Near the small Finnish Lapland town of Saariselkä, a hotel captures the imagination of many around the world. It’s no luxury hotel, that’s for sure. The hotel staff explains, through a forced smile, that you need to take your own damn luggage to your own room. And yes, you need to book your dog sled tour through them, or you aren’t going anywhere mister.
But at 500 Euros per night for a double room (Winter 2017), this is an eye-wateringly high price even for Finnish standards. Undoubtedly, there’s few places like it, and the Kakslauttanen resort knows this. So it welcomes guests nevertheless, with that same forced smile and a budget airline business model.
The Glass Igloos of Kakslauttanen
It’s these videos circulating around social media, that makes everyone stop for a moment and think – yeah, I should get there, before the aurora stops working.
The good news is, the aurora’s light show will still be around. The bad news is, the price of an igloo stay will probably still remain the same.
Getting to Kakslauttanen
Transport in Finland, especially above the Arctic Circle, is expensive. There’s no cheap public buses to shuttle you around, so my recommendation is to rent a car and drive. You’ll appreciate the convenience in covering huge distances across the snowy countryside too.
Driving around by rental car
Driving on the dark, icy roads of Lapland might put off some travellers, especially if you’ve never done anything like it before. Fortunately, the road network is well-maintained, especially along the main highways. The surroundings are also seldom pitch dark, as the snow by the sides of the road glow in the moonlight.
Rental cars are also equipped to handle the driving conditions. Most come with snow tires, heaters and a cable that attaches to power sockets available in almost every parking lot. By keeping them connected to your car overnight, you keep the engines from freezing. Who knew!
To get from the main Arctic Circle town of Rovaniemi to the Kakslauttanen resort, you’ll want to prepare:
- A GPS app. You don’t need to rent one, just save the right Google Map in your Smartphone, or use the free Sygic app.
- Water and snacks to take along the way. There’s not a lot of truck stops between towns.
- Loads of Christmas songs in an MP3 player, to set the right mood. To quote an employee from the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, “It’s Christmas for almost 5 months in a year!”
Taking a bus into Kakslauttanen
The nearest airport to Kakslauttanen is Ivalo, a 30 minute bus ride away. It costs € 9.30 per trip, and buses run in 1-2 hour intervals. Alternatively, a bus ride from Rovaniemi costs € 47.20 and takes 3 hours.
To book tickets, check out Matkahuolto, which has bus schedules from all over Finland.
What to expect in the glass igloo
The first thing to note about booking the 2-person glass igloo is that it lacks a shower. There’s a small toilet with a sink inside, for the late nights when it simply is too cold to step outside. But to shower, you’ll need to visit the common bathroom nearby. On the plus side, it comes with a sauna, so you can work up a sweat even in -20°C weather.
The igloo itself is basic, with a gaudy double bed occupying most of the interior. The bed is pretty remarkable though, as a remote control adjusts the reclining angle to an optimum height for aurora gazing.
Since this structure is almost entirely made of glass, retractable curtains offer the occupants some privacy at night. But the unspoken rule is that everyone should turn off their lights once they’re settled in. Light glare almost always spoils night photography, but thankfully most occupants want the lights off as eagerly as you do.
If you’re not content at gazing up into the heavens throughout the night and willing auroras to appear, you need to bring your own entertainment. There’s no TV or radio, or anything entertaining in particular, and the resort itself doesn’t have much to explore after the first hour or so. With no WiFi reception at the igloos too, a physical book might be your best bet.
Activities at the Kakslauttanen resort
Daylight hours range from nothing in the dead of winter to a full 24 hours of the summer sun in Lapland. For most people, life goes on as normal, and activities like dog sledding, aurora hunting, snowmobile excursions and skiing take place during ‘daytime’.
Kakslauttanen do not allow external tour operators to pick up customers from their resort, as they offer their own tours. While this anti-competitive policy is pretty abhorrent, you can just take a short walk to the main gate to meet the tour operator of your choice. Most external operators maintain their own website with the price list, and are located in the nearby town of Saariselkä.
For some affordable fun, rent a pair of skis and just go cross-country skiing by yourself. It’s not exactly a ski resort, but you won’t complain about the lack of snow if you visit in winter.
Dining at the Kakslauttanen resort
Every igloo stay comes with a mandatory breakfast and dinner, which is added onto the price of the accommodation. Again an anti-competitive condition, but few will complain as the resort is far from the nearest non-resort restaurant in Saariselkä.
You can save a bit on lunch by making sandwiches. The Kuukkeli supermarket in Saariselkä is pretty well-stocked, and even sells disposable barbeque pits if you’re up for a spot of outdoor grilling.
How is the aurora viewing experience like?
Auroras are a tricky thing to predict, and you won’t know if you’ll see any, even on the day itself. Many locals swear by Aurora Service, which deserves every cent donated to keep their good work going. In a nutshell, a KP reading of above 3 carries a good chance of aurora sightings. KP4 and more is a signal of strong solar radiation colliding with the Earth’s magnetosphere.
Auroras do not suddenly pop up over Kakslauttanen, as one might imagine. Instead, it slowly starts and moves across from the north pole, where the radiation is strongest. If the radiation is sufficiently strong, you’ll start seeing a tinge of white on the horizon. You might think, well that’s too bad, the clouds are coming in.
Then over the next hour, the clouds move closer to you, but they don’t register anything more than mild annoyance. You came all this way, and it looks like a dry night. But then people start emerging from their igloo with their DSLRs and tripods. They start chattering excitedly, pointing at the clouds.
Over the course of the next 15 minutes, people will stumble out of their igloos, some obviously woken up from their sleep. If you’re lucky, the aurora will reach Kakslauttanen and move right above you in the igloo. The thing is, this may happen at 8pm, or it may happen at 4am. But if it does happen, enjoy the moment – you’re now part of a group of privileged people who have seen the aurora up-close and in person.
Quick tips to aurora photography
The bottomline is, you need a proper camera to take good photos, unless the aurora is super strong. A smartphone or a compact camera will not suffice except in KP4-5 conditions, and you don’t want to be disappointed when that doesn’t happen. For the effort of coming all the way down and paying top dollar for staying in the igloo, it’s worth coming prepared.
To take decent photos of the aurora, you’ll need:
- DSLR camera. You’ll need to take photos from outside the igloo.
- A proper tripod. Small ones that extend 30 cm won’t work, as the layer of snow is way taller than that.
- A remote control, so you can keep snapping photos from the comfort of your igloo.
- A lens with large-ish aperture (F2.2 or less recommended, but optional)
The skill of taking night photographs is an entire topic by itself, but basically you should set your camera to a high ISO, long shutter speed and large aperture (small F-stop number). This will give you the best chance of capturing as much light as possible. Also, capture in RAW format if you can afford to. Auroras have vivid colours and visual nuances that can be brought to life during image post-processing.
Without a camera, auroras look white in colour, like clouds. A DSLR can work as an early warning system, as you periodically take photos of the horizon facing north. If you see green patches over the skies, sit back and smile. It’s your lucky night, and a good time to pop the champagne!
Is a trip to Kakslauttanen worth the price tag?
It’s one of the few places that offers an unparalleled aurora gazing experience. A visit here also gives you instant bragging rights to your annoying rich friends, who routinely boast about their luxury wildlife safaris and Maldives vacations.
If there are available igloos to book on the spot when you arrive, you might be able to predict your chances of viewing auroras before putting your money down. But very likely, you’ll need to reserve an igloo and deal with the chances of a no-show when you’re there.
In any case, this is a bucket list place. You’ll want to be there, because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Is it worth the price tag? Sure. But you need to have enough money for the rest of your trip as well. Alas Finland, and especially Lapland, isn’t a place to travel easily on a shoestring budget.