, the joiker mimicked a dog's bark, to which a husky sitting nearby responded in kind.

Under a festival tent, I tried my first cup of hot reindeer soup -- a bit oily, but meaty and satisfying in the cold.

Up here, the roads are not salted or plowed, and snowmobiles are a common sight. They're used for herding by local reindeer farmers, transportation off road and on residential streets as well as for recreation.

From prehistoric times, fishing and reindeer farming were the means by which Sami people made a living. Those occupations remain, although the tools have changed.

Inari has a huge lake of the same name, and two hotels, the Hotel Inari and the Inarin Kultahovi. Besides the Sami cultural center, there are several native arts and crafts shops selling some of the clothing I had seen earlier at the festival.

Upon checking into the Inarin Kultahovi -- utilitarian but cozy enough -- I donned a snowsuit and met with Tuija for an evening snowmobile trip with her and her husband, a veteran of the Finnish army who used to patrol the Russian border.

Donning a helmet, I held on for dear life as we sped across frozen Lake Inari.

On the other side, Tuija showed me the Pielpajarvi wilderness church, an 18th century wooden structure gracing what used to be the center of town.

In a nearby log cabin open to the public -- where guests signed a log documenting their visit to the out-of-the-way place -- Tuija's husband prepared a fire, over which he roasted delicious sausage links.

Once the snowmobiles are shut off, the quiet in the snow here brings an amazing sense of peace.

Back in town, I was surprised to find first-hand that Inari has a nightlife.

I was eating my dinner of lamb alone at the ground-floor restaurant of my hotel when a woman walked in with several other locals. They seemed very curious about me.

She came over and asked me if I lived there and what I did that day, curious as to what a tourist from the U.S. could find interesting about her quiet hometown.

When I explained that I was interested in learning more about the Sami people and culture, she told me she was a Sami herself.

Ritva, my new Sami friend, introduced me to karaoke, of all things, at a livelier hotel in town.

At the hotel bar and restaurant, Ritva also introduced me to other Sami relatives and young Finns in town, and I got a better perspective on Sami and Finnish history and culture.

Ritva and I talked late into the night. In the moonlight, the loose snow sparkled like diamond crystals.

"It's beautiful," I said.

To which she replied, "Yes. It's my home."

LAPLAND 101

he Finnish Tourist Board can provide more information on Finnish Lapland, tour operator programs to the area, or copies of the Finland VacationGuide and the off-season Lively Season brochure.

Contact the tourist board at (212) 885-9700 or (800) 346-4636 (for automated brochure orders); fax: (212) 885-9710; E-mail: [email protected]; Web: www.gofinland.org.

Room key: Hotel Inarin Kultahovi
Address:
99870 Inari, Finland
Phone: (011) 35-81-667-1221
Fax: (011) 35-81-667-1250
E-mail:[email protected]
Web:www.saariselka.fi/kultahovi
General manager: Maija Nikula
Rates: Singles, about $60-$62; doubles, about $78-$82; includes taxes, breakfast.
Commission: 10% (difference between net, rack rates)
Built/renovated: 1956/1988
Rooms: 29
Location: Situated on a snowmobile route near Lake Inari, 34 miles north of Ivalo airport and 208 miles by road from Rovaniemi.
Facilities: "Lappi" restaurant, "Goldiggers" bar, garage, riverside sauna
Raves: Comfortable, cozy beds. Rooms in back of property overlook a breathtaking evergreen forest. Restaurant dining has the small volume, quality and personal service of a home-cooked meal. Well kept.
Rants: Bath and guest rooms are spartan. Expect neat utility but little luxury.

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