Levi in Lapland: Finland's best ski resort

Barry Neild, CNNUpdated 19th March 2018
(CNN) — If you can put up with foolish goat men, sermonizing lions and the perpetual risk of being turned to stone, the storybook realm of Narnia would make an ideal skiing destination, at least during the 100-year winter of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
Can't find the magical cupboard of overcoats that grants entry? There's a real-life alternative, deep in the forests of northern Finland.
With ski runs that plunge into beautiful woodlands encased in snow -- all eerily illuminated by electric lights, strange glowing mists or pink Arctic sunsets -- the Lapland ski resort of Levi could easily double up for the fictional kingdom created by C. S. Lewis.
Ski air: Kittilä Airport is only 15 minutes from the slopes.
Ski air: Kittilä Airport is only 15 minutes from the slopes.
Suzanne Plunkett/CNN
Even without the Narnia comparisons, Levi appears to be a fantasy land.
It's a European snow resort where, for most of the season, skiers who travel here can have slopes pretty much to themselves.
There's zero waiting time at the lifts, miles of empty runs, boundless fresh powder and uncrowded mountaintop bars -- possibly some of the reasons why Finland is the happiest country on the planet.
Throw in the Northern Lights, ice hotels, snowmobile safaris, cute reindeer and an international airport just 15 minutes from the slopes, then we clearly seem to be in a world of wintry dreams.
Levi is a wintry reality though and is as near-perfect a small ski resort as it's possible to imagine -- so long as your imagination also runs to a decent set of thermal underwear.
You'll need those extra layers as soon as you step off the plane on the icy runway at Kittilä Airport.
Midwinter temperatures plunging to around -17 C (1.4 F) can snatch your breath away, although the air being gasped is reputed to be some of the cleanest in the inhabited world.
When the sun's out, that same air visibly sparkles.

Winter to summer skiing

Levi, Finland skiing
Levi's northerly location means there's skiing right up until May.
Suzanne Plunkett/CNN
Lit up against early Arctic nightfall, the mountain -- or fell, as it's known locally -- can be seen glowing on the horizon for most of the 10-mile drive from the airport.
The resort's main village, a purpose-built cluster of hotels, restaurants, bars and shops at the northwestern foot of the fell, is a welcoming site. It's compact, modern and looks pretty in the snow.
There are a few outlying hotels -- such as the spectacular glass-roofed domes of Levin Iglut -- and some private homes, but Levi's limited accommodation means even at full capacity during the Finnish holiday weeks of late February and early March, it seldom feels busy.
The central area is traffic-free, except for plastic sleds being dragged towards the slopes. A few ice sculptures line streets overlooked by the windows of inviting restaurants like the Swedish-run King Crab House and reindeer-centric Nili-Poro.
For snow addicts, the mountainside Hotel Levi Panorama, with its own dedicated gondola lift, is the place to be, but there's nowhere in Levi that isn't really in ski-boot tramping reach of the slopes.
The village-center Break Sokos Hotel Levi is a good mid-range option with an excellent Finnish restaurant. It has rooms with balcony views of the slopes and the ultimate in Finnish luxury -- en suite saunas.
Levi rises to a modest 531 meters, but its northerly location means regular fresh snowfalls are almost guaranteed during winter, with slopes staying open right up to summer's doorstep in the middle of May.
Levi, Finland skiing
After nightfall, the mountain changes once again.
Suzanne Plunkett/CNN
Downsides?
Although it has some chair lifts, many of Levi's 28 lifts are T-bars, involving long drags into freezing clouds at the top. Those winter temps, sometimes lowered by wind chill, can be tough, even with drop-ins into the cozy barbecue-equipped warming teepees scattered around the resort.
With just 44 relatively short runs covering a total distance of under 40 kilometers, three or four days are enough to ski the heck out of Levi. Less time if you're a total pro. But thanks to the short queues, downhill time is optimized.
It is incredibly beautiful, though. Rising up the mountain on any of the lifts is an opportunity to gawp at trees transformed into giant gnome-like figures by the piles of snow. On top of the mountain, everything is encrusted in layers of glittering snow and ice.

Elves, reindeer, skimobiles

Levi, Finland skiing
Ski mobile routes surround Levi, all well signposted.
Suzanne Plunkett/CNN
Even standing still, the scenery regularly changes. Atmospheric mists come and go on the top, with breaks in the cloud revealing spectacular views over Arctic forests. Sunsets cast everything in cool pinks. And nightfall adds a new dimension under the floodlights.
Beside the slopes, impromtu downhill trails lead into the woods for magical Narnia-esque adventures in the deep snow, weaving in and out of mischievous trees whose twiggy fingers try to snatch woolen heads from the hats of skiers.
At the foot of the mountain, there's just one question which keeps popping up as you slide straight onto another lift unhindered by waiting lines -- where is everyone?
Levi, Finland skiing
It can get cold. Very cold.
Suzanne Plunkett/CNN
Turns out Levi has plenty of other tricks up its quilted sleeve to tempt folks away from the slopes. There are cross-country ski trails, dog and reindeer sledding trips and, for the less active, the Christmassy-themed fun park Tonttula Elves Hideaway.
One of the best excursions is a half-day snowmobile safari that takes in the countryside surrounding Levi in a giant circuit of the flatlands around the mountain.
At Perhesafarit, which organizes self-guided and guided skidoo trips, the team kits customers out with felt-lined boots, balaclavas, helmets, thick gloves and Arctic-proof bodysuits before letting them loose on their fleet of snowmobiles.
Dedicated snowmobile trails, signposted and with speed limit markers that seem scarily fast to first-time riders, lead out of Levi and into the wilderness. Beneath the layers of white are frozen lakes and rivers.
Out there in the trees somewhere are wolves and wolverines. Hibernating bears too.
"Every mound you can see out there in the snow could be home for a sleeping bear," laughs snowmobile guide Teijo Haapakoski, a former Finnish air force engineer who now spends his winters in Levi.
Haapakoski leads the way to Sammun Tupa, a frozen-riverside reindeer farm belonging to a Sami family. An indigenous people of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, the once-nomadic Sami continue ancient traditions of Arctic life.

Cold comfort

Levi, Finland skiing
Nemo the reindeer keeps watch over the farm.
Suzanne Plunkett/CNN
Most of the reindeer in these northern climes belong to the Sami, with prosperity linked to the numbers of animals owned. At Samman Tupa, a few young reindeer chomp lichen under the watchful eye of Nemo, a contemplative older beast.
Haapakoski dispenses reindeer facts, including the Narnia-worthy revelation that the antlered creatures use clicking sounds in their legs to communicate with each other out in the forests.
Another stop on the snowmobile trail is Luvattumma, an ice hotel that doubles up as a gallery and wedding venue.
Unlike other more commercial ventures such as a nearby "Game of Thrones"-themed hotel, Luvattumma is the work of one highly artistic family who spend several months of the year building the hotel from ice blocks of frozen river water and snow.
Inside it's meat-locker cold and bathed in a frosty haze. A long corridor lined with bedrooms leads to the elevated bridal suite. The hotel's centerpiece is a beautiful chapel and there's also an entertainment room, with auditorium seating and a fun slide.
When it all gets too sub-zero, there's a traditional Finnish restaurant built in the style of a Sami tent to retreat to. Sausages sit slowly smoking on the open fire in the middle.
Levi, Finland skiing
Icy warning signs keep snowmobiles on track.
Suzanne Plunkett/CNN
When night falls, Levi has one more trick up its sleeve. It's northerly location means that when the snow stops falling and the skies clear, it's a prime viewing spot for the Northern Lights.
Visitors can put their faith in a downloadable app that promises to sound the alarm when the lights spring into view, or take a late evening trip in the Lapland Express snowcat up Levi mountain where, away from the lights of town, the mesmerizing light displays are worth the risk of frostbite.
That experience alone elevates Finland over more traditional European ski destinations, says Christian Knaus, a Swiss tourist who, fresh from viewing an incredible Aurora Borealis performance, says his homeland doesn't have the same appeal.
"Back there, it's not the same conditions. One day we get snow, and then the weather changes and the next day it's finished.
"Here, you have a really hard winter and so there are many other interesting things to do."

Finland's best ski resorts -- four more to try

Saariselkä Ski Resort -- Europe's most northerly ski resort straddles two hills, offering 15 slopes that mostly cater to beginners and intermediate skiers. The season stretches from November to May. Nearest airport: Ivalo, 20 minutes by car.
Tahko Ski Resort -- In eastern Finland, Tahko has 24 slopes offering more than 60 kilometers of ski slopes. It's known for its dance parties, music festival and concerts. Nearest airport: Kuopio, 55 minutes by car.
Pyhä Ski Resort -- Billed as Finland's first carbon-neutral resort, Pyhä's lifts, snow cannons and floodlights are powered by renewable energy. There's 14 slopes serviced by eight lifts. Nearest airport: Rovaniemi, 1 hour 40 minutes by car.
Vuokatti Ski Resort -- A central Finland location means Vuokatti is one of Finland's most popular resorts, at least among Finns. There are 11 slopes, serviced by 10 lifts. Its indoor ski and snowboard tunnel, the first of its kind when opened in 1998, means there's skiing even on warm summer days. Nearest airport: Kajaani, 40 minutes by car.
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