Ever since the children were born I've wanted to take them to see Santa in Lapland. I always thought it would be an amazing and magical experience (for me as well if I'm being honest) so after several years of saving up this year with the children being 8 and 6 we decided to take the plunge. Holidays to Lapland are expensive and are a big commitment so I wanted to write a full review to help people decide. I haven't been sponsored or paid by anyone to do this review so you can be assured of its honesty too!
There are a number of companies that run trips to Lapland and we decided to go with Santa's Lapland. They had been recommended to me by a friend and they also had a very non-commercialised feel to them, I wanted to experience authentic Lapland and not be surrounded by shops and sales people
Santa's Lapland are based in a charming little village called Saariselka which is in Finland and within the arctic circle. It's full of cosy Finnish charm and seemed like the ideal setting for our holiday.
Before You Go!
Unlike most holidays this is one where you have to do some serious planning about what you are going to take with you because, unsurprisingly, Lapland is pretty darn cold. With temperatures getting down as low as -25 you really don't want to be without the right kit.
Luckily as part of your holiday you get a fabulous thermal suit, snow boots, mittens and warm woollen socks. What I would recommend that you wear under it is a thermal vest, a base layer and a good quality fleece. Wear thermal long johns under your trousers too. A balaclava or snood to protect your face is important and of course a woolly hat. You can also take extra gloves to wear under the mittens and thermal socks to wear over your woollen socks. As the snow makes everything wet it's good to take extras clothing with you too!
Note that you are not meant to wear cotton next to your skin in the cold and denim isn't recommended either.
I would say that it is worth taking disposable heated hand-warmers too which you can buy for a couple of pounds in most camping shops. I've also seen it suggested that you could take a hot water bottle for the children if you are going on one of the optional snow rides as it's quite cold if you are sitting still. Most of the day is in darkness so a small torch would also be useful.
I'd also say that before you go you should make sure you are ready for a fabulous, fun and very frenetic time. It's a full on experience so don't expect to have lots of time to chill out, you'll need lots of energy!
It's actually a fairly long journey to Lapland and so to make the most of time flights are usually pretty early in the morning. Ours entailed a 3am start and we were all so excited that we didn't get much sleep that night. I was surprised at how easily the children woke up and once the adrenaline got going we didn't really feel that tired. When we got to the airport we could spot our fellow travellers by the abundance of Christmas Jumpers, excited children and toy huskies! Although our flight was slightly delayed it was fine once we got going and the staff were friendly and cheerful and wearing Christmas hats.
Note: Although there is food available on the flight it isn't included so it's worth having something to eat in the airport beforehand or buying some snacks to take on to the plane with you.
I can honestly say that coming in to land at Lapland was utterly thrilling, it was a magical landscape like no other and landing in Ivalo and walking out into the crisp white snow was exciting for all of us. It's a tiny airport and we were met off the flight by a friendly rep and allocated a coach name, ours was Nutmeg. This is the coach that you will use for the rest of the trip. After collecting our cases (I'm always nervous in case they don't appear) we found out coach outside, pausing to say hello to the real live reindeer stationed outside the arrivals area. Once on the coach we found to our surprise an elf on board - my daughter looked amazed! I was a bit worried that we would have to wait ages on the coach but it was all very efficient and in no time at all we were setting off through the snowy landscape to our hotel. Its only a short transfer time and en route we sang carols, gazed at the amazing scenery and our guide told us details about how we were to go to the shop next to the hotel to pick up our thermal gear.
It was quite hard to choose a hotel as they all seemed good but we had chosen the Riekonlinna for it's location and we found it looking picture perfect, lit up by twinkly fairy lights, it's pitched roof leaden with soft white snow. As we got off the coach we were greeted very efficiently with our room key and advised to take our stuff to our room and then head to the store to get our clothes. We had booked the family apartments which are at the back of the hotel and they looked warm and welcoming with candle arches shining at each window. Our apartment was clean, cosy and Christmassy with a breathtaking view from the balcony. It had a little kitchenette (although no tea and coffee), a private sauna and an ever so useful drying cabinet to make sure you had warm, dry socks every day.
After taking a look around we went to Lapland Safaris to pick up our gear. It's a brilliantly efficient system with experts who literally look at you to size you up for your suit, I don't know how they do it and can only assume that they are actually elves in disguise! Then back to our apartment to try on our gear and off to the welcome meeting.
The Northern Lights Snowmobile Safari
We had booked to go on the Northern Lights snowmobile safari which we were very excited about and I would advise that if you think you fancy this and you are on the three day tour then do book in advance. This is because if you book in advance you do it the night you arrive. However if you book on the day you do it after the search for Santa day which you have to leave slightly earlier and I wouldn't have wanted to do this.
We met up at the Lapland Safari store, got our helmets and balaclavas and then took a 2 minute walk over to the snowmobiles. Children travel separately in sleighs and they went and got into their sleigh whilst we learnt how to drive the snowmobiles. We then went over and checked they were happy in the sleigh under their blanket before getting on our skidoo and off we went.
It really was a magical and breathtaking experience, driving through those snow covered, silent forests of the frozen north. The snow turns even the mundane into the magical and the only way I can describe it is like being in the pages of a Narnia book. I kept expecting Mr Tumnus to pop out from behind a tree any minute. After about 20 minutes you stop off by a roaring campfire where you get hot berry juice and the most delicious gingerbread biscuits that we've ever tasted (better than mine according to the kids - thanks!). We were told traditional tales and although the lights didn't come out to play just looking up at the stars in the wilderness was enough. We then set off again for a slightly longer ride and travelled across the snowy landscape back to base. It was a one of a kind experience and I would recommend it although I would say that as the children are in the sleigh without you it might be better for slightly older kids i.e. 6+ but that's just my opinion.
By now it was about -7 degrees and I can't say that the warmth and the lights of the hotel weren't a welcome sight. We got changed and headed to the restaurant for dinner. It's a buffet system and there was a nice selection of food with something for everyone. After a quick drink at the bar, baileys for mummy, beer for daddy, lemonade for the kids we headed back to our apartment aware that we wanted to get an early night before the big day tomorrow. In the evening you check the board at the hotel reception to find out what time your coach leaves for the arctic circle centre the next day. Ours was 10.15 which meant we could have a bit of a lie in before our big day!
The Big Day!
The search for Santa day is really what it's all about. This is the day that you are driven to the arctic circle centre to experience life in Lapland with husky sleds, reindeer rides, igloos- and would we perhaps get a glimpse of the man himself!?
After a quick toboggan in the woods by our apartments (there are toboggans everywhere that you can borrow free of charge) we headed off for breakfast. There was a rep who advised me that you need to eat a lot to counteract the cold and luckily the lovely breakfast buffet offered me plenty of opportunity to do just this. There was a range of cold meats and cheeses, gorgeous fresh bread, pastries, cereal, bacon, sausages and eggs and of course juices and teas and coffees. After we ate our fill we waited for our coach which arrived on the dot and headed off.
On the way our guide explained how the day worked. The centre has two halves which you travel between on a snowmobile train. You could travel around as you wanted by there were just 2 rules. The first was that you had your lunch on the side you arrived on and the second was that you got given a time for your husky ride and it was really important that you didn't miss this as it couldn't be rescheduled which was fair enough. There was then a rolling coach system back to the resort from 2pm onward and you could catch any coach from any side until 5pm. You got a map of the site and I would recommend taking a few minutes to work out a plan of action of how you want to schedule your day. It's worth doing this so you can get your timings right and make sure you don't miss anything.
We begun on the Reindeer side and it really felt like another world. A wide, un-spoilt landscape of snow and trees and lit up with candlelit paths to walk along. We began with some tobogganing and then headed off for our reindeer ride, sitting on reindeer skins as we got pulled along by these gentle creatures was a wonderful experience and I could have sat there forever looking out at the amazing view. It was then time to pop into one of the warming huts for some hot berry juice and gingerbread which are unlimited all day! whilst we waited for the Reindeer barn show. A friendly elf came and got us when they were ready and we all headed in to meet The reindeer trainer and his hapless assistant and discover how reindeer learn how to fly!
A quick game of crazy golf and our tummies were rumbling so we headed to the dinner hall which was an old hunting lodge with tables full of bread and unlimited berry juice and a hearty spaghetti bol which was just right to keep you going in the cold weather. After we had eaten our fill we decided to travel over to the other side and whilst there was a small queue for the snow train it didn't really matter as there was a roaring fire for us to sit around whilst the kids happily played in the snow and pelted each other with snowballs.
On arrival on the other side of the centre we decided to double check where our husky ride came from as we wanted to be sure we knew how to get there but it was very easy to find so we needn't have worried. The children's eyes were drawn to the mini skidoos which they were desperate to try so my husband queued whilst they tobogganed on the great slope and we called them over when it was their turn. They loved it and were more confident than I would have been. Then it was down to the frozen lake for some ice fishing which was fun if a little hopeful that any fish hadn't been scared away by the excited children! We were advised to get to our husky ride 10 minutes before hand and we could hear the excited barking of the dogs when we got there, and eerie and somehow quite primal sound.
After giving the high five bear statue a high five (it's lucky!) we had instruction on how to drive the sleigh and were taken to our family sleigh. I liked the fact that the dog trainer seemed to really love and care for his animals and they were amazing. We raced along the tundra to cries of "mush mush" from the children who really were in their element. After a 2k ride we came back and the children were allowed lots of times to pet and stroke the dogs who were all very gentle and well behaved now that they were tired out from their run.
We then thought it was a good opportunity to avail ourselves of the free pancakes in the pancake kota with a nice warming cup of tea. Those pancakes were delicious served with either cream or jam - in fact I think perhaps my only regret of the holiday is that I didn't eat more of them!
By now it was getting dark - well darker as it's a permanent sort of twilight even in the day and the guide had recommended that we visit the igloos in the dark as they are all lit up and they did look like something from a storybook. There's an igloo ice bar with ice sculptures that the children were fascinated by and a giant igloo where they do an elf show. As we had just missed the start of the show it was the perfect opportunity to treat ourselves to a baileys coffee (hot choc for the kids) and enjoy being in a real igloo!
We were then called by the guide to the main igloo where the elves put on a very funny show and we had a good laugh at the expense of a couple of the dads who had to sing Christmas carols. It was a cheerful occasion as we were all inducted into 'elf school'. By now the day was nearly over but there was one last, very important thing to do . We'd decided to leave the search for Santa until last as we thought it would be the most magical part of the day and also there had been a short queue for most of the day. It turned out we had made a good decision as when we got there at 4.30 there was no queue so we were straight onto the sleigh and off into the woods where we met some very cheeky elves and of course...Santa! He was definitely the real deal and the children went away happy with 2 special gifts as well.
Sadly we now knew the day was drawing to a close. We had a quick 5 minutes of ice hockey and reluctantly wended our way up to the coaches that were waiting. We discussed hiding out in the tent in the hopes we would say overnight but decided that the elves would guess what we were up to!
We were dropped off at our hotel and as if we hadn't had a busy enough day we thought there was just enough time to find the toboggan slope that is the longest in Northern Europe! We grabbed one of the ever available sledges from outside the hotel and crossed over the road to the slopes. And boy was it long, and terrifying! Well terrifying for me - the kids loved it and we tobogganed and made snow angels for an hour. Then back to our room to warm up in our private sauna before the gala dinner.
The Gala Dinner
The Gala Dinner is optional but I felt it was the perfect festive way to round off the perfect snowy day. A cheerfully decorated function room at the hotel with crackers on the tables and we enjoyed the tasty buffet as we talked about our day and all we had seen and done. After dinner the reps played games with the kids so we could have a bit of relaxation time which was lovely.
The next day we were due to leave quite early but just had time to buy some souvenirs before we waved goodbye to lovely Saariselka - be we left our hearts in Lapland and we will be back!