Lapland’s attraction is undisputable; it is a place of magical, even otherworldly images – white landscapes of frosted forests and iced lakes. In this region of Finland, one of the coldest parts of Europe, the realms of fantasy often turn out to be more reliable than reality. Around 160,000 tourists travel to Lapland every year hoping to see the elusive northern lights, but the Finns have set up a sure thing: Santa Claus. Come cloud or snow, he’ll be on duty in Santa Claus Village with a warm smile and a beard fluffier than Rudolph’s tail.
My first encounter with Santa Claus Village was when I was ten years old. The vague recollection I have of the place is that there were real elves of all ages skipping across the courtyards, reindeer were chomping on lichen, huskies were barking and yelping and my nose was so cold it was numb. Most of all, though, I remember being happy. Ever since my parents’ divorce, skiing vacations to Lapland with my mother provided an escape and no less so with this trip; we could be swept away by the fairytale and the giddiness of excitement and anticipation of seeing Santa.
This time, however, I was returning as an adult and I was curious to know if my memories held true. One thing was for sure though, I had the same level of nervous energy as my ten-year-old self when our airplane took off from my home city of Helsinki, bound for Lapland.
After we touched down at Rovaniemi Airport, exiting the terminal was like breaking through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia. With temperatures in the region of -6˚C, which can drop to -20˚C and beyond in December, we were already dressed for the elements and as the snow crunched beneath our feet, we hurried onto the bus which cruised off into the powder-dusted forests.
Arriving at the village, the setting was the stuff of storybooks – spruce branches laced with snow, huskies dragging sledges carrying excited children tightly wrapped up in blankets and squealing at the fun, stalactite-like icicles reaching towards the ground. Enchanting, delightful and just as I remembered it.
Snowmobiling was the first activity of our two-day stay at Santa Claus Village which we arranged online before we departed Singapore on our 12-hour flight to Finland. By the time we arrived at 3pm, it was already dark – in the run-up to Christmas, Rovaniemi gets just four to five hours of daylight and, even then, the sun only just peers over the horizon. After a quick overview on the basics, our machines roared to life and we sped off in convoy, with the kids tucked into sleighs pulled by guides. We soon found ourselves out in the wild, a train of white lights dotted on an iced-over lake.
After relocating to Singapore and spending a significant amount of time in the tropics, I'd forgotten just how much fun proper snow can be. We made snow angels, threw snowballs and shook trees. Full of adrenaline, wet-nosed and ruddy cheeked, we headed back to decamp to our hotel before dinner. And that’s when it happened – a sighting! Through the glass atrium of our hotel’s entrance the emerald-green glimmer of the Aurora borealis emerged – we were dumfounded. All of us transfixed by the ripples of light, the snow engulfed us in stillness. No one spoke as we listened to the silent hum of the universe.
On the second day, our adventures began with a husky ride followed by a reindeer sleigh. Apparently, there are approximately 200,000 reindeer in Lapland; more than there are people. Wrapped in blankets and sitting around a fire drinking warm berry juice, we listened to tales of the Saamelaiset people and folklore before we headed on to the main event.
At Joulukka, a park deep in the forest, our afternoon was spent with elves who were just as enthusiastic as any cast-member of a Broadway show. We received a crash-course in elvish culture, decorated gingerbread around a roaring fire before we were taken along a forest path lit by flickering candles to Santa's Command Centre.
The barn-like building was almost buried in snow. Dark pines soared around it. We were ushered past the satellite reindeer tracker and the enormous radio transmitting the crackling voices of overseas elves reporting on behavior of children globally and could hardly contain ourselves as we reached the door, beyond which was who we had come to see. The door crept open, letting out an orange glow, and family by family, we were led inside. And there he was – sitting in his study. We were star-struck!
Given the expense of a trip such as this, costing in excess of US$1,000 per person for two nights, some would say that it is extravagant to say the least. However, people have been coming for all sorts of reasons – some are splashing out, some have saved for an age, some with special needs or serious illnesses.
Thankfully, the cost was mostly reflected in the quality. The activities were immaculately planned, our hands were held throughout and the trip to Santa Claus Village was the only time it got slightly kitch. In the end, though, no amount of Santa fridge magnets could spoil the magic and there is a certain amount of bragging rights in getting your passport stamped inside the Arctic Circle.