When people travel in the winter, most of them head to somewhere warm like Florida, Jamaica, or Mexico. I’ve always been the odd one out – I’ve never been interested in going somewhere warm and relaxing on a beach. I moved to Finland when I was 19 and spent a year living in its lovely northern coolness, preferring the forest hikes and rocky ground over a sandy beach. The winter was another realm of newness for me, where the sun disappeared for three months and the country became a bit less lively. Naturally, this meant I had to explore. You know what is even better than living in a northern country during the winter? Going even further north, to its most northern region!
My friends and I went on an official exchange student tour to Levi, a small ski-resort town in Lapland. Have you seen the video floating around Facebook of glass-roofed igloos you can sleep in while watching the northern lights? That’s Lapland, and it’s every bit as beautiful in person! Instead of the glass-roofed igloos, we chose a much more affordable winter cabin to stay in, partially because they had their own kitchens and I could prepare my own food. Who knows what kind of restaurants are around in the arctic, and I found it easier to book an accommodation with a kitchen than to try and contact restaurants in advance. I had heard from friends who had gone to Lapland previously that food in grocery stores is expensive there, so I packed some extra food from the south to take with me. I also packed my own dish soap and sponges for the kitchen, so I didn’t have to worry about finding any there once we arrived if the cabin didn’t have any. We found a grocery store to get some fresh produce, but otherwise I had brought precooked meals and snacks with me.
While there, I managed to find a restaurant that was amazing for the management of my food allergies (peanuts and soy). There aren’t many choices for restaurants in Levi, and most of them serve similar dishes to one another, so I wasn’t holding my breath on being able to eat out (hence why I packed so much food). My friend and I were able to find a locally-supplied reindeer restaurant, where all of the dishes featured some component of reindeer. I really wanted to try reindeer, since I knew there was a low-risk of a reaction for me and it was locally sourced. The waitress and chef were knowledgeable about food allergies and the waitress was able to translate my questions into Finnish to make sure the chef understood. In the future, I’ve made sure to travel with translation cards, but at the time, I fully trusted this chef’s knowledge of food allergies and the waitress’s translations. My friend and I split a massive reindeer burger, and I didn’t have a reaction! Allergy win!
Because the local culture relies so heavily on the wild reindeer, a lot of the tourist activities have to do with reindeer in some way. I went on a reindeer safari with a friend, where we were in a sled led by a reindeer. Afterwards, the reindeer’s owner brought us to her cabin for a warm drink and some cookies. She grabbed a fresh package of cookies for me, to minimize cross contamination, and since they were cookies I had eaten before and had checked the ingredients on, I was okay with eating them from a new package. We also went to a museum that had an outdoor reindeer park, where you could feed reindeer! The owners of the reindeer could confirm the feed for the reindeer was safe for me to handle, as it was just dried moss, but offered me a pair of plastic gloves to put over my own gloves if it would make me feel better. I fed a lot of reindeer, and I’m not sure if they were more excited to be fed or if I was more excited to feed them (see the photo? Not sure who is more excited). Overall, the week was fun and reaction free, and totally worth the little bit of stress that packing extra food caused.
In addition to Lapland, I’ve also travelled to Iceland during the middle of February. Preparing for that trip was a bit different, because I was going with a friend who is a Type 1 Diabetic who had never travelled before, and we needed to make sure we planned our excursions with her eating times in mind. The flights we found were such a good deal, so we couldn’t pass them up. We made a schedule for our tours, packed a bunch of easy-to-prep meals and snacks we could take with us during tours, found a small Airbnb© apartment with a kitchen, researched some restaurants that had nutrition information for her and allergen information for me, and headed over to Reykjavik for three days.
Once we got there, everything we had planned fell apart. Iceland experienced the worst storm it had had in 100 years, every road in the country was closed for two days, two of three tours were cancelled, buses couldn’t get driven on the hills within Reykjavik, buses to the Blue Lagoon fell completely off the roads, grocery stores were running low on supplies, emergency services couldn’t get anywhere in the country …you get the idea. The storm didn’t stop for the entire three days we were there and the snow was past my waist when we left.
Thankfully we had packed a suitcase full of food for ourselves, so I didn’t need to worry about a reaction to a new food or us not having enough food for my diabetic friend. We had researched restaurants beforehand, so we knew exactly where to go in Reykjavik if we ran out of food at the apartment. Allergies or weather, nothing held me back from visiting Iceland’s Viking-age longhouses! It’s a truly beautiful country, and we got to experience it in a unique blanket of snow not many people will ever experience. We even found some nice Icelandic dogs to pet!
Even when you have a perfectly planned trip, things can go sideways. Usually it’s not the-worst-storm-in-a-century type of issue, but being prepared, having an open mind, and having a backup plan is key. My advice is to bring extra food no matter where you’re going (sunny or snowy!), have a clear idea of what you will need to do in an emergency, make sure you have valid travel insurance that covers food allergies, and make sure you have extra supplies of whatever medication you may need during your trip. If you’re going somewhere cold in the winter, make sure you have somewhere to store your auto injectors so they don’t freeze up. If you haven’t gone somewhere extra snowy during the winter months, I highly recommend it. Beaches are nice, but reindeer are nicer!