The holidays feel like they get bigger every year: more presents, more Mariah Carey and, of course, more reruns of Home Alone. But if you’re looking for an experience to exceed – or even run laps around – every festive period you’ve known before, then a trip to Lapland needs to be right at the top of your wishlist to Mr Claus.
Oddly though, despite the destination’s undeniable fame, there still remains a lot of mystery surrounding Lapland, a place many people seem to think is actually fictional. How exactly did it become so synonymous with the most magical time of the year? How did a chilly European region that covers parts of Sweden, Norway and Finland become known as the home of Santa?
It’s a long story. But in a nutshell, the region, and in particularly the Finnish Lapland capital of Rovaniemi, cleverly utilized the fact that it’s cold – into the minus figures in winter, gloves not optional – and is also handily populated by more reindeer than humans, in order to cleverly rebrand itself as Santa-ville following World War II.
In fact, after the town was almost entirely destroyed during the war, Rovaniemi based its new street layout on a design that from the sky resembled the profile of a reindeer’s head, complete with antlers, dreamt up by savvy Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.
Since its ingenious rebranding last century, Rovaniemi has remained the town most associated with Christmas, for sure. However, for a more authentic experience deeper into the Arctic Circle, head north to Enontekiö.
Here, through the travel company Transun, you can get closer to the enchanting realms of wonder. The company boasts two hotels, the Davvi Arctic Lodge, an idyllic cottage ideal for families, bursting with winter charm; and the Arctic Star, more traditional and suited to couples who want some distance from screaming children that are inevitably high on their chocolate selection boxes.
The Davvi resides in Finland and the Star in Sweden, despite the two lodgings being only a stone’s throw from one another. A short stroll across a picturesque little bridge, next to which stands the grand Karesuando Church, takes you from one country to the next, providing a brilliant photo opportunity by a sign which informs you that you have one foot in Sweden and one in Finland.
The neighboring countries are notably different. They have their own time zones; you lose or gain an hour on that bridge. And each sticks adamantly to its native languages and currencies – although you’ll also find plenty of perfect English. It’s fascinating to be able to pass back and forth with such ease between two countries that appear so uninterested in meshing, but as a visitor, it offers quite the two-for-the-price-of-one deal in terms of European destinations.
Of course, jumping from Sweden to Finland and back is all well and good, but you’ll want to get down to the business of enjoying the art of Christmas as soon as you arrive in Lapland. And make no mistake, it’s quite an art-form in this region once the festive period rolls around.
Upon arrival, you’ll be kitted out in snowsuits and snow-boots. Needless to say, these are essential. Temperatures in Lapland can drop as low as a staggering -30 degrees, which will ensure your nose is every bit as red as Rudolph’s. Although often in December the climate rises and becomes far more pleasant, with the dry air offering a more manageable version of freezing. Don’t be misled by the nice chill in the air though; going out without a hat or enough fur protection will have you regretting it – painfully – within minutes.
However, when properly wrapped up, there are extraordinary scenes just waiting to be devoured. The gorgeous houses and streets feel like a quaint and wonderful fantasy even if trudging through the deep snow can easily transform a casual walk into a trek.
As mentioned, the reason Finland was able to market Lapland so effectively as the home of Santa is thanks to the countless reindeer roaming free, everywhere – something even the North Pole itself cannot boast. You’ll likely see them on the streets. But for an up close and safe encounter with the delightful animals, go to the Reindeer Experience and meet Kenzo, the zany keeper of the reindeers, decked out in his coat of seal fur. He and his team will show you how to ride the deers – although not in September, when their mating season makes them too randy to risk going near. But in winter, you get pulled along on a sled by Santa’s pets, gliding over frozen lakes and through the forests.
Afterwards, Kenzo and company teach about the Sami indigenous tribes. His stories of the Finno-Ugric folks’ against-the-odds survival and revival carry an added touch of wild adventurous spirit, as they’re told from the inside of an authentic Sami tent by a roasting fire, where you’ll have the chance to ask questions over a feast of hot sausages and warm cider. The gang will also teach you how to lasso – which is harder than it looks, but fun to try your hand at if you don’t mind looking a fool.
Love and respect for the animals make the whole experience all the more special. Similarly, on the husky farm, where you can – and must – play with the husky puppies for heightened cuteness, you’ll also have the chance to go deeper into the beautiful forests, at a greater speed by sled, pulled along by these amazing dogs. (Warning: if you have anything to cover your nose on this ride though, you’ll be very grateful for it on your husky expedition; the huskies sure know how to defecate as they pull you around.) Also out in the wild, bears and giant moose inhabit the region. Whether or not you want to bump into these intimidating Lapland natives is another matter, but even the locals find themselves excited by a rare sighting.
If animals aren’t your bag, you can take to the snowmobiles instead, to really feel like James Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me. Truly thrilling, and a fantastic way to take in as much of the land as you possibly can at high speeds – and poop-free at that.
Following a long, exhausting but memorable day of activities, you’ll be keen to clock in some relaxation time at the lodges. The Davvi has a hot tub – perfect for warming up, offering a 25 Euro booking – one day a week, as well as complimentary access to the spa. The food is included, with a three-course meal for lunch, dinner and a good selection of food to start your day properly with breakfast. It’s not gourmet catering, per se, but a perfectly fine buffet.
There is little to no daylight in the winter months in the Arctic Circle, which makes for a unique and almost mythical experience. However, the reward for dealing with those admittedly confusing mornings, when you can’t figure out whether you should be waking up or still fast asleep, is of course also one of the main reasons to visit Lapland: the famous Northern Lights. People travel from all over the world to catch a glimpse of the rare and magnificent natural phenomenon, which makes you feel like you’ve wandered into a sci-fi movie. It’s hard to describe the feeling of looking into the dark night sky and seeing the Northern Lights appear, like some sort of alien presence, but rest assured – if you take the time to seek them out, and capture what you see on camera, your friends will be suitably green with envy when you show them.
All this, yet there’s barely time to even mention the igloo enclosure, ice-bar, or the neighboring pub on a Friday night (that’s right, one night – if you want a night out of the hotel boozing and singing karaoke, it’s Friday or never). People drive from miles around and go wilder than the bears every week, come snow or, well, snow, knowing that’s their one chance to party.
It truly is a magical experience, for kids and big kids alike, so – when compiling your wish list this year – you won’t go far wrong asking Santa Claus for a holiday to Lapland. Chances are you’ll be writing him a thank you letter next year.