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IN SEARCH OF SANTA

With frostbite nipping at their toes, one family discovers Santa's secrets on a magical visit to Finnish Lapland.


WORDS Debbie Neilson-Hunter

Christmas in Australia is a summery scene of seafood, sun, surf and sand, and yet so many postcard images continue to depict the wintry northern European traditions of sleigh rides and log fires.

I experienced the latter as a wide-eyed child and although I've spent many more Christmases in Australia, for me, nothing compares to a white Christmas with all the trimmings (including a toboggan run). It was something I'd wanted to share with my own children before they lost their lust for magic, but how could I guarantee snow on Christmas Day? It's not as easy as it seems. There was only one place I could think of thast could deliver my wish: Finnish Lapland, on the Arctic Circle. I then went one better and aimed our compass at the official hometown of Santa Claus himself.

Planned like a reindeer's head and flanked by Finland's longest river, the Kemijoki (where it merges with the Ounasjoki River), Rovaniemi, more than lives up to its description of an "urban oasis amidst the Arctic wilderness where culture, wild activities and fairytales come together." Seriously, besides a selfie with Santa, who could resist a chance to dine in an igloo?

CHRISTMAS IN LAPLAND

We arrive two days before Christmas and are met at the airport by Johanna, our bubbly Bentours' host. She takes us straight to Lapland Safaris HQ where we're kitted out with essentials for our stay: overralls, woollen socks, beanies, scarfs, mittens and thick boots. Although dressing takes a good half an hour each day, we're thankful for every single item. The icy air cuts like a knife and our ski gear doesn't stand up to these sub-zero temperatures on its own.

The next reality check comes moments after checking into the Santa Claus Hotel. The winter sun has now set and the fairy lights on the Christmas trees in the town square are already twinkling. The digital clock tower outside our window tells us it's only 18 minutes past three in the afternoon and the temperature outside is a frosty -16 degrees.

On our first evening, Misses Seven and Nine get their first Safari passport stamp at the Husky Mushers Camp. While a crackling fire and fragrant hot berry juice tempts us inside the farm's cosy log cabin, we've come especially for a dog sled ride. Protected by a thick layer of soft fur, these handsome blue-eyed canines yap and strain at their leashes, excited and as eager as us to get going. On command, our sled jerks forward and we're suddenly off, racing through the forest. Snow flies as the beam of our driver's torch guides us through the inky winter darkness. We spend the rest of the evening getting to know our new four-legged friends.

Christmas Eve morning is dark and cloudy. As we tuck into a cooked breakfast, it starts to snow outside. Sculpted by nature, each perfectly pointed flake that lands on the window sill sparkles brighter than a Swarovski crystal.

We're soon suited up and ready to go. This morning's trial ride takes us deep into the ghostly forest to Santa's secret hideaway. Eyes are glued to the snowy scenery for a glimpse of scarlet, sleigh tracks, a reindeer or one of Santa's tiny helpers.

“This morning’s trail ride takes us deep into the ghostly forest to Santa’s secret hideaway. Eyes are glued to the snowy scenery for a glimpse of scarlet.”

As our coach reaches its destination, rosy-cheeked elves appear out of nowhere. Their playful mood soon means snowballs are flying and laughter is echoing between the sugary birches and firs. To add to our joy, the skies have cleared and the sun has finally risen just above the horizon, casting a divine glow across our wooded setting.

After a traditional Sami (Lapp) welcome at a teepee camp, we're then invited to putour reindeer driving skills to the test over a frozen lake. Checks are made to see if any of these docile creatures sports a ruby red nose. Rudolph isn't present, but the atmosphere is just as magical as our sleigh glides over the ice. When the cold begins to numb our faces and toes, we seek refuge inside a warm log hut, happy to thaw out with a steaming cup of soup and rice pudding. Tinsel and baubles are then brought out, an axe is found and a small tree is chopped down for all the children to decorate.

Back at our hotel there are more trees and gingerbread cookies to adorn, a traditional Finnish-style Christmas Eve feast to indulge in, byt hands down, the highlight of the evening is an appearance from Santa himself with gifts to give. Judging by the kids' expressions, no shopping centre visit will ever be the same.

THE ELVES' SECRETS

Christmas Day finally arrives and the temeperature has pluemmeted to -28 degrees catching even the locals off-goard. The snow is powdery and deep and we our best to keep warm at the Snowfun Park, tobogganing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling in between sips of hot-berry juice, soups and sausages fried over a campfire. Eventually some of us have to retreat to the heated bus.

For four days, the Northern Lights that regularly dance above these Arctic skies elude us. On our final day we get to experience the next best light show in the Arktikum Museum and Science Centre's Northern Lights theatre. Everything you want to know about the local culture, nature, climate and people of the Arctic and Lapland is on show here.

While our itinerary also includes a visit to Santa Claus Village, home to Santa's own post office, restaurants and a range of shops, we detour to Santa Park.

If you've ever wanted to know the secrets of Santa's helpers, this is the place to come. Deep inside a heated cavern, Santa Park boasts a workshop, magic train, ice gallery (with frozen throne), an ice bar and an Angry Birds activity park. Winter (or summer) Santa himself often pops up by his office to meet fans. But the ultimate last-minute souvenir has to be a graduation certificate from Elf School.

At Elf School, eager students can gain a crash course in elf espionage. Sporting those now familiar pixie features, our Elf professors took turns demonstrating how they sneak a peek in your windows throughout the year, to check on who is being naughty or nice. Before we could say ‘presents’ they’d been and gone. So they show us again, this time in S-L-O-W M-O-T-I-O-N.

“Ho! Ho! Ho!” the bemused audience chuckles with appropriate Christmas spirit. Lessons include the art of creeping quietly and all the insider tips to get your name permanently in Santa’s good books. I just hope my girls listened.

Well, we’ll soon see, won’t we?


Fly: Qantas www.qantas.com.au | Finnair www.finnair.com
Stay: Santa Claus Hotel www.hotelsantaclaus.fi
Book: Bentours www.bentours.com.au
Play: www.laplandsafaris.com
Info: www.visitrovaniemi.fi



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