Original Sokos Hotel Vaakuna
For a taste of Christmas whatever the time of year, Original Sokos Hotel Vaakuna – situated in the heart of Rovaniemi, Finland – is a great choice. There's a cosy ambience throughout the hotel: from the warm and friendly welcome on arrival, to the basket of knitting in Reception (a 100-year anniversary scarf, to celebrate Finland's centenary, that guests are encouraged to add to), to the homely touches in each of the guest rooms.
The 159 rooms have been renovated to a high standard. All the standard rooms feature unique aurora lighting – offering the opportunity to enjoy a simulation of the Northern Lights from the comfort of your bed, even in the middle of summer.
The rooms are all decorated in natural colours and materials to reflect Lappish design, including log side tables, and soft fur blankets in neutral shades. It all creates a calm and welcoming atmosphere that's also stylish and tasteful.
There are also several suites at the hotel that are really quite special, and offer a wonderful experience for a special occasion.
The Christmas suite is one of these. Featuring a decorated Christmas tree, sleigh bed, fireplace (featuring Northern Lights inspired lighting effects and Merry Christmas messages) and snowflake motifs on the walls, it's a festive room that's available not just at Christmas, but year-round.
We stayed in a top floor suite. Sumptuously furnished in shades of pale grey and plum, this lovely suite features a separate bedroom with large, comfortable double bed, and a spacious sitting room. The sitting room has plenty of seating – which can convert into two full-sized single sofa beds, suitable for children or adults – a dining area, fridge and coffee machine.
The big bathroom has a Jacuzzi bath – and everything was spotlessly clean. Just across the hall is a sauna that guests can use each evening.
Breakfast is served in the Frans and Chérie Bistro, a pleasant area lit by candles. A good variety of food is on offer, and much of it is locally sourced – including breads baked in Rovaniemi, and salmon – so supporting the local economy while reducing food miles. Signs at breakfast encourage guests to avoid waste by taking only what they can eat, which we thought was a great idea.
We were particularly impressed with the hotel's recycling. We're often unsure what to do with our recycling when staying in hotels – and we usually head out to search for recycling bins in the local area. But at Original Sokos Hotel Vaakuna there are notices in each room urging guests to leave recyclable materials – such as glass bottles, drinks cans and papers – on the desk, so that the housekeeping staff can recycle them. In fact, recycling takes place throughout the hotel.
Other green initiatives include water-saving taps and showers – which has already achieved a 25 per cent reduction in water use. Eco-label detergents and cleaning products are used throughout, and energy efficient lighting has been installed in the restaurant and garage.
The hotel is in an excellent central location, close to shops, restaurants, and an excellent children's play area with climbing frames, swings and a zip wire.
Original Sokos Hotel Vaakuna is also just a few metres away from a riverside path alongside the Kemijoki river. Guests can borrow bicycles from reception to explore – the town is well served with cycle lanes, and you don't have to travel far to find yourself in beautiful, natural surroundings.
Also within easy walking distance are two superb museums that shouldn't be missed.
A visit to Arktikum offers an excellent introduction to the Arctic Circle environment, exploring the region's nature, culture and history. You can find out all about the Northern Lights, the Midnight Sun, and how flora and fauna have adapted to cope with long dark winters and sub-zero temperatures. There are also exhibits that explain the effects of climate change on this fragile environment.
Another onsite restaurant, Amarillo, offers Tex Mex style dishes in sophisticated surroundings. A popular feature is “The Table” – a large table that seats eight. An individual seat can be reserved here, giving locals and visitors alike a chance to eat out socially, and meet new friends while having a meal, even if they are travelling alone.
Original Sokos Hotel Vaakuna was awarded Green Key certification in 2016 – and continues to make progress in the area of sustainability, with new eco initiatives being introduced regularly.
Two audio-visual presentations include a wonderful retelling of the Finnish folklore stories associated with the Northern Lights – such as auroras being created by sparks from a fox's tail as it runs across the snowy fells.
And Polar Opposites is a beautiful video presentation, featuring stunning cinematography accompanied by haunting music, which showcases the seasonal contrasts in Lapland.
Right next door to Arktikum is another first-class museum, Pilke Science Centre. This focuses on the importance of Finland's forests through excellent interactive, multi-sensory and hands-on exhibits that will keep children (and adults!) absorbed.
Learn about logging and climb on board a real logging vehicle (don't forget to put on a hard hat!); find out how the forest can help health and wellbeing; and play games about sustainable forest management.
We loved learning about the different tree species found in Finland, and about all the wildlife that lives in the forest. And there's a great mini-maze to get lost in, which recreates the forest environment at night – complete with darkness and forest sounds.