How to Swim in a Frozen Sea; a Step-by-Step Guide

Most tourists don’t think of cold Arctic destinations when planning a seaside vacation escape. But with some creative planning you could actually swim on your vacation to Finland! 

Step 1.  The sea in Arctic regions like Kemi, Finland is frozen for most of the winter, so you must locate an Arctic Icebreaker such as the Sampo Ice Breaker to break through the ice to go swimming.

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 Step 2. Boarding the ship may be an ordeal if there is not a nearby pier.  Luckily this icebreaker on the Gulf of Bothnia is equipped with a crane to pick up passengers if needed.

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 Step 3. The ship may have to cut through miles of ice before locating an adequate swimming hole. This could take a while.

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 Step 4. While the ship is cutting through meters of ice, look for the stash of Arctic-rated survival suits….probably located in the lower section of the ship.  These survival suits enable its wearer a greater chance of survival if they unfortunately ended up falling into the cold artic sea.  The suit provides insulation, floatation, and water protection in the event of an emergency. Don’t get me wrong- these do not provide much warmth but prevent hypothermia for up to 6 hours and in some cases longer. But they will do for a casual swim!

 

 Step 5:  Following the handy instruction chart posted on the wall, take off your outerwear, putting your suit on over your clothing. Now you are ready to go!

 

 Step 6. Head out onto the sea and jump in! Word of warning- these are not absolutely waterproof. You must float on your back. Do not submerge your face or float on your stomach. The water could flood into the seams and lining around your face.

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 Step 7. Once in the water feel free to float around and enjoy swimming in the frozen sea!

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 *Trips to the Sampo Icebreaker can be arranged directly through their website or can be added onto a longer package to Kemi, Finland through Nordic Visitor.

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How to Survive a Night in an Ice Hotel!

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The city of Kemi is located just south of the Arctic Circle in Northern Finland, because of its position near the Arctic Circle nights are longer than average during the winter months. In addition, temperatures plunge anywhere from 0 to 16 degrees in February. During the weeks leading up to my trip I was asked by friends and family if I was crazy. Finland is freezing! Yes it is but where else can you go to visit the LumiLinna SnowCastle, visit a reindeer farm, snowmobile on a frozen sea, and go Dogsledding?

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The Kemi LumiLinna SnowCastle in Finland is a real hotel and castle made entirely from ice and snow. Each year weeks of preparation go into building the castle from the ground up using blocks of ice and snow made from the nearby Gulf of Bothnia. The Snow Castle grounds include a 21 room SnowHotel, a SnowRestaurant, a SnowChapel and an IceBar. The grounds of the castle sit on the icy coast of the Gulf of Bothnia.  IMG_1006

Construction of the SnowCastle begins yearly in December and continues for about a 6 week period culminating in its grand opening event that takes place in the end of January.  For the 2012 SnowCastle,  approximately 21000 m3 of snow was used in construction, which is roughly the amount of 2100 truck-loads. The SnowCastle area will be 5000 m2, which is the equivalent size of about one-and-a half football fields.  Building the castle is a huge feat for the some 60 builders of this working hotel and restaurant.

The walls and entire structure of the castle and the grounds are constructed with piped snow, blown into various types of molds with a high-powered snow blower. Once the snow has hardened the molds can be removed leaving a very sturdy structure made entirely of snow.  All of the snow, ice and water come from the nearby Gulf of Bothnia. When the season is over at April’s end, the structure is completely demolished and pushed back by tractors into the Gulf, from where it came from.

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Each year the theme of the SnowCastle changes: some of the previous themes were Fire; 2007, the Sea; 2008, Travel, 2009 and on the 15th anniversary, the theme was National Romanticism. The Snowcastle’s theme for 2103 was Fantasy. Images of storybook tales were carefully engraved in the snowy walls and many rooms contained frozen characters sculpted entirely of ice. There was even an Angry Birds room. Spending the night in the castle is an unreal experience especially at nighttime when the lights are shining on the glistening ice ans snow.

Dinner at the Snow Restaurant

We checked in at the Snow Castle at around 5pm, this gave us plenty of time to explore the castle before our dinner, which was scheduled at 7:30 that night.  The hotel has a heated lounge with lockers where guests can store their luggage, purses and cameras. Aside from the lockers, the rustic-looking lounge is a fully-equipped and quite cozy with couches, tables, TVs, a little snack shop and a souvenir shop. The bathrooms are located outside the lounge in a heated facility.  After storing our stuff, we bundled up and excitedly ran out to check out the snow castle grounds. First stop was the SnowChapel, the room was dimly lit with green and white lighting casting a peaceful glow over the little chapel. People can actually get married here and then spend their honeymoon night in the honeymoon sweet equipped with a king size ice- bed.

IMG_1216After we took some photos of us praying in the chapel and checking out the castle we were notified that our dinner was ready early. We headed over to the Snow Restaurant, there are two separate seating areas both filled with tables made entirely of slabs of ice. The chairs are tree stumps covered in reindeer fur.

a4 At this point we were hungry and getting a little cold so we sat down at our reserved table. The meal consisted of  three-courses with a welcome drink served in a cup made from ice.  The food is served in tin foil on wooden plates so that the heat doesn’t melt the tables. We all chose the hot Lingonberry juice to start to warm us up rather than the cold Finlandia vodka and cranberry drink in an ice cup.

We each had different options that had to be ordered well in advance. I had the Castle´s Vegetarian Menu; which consisted of Cream of vegetable soup, a Vegetable bake made from broccoli, peppers and potatoes with a lemon sauce and for dessert a warm blueberry pie served with vanilla custard. My Friends had the Feast a’la Snowcastle; cold smoked salmon soup, fried fillet of chicken served with rice, onion and pepper with a smoked reindeer-cheese sauce. Then for dessert warm apple pie with vanilla custard. The food was delicious and hot but we actually ate quickly as the cold was starting to set in just sitting at the table. Luckily the service was good and the food came out fast!

What to do for the Night in an Ice Hotel

After dinner in the restaurant, there are a number of fun things to do to occupy your time. There is the Icebar where even the menus and cups are made from ice. Some of the drinks that are typical of Finland are Finlandia Vodka, or Cloudberry Liquor, but because it was so cold we opted for a Hot Chocolate. ???????????????????????????????

Even dressed in complete Arctic wear staying warm is an issue. The temperature in the castle is a steady 23 degrees regardless of the outside temperature. We could not sit in the bar area very long and drink.  We kept busy taking photos of each other and the bar. Afterwards we headed over to the room with the Ice Slide and took turns making silly videos of us going down it. This served the dual purpose of having fun while keeping warm.

After making a few silly videos we headed outside to slide down the sledding hill, by now it was dark outside. Sledding down the hill was fun but we decided to warm up in the lounge before turning in for the night. We found a comfy couch to sit on and we each got a hot chocolate spiked with Rum. The rum did actually help warm us up!  The cheerful hotel clerk informed us that a presentation on how to use the sleeping bags would be starting soon. Probably not a good idea to skip this informational piece!

How to Survive the Night in the LumiLinna SnowCastle

A couple of key pieces of information we made careful mental notes of; each bed in the castle is covered in animal fur that you sleep on top of. Each guest gets a survival grade sleeping bag with a warm insert both pieces need to be zipped up to keep the warmth in.

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First put the inner sleeping bag inside the heavier one. Unzip both of them partially so you can get in but easily zip it up when you are inside. After getting the bags organized-here is the fun part! You need to take off your outerwear and clothing; basically stripping down to your baselayers. According to the presenter this is absolutely necessary and the sleeping bags will not work as well if you leave your outerwear or too many layers on.  Once you take everything off you need to put your clothing between the animal fur and the sleeping bag. The point of this is so your clothes do not freeze, or at least stay somewhat unfrozen for when you have to get dressed in the morning. The boots just stay out and there is no way of getting around sticking your feet into a frozen boot in the morning.

The demonstration looked easy enough and off we were to bed, by now it was about 11pm and we were tired from our dogsledding excursion earlier in the day. One word of warning! Go to the bathroom before turning in for the night! The bathroom is outside in an adjacent heated building but it is still very cold getting in and out of your clothes and bag. Also the lights are dimmed in the hotel at night, my friend had to go to the bathroom and none of us would go with her. So it was a little scary although totally safe walking around in the dark to go to the bathroom. I had to go early in the morning and decided to just wait till breakfast.

IMG_1354 Once inside the first bag we all felt pretty good about the process but zippering up both bags and having them lined up correctly proved a little difficult once the cold started setting in. Once we were all securely zipped up it was quite warm. I had to sleep with the bag over my face though as there is no other protection for your head and face.  A hat definitely is not enough to keep the cold at bay.

We actually slept until the hotel staff woke us up in the morning-we survived no frostbite or frozen body parts! The breakfast was laid out in the lounge by the time we woke up around 7:30am. Our night in the SnowCastle was an unforgettable experience. I don’t particularly like cold weather but with careful planning and the right clothing, the amazing experience certainly outweighed the cold.    IMG_1361

LumiLinna SnowCastle Hours of Operation and Rates

Visitors can visit just the castle during the hours of 10am-7pm daily. An entrance ticket just for the day is 8 Euro / adult, and children from 4 – 11 years 4 Eur. A hotel room can be booked from 27th of January to 6th of April. Price for a double room is 115-175 Euros per person depending on the day of the week. The price includes breakfast in the lounge and the room. I highly suggest using Nordic Visitor though, they arranged an amazing tour that was totally organized which included a dogsledding excursion, overnight in the SnowCastle, a trip on The Sampo Arctic Icebreaker, a visit to a Reindeer farm, snowmobiling for the entire trip including a night ride to the Finnish forest to see the Northern Lights, and various snacks.

How to Get to Kemi, Finland????????????????????????????????

Even booking this trip through Nordic Visitor or a similar company, you will be responsible for booking your own flights. The nearest and only airport is Kemi-Tornio, flights can be arranged through Flybe from Helsinki, Finland. Before booking your package to the SnowCastle check the flights from Helsinki as there are limited travel times.

 

Vacationing in the Nordic Countries!

“Recently on vacation I went to Finland, Estonia and Latvia. Friends and aquaintances always laugh that I visit the most interesting places. But what an amazing vacation! Dogsledding on the Sea of Bothnia, snowmobiling at night in the Finnish forest and drinking crazy shots and concoctions until  late morning in Tallin.” 

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Crazy Concoctions at Labor Bar, Tallinn

Most tourists looking for exotic and interesting places to travel often overlook what the Nordic countries have to offer. This term Nordic Countries commonly refers to the northern countries of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Finland and their surrounding territories the Faroe Islands, Åland Islands, and Greenland. Several countries also closely align or identify with these countries due to their proximity including the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
 
 
But overlooking these Nordic countries is a mistake! There are endless opportunities for adventure that are hard to find  anywhere else in the world; dogsledding with a team of huskies, snowmobiling under the Northern Lights, and visiting an Ice Hotel. I also love the sophisticated urban centers of Reykjavik and Helsinki  with trendy clubs, restaurants and lots of shopping.  Whatever or whenever you decide to go, one visit and you will be hooked.

How Not to Freeze in Finland!

Temperatures in Northern Finland above the Arctic Circle can range anywhere from 0 to 28 degrees Fahrenheit during December through March. Prolonged periods of darkness where the sun does not rise is also a factor to consider when packing for this cold region.”

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LummiLinna Snow Hotel; Finland

But don’t let cold weather deter you from taking a trip to Finland or any Nordic country for that matter during the winter months! There are so many adventurous activities such as dogsledding, snowmobiling, seeing the Northern Lights, skiing and visiting an Ice Hotel that one can only engage in during the winter months but Temperatures can vary depending on what city you plan to visit and during what month.  According to the World Atlas, temperatures in Northern Finland above the Arctic Circle can range anywhere from 0 to 28 degrees Fahrenheit during December through March. Prolonged periods of darkness where the sun does not rise is also a factor to consider when packing in this cold region. In slight contrast Southern Finland near Helsinki averages 10 to 27 degrees during the same period. But don’t worry with careful packing and planning the cold conditions of the north need not be a concern.

What Types of Base Layers to Purchase for Winter

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C’Mon Let’s go!

A good base layer is absolutely an essential staple to pack for your trip. First thing you need to know is that base layers are rated by numbers and/or weight. Item labeled lightweight or micro weight refers to lighter tops and bottoms that are good for strenuous sports like skiing, trail running or snowboarding. These items are designed to wick away moisture from your body and are breathable.  Some products use different rating systems, for example Patagonia rates their lightweight products with a level 1 or 2 and Wool products from Smart Wool or Icebreaker label them with a number like 150. Midweight base layers should be worn for moderately cold to cold conditions and can be used when you engaged in lighter sports or when you will get heated easy. Midweight can also be identified as level 3 or 200 in wool.  For extremely cold conditions as in Finland especially north of the arctic circle or if you will be outside for prolonged period of time a heavy weight item is recommended, which are indicated by level 4 or 250-260 in wool products.

The suggested base layers for cold weather are usually made from Merino wool or synthetic materials like polyester or microfiber.  My favorites are expedition weight Patagonia Capilene, which is made from polyester and is usually a little cheaper and just as efficient as wool. I think the highest quality tops and bottoms are available from Icebreaker. Their Merino wool is the highest quality and the wool is sourced from sheep in the New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Their products are breathable and do not smell even after wearing for many days. One fun feature of Icebreaker products is that you can trace where the wool comes from by entering the baa code on the tag inside the product. Icebreaker is also committed to environmental ethics and treating animals fairly.

Another factor to keep in mind is if the conditions will be windy and frigid you might want top with a higher neck line to keep the wind out, and also with a zipper to help regulate your body temperature if you are getting too hot.  Also look for a tight fit and sleeves with the thumb holes in it-which not only looks cool but also keep your hands warm.

What Types of Outwear to Purchase for Finland

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Snow Castle; Kemi Finland

A jacket or parka is the most important piece to consider if you will be spending any amount of time outside.  On the trip I booked to Finland we have 4 days in Kemi Finland where the temperatures range from 0 to 10 degrees. First thing to look at what types of activities you will be participating in. Being outside for long periods of time for walking, sightseeing or passive sports like dogsledding you should probably go with a parka or a medium length jacket. I really like The North Face Arctic Parka or the Brooklyn Jacket both are water resistant and insulated with 550 down.  Both have faux-fur hoods and inner hand cuffs to help guard against the cold arctic winds.  For the trip to Kemi I chose the Brooklyn Jacket because it is super warm and I do not need to layer many sweater and jackets underneath it.  This coat was amazing and stood up to freezing arctic winds during my entire trip.

If you are going to be skiing or snowboarding or highly active you might want to go with something a little shorter and lighter such as the North Face Kira Triclimate Jacket which is also waterproof and offer wind resistance and insulation. You should not overheat while exerting yourself in this jacket. There are some many great jackets to choose from though. I also liked the Marmot Gramercy jacket which is 650 down which has a detachable fur hood, it is surprising warm, light and easily packable.

The best thing to do is go try on a lot of jackets to see what is the best fit and style for your needs. Ski shops, REI and Moosejaw are good places to go because the employees can offer expert advice tailored to your needs.  Moosejaw, REI and The North face offer lifetime warranties on most of their products too. A couple guidelines to follow; look for wind and water resistance, high level of insulation, and brands that are specifically designed for performance wear as opposed to just fashion.

Cold Weather Boots

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Sampo Ice Breaker Cruise: Finland

Keeping your feet dry and warm is crucial to staying warm in winter especially with wet and snowy conditions.  Warm furry boots like classic Uggs or Bear Paw are perfect for cold conditions as long as there is no snow or rain. If you will be outside walking around in wet or snowy conditions look into waterproof winter boots that have a weather rating such as Sorel Joan of Artic boot that is rated for -25 degrees F and is fully water proof with a removable inner boot. This boot is both a fashionable and practical choice. For my trip to Finland I packed a warm pair of cute wedge Bear Paw boots for going out at night and a pair of practical Sorel Tofino boot for daytime and outwear use.  Ugg does make a number of waterproof winter boots as well as Columbia, The North Face and BearPaw.

Don’t Forget the Accessories

Aside from all the major items needed for your trip to Finland or any cold weather destination it is essential to pack items like gloves, hats, scarves and socks designed for extreme cold weather. Look for wool scarves and hats from Columbia or The North Face that are heavy enough to provide warmth and coverage.  Look for the hats that also have an inner lining like a micro-fleece ear band for added warmth.  Scarves do not need to be big and bulky-check out the Icebreaker Neck Chute that you can pull up or down to provide ultimate warmth. No matter what type of boot you go with you should purchase merino wool socks to wear under them. Go with a heavyweight or midweight sock to keep your feet toasty and warm. The wool wicks away moisture whereas cotton is the worst choice because it gets soggy and wet and is impossible to dry off while wearing. I like the long wool socks that you can pull up over your pants.  Lastly but still very important is gloves. I like wind and waterproof mittens that have an inner glove liner such as Swany Toaster Arctic Mittens or the Burton Gore-Tex Mittens both are rated for extreme cold temperatures.  Fleece mittens and gloves will not provide enough wind and waterproofing to be effective in such cold temperatures.

Make sure to purchase clothes and items that you will wear again once your trip is over. There is nothing worse than spending hundreds of dollars on winter gear that you won’t wear again.

Being prepared for cold weather will make your trip to Finland much more enjoyable. With careful planning and packing you won’t even notice that it is winter.

Copyright Christine Zenino