Mary Lambie spent last Christmas lugging her three young children to Lapland to meet the “real” Mr Claus.
Lapland, 68 degrees north, inside the Arctic Circle. Why would you head into temperatures of -25C just as a New Zealand summer is heating up? Santa, of course. The chance to meet the “real” Santa Claus at Christmas in his purpose-built Santa Village sounds too much fun to miss.
Santa’s Village is about a 20-minute car ride from the centre of the Finnish city of Rovaniemi. Unsurprisingly December is boom time for this otherwise unremarkable tourist town, which is around the size of New Plymouth. Visitors (mainly – don’t ask me why – Australians and Italians) use Rovaniemi as a base for visits to Mr Claus’ compound which is small and thoroughly commercial (of course) but provides a quintessential Christmas experience.
The village is lined with snow-white trees laden with fairy lights, and contains a dozen or so buildings including a post office (Santa gets two million letters a year), shops and Santa’s inner sanctum, where the bearded one sits and welcomes thousands and thousands of the faithful each Christmas. Actually you can go and see him any time, but in summer there won’t be snow.
The Santa Village experience is very slick, but in the end wasn’t the highlight of our trip.
We struck an afternoon where Santa was a little weary, so he had little chat and seemed a trifle stern, but to the children he was the real deal. They may well have thought that’s what Santa should be.
Unlike most Laplanders, his English was a bit rusty so he didn’t understand Elizabeth’s joke – “Where does Santa stay when he travels? In a ho-ho-hotel”.
We were in his private library for less than three minutes (having waited a good hour to see him). In that time he presented the kids with a present (a small toy reindeer each), had us all lined up for a photo, shook our hands, then showed us the door. It was brisk, but informative.
We discovered the Great Secret of Christmas gift delivery. How does Santa get around the globe so quickly? Because he stops time to do it. It’s simple once you know.
As well as the Santa Village there’s a plethora of outdoor activities – riding on frozen rivers on snowmobiles, trotting behind reindeer or huskies, fishing through holes in the ice, or trekking through forests at night to see the flickering green curtain of the Aurora Borealis.
Children get taken into the forest to meet elves and see reindeer. (The official story is that the younger reindeer fly; the ones you see are all retired from Christmas duties.) The elves are friendly, though their resemblance to humans is so striking that even the children couldn’t suspend disbelief.
Santa makes various appearances at Christmas functions around Rovaniemi. Obligingly he visits all the hotels and is seen roaming the snowy streets to remind us of the season. He’s not the only one travelling by sled. Little sled scooters are common transport.
You can make an Arctic holiday as comfortable or as challenging as you want, we discovered. With children in tow, we chose easy options – not more than four hours outdoors, for example – although in calm conditions with good clothing, your risk of frostbite is nil at temperatures less than -25C.
There is a superb, child-friendly Museum of the Arctic with an entire history of the Sami indigenous people and life in the north in less cosseted times.
We were surprised at how easily the Finns cope with the cold, even in the middle of the coldest European winter for decades. Their airports don’t close, their buildings are warm, and the biggest risk we faced was slipping on icy footpaths.
Value for money? Yes. Bragging rights from having met Santa are huge, and it’s an experience which couldn’t be more different from a Kiwi Christmas.
It’s a one-off holiday never to be forgotten.
Getting there: On Singapore Airlines we flew via Changi to Copenhagen. Then we jumped on a Finn Air flight to Helsinki and took the overnight Finnish Rail train north to Rovaniemi from Helsinki – 900km and 13 hours in total darkness.
Where to stay: Hotels in Rovaniemi are modern and warm. Most come with wi-fi, saunas and excellent food. Reindeer makes an appearance on the buffet table.
What to do: Bentours‘ Christmas packages of five days ex Rovaniemi start from $3300 twin share, including four nights’ accommodation, meals, airport transfers, the loan of winter outdoor clothing, trip to Santa’s Hideaway, reindeer sleigh ride, Santa Claus Village and Arktikum Museum visit.
* Nearly everyone in Finland speaks good English.