Finland’s Northern lights offer a magical backdrop for constellation-spotting

With just a few inches of ice between me and bone-chilling waters below, I lie back amid frozen Lake Inari, slowly tuning in to the stillness.

Cushioned by my thermal suit, I gaze up at the Big Dipper, the North Star, Orion and his twinkling belt.

With very little light pollution, the sooty backdrop is perfect to showcase a sky full of stars.

I am “aurora hunting” up in Finnish Lapland.

A few hours after touching down in Ivalo, I had hiked across the snow to the lakeside camp near the Wilderness Hotel Nangu. Here I would have the ideal view, should the elusive Northern Lights appear.

That skittish natural phenomenon had been top of my list on the whistle-stop tour of northern Finland. But when the night ended and the lights had not danced, I was far from disappointed.

Instead, my evening was filled with constellation-spotting, tales told around a roaring campfire from our tour guide and a traditional cup of hot berry juice. A pretty warm welcome, I’d say.

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I spent three nights in Inari, Finland’s largest municipality but one of the most sparsely populated, with two square kilometres of land per inhabitant.

It is the country’s northernmost holiday spot, 160 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Although popular with tourists, the area is not busy and feels wonderfully authentic as it honours the traditions and culture of both Finns and the indigenous Sámi people.

I had expected Santa grottos and garish Christmas trees at every turn.

Instead, it was all about celebrating nature and the Arctic. I thought I had seen my fair share of snow on our first day. Then I headed to the Star Arctic Hotel at the top of Kaunispää Fell.

I had never seen anything like it – a landscape so white that sometimes the horizon would disappear as the land stretched ahead like a vast blank page.

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Like any resort at the top of a slope, Star Arctic is popular with skiers. But if you don’t fancy careering down the piste on two planks, try tobogganing.

With nothing but a plastic tub between me and the icy run, I flew down the course at incredible speeds beneath a wash of atmospheric lighting designed to echo the electric pinks and greens of the Aurora Borealis.

For me, crashing was inevitable, but being tossed through the air like a ragdoll was great fun when all that awaited was a face-full of snow.

For those who want the skis without the slope, there is cross-country skiing. But be warned, after an hour’s lesson with the Saariselkä Ski School your legs will burn!

Inari in early December is a curious place. Time seems to stand still in the polar night, a four-week spell when the sun never rises above the horizon. Only four hours of feeble light confirm that another day has ticked by.

On the last night, I asked the manager of Aurora Village in Ivalo how Finns cope without the sun for weeks on end. She said it’s all part of the yearly cycle, with winter seen as a time to take life a little slower.

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“During the polar night, people like to eat chocolate, go early to bed. You don’t need to be active,” she said. I’m sold.

When not chilling out, another highlight was the exhilarating morning I spent flying through the forest on a sled pulled by five spirited Alaskan huskies.

Frozen Lake Husky owner Erika showed me how to stand on the back of the sled and use a brake to slow the animals. My five dogs were so full of beans I had to put my entire weight on the metal bar to keep them from shooting off.

The ride along the winding woodland trails was unforgettable, and the adoration Erika has for her “babies” warms the heart. She knows each of 100-plus dogs by name and can recognise their howling at night.

After a thrilling day of snow sports, the best way to wind down is with a visit to the sauna. I sweated it out in one of Aurora Village’s glass-roofed cabins while surveying the stunning wintry landscape.

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Many Finns have a sauna at home and make time for it at least twice a week.

I could see why, as several weeks’ worth of pent-up stress seeped from my pores. At mealtimes, moose, reindeer, fresh salmon and herring were on offer. Brown bear was also part of a tasting menu at the Laanilan Kievari, a rustic family restaurant with an impressive wine collection.

The evening of “slow dining” showcased local offerings, with much of the food preserved on the premises using traditional methods of smoking and pickling.

Delicious plates of white fish terrine, creamy celeriac soup and western capercaillie (wood grouse) were served in the glow of a homely, wood-panelled room.

Immersing yourself in the Finnish culture of taking it easy in winter, respecting nature and enjoying the quiet of the polar night is the perfect way to wind down.

I’ve never visited anywhere that felt so much like coming home.

Fact File

  • Finnair flies from Heathrow, Manchester and Edinburgh to Ivalo and Kittila in Finnish Lapland, via Helsinki, from £197 return. Find out more at finnair.com. Rooms at the Wilderness Hotel Nangu start at €249 a night on B&B. Visit nellim.fi/nangu.

Rooms at the Star Arctic Hotel and Wilderness Centre start at €149 a night on B&B. Book at stararctichotel.com.

See visit finland.com.

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