Autumn is fleeting above the arctic circle but if you catch it, you’ll be treated to ruska - nature’s ephemeral and spectacular show of the changing seasons

I am standing in the dark near a lake surrounded by forest in Levi, Finnish Lapland, with the flush of a crisp autumn night and four or so wines across my cheeks.

It’s around 11pm and it is silent, bar the occasional hum of a car driving by. My neck is cricked from staring into the night sky for at least 20 minutes in the hope I will catch a glimpse of a seemingly elusive sight. I had slept through what I was told was an ‘incredible’ display of the northern nights the previous evening, so I don’t want to miss out should they appear again.

Sure enough, an iridescent whisper of green streaks along the top of trees in the distance and settles momentarily, as if wondering what to do.

I had hoped it would explode into an existential moment, but as my luck would have it the neon smudge fades to a whimper and then to nothing at all. And that was that, my brief encounter with one of nature’s most dazzling quirks over.

The Resident: Autumn ruska colours in Levi, Finnish LaplandAutumn ruska colours in Levi, Finnish Lapland (Image: Travel Tonic)

"Lapland glistens in an ombre of amber, crimson and bronze"

Much like the aurora borealis, autumn in Lapland is fleeting and you have to catch it while you can see it - and my gosh, can you see it.

It is a window of four-ish, maybe five-ish, weeks from mid-September after summer’s mosquitos and humidity packs it in but before the long cold winter arrives.

It’s when the air is crisp and the forest blanketing Lapland glistens in an ombre of amber, crimson and bronze, making it peak time to go leaf peeping - marvelling at the autumn colours, or ruska, as they say in Finland.

Levi is a small township 170 kilometres above the arctic circle and Finland’s biggest ski resort so it is well equipped for pilgrims. Equipment hire stores, souvenir shops, restaurants, pubs and a karaoke bar even line its compact centre.

A dot in Lapland's vastness, the arctic bolthole lies at the base of Levi Fell. Lake Immeljärvi is a short drive away, HaliPuu Forest is just slightly further afield. With easy access to the stunning Finnish wilds, it makes a great base to leaf peep from, whatever your relationship to physical exertion is.

The Resident: A reindeer crossing the road in Levi, FinlandA reindeer crossing the road in Levi, Finland (Image: Travel Tonic)

"pootle along dirt tracks through ruska and past grazing reindeer"

When not covered in snow, Levi Fell is a bike park with fat tyre cycles careering down runs which like ski runs are colour coded according to skill level.

Hurtling down a black run on a bike with turbo wheels is not my idea of a fun thing to do, but pootling along gently-angled dirt tracks on an electric bike through ruska and past grazing reindeer is. It is charmed, and easy enough to do without breaking much of a sweat, but hard enough you feel accomplished at the end.

The top of the fell, which can be reached by gondola, boasts the snuggest little cafe you’ll ever stumble into and a very scenic public BBQ. But undoubtedly more impressive is the unobstructed view across 150kms of bronzing forest and shimmering lake from any angle, which commands you to pause and reflect on its glory.

You can also step into ruska on foot, as many of the locals do. Walking tracks zig-zag across the fell for strolling or hiking along. At this time of year, the ground is a carpet of spongy green moss littered with blueberries, cloudberries and loganberries that are ripe for picking and popping straight into your maw.

The Resident: HaliPuu Forest, Finnish LaplandHaliPuu Forest, Finnish Lapland (Image: Zita Whalley)

"It is a bit weird at first"

A trip to HaliPuu forest, run by wife and husband duo Ritta Raekallio-Wunderink and Steffan Wunderink takes you further into nature still. The family-owned forest was once run as a saw mill by Riitta’s lumberjack dad, yet a recent pivot saw the family look for ways to use the trees while preserving them instead.

It now is a forest to nurture and to be nurtured in. You can adopt a tree, hug a tree, enter the annual tree-hugging competition and go forest cocooning.

You can also sit by the fire, as I did, charcoaled loganberry marshmallow in hand, enjoying a supreme cup of coffee made by Steffan, the ‘Bushfire Barisita’ who does some kind of sorcery with his coffee beans, chai syrup and campfire flames.

I’ve never hugged a tree before, but like touching a human or petting a dog, it releases oxytocin. And although science concurs, I must have appeared dubious because Riitta assured me that while hugging a tree 'is a bit weird at first' it 'gets quite addictive'. It was weird but not unenjoyable, although I probably won’t try it out again in Victoria Park.

The Resident: Autumn forest cocooning in HaliPuuAutumn forest cocooning in HaliPuu (Image: Zita Whalley)

"it’s just you, the forest and the clouds in the sky"

Similar to forest bathing, forest cocooning is a mindful practice that makes the most of nature’s purr. Done from the comfort of a hammock when you’re 'wrapped up like a little Finnish baby', you are pushed off into the cocooning with a gentle swing. For what feels like too brief a time, it’s just you, the forest and the clouds in the sky.

For less active leisure, putter about Lake Immeljärvi on your own private sauna, skippered by your own private captain. The steam room comes ready, the fridge stocked, and the water glacial. There’s also a wraparound patio to admire the view from.

According to tradition and our skipper, sauna goers must take a dip in the lake before working up a sweat. This is nothing short of brutal, but the more you plunge yourself into the heart-stoppingly cold water and return to the heat of the sauna, the more you want to do it again and again.

The Resident: The view from the floating sauna onLake Immeljärvi, Finnish LaplandThe view from the floating sauna onLake Immeljärvi, Finnish Lapland (Image: Zita Whalley)

"I suspect it’s not just the trees that grow wild"

Despite my own misfortune, peak northern light spotting time begins in September as well. Gazing up into a star-flecked sky through a glass ceiling cabin from the comfort of a bed with hot tea in hand is time well spent, whether you catch a glimpse of the northern lights or doze off before it arrives.

And if all this sounds too wholesome for you - although leaf peeing at ruska is more invigorating than virtuous - park yourself at one of Levi’s bars and pubs for an evening, as I suspect it’s not just the trees that grow wild in these parts.

For a true night time adventure, try braving a karaoke session at Ihku in Levi; a blacked out club-pub serving colossal mugs of Finnish larger and playing euro-pop tracks with captions. Because, if Ihku goes off at 3.30pm in the afternoon - and it does - it can only get better later into the night, right?

The Resident: Off road biking around Levi, Finnish LaplandOff road biking around Levi, Finnish Lapland (Image: Travel Tonic)

Things Do Do In Levi

Polar Star Travel

For bike hire and walking guides as well as other outdoor activities and travel admin such as transfers. Two hour fat bike tour starts from €59.

Reakallio Gallery

An idyllic pit stop for coffee and cake, and a rustic home gallery nestled in woodland. Run by long-time Lapland residents and husband and wife Reijo Raekallio and Maria Grandell. Reijo’s art speaks of his connection and love of the lands in all its seasons. Open daily.

Halipuu Forest

For tree hugging, cocooning and slap up coffee. A two hour experience starts from €95.

Arctic Sauna

For a floating sauna safari on Lake Immeljärvi. Two hour private group of up to 15 people from €350.

The Resident: The deluxe loft at Design Hotel Levi, Finnish LaplandThe deluxe loft at Design Hotel Levi, Finnish Lapland (Image: Jaakko Posti)

Where To Stay in Levi

Design Hotel Levi

Design Hotel Levi is sleek, luxurious hotel with friendly staff, styled out with smart Nordic design principles.

Although it calls itself a boutique hotel, with 77 rooms, three restaurants, a shop, an indoor water world and a Burger King sprawling across its corner block, it is a fairly sizable one.

The bedrooms have all the comforts you need after a day outdoors including pillowy soft bedding on large spacious beds and waterfall showers.

The Resident: Deluxe suite at Design Hotel Levi, Finnish LaplandDeluxe suite at Design Hotel Levi, Finnish Lapland (Image: Jaakko Posti)

Floor to ceiling windows in the rooms and the foyer make the most of the natural light and of the rugged views, and art made by local artists feature throughout the hotel.

While for the most part, Design Hotel Levi feels spacious and light, it has cosy nooks and crannies too.

It’s low-lit Classic Pizza Restaurant has seating for dining or for just having a drink at. Also, the menu is extensive and the pizzas come large.

Guests can also dine buffet style at Ahku Restaurant for breakfast and dinner. The breakfast spread is Continental comes with plenty of options and a Finnish touch, with the likes of rollmops and dry bread included in the spread.

The Resident: Restaurant Kekale at Design Hotel Levi, Finnsih LaplandRestaurant Kekale at Design Hotel Levi, Finnsih Lapland (Image: Design Hotel Levi)

The hotel's third restaurant is the expansive Kekäle Bar and Grill, if you’re in the mood for a bit of a treat and fancy trying an unfamiliar wine or tipple from its strong wine and liquor list.

Taking its name from the word for glowing amber, the menu focuses on charcoal grilled dishes made with seasonal produce that come full of Finnish flavours, including reindeer, and all the berries.

The Resident: Design Hotel LeviDesign Hotel Levi (Image: Design Hotel Levi)

Design Hotel Levi can organise excursions including horseback safaris, kayak adventures, and ferry cruises.

Until October 31, 2022, Design Hotel Levi has 30 percent off with the code AUTUMN22. Rates start from €168 with gondola pass included.

The Resident: Northern Lights Village, LeviNorthern Lights Village, Levi (Image: Risto Hämäläinen/Northern Lights Village)

Northern Lights Village

The Northern Lights Village is easily accessed from Levi and boasts snug little glass-roofed cabins designed for stargazing and northern light chasing from the comfort of under the duvet.

Surrounded by forest, it comes with two on-site saunas and a large restaurant and lounge, designed to unwind and relax in on cold Nordic nights.

Getting there

Fly into either Kittila or Rovaniemi, or take a train to Kolari. Buses go between Helsinki and Levi also.

The trip was funded by Design Hotel Levi.