Idries J. Abdur-Rahman, MD, FACOG Obstetrician/Gynecologist TwinDoctorsTV
So, when you hear that Scandanavian Airlines is having a fare sale and that you can get tickets from Chicago to Finland for under $300 bucks, what do you do? What do you do? (Hint: It’s better if you hear Keanu Reeve’s voice saying that line in your head). C’mon now, you know what we did, we booked tickets to go to Ivalo, Finland to hunt for the Northern Lights. Winter is generally the low season for travel from the US to Europe, I mean who wants to leave a cold place to go to another cold place for a “vacation”? When it comes to hunting the Northern Lights, however, winter is high season. While the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) are present all year long, you can only see them in the darkness of the northern winter nights. So when I read about the SAS fare sale, I called Dr. J and within minutes we booked tickets for the family to head north and search for the Northern Lights. You’ve got thirty seconds to pack your backs and join us on our journey to Saariselkä, Finland, a cute little village in the Finnish Lapland that just happens to be one of the best places to catch the Northern Lights.
You can follow our trip from Chicago to Ivalo, Finland (gateway to Saariselkä) RIGHT HERE
You can check-out my blog on Five Things to Do in the Arctic North if the Northern Lights Don’t Come Out RIGHT HERE
Our journey from Chicago to Ivalo, Finland involved 22-hours, 4 airports, and 3 airplanes. We flew SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) from Chicago to Stockholm and from Stockholm to Helsinki. From Helsinki, we flew Norwegian Air Shuttle up to Ivalo. You can follow our trip from Chicago to Ivalo using the blog link above. You will also find links to our video flight reports in that blog.
After 22-hours, we were definitely ready to arrive at a snow-covered Ivalo, Finland. Thanks for the safe ride buddy!
In case you doubted me, here are the receipts. Welcome to Ivalo Airport!
99% of people coming to Ivalo are coming to see the Northern Lights, and we were no exception. God, were such tourists! Will we see them? Won’t we see them? We definitely came with high hopes!
I booked a 2-bedroom apartment at Apartments Kuukkeli, a complex in the center of Saariselka.
The process of getting the apartment keys after-hours was beyond frustrating! We had to find a random store (all stores were closed at this hour) and find a random box outside of that random store where the keys were in a random envelope. Okay, there was only one envelope so it wasn’t that random, but you get the point. The whole process was difficult and confusing. After our 30-minute scavenger hunt in the dark and cold of the Finnish night…
we finally got into an apartment that looked nothing like this inviting online pictures (shocking right?). I admit that I’m picky when it comes to where I lay my head, and I’ve been known to change course and finding alternate accommodations with the quickness.
And that’s what we did. A quick Kayak search cross-referenced with reviews from Trip Advisor and we were off to the Holiday Club Saariselka. A more traditional hotel with rooms that thankfully looked like what they advertised online.
After a much needed night of rest, we decided to explore Saariselka. Now when you picture Saariselka, you are probably picturing a small, snow-covered town, and that would be pretty accurate. But Saariselka is small is probably waaaayyy smaller than what you are picturing. You can actually drive the entire circle of the town (or maybe it’s a village, I’m not sure) in five minutes, and that’s driving at slow snow speed. Super small meant that everything was “centrally located” and we were able to do our exploring on foot.
Saariselka is covered in snow for seven months out of the year which means snowmobiles, huskies, and reindeers are the primary modes of transportation. I probably should have just stuck with my good ole rental car (or feet) but more on that later.
Saariselka has an uber-relaxed vibe. Everything is snow-covered and chill (yes, a bit of pun intended). Anne’s Garden Grill and Cafe was directly across the street from our hotel so it became our go-to dinner spot.
Yup, even in Finland, teenagers are going to teenage! There was no way my son could possibly put his phone down or take his headphones out even during dinner. We’d booked a Northern Lights chasing excursion for later that night, so the table was abuzz with pre-lights excitement!
Our guide picked us up from the hotel at 8 PM and while it is still really a blur, he somehow convinced us that ponying up the extra $400 to go hunt the lights by snow-mobile (for the adults) and snow-mobile drawn sleigh (for the kids and grandma) was the best way to truly experience the magic of Lapland.
Thumbs up! What could possibly go wrong? Our first time snowmobiling would be in the pitch black of the Finish Lapland on a windy night along a tree-lined, unlit course. Yeah, this sounds like a great idea.
Yeah, clearly my first time snowmobiling went really really well….Well, until I came yay close to running into a tree at 40 miles per hour it was going well. Pro-tip: If you run off course in a snow-mobile, just take your hands off of the accelerator!
Despite its adrenaline-filled nature, this is the serene spot where our journey ended. At a cool little Sami tent in the literal middle of nowhere. The location was perfect with its lack of light pollution and wide-open skies. The cons that night were a bright, full moon and the layer of haze that covered most of the night sky.
Doubting that the tent provided enough warmth in the frigid arctic cold? My daughter’s glasses are proof.
The upsides of our first full night hunting the lights: 1). Driving a snowmobile and NOT dying. 2). Hanging out in a Sami tent. 3). Using an arctic porta-potty with the help of a cellphone flashlight. The downsides of our first full night hunting the lights: 1). The Northern Lights just didn’t come out to play.
A good night’s sleep meant waking up earlier on day 4. This gave us a bit more time to explore Saariselka
With only 400 permanent residents in Saariselka, tourists outnumber locals at any given time by probably 50:1.
We encountered tourists from every corner of the globe as we walked the streets and most of them had adapted quite well to arctic life with their Parka coats and sleds.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, sleds are very popular in the arctic. They are a great way of transporting kids, groceries, and basically anything else that you don’t want to carry through the snowy streets.
We stumbled across this lonely little church perched on a hill at the edge of town. The St. Paulus Chapel has the church market cornered in Saariselkä.
After a bit of exploring, we headed back to Anne’s Garden Grill and Cafe for another pre-Northern Lights dinner. If Anne’s had a garden, I’m guessing it is only visible for a few months of the year. After dinner, our guide picked us up and this time we headed northwest towards the Finland-Norway border. Much like the day and night before, this day and night was pretty overcast and our guide was pretty upfront that our chances of seeing the lights were low. We took the long journey to the border area because he felt that this was where we had our best chances of actually seeing the lights. After an hour of driving, we stopped on a deserted road high up on a mountaintop and there we just waited for the lights. And we waited, and we waited, and we waited some more. Alas, it appeared that the elusive Aurora Borealis would once again elude our attempts at capture!
That’s not to say that we didn’t have fun though. Even without the Northern Lights, how many people get to enjoy a unique view like this?
Or a moment for solitude and reflection like this?
It’s not every day that you get to strike a pose with grandma in the arctic like this or…
get tired out by continuously sledding down the mountain with your cousins like this.
And why the heck were they so tired anyway? We were clearly doing all of the heavy lifting or in this case pulling!
Once again we didn’t see the lights but we did have another great night just spending time together as a family! After the long drive back to the hotel from our spotting location,…
we decided to pay a quick visit to Santa’s Office. I don’t know when Santa actually works because this place never seems to be open!
We even stumbled upon a lonely little snowman just hanging out under a light post.
Is that a stick in your pocket Mr. Snowman or are you just happy to see us?
Just because we didn’t see the lights in person that night didn’t mean that we couldn’t snap a shot with them on a postcard in the hotel gift shop. Right????
Well, three nights in the Finnish Lapland and there were no Northern Lights for us. Before our flight back to Helsinki we took one last look around Saariselka.
I’ll be back (in my best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice)! I won’t let the Northern Lights or you snowmobiles get the best of me!!!
As a Chicagoan, I’m used to snow and snow-covered bus stops but…
the months and months of snow piled up on this bus stop had any that I’ve ever seen in Chicago beat!
We had one last diner at Anne’s because…why not?…clearly were not that adventurous, and as the sunset, we made our way to Ivalo’s airport for our Norwegian Air Suttle flight back to Helsinki.
Our journey home was the reverse of our journey to Ivalo. We flew Norwegian Air Shuttle (operated by a SmartLynx A320) from Ivalo to Helsinki, overnighted in Helsinki, and then flew SAS from to Stockholm and finally sweet home Chicago.
You can check-out our VLOG exploring Saariselka:
Drive around Saariselka with us:
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About The Docs
TheTwinDoctors.com is the creation of twin OB/Gyn Doctors Jamil and Idries Abdur-Rahman. Jamil (Dr. J) and Idries (Dr. I) were inspired to start TheTwinDoctors.com after participating on season 22 of CBS’ ‘The Amazing Race’.