In the Lapp of luxury
Arctic Circle, Finland


It’s snowing lightly and the otherwise grey sky is blushing pink from the low-lying sun beyond the trees. Antton Niemelä, a local Sámi guide from the country’s indigenous Finno-Ugric community, is standing in a pair of black swimming shorts, smashing the ice on the surface of a frozen lake with a metal shovel. He has waded into the water and the skin on his lean legs is bright pink from the cold, but he’s smiling as if the freezing temperatures don’t bother him. Using the shovel, he pushes the slabs of ice away to create what seems like a black hole of water at the bottom of a flight of wooden steps. My mind flurries, as in a minute we are all to take an Arctic plunge.

I have to confess that I’m desperately seeking a legitimate reason not to. At the top of the steps is a small timber shed with a sauna. Other than that, there is no other real sign of civilisation here in the isolated forests of Lapland. Snow lies thick on the ground and a small fire is burning, plumes of sweet wood smoke billowing up and away. In pairs and trios, the members of our group strip off in the anteroom of the sauna and then step inside, taking a seat on the cedar benches and looking out of the window at the frozen lake. Just then, Antton comes in to warm up, pouring a big scoop of water onto the coals, which releases a cloud of steam so calescent that my body thinks it’s cooking. He clearly likes it hot.

This story first appeared in The Captivating Cape Town Issue, available in print and digital.

This story first appeared in The Captivating Cape Town Issue, available in print and digital.

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In preparation for the plunge, I practise deep, mindful breathing (something akin to the Wim Hof Method) and focus on the challenge ahead of me. When the heat becomes intolerable, I slip on a pair of rubber swimming shoes, wrap myself in a towel and head down the steps to the water.

“Out of the frying pan and into the freezer,” I think to myself. Antton waddles out with me to help, extending the handle of the shovel for me to use as a grip while I lower myself into the lake. I had been warned that people automatically start gasping for air when their skin touches the cold water, so controlled breathing is essential. It’s all-consuming, but I feel completely in the moment. A moment that’s somewhere between agonising and ecstatic.

I last a minute and I am out again, clambering back up the steps, never so eager to be by a fire. Out of nowhere, a shot of vodka appears: an essential tonic before I re-enter the sauna to bring my body temperature back up to something resembling normal. Tingling from head to toe and flooded with endorphins, I feel elated and, against my usually rational judgement, I immediately feel like doing it again. Only this time, I’m eager to stay in longer. One or two of the bravest people in our group manage to dunk their heads under (you mustn’t jump in, as you can pass out from the shock), but I didn’t manage a full baptism. People talk a lot about the addictive qualities of wild swimming; doing it here in the Arctic has to be the ultimate high.

Winter wonderland

Wearing nothing but swimsuits, towels and snow boots, we climb back into the 4×4 to drive back to Octola Lodge, where we’re staying. After hot showers, we muster for lunch in the convivial open-plan dining room, where a log fire is burning, its redolent aroma only beaten by that of the hot creamy potato and salmon soup that awaits us on the table. We are joined by Octola’s owner, Janne Honkanen, who’s clad in a white chunky-knit jumper and seal-skin waistcoat, which seem like the uniform in these parts.

Janne used to be a pro snowmobile racer. He was competing in North America until he had an accident in Minneapolis in 1999, which forced him to return to Finland for surgery. Breaking his back, hip and heel, he sadly could not continue professional racing. Post-convalescence, he set up a snowmobile school for children, which he ran for a few years. When doctors then found an inoperable brain tumour, Janne lost control of his life. He was declared bankrupt and all credibility vanished. But, miraculously, after a few years the tumour got blocked and the healing process began accidentally. He saw this as a gift and second chance at life.

He then opened Octola with the help of his business partner, two-time Formula 1 world champion Mika Häkkinen. Together, they have a vision to make luxury travel in the Arctic transformational, with an aim to connect their guests with local people, culture, food and ingredients, as well as the infinite surrounding nature and its wildlife.

I sense that Octola is far from just a hotel or resort. It’s more of a Lapland home to treat as your own. For example, there are no menus or prices anywhere. When we eat, we eat so well. When we sleep, what we sleep on is effortlessly comfortable. It’s a place for reconnection – with your fellow travellers or loved ones.

Janne and Mika have built an incredible off-grid retreat in the heart of the Arctic Circle, one of the most remote locations on earth, with nothing but pine forests and snow in sight. The nearest city is Rovaniemi – the biggest in Europe, apparently, according to its footprint (a sprawling 3,000 sq miles), but only about 63,000 people live there. The silence here is immediately soothing, as is the crispest, freshest air I have ever breathed. It’s almost always dark – during our stay the sun rose at about 9am for just a short time and the sky only lightened to a steely grey tinged with pink.

Baby, it’s cold outside

Our group is also accompanied by Henry Cookson, the founder of luxury adventure company Cookson Adventures. Alongside credentials that include a world record for kite-skiing to the southern pole of inaccessibility in Antarctica, Henry is known for taking the world’s wealthiest people on transcendent expeditions to remote and spellbinding places, such as Alaska, Svalbard, Utah – and now Lapland. Henry’s partnership with Janne – who, incidentally, is also the founder of local adventure travel outfit Luxury Action – means that I not only get to benefit from Octola’s comfort and hospitality in the middle of a frozen wilderness, but also from a raft of thrilling activities and high levels of privacy and customisation: if you want to arrive or depart by private jet, that can be arranged.

After an afternoon visiting family-run husky farm Huskypoint, where we go dog-sledding with those magnificent dogs, we return to the lodge for another surprise. Parked outside is a rally car with a driver in full-face helmet – Finland’s answer to Top Gear’s The Stig, we are told. I even ask him his name and get the reply ‘secret’. I kind of hope it is Mika Häkkinen, the Flying Finn himself, but I’ll never know. Revving the engine in anticipation, he invites us to take it in turns to go for a spin, which turns out to be a death-defying ride from hell, down windy frozen roads in the middle of Arctic tundra – at night. Tyres screech to banshee-like pitch, engines roar like the fire of Hades and at the bottom of the hill we skid almost 360 degrees before accelerating back up it, my helmet and heart bouncing around the metal cage inside the car.

Back inside Octola, my adrenaline fix levels out by the fire burning in the hearth, glasses of cold champagne and a large tray of savoury snacks laid out in the sumptuous, high-ceilinged lounge. We are enthused and united by what we have shared. The aperitifs segue into dinner, which in turn leads to a midnight hot-tub session on the terrace outside. With Dutch – or perhaps Finnish – courage from several cans of Karhu beer in the bubbling spa bath, we are daring each other to jump off the deck into a drift of snow.

Lapland is an undeniably magical place and even for grown-ups the appeal of meeting Father Christmas – and being delivered to him on a traditional sleigh drawn by reindeer – is undiminished (if you visit in December, this is a must). However, for me, it’s a campfire audience with a real local shaman that truly feels fantastical. Looking like a character from Game of Thrones, he’s draped in furs and jangles necklaces of bones. He pokes the fire, sending sparks flying and, rasping in a deep voice, tells ancient folk tales in the golden light.

The moment is only trumped by seeing the Northern Lights – a lime haze that gradually morphs into hovering waves of luminous emerald in the starry sky. We are incredibly lucky, as it happens on the one clear, cloudless night that we are there, and no amount of money – or clever iPhone apps that monitor the atmospheric phenomenon – can guarantee that you experience it. At least, I like to think it’s all down to luck. But if Janne and Henry have anything to do with it, perhaps it’s far more curated than I think.

Jenny’s trip to the Finnish Arctic Circle was in partnership with Cookson Adventures and Luxury Action. Stays are on a basis of a 14-person buyout of Octola and come full board and inclusive of
a Cookson Adventures host and bespoke luxury itinerary planning. In addition to Octola’s offering, Cookson can arrange bespoke private activities, such as the shaman experience, rally driving, husky rides into the wider wilderness and heli-safaris.

Photography courtesy of Cookson Adventures and Octola Private Wilderness

Get out there


… be prepared to strip off and plunge into a frozen lake. Even if you’re dreading it, it’s worth overcoming your fear as you will feel amazing afterwards (the vodka shots help).

… spend a night at Octola Lodge’s new glass-roofed couples’ cabin, which offers views of the night sky and (if you’re lucky) the Aurora Borealis, nature’s most spectacular light show, from your bed.

… be aware that locals eat reindeer and (very occasionally) bear meat. We were told that the government allows for a certain number of wild bears to be hunted each year, usually to remove them from reindeer-herding areas.


… spend a fortune on expensive snow gear that’s bulky to pack and a pain to carry – Octola provides snow suits, boots and gloves for guests of all ages.

… geotag Octola Lodge on social media if you’re heading out there – the owner wants to keep the exact location a secret. Someone will arrange to meet you and take you there – just as well, it’s in the middle of nowhere.

… have a touch too much to drink and wander off into the wilderness. There are hungry wolves out there looking for some foreign food. Plus, temperatures can easily go as low as a bone-chilling -20ºC in winter.

The inside track

Henry Cookson, Cookson Adventures

As founder of Cookson Adventures, Henry Cookson has created innovative experiences in luxury travel, for over 10 years taking the first private submersible to Antarctica, working with remote tribes in Asia and Africa, as well as curating and hosting many of the trips.


From your latitude at Octola, far from any light pollution, you are perfectly placed for magical displays of the Northern Lights. But just as impressive are the stars. An astronomer will bring the stories behind the constellations to life.


Go cross-country skiing, but not as you know it. Recently picked up by Red Bull, the exhilarating and truly unique Arctic sport of being pulled through the snow by sprinting reindeer is absolutely worth a try if you’re a confident skier.

Join the herd

Discover some of Finland’s oldest traditions on a day spent with the indigenous Sámi people. During the spring reindeer migrations, join in this ancient annual undertaking at the heart of their culture, as great herds are corralled together.