I have always been enchanted by the sky. As a child I spent hours during the day staring up at clouds, and at night could marvel endlessly at the celestial spray that sparkled above. When I was quite young we used to visit my grandfather in northern Alberta, where the northern lights were visible. I vaguely remember being roused out of sleep to go stare at the colorful light show in the heavens, but as happens with young memories, those images seem like a distant, fanciful dream I had one night. So I made up my mind that as an adult, I needed to go somewhere where I can watch this spectacular phenomenon.
Then one day, scrolling through pictures on Facebook, I saw my fantasy vacation, a resort in northern Finland where you could stay in a glass-topped igloo and stare at the stars all night long, but more importantly, have a good chance of seeing the aurora borealis. In an instant, I began planning my personal vacation of a lifetime.
Ivalo is a small village in Lapland, above the arctic circle. It is home to the EU’s northernmost airport that is quite well serviced, mainly due to tourism. There are numerous places to stay in the area which is rich in opportunities for outdoor adventures, wildlife and sightseeing. There is a huge range of places to stay at an equally large range of prices. In terms of hotels, there are more than twenty “igloo” hotels you can check out the list here. If you are going to make the trek to this remote wilderness wonderland, I strongly recommend considering an igloo hotel, as it is an experience unto itself, and don’t worry – they have heat!
Kakslautten Arctic Resort
We chose to stay at the Kakslautten Resort, mainly because I wanted to stay in the same place as the original breathtaking video that had started me off on this journey. Even if you are only an armchair traveler, I recommend going to the resort’s page and watching some of their videos.
If you arrive at the resort in winter, like we did, you will check in to a main building, then you take your luggage out to a local kick-sled, where you place your suitcases then kick and jump on sled runners all the way to your cabin or igloo. These sleds are placed all over the resort so it is basically how you will travel around to restaurants, activities, and your home base. They are convenient and fun, as well as having the added benefit of giving you a new cultural experience.
We went with our three children, so we opted to stay in an “igloo chalet”. This option is quite pricey, but it does include both breakfast and dinner, which include local delicacies such as reindeer steaks and Finnish cinnamon buns, my two favorite dishes during our trip. The igloo chalets boast a master bedroom under a glass igloo so you can lie in bed and take in the night sky. The beds were adjustable, like a hospital bed, so you could get exactly the right angle to gaze at the horizon. The chalets also have a kitchenette, three more beds in the cabin room, a wood burning fireplace, and of course, a sauna. The igloo chalets are both cozy and roomy.
There is a cheaper tier of igloos. These are all glass topped, so you will still have the glorious heavens to gaze at from bed, but they don’t have a cabin component (so no fireplace, sauna, or kitchen). There is a four-person igloo with a toilet and shower, and a two-person version with a toilet, but you will have to use a communal shower and sauna. This doesn’t sound like the best option to me in the dead of winter, but would probably be fine in better weather.
They also offer actual snow igloos, which they boast maintain a temperature of minus three to minus six Celsius (yes, that is below freezing) and they will give you a down sleeping bag. That’s a bit too rustic for my dream vacation, but you do you.
Saunas are both a cultural phenomenon and a way of life in Finland. You must visit one while you’re there, and if you do book a room that has one, make sure to ask the Finns how to do it right, they will be very pleased to instruct you.
Timing for the Best Shot at Seeing the Aurora Borealis
Lapland is so far north, if you go in late December to early January, the sun never rises. There is an even longer period of total daylight in the summer. To see the lights, you need to make sure you have some darkness so you would want to book between the beginning of September and end of April.
One of the best features of the resort is each room has an Aurora Borealis alarm. Someone is on duty keeping an eye out for the famous colored streaks across the northern sky, and if it’s spotted the room alarms go off and you can run outside to get pictures or just enjoy the show. If not for these alarms, we would have missed our one glimpse of the lights, a ribbon of green shooting back and forth on the horizon that happened to show up around 4:30 pm when we were indoors enjoying board games.
Even if you don’t get a glimpse of the northern lights, there is plenty to do that will ensure it’s a memorable trip of a lifetime.
Visit Saint Nicholas
I happen to be a lover of snow and can’t get enough cold and ice so we went in mid-January. Lapland is a magical winter wonderland this time of year, and the resort is actually adjacent to Santa’s Village, where there are cabins full of toys where the elves work (all locally sourced of course) and you can meet the jolly old elf himself on a tour. Even in non-Christmas season, this is sure to delight all ages, as it really feels like a childhood Christmas fantasy come true, complete with reindeer you can spot in the wild.
Reindeer Rides, Dog Sleds and Snowmobiles
Do I really need to say more? You’ve come to Lapland, you need to give all of these a try. My personal favorite was riding on a low, wooden sled while a reindeer pulled us through the dense forest. The guides do their best to take you to locales where the northern lights will be visible, and midway you get a break at a teepee with a fire where a local dressed in traditional garb tells you about the region and life there for locals.
One of the things that is a valid concern is will you be warm enough. That is very individual, but for all the activities the resort will give you a full snowsuit, boots, gloves, and hood that will keep you warm. IF you are traveling from a warmer climate, you can rent this for your entire stay. Even if you bring your own, I recommend using the resort’s stuff because they’ve been doing this for a long time and know what it takes not to freeze. So don your snow gear and enjoy!
Laura has been writing and editing for more than 25 years, a fact which more than a source of pride, sends her running to the wrinkle cream aisle of CVS. She has worked for CNN, CNBC, Bloomberg, The Economist Intelligence Unit, and CBS radio. She has three children, and you will either find her thoroughly enjoying their company or yelling at them to clean up after themselves and turn off the lights.