Louise McBride and her daughter leave a dreary Dublin behind for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Lapland.
'Santa says we will take off quicker if you all scream," the air steward announces.
Immediately, the plane fills up with the squeals of excited children - and right on cue, we take off from Dublin Airport leaving a cold and wet December morning behind us.
My four-year-old daughter and I were on Sunway's two-night Sleighbell Spectacular trip to Lapland in northern Finland. Not only was this my daughter's first trip to the North Pole, it was her first time on an airplane. She was bursting with excitement - and this was a flight with a difference.
To keep the children entertained on the flight, 'Tinsel Tina', a Sunway representative dressed up as an elf, told us all about elves. To a captive audience of wide-eyed children, she explained how elves come in all shapes and sizes, and how there are invisible elves which peep through the windows to check on you - before reporting back to Santa. My daughter lapped it all up. Tinsel Tina then launched into Christmas carols and she was quickly joined by enthusiastic children and half-embarrassed adults.
It is a three-hour flight from Dublin to Rovaniemi Airport in Lapland. When looking out the windows of the plane, it wasn't long before my eagle-eyed daughter spotted frozen lakes and snow-covered mountains beneath her. "The North Pole!" she screeched, pointing fervently at the stunning silver landscape which would surround us for the next two days.
When we arrived in Rovaniemi Airport, which is in the heart of the Arctic Circle, I quickly put on the ushanka hat my sister had brought home for me as a gift from Russia - and ensured my daughter was well wrapped up. A good friend had told me to expect temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius and about half an hour's sunlight.
So you can imagine my surprise when my eyelashes didn't freeze and my nose was still intact as we walked from the airport to the hotel transfer bus. Yes, it is incredibly cold in Lapland and you must be prepared for that. However, on the day we arrived, the temperatures ranged between minus 1 and minus 8 degrees Celsius - not as drastically low as I had expected. Mind you, the temperatures dipped as the days went on. On our second day, they ranged between minus 6 and minus 14. Our last day (the day we left) was the coldest, with temperatures no higher than minus 11 - and as low as minus 13.
Shortly after we arrived, Sunway provided us with thermals, including warm boots, socks, an overall, gloves and hats - so although you need to pack warm for this holiday, there's no need to clog up your suitcase with hefty snow-gear. Although my daughter (a struggle to get into anything apart from pretty dresses) initially grumbled about getting into the thermals, she (and I) certainly appreciated them when outside.
It was already getting dark on our way to the hotel. In mid-December, you get no more than two-and-a-half hours sunlight in Lapland. The sun rises around 11:30am and starts to set around 2pm.
Our first full day in Lapland (the day after our flight) began with a morning pick-up to Joulukka - a magical place in the heart of a forest where you are brought to 'elf school' and to visit Santa. On our way, we passed snow-clad chalets with Christmas trees twinkling in their gardens and porches, star decorations in their windows, and icicle lights hanging on their roof eaves. Against the backdrop of a snowy landscape, this truly was a winter wonderland.
The roads too were cloaked in snow but our bus driver was well able to navigate them.
Our first stop was elf school where we learned that it takes 99 years to graduate as an elf. Around a cosy fire, we were quickly taught the five lessons of elf school - kindness, peeking, tiptoeing, recognising animal prints, and ginger-bread decorating. My daughter was keen to show the 'elf teachers' that she could peek through windows unnoticed. However, she was too shy to do it alone. So I soon found myself - along with my daughter - in front of the 'class' peeking through a makeshift window and doing my best 'elf' impression.
Next stop was Santa's command centre. We met an elf who told us that 'Joulupikki' is how you say Santa in Elvish. We were shown the monitors which allow the elves to keep an eye on children across the world and find out who is 'naughty or nice'.
My daughter posted her letter to Santa and the elf then encouraged us to sing a Christmas carol of our choosing. My daughter chose 'Jingle Bells', which in turn triggered the 'magic' that opened a secret door in the command centre. As we walked through the door, there to the delight of my daughter, sat Santa Claus. He really looked like the real deal - important if you travel all the way to Lapland to see him. He assured my tongue-tied daughter that she was on the "good list", asked her what she wanted for Christmas and handed her a present. When she unwrapped it later, she discovered a cute husky puppy toy - she hasn't let go of it since.
Later that day we visited a husky farm, which was home to 300 huskies, most of them Siberian. We hopped on a 12-dog sleigh and it didn't take me long to realise why these sturdy dogs were used by Arctic explorers to navigate the cruel terrain of the North and South Pole. The sleigh almost jumped in the air as the dogs took off and dashed effortlessly through the deep snow.
That afternoon, we also took in a trip to a reindeer farm, where we met Allu, a reindeer herder who explained that his family had been living there for 500 years. Allu took us on a reindeer ride. As the reindeer clumsily pulled our sleigh, the cold wind pierced the cheeks of my daughter and me and we both gazed at the harsh yet beautiful frozen landscape around us. Miles and miles of snow-covered pine trees stretched far out into the distance, and a frozen lake glimmered under the afternoon sun. I hugged my young daughter whose eyes, not for the first time on this trip, were full of childhood wonder. I knew this was a moment which we would both cherish forever.
Sunway Travel (01 231-1888; sunway.ie/lapland) offers one and two-night trips to Lapland. These trips include return flights to Rovaniemi Airport, airport transfers, meals, accommodation, and activities.
Sunway's two-night trip, Sleighbell Spectacular, costs from €1,279 per adult and from €999 per child. All flights for the Sleighbell Spectacular trip leave from Dublin on either December 11, 13, 15, 17 and 19. The price of the one-night trip, Santa Sleepover, starts from €859 per adult and from €759 per child.
Sunday Indo Living