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Frostbite in Finland

Frostbite in Finland
TWO bizarre facts associated with the Finns are that they drink a lot and have a penchant for rushing out of a sauna and rolling naked in the snow. It turns out these habits are closely interlinked.
After a few drinks in convivial company in a room like a furnace, that cool, white snow looks so refreshing that you just have to dive right in. And anyone who plans to make naked contact with an icepack needs all the alcoholic encouragement they can get.
For holidaymakers bored of fun in the sun, frostbite in Finland offers a startling contrast.
Vast pine forests march over the horizon, interspersed by thousands of lakes. Pristine snow surrounds quaint log cabins, and the country boasts the only sea in the world that freezes over.
The capital, Helsinki, has wide cobbled streets and rattling trams, with Russian-style architecture imposed by its historically hostile neighbours.
This is a working city rather than a resort, but its architecture is striking. The cathedral dominates Senate Square, surrounded by Russian-designed buildings, and you can just imagine the Red Army goose-stepping through its neighbour's capital.
Cobbled streets run down to the port where the frozen Baltic sea creaks as spring begins to melt its frozen clutches. In winter, thin-blooded foreigners need thick insulation from top to toe, with woolly socks, vests and jumpers, gloves, hats and a scarf pulled high over the nose.
An hour's flight north of the Arctic Circle takes you to isolated Lapland. In this picture postcard world everything revolves around snow. You can try snow-mobileing, husky sledding, reindeer sledding, cross-country skiing, and that most frustrating hobby of fishing through an ice hole in a frozen lake.
I thought that was the stuff of make-believe, until our guide whipped out an enormous drill, twisted it through the ice until he reached water, and reeled out a tiny fishing line with a frozen worm attached. Fortunately, reindeer stew was simmering over a log fire.
We were standing on what was a lake in summer, now brought to a standstill by a metre-deep crust of ice. We reached the spot after two exhilarating hours on snowmobiles, whizzing through spectacular white wilderness, with only our whoops of glee to break the silence.
That night we slept in the igloo village of Kakslauttanen, where blocks of ice are built around wooden frames. Hot toddies greeted us in an opaque ice gallery filled with ice sculptures.
But an ice bed in an igloo adds up to unbelievable cold, despite heaps of reindeer skins for blankets. For once I was grateful for an allergy to animals, and tried not to smirk as I trudged off to a log cabin.
By 7am my party had congregated at the main hotel, shivering and telling tales of 4am aerobics to thaw frozen limbs. One had set off in the dark to search for the hotel, but lost the path and stumbled waist-deep into virgin snow. It is a beautiful but hostile environment for the uninitiated.
Food in Finland revolves around salmon and reindeer cooked in dozens of different ways.
Saslik is a fine Russian restaurant in Helsinki where wandering gypsies with balalaikas keep you entertained. We ate blinis with sour cream, platters of pickled vegetables, cod roe, cheese and sauerkraut, and sizzling beef straight from the griddle.
All washed down with so much alcohol that you either forget the cold or simply forget to worry about it.