“For one?”, the bus driver asked incredulously as I got my ticket leaving the Ivalo Airport. “Just me, to Kiilopaa,” I replied with a smile. He shrugged, smiled at me, and handed me my ticket. “Kiitos” I said, walking down the aisle of the sparsely populated bus. I stripped off some layers; boiling, but happy to be out of the -14C weather. I was also grateful I wasn’t the one driving a giant bus through the white wonderland filled with dusted trees and narrowly snowplowed roads.
Stopping in Saariselkä, most of the passengers left the bus, leaving just the driver, a very chatty Finn (who I kept wishing would let the driver focus on the road), and myself. The driver gets out of his seat and starts to walk back towards me saying, in what I assume translates to, “You’re going to Kiilopaa? Really? You sure?” I nod my head and hope I’ve assumed correctly, “Joo, Kiiloppaa.” He shrugs again and gets back in the driver’s seat. Sure enough, I see signs for Kiilopaa and not long after I hear the brakes start to squeak. In a few moments, I was out the door, bags in my mittened hands and ready to explore!
It is a bit out-of-the-way, and to be honest, I’m not exactly sure how I stumbled across it. Leaving Berlin after six months, I knew I wanted an out-of-the-city adventure. And with it still being early in the year I thought why not head up north to hunt the Northern Lights before going back to sunny (relatively, anyway) California.
I toyed around with going back to Iceland, but ultimately decided I should go somewhere new.
Svalbard, while interesting, was too expensive, and too cold; I didn’t want to buy a whole new wardrobe. Sweden would’ve been great, but the flights for the time I was available were too expensive. Norway was even more tempting, cheap flights to Tromso, but all the hotels were really expensive, and with the exchange rate things got pricey, fast. I even toyed around with taking a cruise, but the dates didn’t work and there was a big single traveler supplement that threw off my budget.
I ultimately decided on Lapland in Finland for a few reason. The first two were geographical. Because the Lapland region (in both Sweden and Finland), is inland, it is not as prone to coastal fog and weather patterns like the coast of Norway. Secondly, it is a fairly flat region, so there is a lot of sky to look at. And more sky is a bigger screen for the sun to project its glowing bands on! Third, there are not a lot of people/cities in Lapland, which means less light pollution, which (in theory) means better odds of seeing the lights. The fourth, and ultimately the deciding factor, was the solo traveler issue. It is usually expensive traveling alone, and sometimes it’s hard to do things all on your own.
The price was right in Finland and I could do everything I wanted.
Why Fell Centre Kiilopaa?
Three reason: price, location, activities.
Price: It’s a very basic, no frills kinda place. It is not the place for the perfect selfie, or sustainable gluten-free kombucha, or local craft beers. But everything works, there’s a comfortable bed, a heater, and an impressively friendly staff. What more do you really need? The Kiilopaa Centre also has a hostel and apartments you can stay in, but by the time I looked into it, only the hotel had availabilities. Pretty far removed from any other main town, the hotel has an à la carte menu, a restaurant, and a buffet. All fairly expensive by my standards, but, it’s Finland, everything is expensive… Adding up the room, meals, occasional drink, and ski rental, I still got a lot more bang for my buck at Kiilopaa than any other hotel/city I looked into.
Location: In addition to the reasons mentioned earlier about Finnish Lapland in general, Kiilopaa is located right on the border to Urho Kekkonen National Park, Finland’s second largest. More nature, less people and light pollution: sounds good to me! There are also some lighted (until 10pm) nordic ski trails which made for a pretty fun experience.
Activities: One of the main advantages is the included activities at Kiilopaa. They have a weekly activity plan, perfect for the solo traveler who doesn’t want to get lost and die in the wilderness… It included an assortment of guided snowshoe/ski tours, ski lessons, Finnish lessons, etc. Equipment rental is not included, but it was very reasonably priced. Did I mention there are two saunas and an icy cold stream you can dunk yourself into?
My Stay at Kiilopaa
Nordic Skiing Basics
I’m not a skier, I’m a snowboarder. I tried skiing once as I kid and after one too many twisted ankles trying to the “pizza” stop I threw in the towel and just had some hot cocoa. Then snowboarding hit the scene and I hit the slopes again! So while very familiar with snow, I was curious as to how I would pick up nordic skiing.
Surprising to me was how many different varieties of skis there are in outside of downhill skis. Nordic skis, skate skis, forest skis, backcountry skis, telemarking skis. My head hurts just trying to remember all of them.
I told them I had never skied before and let them do the rest.
Honestly, for six days I could probably deal with anything. Nordic skis, what I ended up with, are small, thin, and light, with boots that only clip in the front. These are mainly used on groomed tracks where there is usually a pair of tracks/grooves in the snow for you to slide gleefully along. Which was fine for me!
Guided Ski Tours
As I wrote earlier, this was a huge reason why I ended up going to Kiilopaa. While I’m not shy of adventure, the Boy Scout in me is very aware of all the potential dangers that can await one in the snowy wilderness. I was more than happy to sign up for every ski tour they offered, without really reading what it was about. Don’t worry, that’s not some dramatic foreshadowing about getting in over my head! What I lacked in skill and experience I made up for in youthful exuberance and being a professional athlete. Being the youngest by 20 years most of the time didn’t hurt either!
The trips ranged quite a bit, from 5km on groomed trails to 17km, winding our way through the tranquil, untouched, and deep powder of the Urho Kekkonen National Park.
Some stayed up on ridge lines, with sweeping views in the surrounding areas while others got up close and intimate with the forest. Not so intimate that I ran into a tree mind you, but I came close a couple times! One even included a stop in a remote hut with fresh coffee, donuts, and a very welcome fireplace. You’ll see from the photos that the weather ranged from sunny to snowy and cold to hot. Well again, relatively… The coldest day was -23C, the warmest -3C.
Stuffing My Face
It’s not that I’m cheap… I just like getting my money’s worth! Therefore I view every buffet as a personal and financial challenge; as if I have to prove a point to my bank account. Add that to the intense cardio I was doing everyday, and I was going full out with emotion for every meal. And somehow my pants were falling off me by the end of the trip!
I’ll admit it, I was ashamed to be “that” guy, taking pictures of my food. It just really wasn’t that kind of place! But trust me when I say the food was pretty good. A great mix between standard fares and traditional Finnish foods and desserts! Lingonberries were probably my favorite. Similar to a cranberry, these tart little nuggets in my oatmeal made quite the breakfast routine! Also for breakfast I often had Karelian Pasties, very simple and very filling.
Dinners found me exploring other, more savory foods. From the rich and hearty rye breads to fresh white fish, to various reindeer dishes. They also has some incredible soups (how can you say no to that in winter?), like lohikeitto, a salmon and cream soup, and various root (potato, beet carrot) soups.
Trying to drink like a Finn, I washed down my reindeer stew with kotikalja. Translating to “home brew” this sweet, malty beverage is low enough in alcohol to be served as a soft drink.
Other nights found me splurging, buying a glass of Lapin Kulta, a Finnish beer that started in Lapland during the late 19th century. Desserts, of course, often had cardamom in them, and I normally went back for seconds… It’s a buffet remember?!
After eating (the polite term for what I did to all that poor food), I somehow managed to roll my way back. Almost every night after dinner was spent religiously looking at weather and aurora forecasts. A couple nights I hit the night ski runs too. Limited trails are lit, but they were completely empty most of the time. It made for a pretty unique after dinner workout, being able to ski under the stars.
I was going to include my experiences looking at, shooting, and general wonderment of the northern lights, but this post started to get a bit long. So I decided to write a separate post about that .Coming soon!
All vacations must come to an end, so I had to pack my bags and leave Kiilopaa and Finland eventually. There’s a strange feeling when you are in such a small, close environment like Kiilopaa. Even after just a week, I found myself smiling and nodding to almost every passing person. This habit carried over to Berlin, but after about five minutes of returned “who-is-this-crazy-man-and-why-is-he-staring-and-smiling-at-me” looks I realized some things are better left for the Lapland wilderness!