Nestled in a valley, Saariselkä is a compact strip of a village with one gas station, one supermarket, one liquor store and a slew of hotels and restaurants, but it's quite manageable on foot and located only 30 km away from the town of Ivalo and its airport. The fell of Kaunispää, equipped with ski lifts and the primary center for winter sports, looms nearby.
A succession of ice ages and their glaciers scraping back and forth has reduced what were once mountains into gentle rounded fells (Finnish tunturi), barely reaching 500m. The valleys between them are sparsely forested, but the exposed summits are treeless.
Aside from the occasional Sámi reindeer herder, there wasn't much human activity in these parts until Konrad Planting struck gold at the nearby Lutto River in 1865. The Finnish gold rush started soon thereafter and the first claim in Saariselkä was staked in 1871. Enough gold was found that by 1902 the mining company Prospektor set up its headquarters here and hacked a cart trail down to Sodankylä, some 100 kilometers away.
The gold rush slowly faded away, but in the 1960s the area started to gradually develop into a tourist attraction. Hotels and restaurants were built, skiing lifts were put up, and in 1983 the region stretching from Saariselkä to the Russian border -- favorite hunting grounds of former president Urho Kaleva Kekkonen -- were turned into the UKK National Park.
These days Saariselkä is a part of the municipality of Inari, which has some 7,700 inhabitants (including some 2,200 Sámi) on 17,321 square kilometers of land. Not too crowded, eh?
Direct buses from the south are cheaper but involve a laborious 15 hour journey.
An overnight train to Rovaniemi and a bus for the last 3 hours is a less painful but not particularly cheap alternative; this is, however, a viable option if you want to bring your own car.
Once in Saariselkä, you can pretty much walk anywhere you want to, but if you have gear in tow just hop aboard the (free!) Ski Bus, which shuttles between the village and the slopes once an hour or so.
The fells nearby are excellent terrain for cross-country skiing, sledding and hiking, but somewhat puny for downhill since the maximum differential is on the order of 300 meters. Alas, this is about as good as it gets in flat Finland...
If you want to get away from a group and go out on a snow-mobile with a private guide, there are quite a few operators to talk to ; Lapland Delights is one of them and offers ice-fishing in one of the local lakes which includes a snack reindeer lunch cooked in a hunter/fisherman's cabin, great !!
They also arrange viewing the 'Northern Lights' with a private guide, a wonderful way to spend an evening in the Tundra ( if only the lights could be guaranteed ! )
Food in Lapland is expensive and fairly unimaginative, although if you haven't tried reindeer meat yet then this is your chance. For a more memorable experience, try a set dinner in a Lappish kota tent, offered by a number of hotels and tour operators ( with respect to the above poster, found it to be tremendous, great food, service and made the holiday quite special - see below )
Only one word can describe this gastronomic experience - superb !!
The ambience, atmosphere, warm Finnish greeting, excellent service, wide choice of dishes and cuisine that arguably is amongst the best to be found in Finland keep you returning to this delightful, charming restaurant.
Highly recommended are the Reindeer Fillet and Lake Inari Whitefish ; amongst the best appetisers I've come across in many years, are the 'escargots with parmesan', they're even better than those to be found in Paris !
Whilst staying in Saariselka ' Petronella' is a definite 'must do' dining experience.
There are quite a few possibilities for after-ski as well, all the hotels have restaurants and discos, and there's even a local microbrewery with a side line in distilled spirits as well. However, Saariselkä has a deserved reputation for catering to the middle-aged market, standard musical fare is melodramatic Finnish tango and even the food is all reindeer and snow grouse. Hip snowboarding youngsters tend to head for Levi or Ruka instead.
Having posted above on Petronella, they also offer an excellent choice of wines if you're looking for the perfect accompaniement to the cuisine.
They also have a 'house cocktail' the 'Petronella' which has to be tasted to be believed ; great for warming up in minus 30 degrees C Finnish weather !
Hiking in Saariselkä is safe if you follow safety advise and know your own limits. Routes near Saariselkä village are well marked and require only sneakers and clothes accordant with current weather. It's recommended to purchase an inexpensive map from your hotel reception or local market. Don't go alone into fields, at least without informing your hotel reception. Don't forget to report to your hotel when you come back. Weather conditions can change a lot even if it's warm and sunny when you leave.
Cellphone networks may not cover many places in between fields.
Tourists usually never meet any dangerous animals in Saariselkä. There are some bears in the eastern part of the national park, but bears would rather avoid humans if they can. It's recommended to indicate somehow to animals that you are roaming in the neighborhood.
Crime figures for Saariselkä are very low.
Tap water is potable.
In case of emergency call number 112. If you need medical consultation less urgently, contact to MedInari health service at Holiday Club Saariselkä. It's managed by the Inari community and some local travel-related companies.