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Text by Pete Balding.
Photos by Hernan Patiño.
Way back in the 1980s, long before the invention of Internet memes and hashtags, amusing aphorisms were printed on T-shirts or on bumper stickers. But many did go viral even by today’s social media standards. In my suburban California neighbourhood, the good ones were memorised and repeated.
One of my favourites was: “You can live in your car, but you can’t drive your house.” In car-crazy California, this rang true for many, but for those lucky enough to own a motorhome, like my father, it was completely false because with a motorhome you could most certainly drive your house.
Within an hour or two we could completely change the view out our kitchen window from boring suburb to Alpine mountainside or ocean seafront, giant redwood grove or desert plain almost as easily as clicking a mouse. We were spoiled in California.
I was hooked. The incredible freedom of it, even if I had to go with my parents, was intoxicating. And in later years after my father died, my Finnish exchange-student wife and I would borrow the now rickety motorhome, drag my mother along if she could make it, and have some of the best vacations ever.
So when my friend, colleague, and fellow immigrant Hernan Patiño suggested we make a motorhome road trip from Helsinki, my current hometown at the southern end of Finland, to Tromsø in the very north of Norway, a distance of nearly 1,500 kilometres, I was very tempted.
Like flushing the toilet
I had some trepidation, however. I remembered my father’s gas-guzzling behemoth, and taking that monster cross-country with current European gas prices would cost the equivalent of a luxury cruise in the Mediterranean and probably produce as much climate-changing greenhouse gasses as the cruise liner. As my father used to say when putting his foot to the floor while overtaking a slow-moving semi, “It’s just like flushing the toilet.”
But after a little research and checking out some of the new models, the fuel costs of such a trip were very reasonable. Today’s motorhomes are far more efficient and clean thanks to better engines and more aerodynamic designs, not to mention their size and weight. Hernan and I ended up with a Dethleffs Globe S, which is substantially smaller than my father’s old tank.
“You don’t need to have experience of motorhomes beforehand. We’ll give you a good introduction during the check-out.” These reassuring words from Tuukka Hietamäki of Best Caravan, who provided our Globe S, calmed my nerves. Even though I had plenty of experience, it was years since I’d been behind the wheel of an oversized vehicle and never before in Europe. “They’re as easy to drive as a normal car,” he added when he sensed my apprehension.
Plenty of elbow room
Even though it was a smaller and more agile model, it still had all the mod cons including a well-stocked kitchen, a dining table for four, a bathroom with a flush toilet and shower, two large beds with proper mattresses, and plenty of storage space. It was new and clean and everything worked not unlike a nice rental cottage. For someone who on previous Nordic adventures had lived out of a backpack and slept in a tent, it was incredible luxury.
Hernan had even higher expectations. When he took his first turn at washing dishes, with some prodding I might add, he looked at me perplexed and asked, “How do you do this?” He’d apparently just realised there wasn’t a dishwasher.
At times it could feel quite cramped, too. More than once I wanted to elbow Hernan harder than I actually did when he blocked the aisle yet again, but after we’d parked, we normally had a front and backyard with more than enough elbow room.
In fact the surroundings were humongous even by western North America standards where we’re used to big spaces and big scenery. This was the major reason, besides the romantic one of course, why I’d been willing to pull up stakes and move half way round the world. I have an addiction to feed, and the Nordic countries have plenty of wide open spaces, unspoiled wilderness, and breath-taking scenery to satisfy even the most greedy nature addict.
The maiden of Finland
Finnish Lapland is especially sparsely populated. It has the largest uninterrupted expanses of wilderness in Western Europe, and with the exception of reindeer herders and occasional backpackers it’s primarily devoid of people. After the virtually endless forests of southern and central Finland, occasionally interspersed with sizable lakes and smallish towns, the wild treeless fells of Lapland felt magical and otherworldly.
Finland is shaped a bit like a woman wearing a long dress made out of fir trees. Finns call her Suomen Neito, the maiden of Finland. Her head, neck, shoulders, and upraised arms (one arm, Petsamo, was lost to the Soviet Union in the Second World War) lie above the Arctic Circle. Her remaining arm, Käsivarsi (which literally means “arm” in Finnish), separates Norway and Sweden like she’s breaking up a fight.
We stopped at Muonio, a small town that lies in the maiden’s armpit close to the Swedish border. It was our last chance to stock up on food, drink, and fuel before driving the full length of the arm to Norway where prices on basically everything are so high that even Finns and Swedes, who are used to high prices, are shocked.
We would overnight at Kilpisjärvi on the Finnish side of the border and enter Norway in the morning. I remembered it as little more than a wide spot in the road, but it had grown since my last visit. There’s a supermarket and a gas station, and also new restaurants and a variety of new accommodations including luxury cottages on the lakeshore with stunning views of the snow-capped mountains in Sweden and Norway.
The poor man’s yacht
We decided to splurge and pay to park at one of the newer resorts. We’d get hook-ups (water and electricity), access to restroom facilities, and we could if so inclined walk to the à la carte restaurant and dine in style. So far we’d been successful in avoiding people and timetables and were saving money, too, by relying on the motorhome’s well-stocked stores of water, food, and battery power. Something that’s hard to do when travelling by any other means besides private boats or yachts.
After checking in, I realised that motorhomes, however, do not have the same cachet as yachts. We’d been relegated to the rough end of the resort next to the highway and as far as possible from the lakeside villas. But we didn’t care.
After some penne in marinara sauce prepared in our kitchen (“Forget the restaurant!” we agreed) fresh bread and red wine, we were feeling pretty rich. I turned up the impressive sounding sound system streaming a mix of Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Dave Brubeck and thought that you couldn’t really buy a better feeling than this.
The Paris of the north
Thinking of where I was, where I had just been, and where I was soon going to be helped my mood, too, and immediately upon crossing the Norwegian border I had further proof that the Nordic north is a true nature wonderland. Just like California, Norway has scenery that is so uplifting and so spectacular that it almost feels clichéd like a Hollywood set for a fantasy film. I had to pinch myself to make sure it was real.
“Tromsø is known as the Paris of the North,” said Katja Pettersen, marketing manager of the Northern Norway Tourist Board. We met her in the spacious lobby of one of Tromsø’s new hotels to get some advice. And to help prove her point, exhausted cyclists were stumbling in after completing the final stages of the Arctic Race of Norway. Like France they even host an annual bicycle tour.
What Norway gains in spectacular scenery, it loses in wilderness. The contrast is striking from the idyllic, almost mystical emptiness of Finnish Lapland to the surprisingly built-up and populated north of Norway. The infrastructure around Tromsø is impressive. Besides the many roads and bridges that link the island city to the mainland, there’s also a labyrinth of tunnels so vast that subterranean roundabouts keep the traffic flowing.
“This was the jumping off point for arctic explorers, polar bear hunters, and whalers,” said Harald Bredrup, the fifth generation CEO of the family-run Mack Brewery, the oldest and largest brewery this far north in the world. His ancestor started the business in Tromsø in 1877 with the hope that having easy access to weaker beer would discourage the rough and ready men from drinking so much hard booze. It was a success, and the brewery-owned Ølhallen, Tromsø’s best pub since 1928, was the first place the explorers and whalers stopped on their return.
After I had a few samples from the 67 taps that line the wall behind the bar, it was our turn to start the return trip home. I gave the keys to Hernan. He could have the first stint behind the wheel.
Tips for a motorhome road trip
When to go: July is the traditional summer vacation month in the Nordic countries, but roads are clear and services available from mid-June to late September.
Where to stay: The beauty of travelling by motorhome is that you’re your own boss. Timetables and itineraries can be tossed out the window. All you need is a good map and/or GPS. There are dozens of camping sites, vacation resorts, and holiday villages throughout the Nordic countries, and rarely do they require reservations. If one happens to be full or unsatisfactory, there’s always another just down the road. The Camping Key Europe card is good to have. For €16 it quickly pays for itself in discounts and other benefits such as insurance coverage.
How to rent a motorhome: If you want to arrange your rental before your arrival, check out McRent.eu. They make it easy to arrange everything with just a few clicks. According to Tuukka Hietamäki, the rental station manager for McRent Finland, “At Best Caravan in Hyvinkää [about a half hour from Helsinki Airport] we have over 20 brand-new motorhomes from the quality German brand Dethleffs. The price includes full insurance valid in all European countries, two bottles of propane, unlimited kilometres, and the wide service network of Fiat. The motorhomes are for 2 to 6 people and they all have a maximum weight of 3,500 kg, so you can drive them with a regular driving license.”
This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.