Southbound Itinerary: Finland to Russia
Day 1: Ivalo, Finland / Inari
Via Helsinki, arrive in Ivalo in far-north Finland and transfer to Inari, about a 45-minute drive. This remote village 160 miles north of the Arctic Circle hugs the shores of vast Lake Inari in northern Finnish Lapland, a region dotted with thousands of lakes. The municipality of Inari is the hub of traditional Sami culture in Finland, and it recognizes four official languages – Finnish, plus three variations of Sami. From our base at Inari Wilderness Lodge, we are immersed in Sami life, learning about the history, customs and daily activities of Europe’s oldest culture and only indigenous people. At a welcome dinner this evening, our Expedition Leaders introduce us to the slate of northern nature adventures and cultural highlights to come.
Day 2: Sami Culture—Siida Museum & Reindeer Farm / Aurora Search
Discover Sami culture today, beginning with a tour of the Siida Museum and Nature Center in Inari. Permanent exhibits and photographic displays showcase the rich and varied history of the Sami people and their role in modern-day Lapland. Observe Sami architecture in the open-air museum where a trail takes visitors past some 50 buildings and structures grouped by cultural area. The museum shop also sells handmade Sami crafts to take home as gifts or souvenirs. We also visit a local reindeer farm to learn about the important place of this domestic animal in Sami culture. We’ll meet the herder and even take a short ride in a sled pulled by a reindeer!
Dinner this evening is a festive event: a local Lappish meal with a Sami cultural presentation. Learn about Sami heritage, view colorful Sami costumes, and enjoy traditional Lappish foods. Later this evening we go in search of the northern lights. When the weather is clear, our odds of seeing them here are among the best in Europe. In northern Finland, the aurora is on display about 200 days a year. And once we’re tucked into our warm Aurora Cabins for the night, the quest continues as you survey the night sky through your glass roof.
Day 3: Snowshoeing / Sami Felt Making Studio Visit
Spend another day in the heart of Lapland as we enjoy more activities with the Sami people and explore our surrounding natural environs. A snowshoe excursion offers an encounter with the beauty and solitude of the pristine landscape in the ethereal light of an Arctic winter. In the afternoon we visit a felt maker's studio in an old Sami setting on the Lemmenjoki River. Enjoy a presentation by a local felt artisan as we learn and watch how the Sami have made felted items from lambswool over centuries, including clothing and artistic textiles.
Once darkness falls, we have another opportunity to seek out the northern lights, also called the aurora borealis, which means “north wind of the dawn.” For centuries, the phenomenon of the northern lights was a mystery, inspiring a host of mythical explanations. While we know now that the aurora is caused by the interaction of the solar wind with Earth’s magnetic field, more poetic stories of their origin linger, including the Sami legend that the lights are caused by a magical fox running across the Arctic valleys. As the fox sweeps its tail across the snow, it sends a trail of sparks up into the sky.
Day 4: Kirkenes, Norway—Dog Sledding / Snowhotel / Aurora Quest
Today we drive over the border into Norway to reach our destination of Kirkenes. After lunch on arrival, outdoor adventure awaits with an exhilarating dog sled ride on the frozen fjord. Then we head to the famous Snowhotel, built entirely of snow and ice. We tour the hotel and stop for a drink (served in glasses made of ice!) at the ice bar. And for those intrepid guests who are up for an adventure, you can spend the night at the Snowhotel, sleeping in warm thermal bags in a room carved of ice. Or opt for heated comfort at our regular hotel in town...the choice is yours. Regardless of where you stay, we’ll gather this evening to search again for the northern lights, often on view here at the top of Norway when skies are clear.
Day 5: Pasvik Valley / Kirkenes WWII Tour / Aurora Quest
Spend the morning on an optional easy snowshoeing excursion through the peaceful Arctic landscape of Pasvikdalen, a long river valley wedged between Russia and Finland. This border region is a part of Pasvik–Inari Trilateral Park, a continuously protected wilderness area that consists of Ovre Pasvik National Park and Ovre Pasvik Landscape Protection Area in Norway, the joint Norwegian–Russian Pasvik Nature Reserve, and Vatsari Wilderness Area in Finland. We stop at the Svanhovd Environment Center, which hosts the visitor center for Ovre Pasvik National Park and a brown bear exhibit—the laboratory on site conducts important DNA research on brown bears. The Pasvik Valley is home to Norway's largest bear population, though of course they are hibernating when we are there. It also contains the largest remaining tract of primeval pine forest in Norway, an ecotone region where the eastern Siberian taiga meets western Boreal forest and Arctic tundra marshlands. This nexus of diverse habitats is an important bird area, with many eastern species that are rare elsewhere in Norway and Western Europe. The southern sector of the valley is an important grazing area for a large elk population in winter.
Return to town for lunch, then tour Kirkenes, with a focus on its World War II heritage. Kirkenes was the site of some of the most intense battles in the war on the German-Soviet front. We visit Andersgrotta, a bomb shelter in a cave in the center of town where the civilian population sought refuge during more than 300 bombings. After three years of heavy fighting in one of the coldest, bleakest theaters of battle, Kirkenes was liberated by the Red Army in 1944. After dinner, we set out once more in search of the northern lights, heading out of town to where the skies are darkest, hoping the aurora will make a dramatic appearance.
Day 6: Kirkenes / Golden Eagle Private Luxury Train
Leaving Kirkenes, we go through immigration formalities at the Norway-Russia border to reach the rail terminus at Nikel. Here, Here we board our private chartered train, the Golden Eagle, reserved exclusively for Nat Hab guests. The Arctic Explorer rail route will take us from the top of Europe nearly 1,000 miles south to St. Petersburg. A gala dinner is served in the elegant dining car, once we are settled into our cabins. Through the Russian winter night, the Golden Eagle whisks us over the tundra and taiga as we keep watch for the northern lights out the windows.
Day 7: Golden Eagle Train—Murmansk
We reach Murmansk today, a city halfway between Moscow and the North Pole, which lies 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The main city on the Kola Peninsula, it began as a small Arctic trading post. In 1916, under pressure from the British government to establish a support port during World War I, Murmansk was founded, and we learn more about its history on a guided tour of the city. With the warming influence of the Gulf Stream, the port is ice-free year-round, and Murmansk is the home port of Russia’s nuclear-powered icebreaker ships. Depending on the day of the week, we will either take a guided tour of the Lenin Nuclear Icebreaker, which today is a museum, or visit the Naval Fleet Museum and drive by the icebreaker. First launched in 1957, this powerful vessel helped clear shipping routes in Russia’s northern reaches. Back on board the train, enjoy Russian teacakes in the Bar Lounge Car and a presentation by our Expedition Leaders as we continue our journey over the vast Arctic landscape.
Day 8: Golden Eagle Train—Petrozavodsk
The Golden Eagle glides southward to reach Petrozavodsk, where we disembark for a city tour. The city stretches along the western shore of Lake Onega, the second largest lake in Europe. Petrozavodsk is the one of the major cultural and industrial centers of northwest Russia and is the capital of the Republic of Karelia. Karelia more broadly is a distinct geographic and cultural region, encompassing territory and people in Finland and Sweden as well as Russia. A highlight of our visit is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built in high classical style in the early 19th century. It was turned into a museum in 1929 following the Russian Revolution but returned to the diocese in 1991, fully restored, and consecrated in 2000. We'll also visit the Fine Arts Museum, renowned for its collection of Russian Orthodox icons and paintings (please note that on some days, the Fine Arts Museum may be closed, and an alternate activity will be substituted). This afternoon, enjoy a concert of Eastern Karelian folk music by the local kantele ensemble, featuring this traditional Finnish plucked-string wooden instrument. Return to the Golden Eagle for a final night of relaxing in refined comfort.
Day 9: St. Petersburg—Disembark / City Tour
Our rail journey ends today as we reach St. Petersburg, where we disembark the train and transfer to our grand hotel in the heart of the city, offering a refined welcome with opulent accommodations in a historic setting. We spend the rest of the day exploring highlights of this city that is a leading economic, scientific and cultural center of Russia. St. Petersburg was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703 on the site of a captured Swedish fortress on the Baltic Sea, in his quest to establish a strategic seaport. It set the stage for Russia's entry into modern history as a European great power, serving as the capital of Imperial Russia from 1712-1918.
Our tour will include a sampler of St. Petersburg’s celebrated monuments, palaces, cathedrals and museums, with specific sites dependent on opening hours and day of the week. Likely inclusions may include the following: the Hermitage Museum is the second-largest art museum in the world, founded in 1764 by Empress Catherine the Great. Housed in the former Winter Palace of the Tsars, the royal art collection contains over 3 million works. St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the largest in Russia when it was completed in 1858, remains one of the most impressive landmarks of the imperial capital, with its gilded dome dominating the city skyline. The Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood, the former Orthodox church that is now a museum, is one of St. Petersburg's most-recognized landmarks. Its five onion domes are exuberantly decorated with colorful jewelers' enamel, while inside are 23,000 square feet of glittering mosaics, one of the largest collections in Europe. Time permitting, we may also visit the Faberge Museum, housed in Shuvalov Palace, to view the exquisite collection of imperial Easter eggs. These masterpieces of jewelry art were created by artisans employed by the House of Faberge for the last two Russian emperors. This evening, gather for an elegant farewell dinner, the capstone of an extraordinary adventure.
Day 10: St. Petersburg / Depart
After breakfast, a transfer to the airport is included this morning, about a 45-minute drive from our hotel.
Physical Rating: Easy to Moderate