Lapland: A magical trip to see Santa
'Children are made feel special right from the word go,' reports John Greene from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Lapland
Eleanor Roosevelt, so it seems, was a big fan of Santa Claus. The former US First Lady was in her mid-60s when she finally got to visit him on his home turf inside the Arctic Circle, in 1950.
Eleanor Greene is also a big fan of Santa Claus. She was aged 10 and three-quarters when she got to visit him with her family, including her nine-year-old brother John, just before Christmas. By all accounts, both Eleanors were on cloud nine after the experience. (Okay, so I made the last bit up - I don't know how Mrs Roosevelt reacted, but it's an educated guess.)
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The exact location of Santa's home and toy workshop - as I'm sure most of you will readily understand - is not widely known. According to one elf we met on our pre-Christmas family trip to Lapland, he lives and works in a mountain in northern Finland which is shaped like an elf's ear so that Santa can hear the wishes of children all over the world, no matter how quietly they speak.
This mountain area is known as Korvatunturi but it is apparently so remote that when Eleanor Roosevelt decided she just had to visit Santa, it was deemed more practical for him to make her journey a little easier. So, a log cabin was hastily built for the illustrious visitor near the capital of Lapland, Rovaniemi, and he met her there.
And an idea was born.
Each year, Santa would leave his remote home and meet children from all over the world in the beautiful new log cabin on the outskirts of the town. Over time, more buildings were added around the cabin, and Santa's Village came into being.
The growth of the village even persuaded the man himself to move his own private post office there so that now all of the letters sent to him make their way to it. When we visited the post office, we were fascinated to see the tens of thousands of children's letters that were being sorted.
Indeed, thousands of Irish children join the global pilgrimage to the Arctic Circle every December. We booked our trip of a lifetime with Sunway, and took the specially laid-on Aer Lingus flight to Rovaniemi, a journey of a little over three hours. It is no ordinary journey, as children are made feel special right from the word go. There's even a separate check-in area in Dublin Airport's Terminal 2.
All the children receive a lovely goodie bag when they arrive and for a lot of them, joining the queue for the flight to the North Pole was the first inkling they had of what lay ahead. To see their faces light up as it dawned on them where they were going was a great thrill for all us adults - even the, er, hardest of hearts would be melted. What a surprise for a child to receive in the days before Christmas.
Everything on the expedition is based in and around Rovaniemi. You stay in the town and eat there, and the various winter activities - reindeer rides, husky rides, snow mobiles and so on - are all close by. There is a bus on hand to take you everywhere you need to go, and the longest we were ever on it was around 15 or 20 minutes, so it's all very convenient - and that includes the airport transfer.
Although your trip will be focused around those activities and the big visit, it's worth taking a little time to walk around Rovaniemi. We took a stroll before dinner to get a feel for it, and wandered for a while on the walkway which runs along the Kemijoki river.
The highlight, obviously, is the visit to Santa's Village. We opted for the one-night trip because it was so close to Christmas Day when we travelled, so we did all our winter activities on the first day, and visited the village (and the man himself) on the second.
Eleanor Greene, aged 10 and three-quarters, takes up the story about her magical trip to Lapland with her family:
It was December 22 and we were sitting on a plane. There was lots of music and jokes on the plane. We were all excited; we were going to Lapland.
The flight attendant got lots of people to come up and tell jokes, but I didn't; I was too shy to go up.
When we started to land I got so excited because there was so much snow everywhere. As I walked out the door of the plane I thought it was just magical - oh yeah, and cold.
Then we got the bus to Winter Wonderland. Every bus had an elf. Our elf's name was Twinkle Star and our bus's name was Rudolf. In Winter Wonderland there was an icy hill that you could slide down which was really fun; there was also a reindeer ride. But I got really scared because the reindeer started to trot and I may have started to cry.
If you walked down from there, there were lots of candles in the wood because you could barely see in the dark. Dad said it was dark nearly all day in Lapland. When we got to the bottom of the path there was ice hockey and snow-mobiles that me and my brother loved. My mom was terrified. I also got a husky ride and that was my favourite one.
After all that fun we went to our hotel. Before dinner me and my family decided to look around outside and me and my brother went over to the river. There was a huge star over the hill, it was the size of the sun and was shining so brightly that my eyes nearly got sore. I told my dad to look at the star and he told me that it was a decoration for the town. It was beautiful.
In the restaurant you did not have to order dinner because there was a buffet. I went up and got goujons and chips. I brought it over to the table and I started eating it and the goujons tasted very nice but not the same as normal. When I told my dad he said it was because they were fish goujons, not chicken. I thought they were chicken and I felt so silly. We all laughed a lot.
Then we got some rest because the next day we were going to Santa's Village and that's where we would see Santa.
When I woke up I could not wait to go to Santa's Village. I looked out the window and it was snowing heavily. When we got to Santa's Village it was so magical. It was still snowing. There were shops, restaurants, playgrounds and a post office. We walked in the snow and we got closer to crossing the Arctic Circle. When we got to it we all had to do a move to jump across the line. My move was putting my hands out and shaking my fingers.
We had a few hours to do whatever we wanted before we met Santa. So the first thing we did was sledding. I loved sledding so much - it was equal to the huskies.
Then me and my dad went and got something to eat while Mam and John were sledding on an ice hill. The ice hill was not any ordinary hill; it was carved to make it look like a road. When me and my dad got to the restaurant we got hot chocolate for me and coffee for him. Then we left the restaurant to go find my mam Catherine and my brother John but there was no sign of them. We eventually found them. We could see Mam on the ice hill but she could not see us. My dad looked over the wall but he slipped and fell and I threw snow at him and it was hilarious. Next we went to the trees where my dad threw snowballs up into the tree and knocked snow off the branches and we stood under them and all the snow fell on top of me and John.
We were in a rush to go and see Santa. When we got to Santa he asked us many questions. He had huge hands and a long white beard. He was very nice. He gave us husky teddies. When we finished we went to the post office and we posted lots of letters to our friends and we saw all the letters he had read, which was incredible.
Then we had to say goodbye to Lapland. When we got on the bus it brought us straight to the airport. I really missed all the fun. We took off and soon we were back in Dublin.
Take Two: Top attractions
So yes it's Christmas - or at least it will be when you are there - but don't forget to take some time to appreciate the sheer wonder and beauty of your surroundings in Lapland. It's very special.
Husky sleigh ride
It's just a sleigh pulled by dogs, right? Well, yes, but it really is a lovely experience. The dogs are so elegant and graceful, and they whisk you along at a nice pace. The kids absolutely loved it.
Lapland 2020 holidays are now on sale with Sunway, with one-, two- and three-night trips available. Prices start from €1,029 per adult and €869 per child. Book now at 2019 prices. Limited offer only - must end January 31.
Deposit only €50 per person. Spread the cost with Sunway payment plan. Fly from Dublin, Cork or Shannon. Call (01) 231 1800 for more information and booking.
Some practical pointers: don't overly worry about warm clothing as you will be supplied with snow suits and boots on arrival which you get to keep for the duration of your trip and which will keep you and your little ones snug.
Also, breakfast and dinner at your hotel is buffet and the food is plentiful, so be sure to fuel up.
NB: This feature originally ran in The Sunday Independent.