The man who saw the Lights

When Jussi Eiramo stopped his car here in 1973, Kakslauttanen consisted of two reindeer meat storage units. Over 40 years, he’s turned it into Finland’s most famous resort – and he’s not finished yet

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, December 2014)

It all started with a 20 year old on a fishing trip in 1973. “I was coming back from fishing in Utsjoki in the far north, and I stopped here to camp,” remembers Jussi Eiramo of arriving in Kakslauttanen, a spot of wilderness in Arctic Finland whose name translates as “two reindeer meat storage units”, because that’s exactly what was here. “I remember making pancakes over an open fire outside my tent by the river, and everything just feeling right. I thought: I can start a business here.”

Fast-forward 41 years and Kakslauttanen is probably the most famous holiday resort in Finland. Tourists from around the world flock here to visit Santa’s grotto, take reindeer rides through the thick pine forests and see the Aurora from a zebra-print bed in the resort’s pioneering glass igloos, which have shown up on too many “quirky travel” lists to mention.

Now the resort is doubling in size, with a whole new village containing 45 glass igloos, 25 log cabin rooms, a reindeer racing track and the world’s largest log cabin restaurant, a 2,100m2 space which has its own indoor mini salmon river and a glass igloo bar – all of which should have opened by the time you read this.
The resort already boasts the world’s largest smoke sauna, an ice chapel and the option of renting Santa’s house for a night. With snowmobiles, huskies and the rest, it’s Winter Wonderland tourism gone turbocharged, and a sizeable chunk of the passengers on the flight from Helsinki to Ivalo walk straight off the plane into the Kakslauttanen van.

Eiramo has thought up and designed almost all of the new West Village, just as he did the original East Village. Nearly everything in the resort is handmade using local pine logs, and Eiramo has set up a workshop near the giant restaurant to design everything from the tables to the cupboards and the placement of the wood-carved art. The small army of construction workers and staff has to call him about even the smallest decisions. “He’s a bit like Steve Jobs,” says one. “He has this vision, and everything that happens here goes through him. He doesn’t stop.”

We meet him on a rare break in mid-October. The place should be blanketed in snow, but the weather is unseasonally warm. Still, Eiramo is wearing his trademark fur trapper’s hat and a lumberjack shirt. With his white beard and deep laugh, it’s easy to wonder if his hyperactivity might extend to doubling up as Santa (apparently not, though he does thoroughly brief his two Santas).

He starts his tour where it all started – a little tepee by the roadside entrance to the resort, which looks a bit like a Hobbit home with a barbecue pit open to the elements. Here, in 1974, he started serving reindeer stews to travellers driving up the Arctic Sea Road to the North Cape. Word spread fast that you could get a better meal here than in nearby Saariselkä, a well-known ski resort, and soon Eiramo was building log cabins in the forest to house the people who wanted to stay the night. It was the first time humans, and not just reindeers, had somewhere to stay in Kakslauttanen.

If it all has the whiff of fairy tale, the straight-talking Eiramo makes no bones that he was business-minded from the start, even if most CEOs don’t wear trapper’s hats to work. “I knew we had the road, that we’d have guests and the potential to grow. I always had big ideas, even if they didn’t always happen – at first I wanted to put salmon in the river for fishing.”

Only now is he importing salmon, but Eiramo says the resort, and the numbers of people coming, has grown every year since 1974 – even after the Finnish financial crash in the early 1990s. “In a way it was the making of us,” he says. “The Finns stopped coming, so we realised that we had to target the international travel market.”

In 1991, he got in his car with a brochure and took to the road, visiting travel agents in Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, Switzerland and Italy in a month. He then targeted Asia, realising that many Asian cultures have strong superstitions about the Aurora (many Chinese and Japanese believe that a child conceived under the Northern Lights will be blessed with good fortune).

Today, around 40 per cent of visitors to Kakslauttanen are Asian and 99.9 per cent come from outside Scandinavia. The staff are noticeably international, too – the receptionists are Chinese and Filipino, the chef is Thai, and the sales and marketing manager is from Hyderabad, India (part of her brief is to help target more visitors in the Middle East). Aside from Eiramo’s two daughters, who work on the website and with the gift shop, and the two Santas, there aren’t many Finns around.

Eiramo has an impressive trick of reeling off the various public holidays around the world. He knows that the Spanish come around the first week of December; that the Brits like to come around  Christmas; that the Chinese arrive around Chinese New Year in late January/early February; and that much of Continental Europe has a holiday in late February.

The resort itself, though, is defiantly local. Eiramo avoids buying products off the shelf wherever possible, and almost all of the resort has been handmade on-site, including the 120 works of art, mostly wood carvings created by artists invited to the resort for residencies and programmes. “It’s important that the whole thing feels very Finnish,” says Eiramo, who has created a feel that’s more cosy Santa than Scandinavian design-chic. “We want unique design, not Ikea. People come here to feel like they’ve escaped to paradise with a sauna.” It’s little surprise that every cabin has its own sauna.

By now, Eiramo has taken us to one of his famous glass igloos, the innovation he dreamed up in the late ’90s, and which is now being used by other resorts in Lapland. “I remember seeing Asian people hanging about in -40oC waiting for the Aurora, and just thinking: What if they could do that lying in bed all nice and warm?”

Creating glass igloos wasn’t easy. He approached a Finnish company creating a pioneering new heated Thermoglass, but he needed a design that would work. He hired an engineer to create a plan, but the first prototype was, in his words, “a catastrophe. The main problem was the materials – we realised you needed an iron elastic enough to withstand heating up in the summer and then -40oC temperatures in winter.”

In typical fashion, Eiramo wound up designing the igloos himself, with heated floors, a basic toilet and zebra-print bedding (not all of the design at Kakslauttanen is subtle). “I remember my first night in the new version in 1999 and just thinking: Yes, we’ve got it. In the morning, there were people outside asking how they could stay in one.”

From there, things have just grown and grown. Santa’s village was completed three years ago, with an elf house and reindeers, and the option of staying in Santa’s home overnight. The question is: when does it stop? “I stop when I feel, that’s enough now. At the moment, there are still things I want to do. This is my work and my hobby. It’s my life.”

As to how he feels to have created a world-famous resort that’s almost literally put Kakslauttanen on the map, he’s typically straight. “You know, it hasn’t happened overnight. If it had, my head would have exploded. You don’t get this instantly – it happens step by step, with a lot of hard work.”

In our two days at Kakslauttanen, there have only been the slightest chinks in the cloud cover, and we don’t think we’ll see the Lights. Eiramo, however, thinks differently. “You’ll see the Aurora tonight, for sure,” he says. “I’ve called Pietro and asked.” Pietro? “Yes, the one who works for God.” (He’s referring to Peter.) “I couldn’t get God’s number.”

A hotline to divinity or not, sure enough that night the sky opens up, with greens and purple streaking across the Arctic sky. We see it on a night-time quad bike trip deep into the forest, and can still see it when we pull our zebra-skin duvet over us. Somehow, it seems like Jussi Eiramo planned it all.

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