'Open fires, ice slides, reindeers and the real Santa' - Lapland is Christmas-card beautiful
As I drove to the airport at 3.30am, I looked over at my eight-year-old daughter and said: "This is mad." She grinned at me. "Yes, Mum, but it's Christmas mad."
We were off to Lapland on a package tour. In a moment of madness, or perhaps weakness, I'd booked an overnight trip to the North Pole. It's something I've always wanted to do and she is utterly under the spell of the season's magic, so we went for it. I casually mentioned it to two pals with daughters the same age. Within an hour they'd booked to come too.
When the final price flashed up on my computer screen I had second thoughts. It was a lot of money for 24 hours, but then I thought of all the articles I'd read and the people I've met who said it was worth every penny and used words like "magical" and "breathtaking".
We arrived at Dublin Airport at 4am and looked around for our flight. It wasn't hard to find - everyone in our queue was wearing Christmas hats or jumpers. The atmosphere was festive and we were greeted by a very enthusiastic elf who handed all the kids a selection box. That was breakfast sorted and enough sugar to keep a corpse alive.
On the plane we sang Christmas songs and the kids told a few jokes. Just as it was getting a little grating - we had, after all, been up before the birds - the elf left us to our own devices. The rest of the three-hour flight was relatively calm.
On arrival we were put on two buses, A and B. Our gang was on bus B. The cold when you stepped outside took your breath away. It was minus 20. Even the Finnish elf who greeted us looked chilly. We scurried on to the bus where we were whisked off to get our 'outdoor' clothes.
In a snowsuit warehouse, we stripped down and were given snowsuits, boots, hats, scarves and woolly socks. A young boy, who was about three, began to howl as his mother tried to wrestle him into his suit. He continued to howl for the next 24 hours.
Once suited and booted we were off to ride snowmobiles. We arrived at a lovely farm where we got our instructions. The sun was setting - it was about two in the afternoon - and the temperature was dropping. Adults got to ride their own snowmobiles (a motorbike on skis) while the kids were put in sleighs.
It all began well, everyone was in great form. But the ride went on and on while the temperature dropped and the kids began to get colder and colder. By the time we reached our destination every kid in every sleigh was crying with the cold.
We parked outside our hotel and every man, woman and child staggered toward the doors presuming a hot lunch awaited us. It was past three o'clock and we hadn't eaten since six in the morning.
"On to the bus," the elf shouted. "What?" We were bustled on to the bus and told we were off to Santa's Village where we could shop. The kids were all bawling and the adults were gritting their teeth.
While we, on bus B, were quietly put-out about not having any lunch, on bus A there was anarchy. Our elf had to go on to bus A to help her fellow elf from being lynched by a hungry mob.
When the doors of the bus opened at Santa's Village, a stampede ensued as people charged toward the nearest restaurant. It was each family for themselves. Gone was the camaraderie of the plane ride. This was about survival.
The very average food tasted like heaven. Everyone began to relax except the little boy who was still bawling.
We were then bussed back to the hotel to check in. The hotel reception was very nice, belying what lay beneath - our bedrooms. The kindest way to describe them is "functional".
Owing to the extreme cold, the heating had been cranked up, so our 'snug' bedroom was like a sauna. We sweated through the night.
The next morning after breakfast we boarded the bus. The young boy was still crying. Our elf, God love her, tried her best. "Who wants so play 'Santa says'?" she cheerily asked.
"No one, love," a grumpy dad shouted. "You're wasting your breath."
But when we arrived at our destination, everyone cheered up. It was Christmas-card beautiful - open fires, ice slides for the kids, reindeer, huskies and warm berry juice to drink.
We went on reindeer rides and husky rides. The mood lifted. The young boy, however, screamed the whole way through it all. His poor, demented mother hissed at the guide to "take the bloody photo" as she tried to create memories of her 'fun' holiday. The child was not amused. "It's too cooold," he roared.
After a few hours of outdoor fun and just as the kids were beginning to whimper that they could no longer feel their toes or fingers, we were ushered inside to a spiritual ceremony around an open fire. An old Finnish woman told us stories and legends while everyone thawed out.
Then it was time for the moment we had all been waiting for. Santa himself greeted us on the steps of his hut. "He is the real Santa," my eight-year-old gushed. "Look, his beard isn't fake."
The children sat around Santa in his hut and he told them stories about Christmas night. They were awed by him. Jaden wasn't in our Santa group, but I can only hope he stopped crying for that part.
As we were sitting in Rovaniemi Airport waiting to board the flight home, I asked my two pals if they thought the trip was worth the cost. One paused and said she wasn't sure, the other said no because it was a bit too 'Fawlty Towers' and to be fair, at times it was.
But last night as I listened to my daughter telling her older brothers about the holiday, I believed it was worth it. I hope she'll never forget it, I know I won't.
It could have been better if the tour operator had made a few small and not-very-costly changes. But all in all it was an experience, at times hilariously chaotic, at times completely and utterly magical.
And we met Santa, the 'real Santa', and that has to be priceless.