Destinations

Mary Lambie visits the Arctic Circle

There is one legacy of our trip to the Arctic Circle that makes me realise how special it was. When my children mention to their friends at school that they went up there last December to meet the “real” Santa, the reaction is still complete disbelief.

The journey to track down or Claus, in a small town called Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle border in northern Finland, was surprisingly straight forward given it required us trekking half-way around the world and some.

Finland is a very cold country with temperatures as low as -45?C striking in winter. Knowing we were heading into such chilly climes we opted to fly Singapore Airlines from Auckland and stop over there to catch a bit of warmth before heading onto Europe.

We booked into the Siloso Beach Resort on Sentosa Island. It has the longest private swimming pool in Singapore, nestled in lush greenery. It’s a very eco-conscious hotel with trees literally growing through the floorboards of some of the rooms and the humid heat attracting some very odd-looking insect life.

By contrast it was just-8?C when we landed in Copenhagen, Denmark, for our second stopover, and made our way to the Imperial Hotel – our centrally located accommodation with its lovely buffet breakfasts and super-fast internet.

As soon as we arrived we layered up as best we could and trotted off to the world-famous Tivoli Gardens just around the corner. By the time we walked there we were frozen through. The gardens are expensive, and a bit chintzy. Elizabeth (our six-year-old) was urging us to go back to our pleasantly warm hotel, but the zip had broken on our other daughter Grace’s only pair of boots. We set off to find another pair, walking along what is the longest pedestrian mall in the world – Strøget -in the heart of this fabulous city.

The next day Finnair flew us across to Helsinki, the Finnish capital. The captain told us that 4000 cubic metres of snow had been removed from the airport that day, which made us nervous. The de-icing made us apprehensive too, as we watched some wickedly coloured chemical being sprayed on the wings of the plane.

Apparently, Europe was experiencing one of its coldest winters on record.

We had never experienced landing in snow, and had visions of the plane skidding and slewing across the runway as we touched down. The landing was without doubt the smoothest I’ve ever experienced, as we glided into Helsinki’s airport between huge snow banks lining the runway.

From the airport we pushed on to Helsinki Central Railway Station to catch the overnight train to Rovaniemi – a 13-hour trip. It was dark, bitterly cold and the train was late, and Finns around us were making the same jokes about their trains as we make about ours.

once on board though, the sleeper cabins (we needed two) were modern and clean, with tiny bathrooms, bottled water, and easy-to-use alarm clocks so you wouldn’t sleep through arrivals at your station. The kids loved the entire experience.

Come morning (not that you would know it was morning because it’s mostly always dark) we arrived in Rovaniemi, a town about the same size as New Plymouth, and claimed by locals to be the “official” home of Santa.

We were whisked off to a warehouse and decked out in proper winter clobber. None of it was stylish, but it was warm – big boots, thick beanies and huge mittens.

our accommodation, the Rantasipi Pohjanhovi Hotel, doesn’t have as many stars as others in town, but it turned out to be the best choice as we compared notes with other travellers. The meal times suited us, the food was great, the rooms cosy and there was a children’s play room.

It doesn’t cost much to sample life in the Arctic. The currency is Euros and certain excursions could set you back a lot of money, but we managed to go on a reindeer ride, drive snowmobiles on a frozen river, fish through holes in the ice and learn how to use snow shoes.

What the children loved best, though, was throwing themselves down any icy slope they could find.

The highlight of our time in Rovaniemi was the 20-minute bus trip out of town to Santa’s Hideaway. Every tree has snow on it and sleighs are used as personal transport.

When you visit Santa, you walk through a wondrous cave where a giant clock is stopped, frozen in time. Santa can stop the world’s clocks, you see, in order to get all the presents delivered to the children of the world. You are then ushered into a room that resemblesa comfortable private library to meet Father Christmas.

Even I was overwhelmed at the grand figure perched in his big chair. The kids were mesmerised – seeing their faces made the whole trip worthwhile.

We’ll think of Lapland in Christmases to come. It was a hugely different and memorable trip which I hope will keep the Santa fantasy alive and well in our house for at least a few more years.

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