There are more reindeer than people in Lapland – or so they say. This beautiful, snowy region at the northernmost tip of Finland is home to roughly 200,000 of these calm and majestic animals. Though there is also one particularly famous inhabitant of this sparsely-populated area – and the very reason for our visit.
Santa Claus is the big talking point for our mid-December journey to the North Pole – which is a bit surreal, it has to be said, when you see it written up on the departure monitors at Dublin Airport, with the gate number and time of boarding.
Our flight from Dublin goes swiftly with the on-board elves keeping the young passengers happy and busy with games, face-painting and storytelling – and reminders to keep an eye out the window for any flying reindeer. There’s a big cheer when we land at the small airport of Kittilia, and excitement is at an all-time high with the first sighting – and handling – of snow.
Out the window, the spare, wintery landscape of woodlands and snow looks just like a scene from Narnia.
First, we’re bustled into a big warehouse to get kitted out in snowsuits, boots, gloves and thermal hats. In this climate, in the Arctic Circle, temperatures can go as low as minus 20 degrees in December. Then we’re off to meet a special elf, called Tonttu, who keeps us all entertained with songs and fascinating tales of life as a helper for Santa, during a short bus-ride to the hotel. Out the window, the spare, wintery landscape of woodlands and snow looks just like a scene from Narnia.
On the first morning we’re collected by coach to travel to Santa’s Secret Hideaway, where we catch our first sighting of reindeer among the trees. We sip hot berry juice while throwing and dodging snowballs, and wandering around the small gathering of wooden chalets.
Next we head into Elf School to learn a little bit more about life in this magical place – and some important words in Finnish, such as Joulupukki (Santa Claus) and poro (reindeer) – and then on to Santa’s workshop to do some Christmas arts and crafts. Then it’s a trip to Mrs Claus to decorate biscuits, and finally a visit to the man himself. There are no big queues, everything is calmly organised and staggered in groups, with plenty of time in between for playing in the snow.
After lunch – and in the dark – we crunch through the snow for a short walk on a forest path. First up is a reindeer ride through the trees, then we go on a snowmobile across a frozen lake and finally – and the big highlight – is the huskies ride. We sit into a long sledge and the pack of 12 fluffy, excited dogs, yapping and jumping around, suddenly stand to attention and take off. It’s a pretty special experience, watching this powerful troop at work, gliding along the snowy banks and pulling the four of us – plus the trainer – through the dark with awe-inspiring ease.
Afterwards, we warm up beside the big open fires – there’s more hot berry juice on offer - and we head back to do some more tobogganing. Playing in the snow – in the dark – was up there as one of the best parts of the holiday, according to my two children, aged six and nine. Even better were the slopes they discovered at the front of the hotel – perfect for high-speed sledding.
On the second day we’re off to the Snow Village. This is a fascinating construction, a bit like a large warren of interconnected rooms made entirely of snow. Every year it is made from scratch, and building can only begin when temperatures fall below minus 5 degrees.
On our final morning, we spend the last few hours playing in the snow
The guide explains how it is constructed with artificial snow made from a river that flows by the site; artificial snow is, crucially, more dense than real snow and essential for insulating and making the walls some 2-3 metres thick. Key to the construction are large inflatable balloons, which are sprayed with snow, then deflated and removed, leaving behind the hollows for rooms. Inside, temperatures stay between zero and minus five, even though outside the temperatures can go way below.
Walking around you’ll spot the many stunning ice sculptures – a large owl, two hands reminiscent of an Escher drawing, and many more. There’s an ice slide for the children to play on – in between running around and exploring the many different interconnected rooms - and a screening area with a short film about the construction of the Snow Village. At the ice bar, you can enjoy an especially cool drink from a glass made of ice.
There are only a few hours of daylight in this northerly spot in Finland, which fades by late morning into a light bluish hue. Darkness sets in from about 2pm. On our final morning, we spend the last few hours playing in the snow while watching the strangest sunrise – just a curve of bright orange peeping over the horizon, then disappearing again.
Sorcha Hamilton travelled as a guest of Sunway, which is now taking bookings for holidays to Lapland in December 2020. Prices start from €1029 per adult and €869 per child for one, two or three night trips from Dublin, Cork or Shannon. sunway.ie