Inside a snowbound yurt, deep inside a forest 250km north of the Arctic Circle, my six-year-old is giggling as an Elf (yes, an Elf) called Poco holds her upside down and plays her like a guitar. This is not surprising. Thus far on our three hour Searching for Santa adventure at the Northern Lights Village in Lapland’s Saariselkä, he’s also attempted to drive a skidoo backwards and, as we paused by the fire on the brink of finding Santa, done a magic trick that has my seven-year-old pooping red reindeer noses.
I don’t know what Poco – “Loco!”, he adds helpfully, in case it’s unclear that sanity is not his strong suit – is being paid, but whatever it is, it’s not enough for the delight he’s creating.
He also has an ace card; he knows Santa’s location. Following some gingerbread cookie baking (Santa’s favourite), we’ve travelled by reindeer sleigh to this mid forest locale, awaiting further instructions. It‘s all a bit James Bond meets Frozen, and everyone’s in on the adventure – from Esa the reindeer musher, who’s an expert in flying sleigh engineering, to the receptionist who revealed at check in: “Oh, I have something for you,” handing a ribboned scroll to the children with a twinkle in his eye.
The note is from The Department of Elves enlisting their help the very next day to seek Santa. But will he be home? There are no promises.
The suspense has been building since the plane door blasted open like the door to Narnia, revealing icy Ivalo airport and framing a plane screaming SANTA’S LAPLAND in red, 20-metre-high letters (belonging to a tour operator). In case that geographic marker is too subtle, 10 minutes later we were halted by a Lapland traffic jam – a herd of reindeer in the middle of the road.
“Things are a little different up here,” grinned the taxi driver and, as we flitted past white tree silhouettes, lights intermittently twinkling through branches, it felt like we were a frozen breath puff away from serious magic.
And the magic continued in The Northern Lights Village itself. It’s not all Santa-centric – others travel here to witness the aurora borealis, go husky and reindeer sleigh riding, ice fishing or sauna de-toxing. But all stay in glass roofed cabins built for unrivalled northern lights viewing (signalled by an in-room tablet alert).
My excited children pawed the floor, examined the glass dome, double bed, fold out sofa and shimmy with approval. Photos failed to capture the igloo’s (as we rename it) charm. In pictures, it appears spartan. In person it’s Nordic minimalistic with the clean scent of pine and touches like a heated bathroom floor where socks and gloves go to dry.
Other small yet winning details which don’t make the brochure include the warm bread in the main log building reception/dining area, the smiling cook constantly topping up the buffet groaning under salmon, vegetarian fare, and specialities like reindeer osso bucco. Oh, and the theme dressing. We spied sparkly antlers on a top, Christmas bauble motifs and a diner who ignited LED lights on his Christmas tree sweater – setting the bar impossibly high for the rest of us.
So, what to do with small children in afternoon darkness (it’s already dusk by 3pm here; December days are short)? Luckily the nearby Holiday Club Saariselkä accepts guests to their pool. It’s child-tastic, with a lazy river, graduated entry and balmy 30-degree water. It was also a little wild. Five planes had arrived in three days and it was at full capacity.
I couldn’t help but feel we’d struck a winning combination – burning energy in the tropical pool before retreating to our secluded wooded wonderland, pausing to make snow angels in the virgin flakes and discussing hopes for Santa before sleeping.
So by the time we arrive at the yurt the next day, the children are high on gingerbread cookies, marshmallow roasting and Poco’s elfin energy. There’s room for only one other family on the Santa hunt and they’ve already departed with their personal elf into the wilds. Thirty minutes later, we also set off on a covered sled pulled by skidoo. We’re closing in.
Suddenly, Poco pulls up and whispers, “This is it.” A little red log cabin appears between snow laden trees, a curl of smoke rising from the chimney with a faint light glowing warmly in the window. It’s the first, and sole, moment that Poco is serious. “I think he’s home,” he tells my daughters. “But we must call for him.” Cupping his hands he calls: “Santa are you here?” He urges the girls to help. “Santa!” we all yell enthusiastically. “Are you home?”
There’s a silence, then the creak of a door and, in the hazy gloom, a figure shuffles out sporting an unmistakable red coat and long white beard. He pauses dramatically before addressing my girls by name: “Lotte, Leni, finally, we meet.” Following a moment of pure shock, my girls run in for an embrace as he stretches out his arms in welcome. They’re stunned to finally meet the one and only Santa Claus in his (almost) North Pole home.
At least, that’s what happened on the video. Over-excited, I’ve tripped face first onto the ice but somehow managed to keep filming – my very own Christmas miracle.
As Santa invites us fireside, Poco and I exchange loaded looks, aware we’re witnessing the creation of an unforgettable childhood memory. There’s a hint of something mystical in the frigid air, a once-in-a-lifetime event that will make this December one for family folklore.
My parental concern is that someone would accidentally slip up and Santa’s credibility would be bombed to smitheens. But the aura created is so all-encompassing that even I’m lulled in Santa’s cabin by his gentle voice and comforting conversation. When discovering that he’s actually a kindergarten teacher from Greece, I’m borderline shocked. So convincing was he, I’d begun to believe Santa was, well, Santa.
We spend three days playing with affectionate huskies who pull us through the forest at warp-speed (the girls’ favourite event after meeting the big man), and by more sedate reindeers (my favourite). Snuggled under blankets holding hands, we listen to the splish splish sound of hooves delicately padding on the snow and contentment spreads. We may have been seeking Santa, but we found something just as important along the way: being absolutely present with our children, far from the daily din, while on a trip as unique and beautiful as a snowflake.
Trying to fly less?
It’s possible to travel by train and ferry to Helsinki, going by rail to Stockholm via Hamburg and from there to Finland by sea. Once in Helsinki, the Santa Claus Express runs two to three times daily to Rovaniemi, from where there’s a bus to Saariselkä.
Fine with flying?
Ivalo is Finland’s northernmost airport. Finnair operates more than 20 flights from London to Ivalo each week with seasonal direct flights available in the winter months. Charter airlines such as Jet2, Titan Airways and TUI Airways also fly direct from cities including Bristol, Manchester and Glasgow.
There are 80 Aurora Cabins in the Northern Lights Village Saariselkä. Nightly prices for two people start at €299, half board. saariselka.northernlightsvillage.com
Activities book out in December, so select one of the Northern Light Villages activities packages when booking. Santa, child skidoos and reindeers are all onsite, and huskies come to the Village.