HELSINKI/LAPLAND, Finland - It is a nearly indescribable feeling to head off on a winter holiday and, within a split second of stepping outside the airport, come to fully grasp the concept of the phrase "beyond cold."
As the shock of the frozen atmosphere hit me, the hairs in my nose turned to what felt like miniature icicles and the moisture from my eyes completely iced over my lashes. I could have easily been mistaken for someone auditioning for a role in Sean Penn's "Into the Wild."
While this may sound like a daunting scenario to some, to me, it was a sure sign that I was about to embark on a winter vacation in its most authentic form.
In a country whose entire population is nearly half that of Seoul, Finland's Nordic geography and vast wilderness makes it one of the world's best locations to experience winter at its most bone-chillingly cold ― yet picturesquely stunning.
I was given the opportunity to reap and regale myself in the lavishness of business class - the first time in my 26 years of life. As Finnair's highest class standard, business class is equivalent to many airlines' first class treatment, offering fliers their own concave of spacious seating and chairs that stretch into personal flatbeds, which even feature a back massage setting.
Fittingly, the 10-hour flight went by with nary a struggle. This was, of course, a much-appreciated albeit momentary bliss that was almost disrupted by the looming reality of knowing that my future travels would most likely include an economy-class seat next to the engine.
However, for those who are no stranger to the luxuries of fine flying, or for those simply looking for the right moment to commit to the all-too-seldom vacation splurge, Finnair offers direct flights from Incheon Airport to Finland's capital city of Helsinki.
In the country's largest city, the quaint, rustic European mini-metropolis-meets-Alaska feel is most travelers' first taste of Finland and the Finnish way of life.
Located at the southern tip of the country on the coast of the Gulf of Finland, Helsinki makes for a comforting and undoubtedly softer introduction to life up north, with far higher average temperatures than most of the country.
The city is known less for bountiful sightseeing destinations and more for its shopping districts and cuisine. The compact city certainly has no shortage of fine dining establishments, with options for some of the cleanest food you'll ever find and a daily dose of the two staple proteins: fish and reindeer.
Most regional restaurants make it a point to serve the freshest, highest-quality organic homegrown ingredients possible in the country, which prides itself on all its environmentally clean, natural splendor. The Finnish government even goes as far as banning street food in order to uphold safety and health standards. While this could be considered a downside, it paints a clear picture of Finland's food quality practices.
Aside from its food and shopping, one of Helsinki's highlights is its convenience. The city's layout is small enough that you can go almost anywhere on foot or with a quick ride on the aboveground trams.
However, when visiting Finland, it would be a huge disservice to solely base your stay in the capital, no matter how pleasant and stress-free the experience may be.
Venturing beyond the Arctic Circle
Picture the ultimate winter wonderland: a vast canvas of plush white snow, a never-ending array of pine trees, an early afternoon sunset and a jaw-dropping scene of the aurora. This is the essence of Finland's Lapland, located north of the Arctic Circle.
Despite what may initially seem like a vain search for sanctity in the vast nothingness, the serene nature of Lapland is anything but nothing ― with the sight of small villages blanketed with snow and trees packed so heavily with plush white flakes they could be mistaken for giant cauliflowers. As one of the country's biggest winter attractions, Lapland is a winter adventurer's paradise, offering everything from wildlife to any winter activity under the virtually nonexistent sun.
Temperatures can drop below minus 40 degrees Celsius; nevertheless, the momentary numbness of your icing veins is a small price to pay for the memories of such an enchanting experience.
Most travelers to Lapland spend their days partaking in the wide variety of activities that hotels generally organise for their guests ― whether it be skiing, snowmobiling, dog sledding, a reindeer sleigh ride or snow trekking. One of the area's most iconic destinations is the Hotel Kakslauttanen and its renowned glass igloos in Saariselka, about a 1 1/2-hour flight from Helsinki.
The brainchild of hotel director Jussi Eiramo, the Hotel Kakslauttanen's igloo villages offer guests a once-in-a-lifetime experience of falling asleep while gazing up at the stars; and if you're lucky, you may have the chance to be greeted by the many shades of the aurora borealis before drifting off to sleep. Each igloo features a heated glass-top roof, allowing for the room to not only stay nice and toasty, but melting away any flakes in the case of snow showers, always allowing for a crystal-clear view of the sky above.
Apart from staying in one of the glass igloos, some of my most memorable experiences in Lapland were taking rein of a team of Alaskan huskies in a dog sledding safari and, what I would have call my all-time favourite, the reindeer aurora-hunting safari.
The Kakslauttanen offers aurora-hunting safaris via various transports including huskies, horses, reindeer or snowmobiles. While snowmobile rides are ideal for those looking to experience speed and tenacity, the reindeer safari allows you to bask in a slow-paced venture into the dark depths of the forest.
It hadn't dawned on me at the time when I ironically dined on reindeer and potatoes before heading off to be pulled by a reindeer sleigh, but the momentary pang of guilt quickly passed as the enchantment of the experience took my mind off all else.
Virtually laying down in the small, two-person drawn sled, I gazed up at the storybook-like twinkling of stars and listened to the sounds of reindeer hooves crushing the packed wet snow, which unbeknownst to me felt like music to my ears. Much to my disappointment, we were unable to witness the aurora that night, however I can say without hesitation that I felt zero ounce of regret.
Needless to say the main goal of the aurora safari is for guests to take a ride to some of the best spots in the area to catch a glimpse of the aurora. However, guests should be prepared with the understanding that a trip to Lapland in no way guarantees a view of the Northern Lights as its strength and visibility varies day to day. The aurora can only been seen during the dark winter months as the summer's midnight sunlight hinders visibility.
Safaris range in price and duration, but it should be noted that a trip to Lapland will not be light on one's wallet and is not an ideal adventure for budgeters. Each venture may set you back at least 100 euros ($115) per person.
The two-hour reindeer aurora hunting safari at The Kakslauttanen is listed at 119 euros per person, while the two-hour daytime husky safaris run for 123 euros.
Hunting the aurora
The multicolored sky canvas of the Aurora Borealis is one of the most stunning scenes that Mother Nature has to offer.
Relishing in one of the scientific world's most miraculous wonders, you would be hard-pressed to find a single word that is able to fully encompass and portray the dream-like visual.
Also known as the Northern Lights, the aurora is created when small particles, electrons and protons, emanating from the sun are discharged into space along with the strong velocity of the solar wind. The lights typically appear lime green, but the aurora can take on a multitude of shades. The different hues occur when the particles collide with the nitrogen and oxygen molecules of the Earth's atmosphere.
For those non-science aficionados, the next best way to describe the occurrence of the lights is to accept them simply as one of world's incredible miracles.
Following my unsuccessful attempt at witnessing the aurora on the reindeer safari, I was determined to go to whatever lengths I could to see the spectacle by the end of my trip. On my last day in Lapland, I decided to venture off into the woods on my own ― which I do not advise, as in most cases, it is best to partake in the buddy system.
The best opportunity to view the Northern Lights is said to be between 8 p.m. and midnight and sometimes in the wee hours of the night; hence, one of the first crucial keys for travelers who wish to view the aurora is patience.
Before leaving the hotel, I layered up with every piece of clothing I could manage, including wearing countless pairs of socks. I cannot stress enough the importance of having the appropriate gear in this temperature as waiting in the cold will become unbearable and dangerous if not dressed properly.
I left my hotel shortly after dinner and trekked quite a ways into the woods, with nothing but the flashlight on my smartphone illuminating my way (again, not advisable), to find the darkest spot I could. Any sort of street or housing lights further hinder visibility; thus, the darker the location, the more vivid the lights.
Once I found my desired secluded, dark area, my next move was simple: hunkering down and looking up at the star-filled clear sky ― searching, hoping, waiting. For those who wish to photograph the aurora, which I highly recommend, a sturdy tripod is a must.
During my weeklong stay in Finland, I heard a number of guests say that no matter what obstacles they may experience on their trip, if they were able to get a glimpse of the aurora, then all would be worth it.
Well I am beyond words to say that all my grueling efforts actually paid off and that in my lonesome trek into the vast nowhere, I was able to feast my eyes on the lime green streaks of the Northern Lights. What they say is true ― no matter what hardships the subzero temperatures will unavoidably bring, the view made all the worries of my life dissipate; and for that short moment, I was able to truly appreciate one of the natural splendors of our cosmos.