‘Hello Freddie, hello Rosie,’ said the plump, bespectacled stranger as he clasped his mittened hands together. My two children gasped, their hands shooting up in unison to cover their open mouths. ‘How do you know my name?’ whispered nine-year-old Rosie.
More gasps followed as ‘plump, bespectacled stranger’ pulled out the Christmas letters Rosie and her brother Freddie, six, had written to Santa and sent off to Lapland just a couple of weeks’ earlier.
‘So, you like dancing do you Rosie?’ he asked before reading out a few must-haves they’d listed – Frozen dolls for her (yes, the ones that were sold out everywhere), a tablet for him. ‘Have you been kind to your parents all year?’ he added, peering over his little round metal-rimmed glasses.
Rosie grinned angelically. Freddie paused, clearly wondering whether he could get away with a little white lie before deciding to come clean. ‘Not all the year,’ he said sheepishly. ‘Just some of it.’ Santa grinned. I blushed.
He then made them promise to be kind to their parents all the time in future then handed over two small bundles wrapped in brightly coloured Christmas paper.
In return Santa asked if they could leave out his favourite goodies when he visited our home on Christmas Eve: whisky, a mince pie and a carrot and some milk for Rudolph.
The look of awe and amazement in my children’s eyes confirmed it; that trip to Lapland on most parents’ wish list is worth every single penny. But where on earth was I going to get those Frozen dolls?
I didn’t have time to worry; we were about to face another onslaught from the pesky elves, a common feature of our three day break in Finland with Christmas specialists Santa’s Lapland.
The elves had met us at Ivalo airport, entertaining the kids by pinching their hats and pulling faces. Then on the way to our resort Saariselkä they’d pelted our coach with snowballs.
When we’d arrived at Santa’s firelit hideaway deep in the snowy forest – sitting under reindeer skins in a large wooden sled pulled by a snowmobile – they’d ambushed us once again, raining snowballs down on us from behind a fence.
It came as no surprise that Doodles and Scribbles – two of the peskier ones – put in their own request for Christmas Eve sustenance as we waved Santa goodbye.
‘Bailey’s please,’ they whispered, glancing over their shoulders to make sure the Big Guy hadn’t heard their booze plea.
Freddie had barely taken his eyes off Santa, his red-tipped nose hovering just a few inches from the tumbling white curls cascading off his chin.
‘It’s him, mum. It really is. I can tell by the beard,’ he squealed as we left, his eyes as big as snowballs. Job done.
But the meeting with Santa wasn’t the only magical moment of our amazing trip. The great thing about booking with Santa’s Lapland is that so much is included in the price.
I’d left Harvey and Max at home with their dad – being at secondary school I felt they might not dig the whole Santa-vibe and perhaps spoiled it for their younger siblings (I needn’t have worried to be honest – there is plenty to do for kids of all ages outside of the main Santa meet). So the three of us had half board at our hotel, Santa’s Hotel Tunturi, and picked up our complimentary Arctic-proof snowsuits,
boots and mittens on the way there from the airport. We needed them; temperatures dipped down to – 9⁰C for us although they can plummet beyond -20C.
Visitors also have free use of toboggans throughout the resort, both for the purpose-built 200m-long slope or simply to yank tired children around.
The middle day is the biggie and you’re bussed off to the Arctic Circle Centre. All families have their own private meeting with Santa. Beforehand you’re given the chance to covertly hand over the kids’ carefully written letters (which were never actually posted. The envelopes we slipped into the red box at home were empty).
Also included is lunch, lashings of tea, coffee, hot berry juice and pancakes, plus a visit to the elves’ packing room (more peskiness….), a short reindeer-drawn sleigh ride, husky dog sledding and unlimited tobogganing, skidoo-riding, snow hockey and snow fishing.
My dog-mad daughter Rosie and I fell in love with the huskies who, despite their deafening barks, are friendly and cuddly. I had the task of driving the sled with Rosie and Freddie on board, complete with six crazy dogs pulling at the leash to drag us off in the wilderness.
You’re given a quick lesson on how to steer (lean to one side) and slow down (slam your foot on a brake to push it into the snow then pray). You’re also warned you may have to jump off on hills and run with the sled to help the hounds out.
I had terrifying images of being unable to remount and watching helplessly as Rosie and Freddie disappeared over the horizon. But within a few minutes I was in my element, racing across deep snow, gliding past towering trees and over frozen lakes. It was like nothing I’d ever done before.
On the chartered flight there the air stewards had dressed up in Santa hats, invited the children up to sing Christmas carols over the Tannoy, hosted quizzes and colouring competitions and even launched a daft game to see who could send a toilet roll down their row the quickest.
You felt in a festive mood from the off. Saariselkä is nestled 250 km inside the Arctic Circle and at the peak of winter there are only two or three hours of daylight. It throws you; by teatime you’re ready for bed.
But the payoff is experiencing the magical landscape of dense snow-covered forest through a hazy semi-darkness. After enjoying the husky sledding so much, we opted to pay extra for another session which was equally as exhilarating.
This time it was dark and I needed to wear a headlight to pick my way through the trees which added to the wonder, particularly when it started snowing.
Visiting Lapland is one of the most unforgettable experiences ever – both for kids and adults. It made Christmas even more special and helped keep the belief in Santa going that little bit longer.
Come Christmas Day the kids were thrilled to finally open their Lapland gifts from Santa – a cuddly reindeer each. And they were truly bowled over by the presents he’d delivered to our home the night before; a tablet for Freddie and Rosie’s sold-out-everywhere Frozen dolls.
I, meanwhile, thanked heaven for the internet.
What’s the damage?
You’ll spend most of the time in the Arctic suits provided so take plenty of layers for underneath – particularly thermals, fleece and wool. Avoid cotton and denim. Even if you have your own ski gear, Santa’s Lapland advises you to make use of their free Arctic suits and boots during the longer periods outdoors as they’re about as sturdy as you can get. They’re very heavy however so take some lighter gear of your own though – snow suits and boots – for the times when you’re skipping between the hotel where you’re staying and the one where meals are served.
WHEN TO GO
Rosie was nine and Freddie six when we visited – perfect ages. They were old enough to remember it for years to come but young enough to still be completely wrapped up in the magic of Santa. Other families were there with much younger children – I’d say from two up – but I’d worry about them having lasting memories. I saw a handful of older children (secondary school age) and, while there’s plenty of activities they’d absolutely love such as the husky sledding and tobogganing, you’d have to make sure they went along with the main Santa visit for the sake of younger guests.
Santa’s Lapland offer three day Lapland breaks from 28 November 2015 from 14 UK airports. Depart 30 November from £888 per adult, including return flights from London Gatwick, transfers, and half board in Santa’s Hotel Tunturi. Free child places available. Packages include a private family meeting with Santa, husky sled driving, a reindeer sleigh ride, tobogganing, ice fishing and snow hockey. www.santaslapland.com, 01483 791945.