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Despite being born in the heat of summer, I’ve always been a “winter” person. One of my bucket-list items is to stay at one of the famous ice hotels that are erected each winter season in the far north. My husband is, understandably, not so keen on that idea. So, you can imagine my excitement when Nokian Tyres invited me to visit their winter testing facility (a.k.a. the “White Hell”) 300 kilometers inside the Arctic Circle.
A few months ago, I was fortunate to join a small group of American journalists and auto enthusiasts venturing across the Atlantic for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. For a few of them, this would be their first-ever trip outside the U.S. or to Europe. For me, it was just another exciting adventure I felt blessed to be a part of.
My flight left the Washington, DC area on a Monday and arrived in Frankfurt, Germany Tuesday around lunch. Another northbound jaunt took me to Helsinki, the capital city of Finland, where I linked up with my traveling counterparts (none whom I’d ever met before, by the way). We grabbed a bite and a coffee while we waited for the rest of our soon-to-be compatriots. Then, we whisked away to Ivalo, a town in the heart of the Lapland region of Finland.
Our plane made a safe landing on asphalt and quickly migrated to a snowy parking lot next to the quaint Ivalo airport terminal. We walked ourselves off the plane and greeted our luggage moments later. Inside, the (only) terminal was plastered with signs touting Nokian Tyres and its “Northproof” mantra. It was as if the local sport was rubber and the home team was Nokian Tyres. The people of Ivalo seemed very proud to be home to the inventors of the first winter tire.
We were met by a shuttle van decked out with Nokians – don’t worry, we checked – that would take us to the cabin where we, eight strangers, would spend the next few days in close quarters. It was kind of like MTV “Real World: Lapland” edition, where strangers from around the world are thrown into a cabin and forced to live “peacefully” together. Nobody yet knew whether we’d enjoy the extra company!
The drive to our Uuvana, our cabin in Saariselkä, was after dark, but I could already see how stunning the snowcapped trees and whitewashed scenery was. I couldn’t wait to wake up to the sun shining on the frosty landscape and to watch how it reflected off of everything white. I was not disappointed upon waking and stepping into the living room, which was mostly windows on one side, providing a panoramic glimpse of the majestic horizon.
We ate a Nordic breakfast featuring smoked salmon, reindeer sausage, and a savory rice porridge pie (called “karelian”) with an egg and butter spread they call “Munavoi” that’s traditional in the area. After a bite and some coffee to fend off the jet lag, we were off to the nearby Nokian Tyres testing facility to drive some cars.
We took a midday break to warm up inside a Finnish hut with an open fire in the center. While there, we enjoyed a traditional salmon soup native to the area. The flavor was simple, featuring cooked fresh salmon from the area and potatoes. The warmth of the hut and the soup got us ready for a few more laps around the White Hell.
In the afternoon, we returned to Uuvaana for yet another adventure. (Seriously, this was like the coolest 48 hours I’ve experienced in a long time!) Our gracious hosts took us out for a snowmobile safari at dusk that led us through winding Lapland forests and right to a couple of hungry reindeer. As a lifelong animal lover, I have to admit that these mild creatures mesmerized me. An interesting factoid: much like cows in America, reindeer don’t roam wild; they each have an owner.
After we washed off the two-stroke smell, we headed into town for dinner at the popular Petronelle Restaurant. The décor was very Finnish, with taxidermy animals of varying size and species sprinkled throughout. It was very homey inside, despite that “frozen” mink locking eyes with your dinner. And fittingly, Petronelle served a delicious reindeer steak. Mine came with a healthy helping of grouse as well. We all enjoyed our Finnish food very much.
But the night did not end there. Rather, it just started. We had gotten to know one another and become comrades very quickly. In Finnish culture, the sauna is extremely popular and is really part of their daily ritual. Our Finnish host, a communications executive with Nokian Tyres, quite literally put us in the hot seat. We took turns in the sauna getting heated up and sweating out who-knows-what before cramming ourselves in the outdoor hot tub where we could gaze upon the snowy landscape. Sadly, the sky was not clear enough to witness the famous Northern Lights. I guess that means I’ll just have to go back!
Despite being crowded in a hot tub with seven (now former) strangers, we all laughed and cut up with one another, sharing stories from our personal lives and bonding over funny things that had transpired in the past 24 hours.
In the most unlikely of places, we made the most unlikely of friends.
The next morning, we departed Ivalo for a night in Helsinki before we would inevitably go our separate ways. An afternoon of sightseeing (or, in my case, 30 Euros worth of Finnish and Austrian chocolate) was followed by an evening of chowing down at the hot new restaurant specializing in chicken, The Cock. This is where we met Simon. If you live in Helsinki, I have a feeling you’ve crossed paths with this charismatic server who knows exactly what you want and is happy to tell you so. His style was so smooth that he had us “buying” into everything he pitched. And for the most part, he was spot on with his recommendations. Nevertheless, we were fortunate to snag a private room in the lower level of The Cock, where the bonding over storytelling and laughing at one another’s expense continued.
We were no longer a room full of strangers hailing from across North America. Suddenly, we were friends with shared memories and experiences that were unique to us all being fortunate enough to be part of this adventure.
It’s true that I was excited to learn about the Nokian brand and its heritage as the focal point of my trip to the Arctic Circle; however, I have to say I am even more grateful for the opportunity to have experienced Finland, its lovely people, and its enchanting scenery. And hey, I even made a few new friends and memories along the way!