Under the Northern Lights

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The sky is painted a dull shade of Soviet grey and the ancient cobbled streets are humpy, bumpy and slippery underfoot. But in the Old Town of Tallinn, the mood is coloured festive red. Red, the flavour of hot mulled wine drenched in local vodka, and Estonia’s red-hot Christmas markets, which are the envy of all of Europe.

Fifty shades of Soviet grey
But things weren’t always this way. During the long Soviet occupation between 1940 and 1991, Gorbachev and his iron-fisted mates who marched before him, banned Christmas in Estonia, with rebellious residents forced to celebrate secretly behind closed doors. There was a Christmas tree in the main square, but it wasn’t decorated. A tree was just a tree. The splash of red here was the Soviet’s Red Army, which was far from festive.

Today, the only lingering remnants of the Ruskis are some Stalinist-style architecture and a sometimes Soviet-grey sky. With Putin as a neighbour, you can’t have it all.

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A festive fairytale
This festive fairy tale is Nordic and nice and the Tallinn Christmas Markets are the perfect perch from which to start. Want luxury? How about your freedom, which the Estonians now celebrate with gusto. Here, in the centre of the Old Town, feast on blood sausage, sauerkraut and roast potatoes; drink that Gloggi wine spiked with veritable vats of vodka and eat gingerbread as you wander among these magical market stalls selling everything from fur-lined leather gloves to delicate Christmas decorations.

You can even find Russian matryoshka dolls where the former Soviet leaders slot, rather fittingly, into one another in declining size. Oh, and the tree in the main square, she sparkles like a child’s eyes on Christmas Eve.

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These days Tallinn is a destination with style and soul, with all of the city’s Christmas trees collected at the end of the festivities, transformed into sculptures and then symbolically burned to preserve the heart they have injected back into this pretty city.

Style and substance
You’ll also find this substance at Schlössle Hotel, elegant accommodation that dates back to the 14th century, in the heart of Tallinn. From the outside, it looks like a dollhouse with that lolly pink façade, but inside it’s all muted beige couches, ice-blue plump cushions and raging fireplaces. It’s attracted plenty of famous guests over the years including Prince Charles, Sting, the Pet Shop Boys and Jose Carreras.

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The pure beauty of Tallinn is that it’s just a two-hour ferry ride away from Helsinki, where the Finns really know how to celebrate Christmas. Start here at Hotel Lilla Roberts, which is smack-bang in the heart of Helsinki’s ‘design district’.

This establishment exudes Art Deco elegance with ruby reds and black geometric patterns that hark back to the 1930s. Boasting 130 rooms, special features include a GHD hairdryer in the bathroom and Veuve in the mini bar. At the onsite restaurant you can indulge in a breakfast shot of Sea Buckthorn juice, which the Finns believe promotes robust health.

Just around the corner, Restaurant Juuri, which means ‘the root or heart’, has an exposed brick and beam décor. Dine on a three-course seasonal tasting menu here and sip one of three beers made in its brewery or from its extensive menu of European wine.

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Dashing through the snow
A one-hour flight from Helsinki will deposit you in Rovaniemi, the official home of Santa Claus and Santa Claus Village. For elegant accommodation with a quirky twist, sleep at Santa’s Igloos Arctic Circle – 71 glass igloos with timber on one side and glass floor-to-ceiling walls on the other. Tucked up under a plump doona and with a reindeer hide on the wall, this is the perfect platform from which to lay in bed, gaze up at the night sky, and wait for the famed Northern Lights. This hotel will supply you with a mobile phone, and will alert you if aurora borealis appears while you sleep. In summer, lay under your glass ceiling and enjoy the magical Midnight Sun.

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Meet Santa Claus himself
After you’ve headed to Santa Claus Village to meet Santa himself (a true luxury) and sent your Christmas cards back home with an official North Pole stamp from the Santa Post office, dine at Rakas Restaurant & Bar. Meaning ‘love’ or ‘sweetheart’ in Finnish, this stylish Scandi restaurant serves reindeer done two ways and seasonal berries.

For a brilliant blast of winter white, continue further north to Meltaus and to Beana Laponia Wilderness Boutique Hotel. This adults-only property and working husky farm breeds 18 Alaskan huskies for racing. Choose a husky safari ranging from two hours to two days and enjoy life the Nordic way, as you glide through the snow in a sled.

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Anyone for reindeer soup?
Despite its remote locale, there are plenty of activities to keep you busy – from skiing and snowshoeing to lazing in the sauna and hot tub. This hotel screams Scandi chic with animal hides, thick rugs and fluffy coverings; a raging fireplace in the elegant common lounge room; local beers in the bar; and downstairs, a restaurant that serves hearty portions of Finnish food such as reindeer soup.

Winter gear is provided free-of-charge for all guests, including polar overalls, thermal boots and mittens. Rug up, head out at night and, if you’re lucky, you will hear the huskies howling under the Northern Lights. Luxury doesn’t come any finer than that. •

Photography by Christine Retschlag, Visit Finland and Santa’s Igloos Arctic Circle 

TRAVEL FACTS
Getting there

Fly from Australia in style via Singapore or Hong Kong to Helsinki in Finnair Business Class aboard an Airbus A350 XWB. Boasting fully flat-bed seats and Finland’s famous Marimekko-designer bedding and accessories, these Nordic-styled cabins come replete with Northern Lights mood lighting. finnair.com

The Tallink & Silja Line mega ferry connects Helsinki and Tallinn and has an elegant Business Class cabin including a full buffet and unlimited alcoholic drinks. tallinksilja.com

Where to stay
Hotel Beana Laponia in Meltaus: beanalaponia.fi

Further information
Australian-based company 50 Degrees North specialises in tailor-made itineraries for regions beyond the 50th parallel north. fiftydegreesnorth.com

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