I thought I knew silence. I’d cycled into The City during the peak of London lockdown and marvelled at the empty streets and looming skyscrapers bereft of workers. The absence of the normal hustle and bustle made it feel preternaturally quiet. I’d never experienced stillness like it. But that was before I walked through a forest in Lapland.
The days burn out quickly in Arctic winter, so by 5pm darkness had descended. On the advice of my guide I turned off my head torch and within a few minutes my eyes adjusted to the softness of my surroundings. Trees in Lapland are so weighted with snow that their branches have evolved to grow downwards, it makes for a very strange, magical landscape, particularly when lit only by stars.
Finland, at the time of visiting, was exempt from UK travel quarantine rules. So, after testing negative for COVID I headed into the icy wilderness, flying to Helsinki and from there to Rovaniemi, which according to legend is the official home of Santa. And I’d always thought he lived in my local shopping centre!
I was in Finnish Lapland to experience a weekend of complete isolation. I stayed at Octola, a private lodge that was so exclusive, I was discouraged from geotagging my location in pictures.
The log chalet, which is set amid almost 1,000 acres of private wilderness, comprises 12 en-suite bedrooms each with floor-to-ceiling windows looking into the surrounding snowy woods. It is most often hired in its entirety for wealthy families and their staff. But if you’re after pretention or snooty service you’ve come to the wrong place, because despite catering to an elite clientele, the ethos at Octola is one of laidback comfort and casual, friendly vibes.
A menu inspired by seasonal ingredients, including reindeer, is served ‘family style’ in the large open plan living and dining room each night. As a vegetarian, I was spared grilled Rudolph and enjoyed traditional delicacies such as beetroot soup and karelian pies instead.
On my first night, dinner was interrupted shortly after starters were served due to the appearance of the Northern Lights. It was apparently extremely lucky to have seen them. The black sky began to glow at the horizon, it looked more orange in real life but in photos comes out a magnificent green.
As if by magic a Sami person (someone indigenous to the region) arrived in traditional dress to serenade the aurora borealis. He sang a ‘joik’, a traditional Sami form of song that sounds like deep, rousing chant.
Something of great importance to Janne Honkanen, the man behind Octola, is being a responsible ambassador for Arctic life, so he is developing a charity that takes account of indigenous people, especially their language and culture, as well as the incredible wildlife and nature in the region. “We cannot ignore the global consequences of an ice-free arctic”, he says.
Still buzzing from having caught a rare glimpse of the Northern Lights (and also the vodka shot I was served to celebrate), I took a late-night sauna, then rolled in the snow, then steamed off in a hot tub. It was good practice for the next day’s challenge – a polar plunge.
After a stagnant year full of anxiety and uncertainty I was sure that I would strip to a swimming costume in the snow and walk down the wooden steps into a frozen lake which my guide had broken with a shovel. I knew I would do it because I haven’t felt anything like a thrill since early March. I’m proud to say I didn’t let myself down and calmly plunged into the lake, taking slow deep breaths. I counted to 60 then returned to shore and cold-footed it straight into the sauna. Wow. It was exhilarating. I warmed up and then went straight back in – this time for longer.
Later that day, still high on endorphins from the freezing plunge I was led by reindeer in a sleigh to meet Santa.
I can report that despite being high risk for Covid given his age and weight, the big guy was fighting fit and ready to spread some joy this Christmas – don’t worry about leaving hand sanitiser by his mince pies, he told me, he carries his own.
A wilder sledge ride is one pulled by huskie dogs through snow – another activity arranged for guests of Octola, which through Janne's connections in the region, can stretch as far as your imagination allows. For example, how about an ice drive through the private grounds in a rally car driven by Finland’s answer to The Stig?
There are ample opportunities to let off steam at the lodge, and not just in the two traditional Finish saunas. After months in lockdown E-Fat bikes, sledges, ice-mobiles and snow quads all available for guests, offer an exciting means of escapism.
For the thrill-averse there are gentler things to do – from making snowmen and decorating Christmas cookies to visiting a family of craftspeople and making key rings from material taken from reindeer antlers. And most mesmerising, a visit from a shaman who told stories by campfire.
But what I’ll never forget is the soft white silence, the big sky, and the northern lights which after a year that has made life feel so small and limited, expressed the boundless, sublime power of nature. It was a timely reminder of our duty to look after it.
The details: £2,430 per person per night, based on 14 sharing, full-board, plus a Cookson Adventures host. For more details on other cookson adventures click here.