KAO, Kuusamo, Finland
Finnair AY486, Kuusamo to Helsinki
The weather bureau forecasts snow blizzards and -3C today, which is business as usual in this part of the world. Located near the Russian and Lappish borders, 666 kilometres north of Helsinki, we're greeted at the airport with an ice sculpture of three brown bears – the region is famous for its summer bear spotting and its winter snow at the nearby Ruka ski resort.
We are here in Christmas week, so festive lights dangle from the windows of the modest, single-storey airport. There's also a Christmas tree (with real snow) at the entrance and a two-metre-high snowman wearing a sash that declares, "Welcome to Kuusamo Airport." Otherwise, it's your average, bland grey affair.
Kuusamo Airport is geared to receive about three flights a day, however, in the peak winter season, it's mobbed with international ski tourists. We have to wait in the landside foyer while herds of skiers, booked by British travel company TUI, occupy all six check-in counters for direct flights to London Gatwick and Manchester.
The little airport's six gates handle both domestic and international flights from the common lounge, and we all pass through the same security, which is swift and perfunctory. Everyone's snow jackets come off, but shoes remain on, thank goodness. As we're on a domestic flight, there's no additional security. Those on international flights outside the Schengen zone pass through a couple of small EU customs booths without drama or delay.
FOOD AND DRINK
In the landside foyer, a pop-up café operated by a local game restaurant sells reindeer chips, elk meat and, unusually, small tins of bear meat at €29.50 a pop. There's also a selection of teas including cloudberry and spruce, and Finnish donuts and coffee for a dollar apiece. Walk through security to the airside, and the price of coffee and donuts actually triples in the much larger café. Reheated croissants and baguettes, chocolates and bags of Finnish blueberry and cloudberry lollies and "reindeer droppings" (aka liquorice) are also on offer. Avoid the vending machine coffee.
The landside café sells reindeer skins for €90 (down from €139), while the airside café's pelts are whiter, and more expensive. Step inside the well-stocked souvenir shop to find leather-clad hip flasks in reindeer pelt pouches, and very traditional wooden ''kiksa" cups. The super ingredients in the Lumene skincare products are Nordic peat and chaga, a local fungus. For kicks, you could pick up a puffer jacket printed with the northern lights. Be sure to check out the small range of jewellery by Anique, a young designer based in the Artic town of Kittilä, who creates silver earrings and necklaces: the best feature white fur snipped from passing reindeer.
WiFi is free, fast and available on both land and airside. Landside, nature-loving Finns have installed a charming wooden tripod carved into the shape of trees, with a wooden xylophone and other handmade percussion instruments. A sign asks children to play them gently, listening for the sound of the forest and the voice of the trees. As I watch, a band of British children break the percussion sticks. Airside, a children's area has green shag-pile carpet, huge beanbags and a small selection of kids' books. An exhibition of nature photographs from Finland's many marshlands livens up the space.
ONE MORE THING
There are no air bridges at little Kuusumo airport – passengers walk or trot from the gate to the plane's stairs, their pace dependent on how icy it is outside. As an indication, we enter the plane covered in snow from our two-minute dash.
If you're passing through in the peak ski season, expect long queues, delays and the prospect of sitting on the floor near the toilets, as the airport struggles to keep up with demand for its services.
OUR RATING OUT OF FIVE
Belinda Jackson travelled as a guest of Exodus Travels, exodustravels.com