Why a festive getaway to Lapland is a magical winter wonderland you will never forget.
The run-up to Christmas usually kicks off with children writing a letter to Santa. Some form of mammoth list containing everything from Transformers to Barbie is then folded up, shoehorned into an envelope and posted to… Lapland, of course. There, Santa’s elves sort through all of the Christmas wish-lists written by eager little ones from all over the world, preparing the many sackfuls of toys and gifts in preparation for the big day.
So wouldn’t it be fun to head to Lapland with the entire family to see Santa’s base of operations? Watch elves skillfully crafting the many toys needed, see Santa combing his beard and ironing his red suit, and see reindeer, er, playing reindeer games. But there is another side to this province, despite the more commercial aspect brought on by the forthcoming festive season, a trip to Lapland can offer a winter break that no one in the family will forget in a hurry.
Getting to Lapland from Dubai is a little tricky, however. Unless you’ve got access to one of Santa’s sleighs, you’ll probably find yourself needing to head to one of the larger European airports and getting a flight from there to Helsinki, Finland’s capital. From there it’s onto a bus or train, heading north to Rovaniemi, the provincial capital of Finnish Lapland. Prepare for a long day of travel, but if you are heading to the UK or Europe at Christmas anyway, this can help break up the trip, as can a short stay in Helsinki itself. But however you plan to get there, the moment the kids see the thick snow, reindeer and, of course, Santa himself, makes it all worthwhile – just remember to pack woolly hats, gloves, scarves and all the other things you would never wear living in the desert.
Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t dark for 24 hours a day in Lapland at this time of year, although being so close to the Arctic Circle it only gets light for a few hours during the day in December (from about 10.30am-3.30pm). It’s a fascinating time to visit, however, and there’s still plenty to do in the winter months.
Ho-ho-Helsinki Chances are, your visit to Lapland will begin with a stay in Helsinki, and there is plenty in the Finnish capital to get you in a festive mood. You won’t be doing much shopping in Lapland with the amount of outdoor activities there are, so make time here to go to the Old Market Hall by the harbour (kauppatori) for gifts, or to the St Thomas’ Christmas Market, which runs from December 10-23 (Esplanade Park; 310 1671). Helsinki is a relaxed capital, which is not surprising when you consider that the population is around 600,000. No crowds means a trip to Mannerheimintie, where Helsinki’s oldest department store Stockmann is located, is an absolute breeze.
While you’re in the capital, head to the National Museum of Finland (940 501; www.nba.fi), or if you’re more interested in the present day, a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma (9173 36501; www.kiasma.fi), where works by local artists are housed, is a must. It’s not often you’ll get to ice skate outside, and during December and January you can do that by Helsinki’s Railway Square. If you have time, you might want to take a boat trip to Suomenlinna (www.suomenlinna.fi), a nearby island and UNESCO World Heritage site, which has a fortress dating back to 1748 and museum to amble around. Boats depart regularly from the kauppatori area.
A good place to stay is the Scandic Hotel Grand Marina (8517 51720; www.scandic-hotels.com), overlooking the water – and at Dhs750 per night for a family of four, reasonably priced. If you want to splash out, try Hotel Kamp (957 6111; www.hotelkamp.fi), housed in a building dating back to 1887, slap bang in the middle of the city.
Santa’s Lapland Eventually, it will be time to follow those sleigh bells and head north to Rovaniemi. If it’s Santa you’re after, the reindeer tracks will lead you to the Santa Claus Village (1635 62096; www.santaclausvillage.info), where you can tour the toy factory and the Christmas exhibition, which is actually very educational, informing children about the traditions of Christmas, both in Finland and the rest of the world. Children can queue up to tell Santa what they want for Christmas, and there are plenty of touristy souvenirs. Give the kids some pocket money and they can buy a locally-made wooden cup crafted out of birch tree, or there are cuddly reindeer toys for the younger ones.
What will strike you during your stay is the countryside, with its vast lakes and forests. At this time of year, most of the lakes are frozen, and you’ll find families skating on the ice. Explore the surrounding area further by trying cross-country skiing, riding in a snowmobile, or jumping in a sleigh pulled by huskies or reindeer. Package tours are available from Arctic Safaris (1634 00400; www.arcticsafaris.fi) or Lapland Safaris (1633 11200; www.laplandsafaris.com). Cross-country skiing is easier than you think – you don’t have to be a seasoned skier to pick it up.
Not everything has to cost money, though, so head outside to build snowmen or have a snowball fight. While you’re in Lapland, you’ll probably be lucky enough to see the northern lights or aurora borealis. These are like swirling clouds in green, red, white or a yellowy colour against the night sky.
If you need a break from the cold, take a trip to the striking glass museum, Arktikum (1632 23260; www.arktikum.fi). The museum hosts an exhibition on the local flora and fauna, as well as a display on Sami culture, the local indigenous people. Or you can head to Mia Maria Pizzeria (Rovakatu 14; 1634 4015; www.miamaria.fi) for a quick bite. One of the dishes you have you try when visiting Lapland is – you guessed it – reindeer. The place to go for this is Monte Rosa (Pekankatu; 9330 0111), which serves reindeer dishes, but it also has a Rudolph-free children’s menu. Whatever you choose, Lapland is an experience you won’t forget.