Lapland: Millie's thrilling miles for one of Santa's smiles
Nose-chilling temperatures, ice tables and a dizzying snowmobile ride were highlights of Nick Webb's Lapland visit
YOU haven't lived until you have felt your nose hairs freeze. Or hit a bump on a snowmobile at full pelt. Or seen the real-life Santa in an igloo. Along with my youngest daughter Millie, four and three-quarters, I travelled to see Santa in Lapland for three days and two nights.
It was dark when we arrived in Rovaniemi in Lapland, which is up at the top of Finland. In winter, it's dark most of the time, with about three or four hours of sunlight. It's also unbelievably cold. Minus 23 degrees cold. Yep, that's the kind of temperature that really does make your nose hairs freeze. Here's another tip: don't go outside with wet hair, it'll freeze in minutes. Millie was far too smart to see if her tongue would stick to a frozen metal pole. Thankfully, so was I.
We stayed at the Clarion Santa Claus Hotel, bang in the centre of Rovaniemi. The main square of the town is Lordi Square, named after the heavy metal band that in 2006 scored Finland's only Eurovision win. The hotel was smart in a Nordic sort of way, with buffet meals ranging from chicken nuggets and chips to a smoked fish and pasta dish. We agreed that the wafflemaker was by far the best thing at breakfast... but it wouldn't fit into my suitcase.
After breakfast on day one, we made the 50-yard dash to the outfitter's shop, where we were kitted out in Arctic gear: hats, gloves, snow boots and a snow suit. We all piled on to the coach with our guide Marika leading us in Christmas carols, as we drove to the snow-mobile track.
I threw snowballs instead of listening to snow-mobile instructions. That was a bad mistake on my part. Millie hopped in the trailer hooked to the back of my snowmobile and we headed off in convoy, making sure that there was at least 20 metres between each snowmobile. It was bloody cold, and visibility was rotten.
The 20 metres soon turned into 50 metres, as I'm a bit of a wuss and Millie was bouncing up and down in the trailer at the back. But then I floored it. Just as we approached a big bump. We took off into the air. Absolute terror, as I completely lost control when we landed. Soldiers often say that in the heat of battle they fall back on their training. It just kicks in and gets you through. The hours on the Wii getting stuffed at Super Mario Kart came back. I steadied the snowmobile and braked hard, before finishing the circuit extremely gingerly. Millie was not amused and told her mother, grandparents and teacher that I had nearly killed her.
Back on the coach, we took the short spin to Santa HQ. Toboggans were laid on to zip down a small hill. Then we all milled into a small hut to see Santa. The kiddies were all given a pressie of a Rudolph teddy. After Santa told a little story we took a short ride on a reindeer sleigh. When that was over, it was up to a teepee and a blazing fire, as we were told the tale of how shamans took control of the four winds that blasted Lapland. Then it was up to the huskie track. This was way better than the reindeers, said Millie. It was way faster and bumpier.
That night we headed to Snowland for dinner. Snowland is a giant igloo at the edge of town. It was really cool. About minus 20, actually. The tables and chairs really are made of ice. Magic. We didn't check the jacks.
Traditional Lappish musicians banged a drum for a bit, and Santa worked the room. Then the kids were taught a little elf dancing before it was home to bed and figuring out how to use the minibar.
The last morning was gloomy, and still minus 22 as we drove up to a vast ski jump facility. There was a decent hill for tobogganing and mayhem. If you've never seen a kid on a toboggan plough into an unsuspecting adult, you really should. Forget Susan Boyle singing, or Justin Bieber walking into a plate glass door, this is an instant YouTube classic.
The bus cruised up to Santa Claus Village, a picture-book complex of log cabin shops, steeples and stuff. It also marks the crossing into the Arctic Circle. We lunched on chicken nuggets and goulash before looking at Santa nick-nacks, messing around in the frozen playground and queuing up to post letters in Santa's official post office.
There was an option to visit Santaland. It cost €30 for an adult and €25 for a kid. Santaland was an engineering marvel, a vast manmade underground cavern. The blurb at the door noted that within 24 hours it could be converted into a shelter for 3,600 people. Soviet Russia, after all, used to be only about 80 kilometres away.
We sat in on a fairy story, with a real elf (you can tell by the pointy ears, according to Millie). Then it was in to design and decorate our own gingerbread hearts. Multilingual elf school was next, as Millie and I learnt basic elf skills of creeping around and jumping up and down. There was a modern-dance-type trapeze show that kept all the kids completely quiet for 20 minutes. We hopped on to the Santa train, which travelled through the elves' workshop, bits of Lapland nd the magical forests. There were loads of animatronic puppets and things we missed the first time around -- so we did it again. And again. And again.
There we were scooped up and taken to the tiny Rovaniemi airport. On the three-hour flight home, the pilot pointed out the Northern Lights. Millie fell asleep as we came in to land. Dreaming of reindeers and chicken nuggets.
Nick Webb travelled to Lapland courtesy of Sunway Holidays. Sunway is operating a two-day trip to Lapland on December 18 (€999 per adult, €919 per child). The three-day trips depart on December 16 and 19 (€1,099 per adult, €989 per child). Prices includes accommodation, flights, taxes, , all transfers, all meals, thermal clothing, husky and reindeer ride, visit to Santa, gift and certificates. www.sunway.ie or phone Sunway (01) 288 6828.