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Meeting Santa must be nearly every young child's dream, but the bearded bestower of Christmas joy is not the only reason for the popularity of family holidays in Lapland, a region that covers parts of northern Finland, northern Sweden, northern Norway and Russia, most of it within the Arctic Circle.
This traditional homeland of the Sámi people – one of the world’s oldest surviving cultures – also offers you the chance to frolic in the snow and, if you’re lucky, see the awe-inspiring Northern Lights and spot polar bears.
Other activities available on a family break to Lapland might include ice-fishing, snow-hockey, reindeer sleigh rides and reindeer lassoing, husky sledge rides, horse-riding, toboganning, cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, snowboarding, snowmobile safaris and snow sculpture. Oh, and let’s not forget the gingerbread-decorating or the campfires, and, for mums and dads, the saunas and the spas! And that's just in winter…
Whether Sweden or Finland is home to Father Christmas is the subject of dispute. The Swedes claim he lives in Mora, south of Swedish Lapland; as a result, Mora is home to Tomteland or Santaworld, where Santa’s Village shares space with the Kingdom of the Trolls, the Fairy Grounds, the Elf Villlage, an elk and reindeer park and other delights. It’s open all year, although Santa himself takes a break in August and September!
The Finns argue that Santa lives near Rovaniemi, their gateway to Lapland, and again, it’s Christmas all year at the town’s Santapark, with sleigh-riding, toy-making, and the chance to help out at the elf park.
With organized family holidays in Lapland, activities depend on your choice of tour operator and the length of your stay (durations range from a day-trip with early-morning departures from the UK to a week). Those aimed at younger kids usually include meeting Santa, with some tours also taking in his Control Centre, where you can learn how he keeps track of all his letters from around the world and gets ready for Christmas, and the Elf School, where kids can make a traditional Lappish decoration. See How to Choose a Santa Holiday.
Finnish Lapland is tops for cross-country skiing, snowmobiling (kids ride behind in trailers), and husky- or reindeer-drawn sled rides, while Kiruna in Swedish Lapland is a great place to see the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis – just don’t tell the kids that one legend holds that these spectacular light displays are spirits playing with children’s heads (for the Sámis, however, they’re the swishing of a fox’s tail). Kiruna (home to the Ice Hotel) also has some impressive magnetite mines you can visit. (Note that seeing the Northern Lights – possible in parts of Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland and Canada – is a hit-and-miss affair, with no one place able to guarantee a sighting at a particular time.)
Experience a traditional ceremony for crossing the Arctic Circle – often included in tours and performed by reindeer herders, they may feature a shamanic spell, a Lappish baptism and consumption of a ‘magic’ drink. Travellers get a certificate as proof of crossing. Another great way of making the crossing is by the Inlandsbanan or Inland Railway between Kristinehamn and Gällivare in Sweden, which marks the event by sounding its whistle.
Try to meet some of the local, semi-nomadic Sámi people (many of them reindeer-herders) and learn about their lives, from their prehistoric past to the present. Despite ill treatment over the centuries, the Sámis have no word for war but more than 90 for snow. One of the main Sámi communities can be found at Inari in Finland, and it’s on Lake Inari that you’ll find Siida, home to the Sámi Museum & Northern Lapland Nature Centre, which includes open-air displays in summer.
Find more culture at Arktikum Museum and Arctic Science Centre at Rovaniemi in Finland, which explores the role of nature and animals in Sámi mythology. Rovaniemi is also home to the Konttaniemi Reindeer Farm and Santapark (see above), both open year round.
If you come in summer, enjoy one of the various great festivals hosted by this region, including midnight sun festivities during the summer solstice, featuring traditional singing, music and dancing, among them Sámi sound poems created by throat singing (said to soothe nervous reindeer).
Summer is also the time for canoeing, white-water rafting and fishing, after the rivers thaw out, plus horse-riding and mountain-biking. Beware of the mosquitos, though.
Lapland specialities include reindeer, moose, salmon and other fish from the many lakes, plus berry juice. Try to visit a traditional market in a Lapp village to sample dried reindeer meat, or try in it sandwiches, as kebabs or sautéed in butter as poronkaristys, served with mash and cranberry jelly and pickled cucumber – just don’t tell the kids if you think it’ll freak them out!
Hotels and organised family holidays often include child-friendly buffets, ranging from Swedish-style breakfast spreads to dinners including lots of Western staples.
Come at Christmas if to meet Santa, or Nov–April for other winter activities. Temperatures descend to -30°C in the coldest months, but most tour operators provide thermal outer suits and accessories. Bear in mind that the sun never shines in the far north during the ‘Blue Twilight’ or Arctic Winter (Dec–early Jan).
If you visit in summer, on the other hand – when there are other activities to occupy outdoors-loving families – you’ll be treated to the weirdness that is the midnight sun, with the sun shining day and night for months (roughly end of May to mid-July).
There are flights from regional UK airports to Helsinki in Finland (about 3 hours from London), with onwards connections to Ivalo (about 90 minutes), Rovaniemi (about 75 minutes), Kittilä (about 1 hour 25 minutes) or Kuusamo (about 1 hour 25 minutes). However, some organised winter holidays use direct flights to smaller airports close to the resorts, including Ivalo.
For Swedish Lapland, one option is to fly to Stockholm (about 2 hours 10 minutes from London) then connect to Kiruna (about 1 hour 30 minutes).
Lapland is not a cheap family holiday destination, but some organised holidays do include flights, transfers, accommodation, all or most meals, and activities. For others, excursions and activities may be optional add-ons at an extra charge, and prices can mount up.By Rhonda Carrier
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