Lapland - Where the magic happens!
Preparing to take small children on an intensive 36-hour journey to make magical Christmas memories, frankly, has disaster written all over it.
Children are notoriously oppositional, even regarding events that are conceived and engineered for the express purpose of giving them joy, such as a trip to meet the actual Santa at Santa's headquarters in the actual North Pole.
That's kids though, contrary little twerps that we would probably not persist in having were it not for the outside possibility that we may one day need to harvest them for organs.
The trip to see THE Santa has fittingly taken on mythic proportions since the first chartered groups began making the trek. Everyone I told about the impending departure had wonderfully vivid reactions. A younger friend's eyes widened as she retold her magical encounter with Santa in the 1990s. A mum, who'd braved the three-hour flight with four kids under 10 advised bringing Valium, while another pal had me convinced that it would be 40 degrees below zero at least.
Based on this information, in the days leading up to the departure, I galvanised, stocking up on frankly insane quantities of hand warmers, thermal layers and sedatives (joke) and awaited the trip with a cocktail of equal parts dread and delight.
I've been a parent long enough to know that attempting any kind of travel with children will always be a fraught affair attended by catastrophe at some point, this much is a given. In the case of the Lapland trip, calamity befell us before we'd even started for the airport - we lost one of the cuddly toys who had so wanted to join us on the trip.
My son, being four and a maniac, lost his s**t. I, being 32 and riddled with near-constant guilt at not being a good mother to this adorable little maniac, also lost my s**t. The loss of a crucial teddy is akin to the loss of a limb, as all parents know. This is how I came to be doing an ambitious pre-travel Henry Street run attempting to source a lookalike. I hadn't packed yet and still had work to do. It was tense, but I prevailed.
If you had told me that post Teddy-gate, the remainder of the trip would be plain sailing, I would've scoffed in your face. The plane trip alone spelled misadventure, a flight full of wild children off their heads on sugar and excitement, it was basically going to be a re-enactment of Snakes On A Plane with the role of snakes being played by vicious toddlers.
Mercifully I couldn't have been more wrong.
The plane ride was a joy thanks in no small part to our elf chaperones who kept up a steady stream of songs and games to entertain the kids and the limitless well of patience of the flight attendants who seemed genuinely delighted by the festive atmosphere. We decorated the plane with garlands and balloons, we gorged on sweets and by the time we landed in Finland, even the most scrooged and humbuggy among us were bursting with anticipation.
It helps that everyone is in on the game, the monitor at the departure lounge declared our destination to be the North Pole while the Finnish airport announces in official signage that you have arrived at the official airport of Santa.
We made our way with remarkable ease from plane to passport control to luggage before being escorted by our personal Elf guide to awaiting buses. Though only 3pm, it was dusk in Lapland as our buses sped through snow-covered fields and forests and houses, the kids were mesmerised by the magic of a familiar storybook winter scene now unravelling for real before them.
The buses docked at a changing depot, where we were all kitted out in everything we would need to brave the elements. Snow boots, snow suits, socks, mittens and hats were all provided. I reflected on the 20kg suitcase of utter bonkersness that I'd packed in a panic. Every detail is taken care of, even the most fastidious among us could probably get away with a single change of clothes should you wish.
From the changing depot we journeyed to Joulukka Forest Of Dreams and the real magic began. A candlelit path led us deep into snow-covered woods, to a clearing where the windows of a gingerbread log cabin glowed, beckoning us in to warming plates of stew and rice, biscuits and hot chocolate.
After supper, the group gathered in a wooden teepee to hear tales of Finnish legends, the origins of the Northern Lights and the secrets of the animals in the forest, a roaring open fire cast dancing shadows across the face of every child as the smoke wound up and out through a round ceiling light above and into the navy sky beyond.
Soon after the children were communing with the animals themselves, reindeer and huskies obliged us with sleigh rides through tracks in the trees, as the stars twinkled above, while everywhere there was snowy diversions to enjoy. Wander one direction and there was warming berry juice on offer by an open fire surrounded by benches strewn with fur throws, opposite this snowy lounge were sledges and skis and a mini snowmobile for the little ones to have a go on.
For those seeking more high-octane thrills, there was a snowmobile ride through the forest - the children were cosied up in a large sleigh to be dragged at speed through the trees while grown ups could tear through the snow on their own snowmobiles. There was also a snowy shoot that my four-year-old adored hurling himself down over and over.
Despite the day's travelling, in Santa's hometown the kids' energy seemed to magically replenish and they were still in good spirits for the buffet dinner after we'd settled ourselves into our nearby hotel for the night. We gorged on pasta and sea bass, with chips and nuggets for the kids and cake and ice cream for dessert, before heading to bed for a reading of The Night Before Christmas and the giddy kids settled down to sleep not with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads but with what magic lay in store the following day.
An early breakfast left lots of time for playing in the snow before our elf guide, Cookie, arrived to bring us for our private meeting with one Mr Santa Claus. A short drive from the hotel, Santa's Christmas Command centre is another dreamscape of picturesque log cabins and open fires, with elves and magic behind every corner. A trip across the cracking ice of the Arctic Circle led us to Santa's workshop where huge cogs turned overhead and giant toys abounded. Our group formed a small queue but thankfully the wait was short as the kids, by this stage, were beside themselves with excitement. Once beyond the great door to Santa's inner sanctum a spell was cast over them and they appeared to be struck dumb by the sight of the picture-perfect Santa, resplendent in red and white fur trimmed robes, colossal black boots presiding on an impressive throne over his empire of elves and toys.
We led the children over for some all-important chat about presents and posed for photographs. Like every aspect of the trip, the encounter was efficient but nicely unhurried and my son left safe in the knowledge that Santa wouldn't miss our house on Christmas Eve.
"Look out for the green piping," we advised. Santa took the opportunity to specify what the reindeers' preferred snack was, he gave us some gifts to tide us over and then it was back out into the equally enchanted outside world. This is one of the most amazing aspects of the Lapland trip; each element, even practical things like changing into snow suits - usually a trial with a four-year-old - is imbued with a certain magic so the spell of the trip is never broken.
We brought our sojourn to a fitting close with a delicious lunch tucked away by the fire in a log teepee looking out at the wild wonderland where reindeer roam and a collective dream of a jolly old present-dispensing elf is a very beautiful and fun reality.
TAKE TWO: Top attractions
Fun in the snow
It's tricky knowing if kids will take to the snow, after all, it's cold and not quite what they may be expecting but this trip is a great intro as the kit is top class, and there's always toys for them to play with.
Sleigh bells ring
The sight of a child gazing upon a reindeer in the moonlight is something special, as is ‘driving’ a sleigh. I was just loosely holding a rope, the reindeer was in charge, but my son thought I was a magical snow fairy.
Sophie travelled to Lapland with Sunway on the one night Santa’s Sleepover trip. Sunway offer 1,2,3 & 4 night trips to Lapland with direct flights from Dublin, Cork, Shannon, Knock and Kerry.
Prices start from €899 per adult and €799 per child. Packages include direct flights, 20kg baggage, hotel on a half board basis, arctic clothing and a full Lapland activity program.
Visit sunway.ie/lapland for full details on Lapland or call 01-2311800 for reservations or more information. Sunway Lapland trips are on sale now for 2018. Book now and pay 2017 prices. Limited time only!
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