Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.
This is the entry about our trip to Ylläs, pronounced oo-las (as in hoot), in Finland, where we went to learn to ski. Phew, this one took a while! I haven’t counted the hours but it adds up to many. Mainly down to fiddling with GPS data and photos! More hours if I count the individual day logs I’ve scrapped, and the first attempt at a write-up that got far too long and detailed. This one is a merging of the two and a lot shorter (would you believe!). I’ve also scrapped my plans to individually write-up the places where we dined in Äkäslompolo in favour of, very brief, coverage in this entry.
I prefer to try “something different” when possible, I also prefer to be where crowds aren’t. From what I read about Ylläs it would be both different and quiet, and reportedly rather good for skiing newbies! I discovered Ylläs thanks to a lastminute.com search for cheap ski holidays, which showed up this deal with Inghams at 50% off. (On lastminute.com search for “Finland” as searches for “Ylläs” or “Yllas” get no results, but Ylläs is the first “Finland” result. Go figure.) After looking around on the ‘net I found a mostly positive reports on Ylläs/Inghams experiences, a reassuring start. Here’s some links from my bookmarks:
My overall impression from the reviews was that it was a small and very family-friendly sort of place. The family part and the very strong dose of “Christmas” involved were a little worrying, I dislike both both Christmas and children. But given the great price I decided to bite the bullet and go for it.
“Ylläs” is, in fact, the name of the overall area and also the fell (“a ridge or chain of mountains”) where the skiing is. The towns around the skiing business are Äkäslompolo and Ylläsjarvi (both also seem to be the names of the lakes next to the towns.) One for each side of the fell, one for each ski resort. We went to Äkäs (“lompolo” usually dropped), and the older ski-resort: Ylläs-Ski. On the other side of the fell the Iso-Ylläs resort can be found.
For two of us the basic price ended up being about £900, with (roughly, from memory) 550 for the actual holiday and 350 for the week-long ski school. This included return flights (Gatwick/Kittilä), bus connection, seven nights in the Äkäshotelli “hotel rooms”, plus buffet dinner and breakfast every day. The ski school, for two people, included 5 days of lessons as part of a class (less than 10 people in our class with at least two instructors), ski and boot hire, a lift pass for the entire week (covering both resorts) and free ski-bus use (between town and the ski centre, and between the ski centres on either side of the fell).
To get by day-to-day about 20€ would do two people, covering lunch and coffee. That’s utter basics though! We had a couple of proper restaurant dinners 50€ per head, and two pizzas with beers cost just over 30€ (for both of us). Note that beer is pretty expensive at the hotels and ski centres, at around 5€ for 500ml of the local brew, and as much as 7.50€ for a 600ml bottle of good Czech beer. The local beer, Lappin Kulta, isn’t bad but it very light flavoured.
If you go down to the supermarket in Äkäs you can buy the same beers for around a third of the hotel price. Might be worth stocking up if you need your beer!
In the end we spent about 350€ extra on lunches, drinks, and restaurants. We spent a bunch more on souvenir and gift items too though, they can be pretty expensive.
In this I’m ignoring the prices of all the things on offer that we didn’t do, of which there are legion! Reindeer and husky safaris, ice fishing, cross-country skiing, snow-mobiling, northern lights safaris, “visit Santa’s grotto”, etc. We went on this trip to learn to ski and were entirely focused on that.
The preparation was mostly a matter of buying clothes. Neither of us had anything suitable for snow! We visited Ellis Brigham in London… and when it worked out that just the basics for both of us would hit near £1000 I decided to see if there were cheaper options. In the end we got most of our stuff at the budget clothes store TK Maxx (one in Watford, it’s like K-Mart/Target back in Oz I think) and the sports “warehouse” (seriously huge) Decathalon in London.
The full list of stuff includes: top and bottom thermal base layers, two fleeces each, plenty of socks, ski gloves, beanies, scarves, ski jackets, ski trousers, and ski masks. We also grabbed a more suitable (small) backpack, a new torch (LED), and some new hiking boots (good ones from Ellis-Brigham). All in all we spent about £600 on everything — a bit better than £1000 on just the thermals/fleeces/outers. Even then, after spending that much on ski gear we bloody well better go skiing again, regularly!
In our preparations two resources were most useful:
The “fruitbandit” page provides a lot of information and links on to further useful resources.
Our holiday package was with a company called Inghams. We didn’t interact with them much since we weren’t involved in the activities, and I booked online via a different company (often good discounts available on Inghams packages through third-party resellers.) The flights (chartered) and connections all ran smoothly, and there were always representatives around to help people out (and take more money booking extras of course). No complaints about them, our holiday worked out as-advertised and without issues. That’s all I have to say about that.
The Hotel: Äkäshotelli
This is, they say, the oldest hotel in the area. But not very old at only 30-something years! They have a large central building (right) where the bar, nightclub, and restaurant are located. Next to this are the “hotel rooms”, then about a 2 minute walk away are the “suites” (self contained flats really). Also, scattered around the area, were the “log cabins”.
Our hotel room was simple and fine, considering that all we wanted to do with it was sleep! In hindsight it may have been nice to have gone for a “log cabin”, and I’d recommend that as a preferred option. But note that you’ll have to trek through the snow to get to the main hotel building and the buses. The main complaint about the “hotel rooms” was the noise, after a day of skiing we just wanted to sleep at 23:00 — but there were kids screaming around the corridors until midnight, not to mention loud Poms. I, uncharitably, took to calling the building the “peasant barn”.
Our package included buffet breakfast and dinner provided by the hotel. There was a clear effort, I think, to make the Poms feel at home. While we were there they also had a bus load of Japanese tourists and provided for them boiled rice and even nori! Personally I’d prefer more “local” foods. That said, the quality of the buffet food was actually pretty good, especially the bread.
Eating in Äkäslompolo
I covered this briefly in the Äkäshotelli section above. I’ll add a few extra brief notes here. For the budget-concious you’d do pretty well just sticking to the buffet. Most memorable dishes include: “game” pie (like a shepherd’s pie in construction), smoked reindeer soup, baked Arctic trout, and a vast variety of pickled herring! And remember, if any culinary adventurousness is not your kettle of fish, that these are just single dishes in a fairly extensive buffet. This buffet always included some dull food for the occasional dull Pom. (Note: I’m applying stereotypes with extreme prejudice, don’t be offended Poms.) There was a definite effort to keep the runtlings happy too, with a dedicated buffet containing things like French fries and sausages (which I saw older Poms digging in to regularly).
I must mention the bread, it was good bread! Damn fresh, warm, and crusty. One loaf type was a good old wholemeal, the other seemed to be the same but contained some berries. Luckily I’m happy to throw “no refined carbohydrates” out the window on holidays, so I enjoyed plenty of this bread for both breakfast and dinner. For the dullards they also provided sliced white bread.
Desserts were on offer, they were fairly unexciting and I don’t remember the details.
Our final night was a Lappish food extravaganza! The hotel pulled out all the local staples and filled the boat (literally!) We enjoyed bloating quantities of pickled herring (three flavours!), lightly salted salmon, and game patê. The selection wasn’t as good as we’d had on a-la-carte menus, so you’ll get a better gourmet experience by going down that road, but if you leave it just to the Lappish food finalé of the Inghams package holiday you’ll do pretty well. However, I don’t know if this is a usual Inghams thing or just for the Christmas season. After this dinner a Santa showed up and the runtlings started to sing, so we left in a hurry.
Cost-wise this is going to be as good as it gets for someone on an Inghams package at this hotel, so long as you’re on half-board. To people who don’t have it included the buffet is 20€ per adult and 10€ for runtlings, which is probably OK I guess.
Äkäshotelli Restaurant (map)
Rating: Enjoyable and Interesting. We went for traditional Lappish foods, their Lappish taster plate (Lappilankku) is not to be missed. The plate included: whitefish roe, marinated wile mushrooms, small Lappish vendaces (like fresh-salted whitebait), corriander flavoured slightly salted salmon (divine!), smoked reindeer liver, potato chips (Lappish? No idea.), and compote of cranberry and onion.
The reindeer steak fillet fried in thyme butter was pretty good, but I think the steak Kat had at Poro was better. Kat especially liked the lightly salted “Ice Ocean salmon” which was almost sashimi, this was the centrepiece of her entrée. Kat’s main course was roasted Arctic Char with pesto-hollandaise and oven baked beetroot, a solid and rich seafood dish. We’re glad to note that Arctic Char has a “least concern” conservation status.
Since we were on half-board at the hotel we got 10€ per head towards the bill for dining a-la-carte instead of buffet. In the end, including a couple of glasses of wine, we paid about 90€ for this meal. (Unfortunately I’ve lost the receipt so I don’t have the details!)
Poro Restaurant (map)
The word “poro” means reindeer, and true to name there was plenty of reindeer on the menu. My entrée of smoked reindeer and morel soup was rich, creamy, and very enjoyable. I followed this with fried reindeer liver served with baked vegetables, the reindeer was much like calf’s liver and only a little stronger in flavour — overall this dish was good but not exciting.
Kat’s main course was a rare reindeer fillet steak served on roast Lappish root vegetables. The based was actually much the same as for my liver main. The reindeer steak was absolutely superb, the star of the show! Bloody, juicy, and tender. Kat started her meal with some salt-salmon and salmon roe on little discs of bread. Kat likes pretty much anything fishy and was happily satisfied by this dish.
We pushed our usual limits and had dessert even! Mine was an apple pie, which was fine and the only thing of particular note about it was the “spruce tip syrup”. This syrup had an unusual, and surprisingly pleasant, flavour. Kat’s dessert was cheese! Lappish “bread cheese” to be precise, warmed up and served with ice-cream and stewed cloudberries. Unusual! Certainly worth trying, the cheese is very mild in flavour so works well as part of a sweet dessert.
The décor of Poro Restaurant is of particular of note, reindeer horn, feltwork, and sharp wooden stakes (expecting a vampire attack?) all over the place. Additionally, the restaurant is attached to “Santa’s Gift Shop” where a “Santa” can be found some afternoons. (It is outside here where photographic evidence of me giving his wooden likeness a good dose of GBH was obtained.) If timed appropriately it could be a good visit with something for both the runtlings as well as breeders.
Our meal (for two) at Poro cost us 86€ and we left about a 15% tip. (My position with tips these days it “it’s too bloody hard”. So, restaurants with no service fee get a ~15% tip (if deserved) and ones with one get no extra tip. If I pay by card then if a no-service-fee restaurant gives me a card-reader with the “enter tip” screen showing they get no tip (bloody bad manners in my mind), otherwise I try to leave a cash tip. Sadly, “service fee” restaurants get their tip 100% of the time and otherwise I only tip if the service is pretty good. Then again, is getting the set “discretionary service fee” “tip” really getting any tip at all? The whole system is broken! </rant>) The 86€ includes a couple of 500ml glasses of Lapin Kulta III (pretty dull but not bad) beer at 5€ each.
Pizzeria Eväskori (map)
Pizza! In Finland! Finnish pizza?! This place is to be found at the junction of the road that runs up to and around the Ylläs Fell, past Äkäshotelli, and the main road (route 940). On the inside this pizza joint is quite a sight, every wall is covered in memorabilia from ancient ski equipment to pizza plates of the world (even the ceiling a bit.)
Eväskori’s menu is rather extensive, with everything from “usuals” (think Hawaiian) to bear! Continuing on our Lappish Food Extravaganza we chose their “Ylläs Special” and “Päkäpizza” pizzas. What’s on earth are they you may ask. Well, the former apparently included karhu, savuporo, sipuli, and smentana! (That’s: bear, smoked reindeer, onion, crème fraîche.) The latter includes: savulammas, sipuli, Lapin leipäjuusto ja tomaati. (That’s: smoked lamb, onion, “bread cheese” and tomato.)
I’m glad to say that I know, now, that the Brown Bears in Finland have a conservation status of “least concern”, something I worried about at the time and ever since. Then again, if it was a concern you probably wouldn’t find it on a pizza. And honestly, minced bear on a pizza? Could have been anything. What’s our overall assessment of the pizza though? Surprisingly good! Far above trashy PizzaHut/Domino’s/PerfectPizza standards, this was a pretty decent, if very large, thin-crust pizza.
The pizzas tasted good, were not overloaded with topping, and had a good crunch around the edges. In fact they were better than half the local Italian restaurants manage. As befits the topping the flavour was pretty meaty and certainly smoky. The simplicity of them certainly precludes “gourmet”, but gourmet pizza is for try-hard pansies. A decent pizza place in Finland, believe it or not!
Our two pizzas cost us 32.40€, including 11.40€ for two Lapin Kulta III beers and an espresso. (A good espresso too, better than the English Italian-restaurant average.) The bear and reindeer pizza was 11€ and the lamb one was 10€.
The options were very limited at the Ylläs-Ski slopes, however there was a lot of new construction going on so that may change sometime soon. The ski-center (Ylläspirtti) on the Ylläs-Ski side of the fell has basics: burgers, chips, hot dogs, panini, doughnuts, etc. Plus coffee machines, filter coffee, hot chocolate (machines) and the like. No espresso, if you were wondering.
I lived on filter coffee from the urn, since the magic espresso-type machine spat out coffee that tasted like it was made from dried reindeer poop. Price examples: A filter coffee was 1.80€, a hot chocolate was 2.20€, and a croissant was 2.50€.
The Ski School & Skiing
Skiing! It’s the whole reason we went on this trip. I’d read that it was a very good place for beginners and families, and we were certainly beginners! I’ve “seen the snow” a few of times before this trip, that was always in cities and in small volumes. Once in the distant past (1988), my family drove through The Snowies, and that was when I saw snow for the first time ever. After that I didn’t see snow again for 15 years! Skiing? I’d never even been near a ski resort! So, we travelled to Finland in the hope of learning this absurd art of “controlled falling.”
The Ylläs fell has two ski resorts. The oldest, Ylläs-Ski, is on the north side and the newer Iso-Ylläs directly opposite it on the south. We didn’t really know any details like this before going as we simply grabbed a package deal and hoped it’d work out. Our skiing experience was all on the Ylläs-Ski side, closest to the Äkäslompolo village.
As for the conditions and time of year, I’m no expert. There was snow, but it seemed rather icy and chunky at times. Some slopes were a bit like ice-gravel in places. Also, only about a quarter of the slopes were open — but this wasn’t a problem at all for us newbies (the single red and black runs in front of the ski-centre were open most of the week). This needs to be taken in climatic context though, were were in Ylläs in early December, when the season was just starting! If I take a peek at the Yllas.fi site now, three weeks later, twice as many of the lifts on the fell are operating. By later this month I assume it’ll all be in full swing. The wisdom from the locals is that March is the best time to go skiing there, the snow isn’t as good as Jan/Feb they say but the length of the days is much better (there’s actual sunlight).
The school started first thing in the morning on Monday, we got to the ski centre at 09:30 and had boots and skis fitted. Our group of about 10 newbies had four instructors on this first day. This was not an encouraging day for me! After learning not to fall over right after standing up and to “snow plough” (brake) on the baby-baby slope we went to the proper nursery slope.
If you look at the map above (see this map if you don’t support iframes and thus can’t see a map above) you can see my first day, as tracked by GPS, in red. The joke worth noting is the point where the red line pops away to the left, far from all the other lines, and lands on a road… that’s what I did! Shot straight off the side of the slope, hit a mound of snow, “got air” (with all the grace of camel on ice), and landed front-first on the road (ice). Next note that on the right the red line jumps out in several smaller spikes. I was still shooting off the slope for the rest of the lesson, but had learnt that the soft snow on the right was better to land on than the hard road on the left! This lesson was further reinforced by the fact that there were cars, buses, and snow-ploughs regularly speeding up and down the road and the instructor told me I’d get run over if I did that again. (Ah, teaching through fear, my favourite pedagogical methodology.) The other important lesson is to hit the ground as soon as you’re out of control, better then hitting it when you’re going twice as fast into bugger-knows-what.
On this first day I think I fell over at least twice as often as the next worst student! At the end of the day the lead instructor, Olä, asked if I was there for the 3 day or 5 day course. Me: “5 days, I think I need it”, Olä: “Yes… you do.” I wasn’t sure in the end if he thought it was a good thing I’d be there for the 5 days or if he’d prefer me to be off his slopes sooner rather than later!
What made all the difference in the end is that after the lesson that day we stayed on the slopes until they closed at 17:00. I was almost average the next day! Then every day we did the same, took our lesson in the morning then spent the rest of the day at it. I was happilly skiing backwards by the end of the week! (Not at high velocity though.)
Our last lesson for the week was on Saturday, after a Friday “rest day” (we spent it skiing anyway.) By this stage we’d lost four people (to frustration I think), reducing the class to about 7. Then during the last lesson one guy quit in the middle of the slope! Picked up his skis and walked to the bottom. Must have been a tough moment for him. This lesson we finished by heading to the top of the longest open “blue run”, slope 12, about 1.2km from end to end. You can see this slope on the map above as the long, really wiggly blue line. (Note: There isn’t really a road running through the middle of the slope.) Initially we just went half way up, shown where the blue line bisects the gap between the lift and the slope. Then, after the final defection, the 6 of us who remained did the full run a couple of times. To have come to this point from barely being able to stand up 6 days previously seemed astounding. So there you go, even in just one week enough dedication can get even the most astoundingly unco people (me) going on skis.
After the lesson I dragged Kat from the top of slope 12 all the way across the top of the fell to the top of the Iso-Ylläs slopes and thus the very top of the fell. Well not dragged literally, though Kat would probably have been happier if I had. As far as I was concerned the trip could not be completed without getting to the summit! (A mere 718 metres above sea-level.) Let me tell you, hiking uphill (not steep) in skis is a damn good workout. At the steepest point we did shed the skis though, there’s a point where skis become slower than just walking. You need pretty good leg muscles to get any uphill speed at all, luckily Kat and I both have pretty good strength:weight ratios.
The view was beautiful, there’s some photos here but they don’t do it justice. The most stunning thing is how flat everything is, you’re sitting on top of this isolated little “fell” in middle of a flat plain of snow covered spaces and coniferous forest . In the distance you can see some other fells, including a couple with the runway-like lighting of ski slopes (one is Pallas). There is also a more wimpy way to get to the summit, catch the bus around to Iso-Ylläs and go up on the ski-lift. When we got up there we had a look around and had a beer at the refreshment shack nearby. Then we slid our way back down to our side of the fell and spent the rest of the day on the slopes.
In summary: the week was an excellent learning experience. The instructors did their job well and were very patient putting up with a bunch of unco first-timers. The slopes were pretty forgiving and there was a great range from “barely sloped” to “pretty scary”. That said, what was “pretty scary” for me it probably “pretty lame” for an experienced skier. There was only one “black run” slope at Ylläs-Ski and I’m not rating that as I never looked down it from the top even.
It’s also worth noting, I guess, that they did a great job with the runtlings. The little buggers mostly got on their skiis and were zooming around like bats-outta-hell by the end of the first day. Ah, the joy of having a low centre of gravity and no fear. (Kinda like Kat actually.) Ylläs-Ski also has a crèche, so the breeders could dump their runtlings for later retrieval.
So, that’s it. I don’t think I have much more to add actually. We had a great time in Finland and the trip was 200% worthwhile. I can’t say I particularly loved the saturation of families with children, but, as much as runtlings annoy me, fashion-obsessed social wannabes piss me off much more. Major bonuses were interesting food, guaranteed snow, great ski instructors, and no crowds.
Phew, this has been the most time consuming and long-winded entry ever… Well done if you made it this far, I nearly didn’t. If you’re thinking of going to Ylläs or another Lapland destination I hope I was of some help.
Here’s a link to our full Ylläs Ski Holiday photo album.
Appendix A: Maps
Thanks to my carrying around of some geek bling, namely a GPS unit, I was able to map several of our walks, bus routes, and skiing days. I’ve compiled some of the cleaner routes and the way-points into a KML file, this can be viewed in both Google Earth and Google Maps. The main use has been for the embedded maps in this entry. If you like you can view the map in it’s entirety or just download the KML file.
The KML file could be converted into various formats to be uploaded to GPS devices too. I highly recommend the
gpsbabel tool if you’re thinking of doing something like that. I wrote about the process of Crafting KML from Garmin GPS Data previously.
The coolest map section from our trip was that of the ski slopes. I individually mapped the ski lifts we used and also mapped each slope, carefully skiing from edge to edge to get wiggly lines. The slopes, minus the messy lesson tracks, are shown in the map below. The wiggly lines are downhill slopes, and the straighter ones cross-country. Green is “very easy” and blue is “easy”, we didn’t do any “medium” or “hard” tracks. The straight dark grey lines are ski lifts. The cross-country line at lowest on the map is from the top of the Ylläs-Ski slopes across to the Ylläs summit (marked with the arrow.)
Alas, Google Maps “iframes” make my XHTML-strict validation fail 🙁
Appendix B: Photos
Many of photos taken, thus many of photos culled, but still so many left! Google’s Picasa tool is what I use for adjusting photos these days. I wanted to do some stitched panoramas too. Luckily for me I found a critter that did a far better job than I could!
The critter is
hugin, while slow (forgivable thanks to to great job it does) and with a clunky UI (we’ll let that pass), it did an amazing job of joining up photos. For two sets of three I didn’t have to interfere at all, entirely automatic! For the third set of three I pointed out some correlated features and it did the rest beautifully. The last panaroma shown in the entry is one of the stitched ones. It’s important to know the “crop factor” of your camera, I found a page explaining sensor sizes that was very useful (skim down to “Addendum: The crop factor:”.)