• mattnewbury

Ice to See You

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

In 2014 I visited the World Winter Swim Championships in Lapland and developed a love for the extreme and extremely fun sport.

My midlife crisis (which began somewhere in my mid 20s) seems to be drawing me to ever more extreme patterns of behaviour. That’s how I find myself standing on the banks of a frozen Kemijoki River in Rovaniemi on a cold March day. The town on the Arctic Circle is not only the capital of Finnish Lapland but also the Official Hometown of Santa Claus®, although meeting the big man himself isn’t the main reason I’m here. I’ve come to take a dip in the frozen river as part of the Winter Swimming World Championships. Brrhhhh, I feel cold just writing about it.

Around 1200 people from 34 different countries have come to compete and a 25m pool (as well as a smaller dipping pool) has been cut into the 70cm thick ice for the extreme swimming competition. Nets are continually scooping ice from the water as it begins to freeze again. Forget that annoying ice bucket challenge, this is really going to cause the ultimate brain freeze. There’s added pressure as the young members of the local football team (FC Santa Claus, obviously) have just gone in ahead of me and are now watching from the comfort of the wood-fired hot tubs that line the river. I’m looking forward to joining them.

I’ve been warned not to dive in (as if…) so make full use of the rustic wooden ladder and soon climb down into the coldest water I’ve ever experienced. Indeed it’s so ridiculously frigid I can barely breathe, but I’m determined to at least have a little swim around for a minute or two. So after putting a brave smile on for a couple of photos, I try and get my arms and legs moving, which is no easy feat. Already my hands and feet feel like they are going numb and cramping up. It’s time to try and get back up that ladder and into the waiting warm water followed by the sauna tent.

Going from freezing cold water into the hot spa actually hurts more than getting into the cold water in the first place. But I’ve soon acclimatised and start to enjoy one of the best natural highs I have ever experienced. Who’d have thought that I would ever be sitting in a hot tub watching truly insane people compete in races up and down a frozen river, against a stunning snowy backdrop? Oh and did I mention the football players I’m sharing the warm water with…

I’d flown from Heathrow via Helsinki on Finnair, an airline that has understandably been named Northern Europe’s Best Airline for the fourth year in a row. I’d been hoping to be able see the city from the air as we came into land, as remarkably it’s shaped like a reindeer’s head, built to a plan by visionary architect Alvar Aalto when it was destroyed by retreating Germans in 1944. However, so much snow is falling there’s a complete whiteout outside. Still I’m sure this bit of architectural trivia excites the thousands of children who come here to visit Santa every year.

I’ve booked into City Hotel, which is right in the centre of town and surrounded by an unexpectedly trendy selection of shops, bars and restaurants. Although the city only has a population of around 60,000, there are also in excess of 6000 university students here, many studying arts and tourism. This makes for a very young and trendy feeling city centre.

Exploring the town is magical experience, especially thanks to the fresh dusting of snow and I take a wander up to Lordi Square, for the opening ceremony of the championships. The square was renamed back in 2006 in honour Lordi’s victory in the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest with Hard Rock Hallelujah. It’s great to see so many people from so many different countries out celebrating and waving their flags with pride. Who’d have thought I’d ever attend an international sporting event representing my country. The ceremony finishes with Santa Claus himself officially opening proceedings and I vow to go and see him in his Arctic Circle home the next day.

Santa Claus Post Office is where all those letters to Santa from across the world ends up

Santa Claus Village is located about 8 km northeast of Rovaniemi and is open throughout the year, for everyone who really does wish it could be Christmas every day. The Arctic Circle actually cuts right through the village, while Santa Claus Post Office is where all those letters to Santa from across the world ends up (a team of elves try and respond to as many as possible). You can enjoy a variety of suitable activities while you are there, from reindeer sleigh rides to snowmobile tours and even a visit to see the huskies. Of course everyone really wants to see the big guy himself, although when I turned up in my swim gear he looked slightly perplexed and flatly refused to let me sit on his knee.

I couldn’t come this far north without a visit to the Arctic Snow Hotel – an incredible set of snow and ice structures rebuilt from scratch each year after melting in the spring sunshine. Located away from the city and out in the snowfields, it also makes the ideal place to spot the Northern Lights.

My visit began with an evening tour of the hotel itself, which is genuinely amazing. Each of the magical rooms has been created by a different snow artist and you genuinely feel like you have entered a fairy tale. The structure also contains an ice bar where you can quaff a range of shots from glasses actually made of ice. The atmospheric lighting shining through the ice seating and tables gives the bar a curious night club feeling, although being the only guest in there at that particular time, I resist the urge to dance and warm myself up.

Mid meal a cry went up – the aurora borealis was doing its thing in the sky outside and I’d sacrifice any meal to get a glimpse of that.

The ice chapel is equally as impressive, although the restaurant looked a bit cold, so I was pleased to be taken to the Kota Restaurant, a traditional log cabin where a glow-fried salmon fillet was cooked on the fire in front of me, before being served on a carved wooden plate. Mid meal a cry went up – the aurora borealis was doing its thing in the sky outside and I’d sacrifice any meal to get a glimpse of that. Apparently the Northern Lights have been particularly illusive this winter, which is a shame as it had heavily been promoted as being one of the best years ever to catch a glimpse. Enjoying one of the most amazing shows in nature’s repertoire is certainly something everyone should see once in their lives and soon it’s me as well as the sky that is glowing.

If you do fancy braving the cold water and joining the 120,000 Finns who go ice swimming regularly, there are also loads of possibilities...just ask a local

Another quirk of the hotel is the snow sauna – something that you would imagine would be impossible. The structure is built completely from ice and snow and works as well as any sauna I have ever used. There is a bit of a secret – lots of the saunas are built at the start of the season, each with a very limited lifespan and once holes begin to appear in one structure, another can be opened. The saunas are also located near an open air hot tub – just don’t step on the friendly reindeer reclining in the snow like the hotel’s pet dog. From 1 December you’ll also be able to stay in one of 15 unique Arctic Glass Igloos, perfect for watching the Northern Lights from the comfort of your bed.

If you don’t fancy Avantouinti (ice-hole swimming) there are plenty of other winter activities to enjoy from ice fishing to a round of ice golf on the frozen river using neon golf balls. The Ounasvaara Skiing Centre is just outside the town for those who enjoy more traditional winter sports, while the city also boasts ice skating rinks and snowmobile hire. If you do fancy braving the cold water and joining the 120,000 Finns who go ice swimming regularly, there are also loads of possibilities...just ask a local. You’ll feel amazing, just don’t stay in longer than five minutes, as that’s when the hypothermia kicks in.