Yippee -- a snowboarding trip to Lapland! I hadn't been boarding for three years, so this felt very much overdue. 12 of us stayed in two self-catering log cabins, with a frozen lake as our back garden, surrounded by heavy snow-clad trees. Heaven on a plate.
We were less than 100 km from the Arctic Circle and just a few kilometres from Russia -- it was pretty cold. As well as perfecting our boarding skills, a few of us booked to go on a skidoo ride across frozen lakes and through snowy forests, under a clear starry sky. Awesome.
I was pleasantly surprised that the cold is a different sort of cold than you get here in the UK. It’'s less of a damp cold, and much more dry, crisp and fresh. But the freezing temperatures (it reached minus 24 on one day) can have a drying out effect on the skin, so if you are thinking of an Arctic trip in winter, remember a good moisturiser and a good body oil (I used the delicious ‘Balance Me Super Oil’).
The philosophy of Finnish well-being combines a balanced diet, traditional treatments and outdoor activities to provide a unique experience for body and mind. The sauna is most definitely a national institution. For the five million people that live in Finland, it is estimated that there are two million saunas!
In a Traditional Finnish sauna you are naked. This has nothing to do with sex or checking each other out, it’s about the ritual and importance of all-over well-being.
We had a sauna in our log cabin, and being English prudes and more body conscious, most of our group opted for swimwear. But with the attitude of "When in Rome..." my friend and I had to give it a shot --when no one else was looking, of course!
Temperatures vary from 60 degrees upwards -- around 80 degrees is normal. The trick with a Finnish sauna is to ensure that humidity levels are low, and to know that it's not a competition to see how long you can withstand high temperatures before passing out! After 10 – 15 minutes, you get up and either run outside to roll in the snow or swim in a hole in the frozen lake nearby (there are an awful lot of lakes in Finland). Then back into the sauna to repeat the process.
I was anxious about running out in to the snow, mainly because I thought my toes might fall off. It was actually very exhilarating, scooping up handfuls of snow and rubbing them all over. We let out huge squeals of delight -- it was surprisingly enjoyable. And I'm so happy that I've still got all of my toes!
Many people like to use birch twigs after a sauna, which by lightly flicking against the body, stimulates skin cells and encourages the cleaning process. Some saunas have someone there specifically to wash you down after your sauna, so don't be surprised if they try.
It's such an institution that the Finns actually have spa tours, where you can pay to go to a variety of saunas, each offering a different experience. You can go on a sauna bus, have a sauna on your ferry crossing, or visit a smoke sauna. There's even a Gondola Sauna in Yllas which goes to the top of the mountain, and when you get to the top, there’s another sauna there, so you don't even have a chance to get cold. I’d love to try the sled ride pick-up from the airport to the Forest Spa, to meet a shaman and experience some native treatments in the wild surroundings. It is also not unusual practice for business people to arrange to meet clients in a sauna before a business meeting. Hmm, I think this might be where my barrier lies.
This trip has turned me into a snowboarding snob. I won't go snowboarding again unless there's a sauna to ease my aches and pains. I'd go back to Finland for more of everything. But, for all this healthy living, I've been told not to enter a drinking competition with a native – 'cos they always win.
PS: I saw the ethereal Northern Lights and I can die happy now. Don't hate me!