In search of a ‘pandemic proof’ hideaway, Jenny Southan travels to Octola Private Wilderness in the Finnish Arctic Circle, and discovers it’s the ideal place for gaining perspective on the beauty of life.
The plane touched down at Rovaniemi airport in snow and darkness. It’s a two-hour flight from Helsinki, northwards into Finnish Lapland, a vast area of Arctic wilderness that’s home to reindeer, bears, wolverines, the indigenous Sami people and, of course, Santa Claus.
Coming from London, the first thing that strikes me is how quiet it is. The snow seems to muffle all sound but there is very little in the way of civilisation to see as we depart from the airport in a 4×4 down empty, ice-covered roads. Having all been Covid-tested before departure, we are also able to finally take our masks off.
“I have been instructed by Janne Honkanen, the owner of Octola Private Wilderness, that although you are all welcome to post pictures of the property, you musn’t geo-tag it. He wants the location to remain secret,” says Henry Cookson, founder of Cookson Adventures and our host for the trip. Everywhere we look there are pine forests, laden with powder. After driving for a while, we turn off the main road and up a long track, that eventually brings us to Octola Private Wilderness, a low-lying timber lodge, glittering like gold in the blue of the night. A camp fire burns in the snow outside and as we enter into the warmth of the expansive living room, we are greeted with glasses of champagne and chunky hand-knitted slipper-socks (no boots inside). They have been made by local Sami people.
Janne (pictured below in his trademark fur hat) is eager to welcome us and, once we are all seated, proceeds to tell us how Octola came to be. “I used to be pro snowmobile racer. I was racing in North America until I had an accident in Minneapolis in 1999, and I came back to Finland for surgery. I broke my back, my hip, my heal so I could not continue racing.
“So after I came back and had my surgery, I set up a snowmobile school company for children. I was running that for a few years until I got a brain tumour and I lost control of life. I went bankrupt. I lost my credibility. After three or four years my tumour got blocked and the healing process started accidentally. They were unable to operate. So this was a gift.“I continued working as a wilderness and snowmobile guide for my father’s company. There were many families coming year after year asking if I could spend more time with their children and if I could also help organise their trips. In 2009 I started a travel company called Luxury Action, and by word of mouth, it grew. In 2015, I was awarded ‘entreprenuer of the year’ by Ernst and Young, and that was my biggest achievement.
“What is luxury travel in the Arctic? We think in terms of transformation. We want to connect our guests with local people, local culture, food and ingredients, the freshest air in the world, and the surrounding nature and its wildlife.“When you come to Octola, this is not a hotel, this is not a resort, this is your Lapland home [there are no menus or prices anywhere]. When you eat, you eat so well. When you go to sleep, all the materials are so soft and comfortable. When you have spare time, you spend your time with your loved ones.”Janne’s business partner is Mika Hakkinen, two-time Formula One World champion, and today Octola sits on more than 300 hectares of land “but in our usage we have more than 1,000 hecatres”, says Janne.
Now open all year round, they had their first guests in December 2018 but Janne is keen to emphasise that not all bookings are accepted. They are discerning about who comes to stay. (Much of the time the lodge, which has 12 rooms, is a full buy-out so ideal for groups looking for an “isolation vacation” during the pandemic.)It’s a particularly good place for children – staff are incredibly accommodating of our two-year-old daughter, providing her with toys to play with, bathroom amenities and a tiny robe, nappies and wet wipes, snow gear, cookie-decorating classes, a trip to meet Father Christmas, a reindeer sleigh ride and meals prepared on-demand.
We were even loaned a baby monitor so my partner and I could both eat dinner with the group while she slept in the bedroom (we were unsure about leaving her but as we were the only guests and we knew all the staff, plus the building was totally secure and the room was just up the corridor, we felt it was okay).Cookson Adventures, who works in partnership with Octola to arrange high-end trips to Lapland, organised for kit to be left in our rooms (hats, headlamps, Buff neckware) and there is also a tray of travel adaptors for us to help ourselves to on arrival. (It’s details like this that really impress me.) Although we have brought ski gear, there is also more professional Schott apparel, boots and gloves in our sizes waiting for us outside our rooms.
Janne and Mika are continuing to expand the property with additional buildings – new for the 2021 season is a glass-roofed cabin with a double bed for watching the Northern Lights, as well as a two-bedroom chalet, and a barbecue/karaoke bar serving bear burgers (yes, real bear meat sourced from local hunters – apparently the government allows for a certain number to be killed each year).“We have e-fat bikes, snowmobiles for all ages, cross-country skis, off-road skis, snow shoes, sledges, ice skates, ice driving cars and buggies,” says Janne. “Guests can also go salmon fishing in the best salmon fishing river in Europe just 45 minutes’ drive away.
“We also have reindeer herding – I am a reindeer herder myself – you cannot just decide to be one, it is something that is handed down from generation to generation. Our family has more than 100 reindeer,” he says.This month, Octola announced that it has been approved by AFRY as having “negative carbon footprint”, thanks to the fact that its solely runs on renewable energy (wind-generated electricity and geothermal heating).
What’s more, drinking water comes directly from the property’s own spring, while the “traditionally-managed” surrounding wilderness, including forests and wetlands, provides a vast “carbon sink” effect, offsetting the carbon emmissions the property does emit. After unpacking in our rooms, we congregate for dinner at a long communal table with views out on to the snowy forests. Catering is plentiful, with multi-course meals including excellent traditional soups and breads (reindeer features heavily although there are also tasty vegetarian options). During dessert, the lights go out and we are told to look out of the window. The sky is turning green. It’s the Northern Lights.
We rush to put boots and coats on and stand outside looking up at the skies as waves of emerald and lime shift mesmerisngly above the trees. It’s a rare and profound experience, impossible to guarantee. And yet we are lucky. Then comes the sound of a man singing, a cappella, a traditional Sami folk song. It’s a truly magical moment. After, some of us head for a midnight sauna and soak in the outdoor hot tub. After months of solitary confinement in London as a consequence of the pandemic, it feels glorious to be in the company of others, drinking cans of Karhu beer, with the infinite freedom of our own private wilderness around us. Plunging (close to naked) into fresh snow after the heat of the sauna – we truly feel transformed.This trip was organised by Cookson Adventures. On the basis of a 14-person buy-out of Octola, stays cost £2,430 per person per night on a full-board basis and inclusive of a Cookson Adventures host and bespoke itinerary planning.
Outside of Octola’s offering, Cookson can arrange bespoke private activities such as a shaman experience, rally driving, husky rides into the wider wilderness, heli-safaris and educational treasure hunts for young families.