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Day 1: Home to Helsinki

When we returned from the last of our summer holidays in Croatia and Slovenia in September, our thoughts quickly turned to planning a winter holiday. We didn't have any firm ideas about where we wanted to go. It always seems difficult to choose a destination for a winter trip, because the normally affordable flights to countries in central and eastern Europe become prohibitively expensive around Christmas and New Year. Last year we couldn't find any affordable flights at all, so we ended up going to Belgium on the Eurostar. The year before that we found very cheap flights to Oslo, but that turned out to be false economy because we could hardly afford to eat or drink when we got there!

We spent some time researching various options. We ruled out a trip to Hungary for a New Year's Esperanto event because the flights were over £200. To our surprise, we noticed that there were some comparatively cheap flights to Iceland from some of the London airports and we invested in an Iceland guidebook. That may have been an expensive mistake, because while we got a good deal on the guidebook from the Bradt website, Iceland itself must be one of the priciest destinations in the world. The pictures looked absolutely amazing though and there were some really cool trips you could do from Rekjavik to see the Northern Lights. The main problem was timing, because the affordable flights were either at really awkward times or would have necessitated us staying there for a week, which might have been too long in the depths of winter when most of the transport infrastructure appears to shut down. It was with no inconsiderable amount of regret that in the end we had to give up on the idea.

Our next plan was to go to Denmark. This was motivated not by any particular desire to see Denmark, but more by the availability of very cheap Ryanair flights. We went so far as to purchase a Denmark guidebook, but it failed to generate any genuine enthusiasm in us. The most exciting thing I could find about Denmark was that it would be possible to take a train to Sweden, but about two days after reading this I saw an article online explaining how such trains had been disrupted and/or cancelled as a result of the migrant crisis. Back to the drawing board then!

All the talk about Iceland had made me quite excited about the idea of trying to see the Northern Lights, and so I started researching other places where it might be possible to see them. There are some amazing trips available, so long as you have unlimited money and can take holiday in January or February. Sadly not falling into any of those categories, I started browsing the websites of some of the tour operators who run package tours to Lapland from the UK. These are mostly aimed at parents wanting to take their children to see Santa, but I did find a couple of destinations in Finland which were described as offering good chances of seeing the lights. There were even direct flights from East Midlands and Birmingham and spaces free for short breaks between Christmas and New Year. I knew that Tim had always wanted to go to Lapland and I did have some extra money to spend as a result of an unexpected work bonus... but I wasn't sure if I could bear to go on a package holiday. Reviews on Tripadvisor said how brilliant it was to be met by reps dressed as elves at the airport and I thought that might be more than I could handle!

In the process of failing to make a decision, I decided to buy a copy of the Bradt guide to Lapland and see what it recommended. To my surprise, within the first few pages the author stated how easy it was to travel independently in Lapland. I had automatically assumed that it wouldn't be possible to travel independently to somewhere as cold and isolated as Lapland, but it seemed that this might not be true. Hmmm...

One thing which particularly caught my attention in the chapter about Finland was the mention of a train line which ran from Helsinki to a place called Kolari, north of the Arctic Circle. I investigated the Finnish railway website and discovered that sleeper trains run every night in the winter season, to take Finnish people to the cross-country ski resorts in the north of the country. Flights to Helsinki are quite thin on the ground as it isn't a Ryanair destination, but I found some that were fairly affordable from Gatwick with Norwegian Air. The Bradt guidebook mentioned that a special bus meets the trains arriving in Kolari to transport people to the ski resorts, so I started researching where we could stay. On booking.com I found a basic apartment for about £65 per night (which seemed reasonable by Finnish standards) in a village called Äkäslompolo. Although a small place, this was part of the bigger Ylläs ski resort area and thus on the bus route from Kolari station. The internet confirmed that it had a supermarket, an alcohol shop and a lake which was a good place to visit at night when looking for the Northern Lights. A plan began to form in my head!

After a few days of deliberation, I decided to bite the bullet and book it. I also decided to surprise Tim with the destination on his birthday. Little did I know how difficult it was going to be to keep the secret for three months (especially because he decided he would rather be told at Christmas than on his birthday!). In the meantime I set about buying thermal underwear, head torches and other essential Lapland equipment.

Christmas Day came and went and luckily Tim was extremely pleased with the surprise :) Our flight to Helsinki was at 18.45 on 27 December and I had the airport parking booked for 16.00. The internet suggested that just over two hours ought to be enough time to get to Gatwick, and we decided to leave at 13.00 so that we had an extra hour in case of bad traffic. We carefully planned our route to go down the M40 rather than the M1 and thus reduce the length of time we needed to spend on the M25. I didn't think that there was scope for anything to go wrong; it was a Sunday afternoon, just two days after Christmas, so who on earth else would be on the roads?!

It turned out that this was rather a naive assumption and it would have been easier to list the people who weren't on the roads. The M40 was an absolute nightmare, with congestion at seemingly random intervals for no particular reason. The jams were particularly bad around the junctions for Oxford and again for the junction by the High Wycombe retail park. It was then that the penny dropped; everyone must be going to the sales! When it got to 15.30 and we were still on the M40, I began to get a little nervous, but I thought that everything would still be okay if the traffic was free-flowing on the M25.

Hahahahahaha. Is the traffic ever free-flowing on the M25? We sat in traffic jam after traffic jam as we edged our way from junction to junction. 16.00 came and went, as did 16.30. At 16.45 it was now only two hours until take off and we were still on the M25. I didn't think there was any way we could still make it. We had to find our way to the airport parking, check in there, wait for the transfer bus, travel the 6 miles to the airport in the bus and then navigate our way through Gatwick - an airport we had never been to before but which I assumed would be large and chaotic. It just didn't seem like it was going to be possible. I started wondering whether my travel insurance would cover me for any refunds if we missed our outbound flight.

Just when we were about to give up hope, the traffic cleared a little and we were able to make our way from the M25 to the M23 and then onto the road towards the airport parking. Fortunately the sat-nav took us to more or less the correct location and by 17.15 we had arrived. After our experience with nearly missing a flight from Luton earlier in the year, I was worried that we would have to queue for ages for a transfer bus, but to our pleasant surprise we found that not only was there a bus sitting waiting but the driver took our suitcases and loaded them on for us while we registered and handed over the keys. Before long we were on the bus and shortly after 17.30 we had arrived at the terminal building. Phew!

I had expected the worst from Gatwick but it actually turned out to be a really civilised airport. We found the correct check-in desk with no problems and joined the queue, which was an actual queue and not sort of scrum which characterises the Ryanair check-in at Stansted! Then we only had to wait five minutes before we were checked in by a very competent clerk, who explained that our flight was actually running delayed by 30 minutes. The departure boards said to await further information at 18.30, so we made our way through security and after all the rushing found ourselves in the unlikely position of actually having enough time to get a pre-flight meal :)

Ultimately the flight was delayed by around an hour, apparently as a result of some strong head winds and turbulence which had slowed the journey of the incoming aircraft. The Norwegian aircraft was very pleasant, seemingly with enough space for everyone's cabin baggage to actually fit in the cabin, and with screens showing cartoons and nature programmes during the flight. There was a slight moment of anxiety at the start of the flight when the pilot explained that one of the engines needed for take-off was broken, meaning that he was going to be using a spare one which was slower and noisier, but everything passed off without a hitch and we were soon on our way to Helsinki.

Finland of course has a two-hour time difference from the UK, so the result of the delay was that our scheduled arrival time of 23.30 was pushed back to 00.30. As the plane began to descend towards Helsinki, I noticed to my surprise that we were coming down into a white landscape. There was either a scattering of snow or an extremely hard frost covering the fields and roads, so it must be colder than the Google weather forecast had led us to believe. Sure enough, the pilot announced that it was a nice evening in Helsinki with temperatures around -9. Not sure -9 is most people's definition of a nice evening, but after the mild weather that we've been experiencing recently in the UK, we were relieved to find that in Finland winter was still properly cold. Thermometers we later saw in the town suggested that the pilot may have exaggerated slightly, with the temperature actually being more like -5.

A consequence of landing late was that we'd missed the train we were going to catch into the city centre. From memory I didn't think the trains were very frequent - and I didn't have any information about how late they ran - so we decided to investigate the airport bus instead. Finnair run a bus from the airport which goes directly to the main train station in Helsinki, and luckily we were just in time for the final bus of the evening at 01.10. I dread to think how much a Finnish taxi would have cost if we had missed it!

When the bus arrived it turned out to be rather hi-tech, with free Wi-Fi and an electronic display showing how far we were along the route and the expected arrival time at each stop. The journey through the outskirts of Helsinki into the town centre took around 30 minutes, so it was just before 01.45 that we stepped off the bus in central Helsinki and had to take care not to fall over on the extremely icy pavements. The hotel I'd booked for Sunday night was only 300m from the station on the map, but we hadn't arrived on the same side of the building as I'd expected when planning to take the train, so it took a while for us to figure out exactly where we were. We arrived at the hotel around 2am and were extremely relieved to note that they hadn't been lying when they said they had a 24-hour reception! Breakfast was served until 09.30 the next morning, so we settled down to get as much sleep as possible in preparation for a day of sight-seeing in Helsinki on Monday.

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