Lapland brings to mind Christmas, when excited children visit with their families to see Santa Claus in his real home. After the New Year celebrations, when the children have gone home and Santa has a much-needed rest, it’s a perfect destination for a more adult vacation. Impressed with the holidays in Portugal and Austria that we’d previously booked with Inntravel, we turned to them once again to seek another dose of Slow Travel, this time in the snow. A try-it-out week of cross-country skiing might not sound the most relaxing way to enjoy Lapland, but with Inntravel’s choice of accommodation, Hotel Ylläshumina, the daily bouts of exertion were matched with comfort, hospitality and the most delicious food. During the Polar Nights, when the sun doesn’t quite raise its head above the horizon, time spent in Lapland is unhurried: late leisurely breakfasts, early dinners and long, long sleeps. Ylläshumina hotel embraces the darkness with subdued lighting, candle-lit dinners and a warm glow from the log fire. ‘Come inside,’ it beckons.
Hotel Ylläshumina is located 200km north of the Arctic Circle, in Finnish Lapland. It’s at the foot of the Ylläs fell, on the shores of Lake Äkäslompolo in the Palls-Yllästunturi National Park. It’s easy to get to from the UK. There are direct flights to Kittilä airport (approximately 3 hours flight time) and the transfer is only 50 minutes to the village of Äkäslompolo . Once you step into this part of Finland, however, you enter another world. It feels as if it should have taken days of trekking to reach this idyllic landscape, where the snow hangs heavy on spruce and pine trees, like layers of candle-wax dribbling down an empty bottle of Chianti.
Positioned slightly outside the village, it’s only a 20 minute walk to the centre, where the Narnia spell is broken by an assortment of good quality souvenir shops, excellent outdoor-clothes stores and a surprisingly large supermarket. But the walk to civilisation is a pleasant one, especially if you take a trip to the Alko shop for some vital provisions. Pop a couple of bottles of wine in your rucksack and clank back to the hotel. We made our own basic version of glogg (or glögi in Finnish) adding hot water from the kettle in our room and some orange juice. Just the thing when the temperature drops to -24 degrees centigrade and all you want to do is lie on your bed in your merino wool long-johns with a good book.
Hotel Ylläshumina is a family-run establishment. It opened in the 1940s when Aapi Äkäslompolo added a few rooms onto a barn he was building. Humina, meaning ‘sighing in the wind’ was a hotel for skiers for many years until it declined in the 1970s. Aapi’s niece, Meeri and her new husband, cross-country skiing champion Toivo Qvist , developed the hotel in the 1980s and now the couple and their children are extending it even further, adding more luxurious rooms, more saunas and ensuring each generation of Lapland visitors can experience a warm welcome in their beloved home.
Most of the accommodation is located in rustic log cabins in the grounds of the hotel. We stayed in one of these standard rooms. There are four rooms to each cabin, guests sharing a lobby between two rooms for storing skis and any other paraphernalia. In this lobby area, each family is provided with an electric airer, which looks like a tall freezer. Any wet clothes or boots can be given a warm-up in this cabinet. We didn’t actually use this during our stay as the snow is so dry and powdery, nothing became very wet. We did however, enjoy the gorgeous heated floors in the room: lazily throwing gloves and socks down when we returned from the trails, only to pick them up minutes later once they had warmed up.
I did wonder whether the standard rooms might be a little basic and we considered upgrading to the new superior rooms which boast a double bed, a log burner and a kitchen. However these were already booked up and, in truth, our cosy little lodge was wonderful. There was lots of storage, a fabulously warm bathroom with shower, a TV, and tea/coffee making facilities. Although the beds were single, they were extremely comfortable and we slept for hours and hours during those long January nights. There were mattresses in the mezzanine too, reached by wooden steps. This area would be perfect for children. As long as they can manage the staircase, their little den under the eaves would be an exciting place to sleep.
I love a hotel that provides places to sit, other than in the restaurant. Ylläshumina has a number of cosy corners to while away an hour or two. There’s a brand new reception area which has some gorgeous designer seating, including some contemporary Alvar Aalto furniture. My favourite chair was this grey woolly number and here’s my attempt at camouflage:
We also took our after-dinner liqueurs down to the library/lounge area – another relaxing place to snooze, browse through a book or just run your fingers through the thick fur of the reindeer hides that cover one wall. The hotel also has its own pub, which is open for locals and residents. Out of high season, this was fairly quiet but on our first night we did have the pleasure of one game chap blasting out ‘My Way’ and ‘Delilah’ on the karaoke. Another vodka and I’d have joined him.
Food and drink
From breakfast through to dinner, the food at Hotel Ylläshumina was exceptional. We didn’t know what to expect in Lapland but we were quite astonished at the quality and content. The breakfast buffet matched those of many a 5-star city hotel, with a huge variety of muesli, fruit, porridge, waffles, scrambled eggs and cold meats and cheese. Slice some bread, add a cake or two and build up your reserves to help you tackle the Arctic conditions outside. This usually kept us going until dinner, which was served from 6pm, perfect timing when darkness had descended at 3pm. The cuisine at the evening buffet was delicious. On some nights the buffet was themed – ‘From the Volga with Love’ on Mondays, ‘Traditional Food from Lapland’ on Wednesdays, ‘Taste of the Archipelago’ on Fridays and ‘Grandma’s Sunday Special’. Homemade soups, inventive salads, plenty of fish and cured meats then substantial stews or steaks featuring reindeer, elk, chicken and pork. Creamy mashed potatoes and sweet-tasting root vegetables: this was hearty food cooked to perfection. Not forgetting the puddings: bowls of berries, chocolate tarts, fruit crumbles and plenty of cream to dollop on the top.
Breakfast and dinner were included in our holiday package but guests could also choose from an à la carte menu for even more sublime food.
It’s a wonder we could move afterwards but we just about managed to waddle to the wine bar to order a cloudberry liqueur or a whisky, find a chair to sink into and regale our fellow travellers with tales from the trails as they entertained us with stories of speedy snowmobiles and temperamental huskies.
All our cross-country skiing was arranged within the hotel. They have a ski service cabin where you pick up your boots and skis and arrange for daily waxing (the skis, I hasten to add!). A separate cabin is the centre for all the other activities. These are run in-house so guests are provided with all the necessary insulated clothing needed for a reindeer safari, snowmobiling, snow-shoeing or dog-sledding. Those very same guides became our waiters in the evening, always remembering who prefers Pinot Noir at dinner and enjoying the conversations about the day’s exploits in the snow.
And of course, it wouldn’t be Finland without the obligatory sauna. Some of the newer rooms have their own saunas but other guests made use of the male and female sections of the large communal sauna just a short hop from all of the cabins. There was an outdoor hot tub too, open on certain evenings. And in the land of Nokia, it goes without saying that the free WiFi, even in the wilderness, was excellent.
I can see why Inntravel chose this hotel to represent all that is warm and welcoming about the people of Finnish Lapland. Every member of staff made our holiday memorable: from the members of the Qvist family always seen around the hotel, to the cheerful ski instructors and the team in the restaurant and bar. When the Polar Nights have drawn in and you can’t help but spend many hours in your hotel, you need a place which will make you feel at home. Hotel Ylläshumina wrapped us up in a warm blanket of hospitality – we were so happy and comfortable, it was very hard to leave.
Did we see the Northern Lights?
At the entrance to the restaurant, the hotel computer provided information about the weather and the chances of seeing the Northern Lights. We kept an eye on this Aurora App, which I also had on my phone. I’m quite sure we slept through a couple of sightings during the week but on the sixth night we made an effort to stay awake after 10pm, when the village lights are turned off, and we followed a man with a camera and tripod onto the frozen lake. There, with a handful of other residents, we watched as a green glow filled the northern sky. It sharpened and formed an arc, then a separate shot of green billowed upwards as if from a chimney. I couldn’t capture the magic with my phone or camera, I’m afraid, and, rather than waste time fiddling with settings, I put both in my pocket and just watched until the colours died away. An effortless way to see the Northern Lights but so wonderful and emotional and unforgettable.
This was a holiday we chose and booked through Inntravel but we were given a discount in exchange for a review of our stay and posting our photos on social media.
You might also enjoy reading my beginner’s guide to cross-country skiing.