Do your children still believe in Father Christmas? Then whisk them off to Finnish Lapland for a magical adventure, says Emily Shelley
What kind of invitation would make your kids jump up and down screaming like deranged ugly sisters with a ticket to the ball? Try a personal invite from one of Santa’s elves to party with them in their Lapland snow village… and cover your ears.
If your kids are anything like mine, you’ll have to prise them off the ceiling before you can get them into their thermals.
This special invite was hand-delivered by our attentive elf guide, Cranberry, who’d met us at Kittila airport in Lapland, rosy-cheeked, twinkly-eyed and simply bursting with Christmas.
We’d already had a massive dose of magic on the plane over, as sleigh bells were heard off the starboard bow and air hostesses wearing Santa hats broke off the cabin carol-singing to swear they’d seen Donner and Blitzen and friends practising their flight path in the snowy clouds below.
Yes, take a deep breath in and exhale your inner humbug – there’s no place for it on a trip to Lapland. If that doesn’t work, you’ll find it’s crushed like crisp snow beneath your furry boots the moment you step outside into the dense, white forest that covers this northern tip of Finland.
There’s a fairytale magic in its peaceful beauty, let alone that special kind of feeling you can only get from making your kids happy.
My children are on the cusp of losing their faith in the bearded one, but this is the potion of all potions for rekindling a fierce (and lasting – so far) belief.
My daughter (aged eight) tests our personal elf the moment we are introduced at baggage reclaim. “Are you a real elf?” she asks tentatively. “Of course,” Cranberry replies in her Finnish lilt, “but are you a real girl?”
All doubt disappears completely 48 hours later when we are deposited by snow-chained minibus in a clearing amid the Narnia-like woods, to spot the elf village ahead – made entirely of ice and glowing softly with a purple light – and Cranberry leads the children by the hand to join the party.
Elves come courtesy of our tour operator, Thomson, and there are dozens of them running around the ’village’ (it’s actually a pre-season ice hotel) with their own groups of excited British children, leading them down the ice helter-skelter and teaching them how to ride baby skidoos (a type of snowmobile) – while us grown-ups drink local vodka out of ice glasses in the bar.
There are fires around for warming small fingers and toes, and hot berry juice served in wooden ladles to warm little insides – but mine are so well wrapped, they don’t feel the cold.
All visitors to Lapland on organised trips like ours are kitted out with snow suits, gloves, socks, boots and hats on arrival, either at the airport itself (where you may have to queue) or at the hotel on check-in.
We get our first taste of the dense cold you get here inside the Arctic Circle, when we step off the transfer coach at our hotel, the Snow Princess, in the quiet hamlet resort of Yllas. A brief blast of freezing air whips through our UK coats, before we make our way inside a wooden yurt-style hut for a welcome hot berry juice (it’s served everywhere) and some toasted marshmallows around the fire.
Scandi-meets-Alpine in style; the hotel is cosy with spacious and very warm family rooms, and serves a buffet of international food as part of our full-board package.
Of the various excursions available, the elf party is the highlight for us. But all the trips are executed with such attention to detail and care, that we never once feel like we are having the ’package’ experience.
Take our husky ride as an example: The first morning after our arrival, we trek along a snowy path from the hotel, pulling the sleepy children behind us on sledges, to a meeting place on the edge of the forest. It was still dark at 9.30am – there’s very little daylight here in the winter – but tall lamps light the way, casting an eerie light on the snow-laden trees around us.
Rather than jump onto our ride straight away, or be left waiting our turn in the cold, Cranberry seats us on fur-covered logs around a camp fire, while another elf feeds us chocolate and spins a local legend of how the Northern Lights came into being.
The husky ride itself is exactly as I had imagined it to be – gliding serenely through the trees like the Winter Queen, listening to the wooden sled runners creaking over the compacted snow, and the soft padding and panting of the dogs ahead. Even my five-year-old son is awed (and possibly a bit frozen) into silence.
We also enjoy a less sedate snowmobile safari during our stay, with kids riding on a snow wagon behind, and much tobogganing. But, of course, the main event is the trip to see the Big Man himself.
Father Christmas lives in his own village, where we and the elves decorate cookies, play football on a frozen lake, pet the reindeer and ride on his sleigh, before our timed visit into his workshop.
I start welling up from the moment we walk in, and the children are so overwhelmed they can barely speak. We aren’t in there long; just enough time for a chat, a hug and a photo. But it’s five minutes I don’t think I, or they, will ever forget.
Back at the hotel there is a big Christmas party, with all the happy, friendly Thomson reps from our resort laying on a panto and games.
When there is an announcement from up on stage that the Northern Lights have appeared, we quickly layer up and empty outside into the dark.
As we watch the green sky flicker overhead, one man behind me remarks, “that’s the real magic.” He’s wrong – it’s all magic. Beg, borrow or steal to go.
TOP TIPS FOR A TRIP TO LAPLAND
:: It’s not a good idea to take under 5s – they will be too cold and cry through most of it.
:: Take your own thermal underwear – you can often find it on sale at Aldi and Lidl in early winter.
:: Take your own woolly hats, thick ski socks and gloves, as those you borrow can often get wet.
:: Practice with the night-time photo settings on your phone or camera before you go, as you’ll be snapping in the dark mostly.
:: If you take your phone out with you in the day, put it inside your snowsuit not in an outside pocket – the freezing temperatures can kill it.
:: Souvenir shops in Lapland are expensive, but you can pick up nice take-home presents in big supermarkets.
:: Emily Shelley was a guest of Thomson (thomson.co.uk; 0871 230 2555) who offer three-night holidays at the 3T Hotel Snow Princess (full board) from £559pp. Includes flights from East Midlands on December 6. Other departures are available.