Sara Marshall stays at a winter retreat that once belonged to the Finnish president
As a rule, politicians should select holiday destinations wisely. Remember the furore when David Cameron breezed into party isle Ibiza, and the all-round thumbs up for Jeremy Corbyn’s cycling break across Croatia?
Choice of location says a lot about a leader, so I’m not surprised to discover Finland’s longest serving president liked to spend his downtime high above the Arctic Circle, in a fairy-tale Narnia caked half the year in snow.
When I arrive in Finnish Saariselka, a cluster of blocky hotels and log cabins claiming to be Europe’s most northerly ski resort, it’s surprisingly warm at -5C - although a thick frozen duvet now snuggles the landscape.
With no sun to speak of (the golden orb returns this month), candles flickering in frosted windows are the only illuminations; in fading blue light, bold streaks of pine forest are smudged into charcoal etchings.
Former Finnish president Urho Kekkonen was clearly taken with the place, and in the 1970s purchased a sturdy pine cabin outside the 300-person village as a private retreat, where powerful guests included Yasser Arafat, Moshe Dayan of Israel, President Ford of the US and King Hussein of Jordan. Years later, in 1983, a 2,550 square kilometre block of land running almost from his home to the Russian border was declared a national park bearing his name.
Today, his treasured property operates as a beautifully attired design hotel, with a recent extension making it possibly the most sumptuous place to stay in the Arctic - and certainly the best-looking.
The launch of a seasonal direct three-hour Finnair flight from London Gatwick to Ivalo, a 30-minute drive away, is an added lure, positioning Javri Lodge as a very doable short break.
How was the historical building transformed?
“Our lodge has found a quiet place in this quiet place,” claims Juha Mehtajarvi, a local who only fully appreciated the peace and solitude of his surroundings in later life. Unable to bear the thought of a corporate owning this slice of history, he seized an opportunity when the lodge came up for sale.
Along with his Norwegian wife Katja, Juha is effortlessly stylish in a way that comes more naturally to Scandinavians than breathing - and a fondness for clean lines, neutral colour tones and natural fabrics is evident in the hotel’s decor.
Downstairs, thick wooden beams as old as 500 years support the building, made cosy with log fires and sheepskin chairs costing a very cool E2.5K each. Room 1 rightly earns its name as the Presidential Suite (this is where Kekkonen slept), and a grand piano in the warm, convivial lounge invites more than just a few Finnish G&T’s from the honesty bar.
A second sauna complements the original fancy sweat box used by the head of state, although most of the hotel’s recent additions are on the second floor. Reached by a winding gunmetal staircase, four new suites (bringing the total room number to 13) are modern, with slate-walled showers and overwhelming wall-size windows - all (oddly) without curtains.
Sensitive considerations have also been made towards the environment; heat is generated from bore holes 250 metres below the earth, and flooring is made of recycled woven plastic. Crucially, there are no TVs, newspapers or phones in rooms; this is a place to completely switch off. “This village allows me to be myself,” insists Juha, welling up with very genuine emotion as we discuss the special qualities of his Lappish snow kingdom. Like Kekkonen, he’s very fond of Saariselka, and I can see why.
How do you entertain yourself in wilderness?
As part of a full-board package, guests at Javri have one activity per day included - and it’s surprising how much there is to do in the heart of nothingness.
Sini Kaltti and her husband Ossi run Extreme Huskies, where 93 indefatigable yelping Alaskan-breed race dogs eagerly greet us.
Only running at full pelt subdues their impatient howls, as I cling tightly to the back of a wooden sled. Desperate to keep going, even defecating isn’t a distraction, and one of my dogs repeatedly manages to squat his haunches mid-sprint, spraying deadly debris like a sawn-off shotgun.
Mushing along winding forest paths and across frozen lakes is exhilarating, using my body weight to steer the dogs, chasing the last threads of light as they spin below the horizon.
A musher for eight years, Sini lives to race and tourism has become a means to facilitate her passion. Listening to her wax lyrical about the glories of the Iditarod Trail, I wonder what the grand prize might be?
“Dog food,” she smirks. “1,000kg. That would last us about a month”.
Clearly, no price can be put on honour and prestige.
Slow or fast paced, there are pursuits to suit everyone
Sini claims her dogs have “a bigger engine” than other breeds, although they’d struggle to keep up with 600cc snowmobiles, the preferred mode of transport in these parts. Tomi and Janne, two strapping Finns who assisted with Javri’s new construction, lead our motorised safari the following day.
With no driving licence, I ride pillion, watching the milky sky whip into a snow blizzard as we pass neon-flashing Santa coaches on their way to Rovaniemi, only three hours from here.
The storm has settled by the time we reach a frozen lake, our chosen spot for ice fishing, which, aside from drilling a hole through 25cm of ice, turns out to be a largely passive sport. Dangling bait from a miniature fishing rod, we wait and wait... then wait a bit longer for a catch.
Impatient, cold and easily defeated, I head indoors to the roasting heat of our kota, a wooden tipi with an open fire blasting inside. Javri’s chef, Vila, has - sensibly - already prepared a fish and potato soup, and cowering in the cold reality of my failings, it tastes like the best thing I’ve ever eaten.
Other activities at the lodge include snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, and with all equipment conveniently supplied - from snow boots and skis, to insulated jackets and woollen socks - a hand-luggage only trip really would be feasible.
There are 200km of cross-country ski tracks connecting Saariselka, and even for a first-timer like me, the elegant, gliding manoeuvres are (relatively) easy to master.
Bottom out and arms stretched forward, swooshing downhill I’m unstoppable. Truly unstoppable in fact, as another poor, ambling guest discovers when I race up from the rear and buckle her behind the knees.
Fortunately, only damaged pride and fits of laughter prevent us from getting up.
And dare we mention the aurora?
Although the Northern Lights are supposedly visible for two-thirds of the year, there’s not even a faint whisper of green wisp during my stay. Juha says he’ll drive guests for up to 200km to see the aurora, but he doesn’t like to market the bucket-list attraction because there are so many other reasons to come here.
The food, for example, is outstanding.
Exquisite dishes served from Javri’s show kitchen include reindeer tartare topped with eggs cooked at 67 degrees for 45 minutes, and numerous plates featuring local matsutake mushrooms.
Katja successfully collected 300kg of the highly prized fungi last summer, yet it’s still the bleak, unyielding winter period which delights her most. In the silence and darkness, you can be at peace with yourself, she claims.
That’s the beauty of small places, pleasing even - or especially - to the biggest names.
How to get there
Double rooms at Javri Lodge (javri.fi; +358 40 502 0409) start from £1,380 per night full board, including one nature experience per day and use of the in-house swimming pool and saunas. Experiences include snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, husky sledding and ice fishing among other winter activities. Finnair (finnair.com; 0208 0 010101) flies non-stop twice a week (on Thursdays and Sundays) from London Gatwick to Ivalo, the northernmost airport in Finland, from £229 return.