Travelling through airports and boarding flights can be a stressfully miserable experience even at the best of times, and a flight that leaves many hours before dawn in the dead of winter as a cold rain falls hard on runways and taxi ranks is most definitely not the best of times.
Add close to 100 very sleepy children — including one of your own — into the mix with a sprinkle of last-minute PCR tests (it’s December 2021), Covid certs and a complete absence of clues as to what is actually happening and where you are actually going and you might expect to have a ready-made disaster on your hands.
But not today. There isn’t even a hint of grumpiness among the couple of hundred people who line up alongside three Popes to check in their baggage on a flight bound for the North Pole of all places.
A pair of Santa’s little helpers — bleary-eyed and, truth be told, possibly slightly hungover behind their festive face masks — greet the departing passengers with cheery waves, festive songs, Santa hats and selection boxes. It is hard not to smile. Impossible really.
After baggage is checked in by upbeat Aer Lingus staff, we move on to the security gates. But before we get there we see a giant elephant in the departures hall, one we must address before going any further.
The elephant’s name is Cost. And it is a big one. A Sunway trip to see Santa Claus in his home place before he sets off on his round-the-world Christmas Eve adventures is not cheap. It is, in fact, wildly expensive.
The so-called Sleighbell Spectacular, which covers two nights in an Arctic Circle chalet plus all the thermal clothes and boots and gloves you need, as well as sleigh rides on huskies and reindeers, snowball safaris, meetings with elves, all your food, night-time tobogganing and the chance to get a glimpse of the northern lights as well as the most magical meeting the man himself, will cost two adults and two children €5,436.
The cost of a three-night trip tops €6,000. And those prices don’t even include a single elf hat, Christmas decoration or outsize reindeer bought in one of the gift shops to be found smack in the middle of the Arctic Circle.
But here’s the thing. Not once did I hear any of the parents who were on the trip — which took place before the worst of the cost-of-living crisis kicked in, mind you — complain about the money they had spent. Nor did anyone suggest they had got bad value for money, or that they would do it any differently — and believe me when I say the money spent was a topic I brought up more than once on the Lapland buses that ferried us to and from festive activities.
And — in so far as it is possible to tell such things — the aircraft was not exclusively populated by well-heeled folk with money to burn. There were teachers and bank officials and IT workers and me, the freeloading journalist — the trip was covered for three Popes by Sunway, for the avoidance of all doubt. There is no question over the enduring popularity of the Lapland trips; in fact, some of the two-night excursions are already booked out for Christmas 2022, suggesting there are many people who are happy to pay whatever it takes to intensify the magic of Christmas, even in hard times such as these.
And it is a magical experience.
Now, having addressed the elephant in the departure hall we can board the aircraft. It is absolutely mental. Giddily excited passengers — not only children — wildly applaud the crew announcement and the safety instructions. There are more cheers when the destination is mentioned. And when Santa gets a shout-out, it feels like the roof of the aircraft could lift off.
Once all the usually flighty stuff is complete, the elves from the check-in gates take over the aircraft’s public-address system and over the next three hours they invite us to the front of the aircraft to tell jokes. Then they hand out fancy paper so we can write our letters to Santa. There is face painting and there are balloon animals.
As we fly to the frozen north, I can’t help feeling that the journey will ruin the experience of flying for all the children on board, who will be forever left wondering why the crews on the aircraft bound for the Costa del Sol aren’t singing happily and face painting and telling jokes and helping them to colour things in. Or, you know, smiling. Oh well.
Between games, Christmas music plays over the aircraft’s speakers. Bruce Springsteen’s Santa Claus is Coming to Town has never sounded so tinny. As he belts out his tune the voices around us get louder. The littlest Pope — who is about to turn four — sleeps through it all.
When we land in Rovaniemi and a planeload of Irish children see proper snow — many of them for the first time — the excitement levels are off the charts. We disembark quickly and are funnelled into the arrivals hall and on to buses, which take us to a large warehouse to be kitted out for snow times. It works like an assembly line. You walk through one door, get your snow suit and then your boots and hats and gloves and scarves and then out another door and back on the bus. It couldn’t be more efficient. With so much to pack in to the next 48 hours, there is no time to waste dressing.
First up is the tobogganing. It is barely 3pm and already pitch dark, which only adds to the drama of the moment. I take the littlest Pope to the top of a snow mountain with the idea — at least my idea — being that we will go down the hill together, me on the toboggan and her on my lap. It is not her idea and at the top of the mountain she declares that she wants to go down on her own. We have one toboggan and before I can explain the logistical difficulties of her plan she is gone, travelling at terrifying speed down the slope. Left with no choice, I run and then slide and the tumble down the mountain on me arse — there is no more polite way to say it than that.
“Again, again,” she shrieks. So we do it again. And again. At least I have a toboggan the second time round.
From the little hill — calling it a mountain may be an exaggeration — we get a go on a snowmobile. Older children travel in pairs but with a soon-to-be-four-year-old in tow we get a larger snowmobile driven by someone who knows what they are doing. It is cool. Actually, it is absolutely freezing but the clothes work wonders and protect us from temperatures which have plummeted to minus 15 degrees.
Once the ride is done, there is hot fruit juice, gingerbread cookies and marshmallows by roaring fires, and snowball fights, after which we are bussed to our hotel for the first time.
The hotel is lovely in a hygge kind of way, all dark woods and cosy throws and log fires. Check-in is as efficient as the dressing-room in the snow, and minutes after walking through the welcoming doors, 200 tired but happy Irish people are heading to their rooms.
I’m delighted by the sauna in our room and turn it on, and immediately forget that I’ve done so. It’s the Finnish equivalent of leaving the immersion on. We head to the hotel restaurant for dinner, an all-you-can-eat buffet. The food is decent and the buzz in the restaurant is lovely.
We sneak up to the hotel roof to look for the northern lights, and marvel as snow falls white on the mountain, not a footprint to be seen. Frozen we head back inside without a glimpse of the aurora borealis. It’s too cloudy.
The big chill of the roof quickly becomes a distant memory. Having left the sauna/immersion on in the room it is now more Balearic than Baltic. Eventually a combination of the hotel room door open and frantic fanning on my part cools the room down to a temperature a human can sleep in.
The following morning we wake to the glorious sight of snow hanging heavy on the forest of pine trees outside our window. We wear the loosest-fitting tracksuit bottoms and T-shirts we have packed — athleisure is the watchword when it comes to packing for this type of adventure — and I look at all the other clothes I have stupidly brought north.
Breakfast is rushed as there is a hard deadline of 8.30am for departure, and there has been a dire warning from an elf that the last people on the bus will have to sing a Christmas song. We make it to the bus with boots half tied at 8.36am. I clear my throat and get ready to sing Fairytale of New York but then another family arrives at the bus, similarly bedraggled.
We drive for 20 minutes — almost everything on the trip is 20 minutes away by bus — to meet the elves of the secret forest. They play games and tell us stories in smoky tents and we eat gingerbread. A fierce-looking man dressed like Kristoff tells us about traditions in the North Pole, and then marks our heads with ash from the fire’s embers for reasons I don’t understand.
We then get to play in the snow, with sleds and toboggans on hand as elves sing happy songs. A giant bear approaches and we all take selfies.
And then something really special happens, something I am reluctant to go into any great detail about because one of the reasons it is so special is that it comes as such a surprise to both adults and children. So, all I will say is that it involves meeting Santa, a moment so lovely that it will restore the faith of anyone wavering in their belief in the magic of Christmas. It’s a long way from Santa visits in Moons in Galway in the 1970s.
The littlest Pope is nervous and excited — nervocited, really. In truth, she is perhaps a bit young to really appreciate the moment — the golden age for such an adventure is probably between six and 10.
Lunch is potato wedges and pretty grim chicken nuggets for the kids — and a creamy, salty mess of a lasagne for the adults. It is hot though. Ever attuned to the price of everything, my ears prick up when I hear a row brewing at a nearby table. A woman had ordered three very small bottles of Coke and refused to pay the €15 asked of her. To be fair to her, €5 for a small glass bottle of Coke does seem extreme even by Finnish standards.
After lunch there we meet real-life reindeers who take us on a trip around a frozen lake. Our one is called Lika. We then have a 20-minute drive to the husky track, where we are treated to a long and excruciatingly detailed talk about huskies delivered by a well-meaning owner, after which we have a short but exhilarating spin with a pack of enthusiastic dogs around a track.
That night there is a “gala dinner” in a giant, Christmas-themed emporium. Incredibly skilled acrobats put on quite the show, after which food comes. It is underwhelming. There is soup — a tiny portion minus bread, followed by a Christmas ham for the adults, a couple of small potato wedges and a smear of what was probably a carrot and parsnip mash. Think Michelin-sized portions in a canteen setting. The kids’ bolognese is more substantial. After dinner we have to buy a bag of crisps, seldom a great sign.
The after-dinner activities are fun; there is a Santa train and a quick meet and greet with the man himself, and then back to the hotel.
On the third day we rise again and are bussed to the Santa Village, where there are shops, a post office, a line marking the start of the Arctic Circle that you can jump over, some more winter activities and lots of hot chocolate stalls. We are left to our own devices for a bit and then bussed back to the airport, stopping en route to leave back our thermals. As they board the aircraft, all the adults look as shattered as if they had spend a week in Ibiza. The aircraft — much quieter on the way home than on the way here but equally happy — chases the darkness of the Arctic Circle to the twilight of Dublin as we close our eyes and will the events of the days just past to attach themselves to that part of the brain where long-term memories are stored. It’s not a holiday you will never want to forget.