When I gave birth to my son Ripley seven years ago, I never once envisaged that I’d one day be driving the poor little chap at breakneck speed through a dark forest in the Arctic Circle, at the helm of a team of six huskies. Such is parenthood – it leads us into places, both physical and mental, into which we could never have imagined straying.
Husky sledging is an unbelievably thrilling activity for both kids and adults, and – in December – an unbelievably cold one. Reindeer skins help keep the passengers warm, but as a driver your fingers begin to throb with cold even beneath several pairs of gloves, one of them thermal.
On a TUI holiday to the little town of Saariselkä in the Finnish part of Lapland, thermal suits, boots, gloves and so on are provided for all guests, large and small, on arrival at your hotel. Ours was the cosy Snowflake, which comes complete with play-room, saunas and a bar serving warming drinks including a luscious hot chocolate laced with local butterscotch liqueur. But the free sledges stacked up by the doorway remind you that it’s all about the outdoors in Finland, and so as soon as we were kitted out in our thermals we took the bus five minutes to the top of one of longest toboggan runs in all Europe, which takes you down through the forest for about 1km, from the peak of the Kaunispää Fell back to the village centre. Though it was only about 3pm by this time, darkness had already fallen, making the experience all the more exhilarating.
Saariselkä is the closest holiday resort to the Korvatunturi Fell, where Santa himself is said to hail from, and part of our second day was spent at Santa’s Resort Kakslautannen a short bus ride from Saariselkä. There was a half-day's worth of entertainment here. In winter, you generally start with a snowmobile ride into the forest to seek out Santa himself in his log cabin; other activities are a toboggan run (rather tame compared to the one in Saariselkä itself but better suited to those with very young kids), skidoo-ing for kids, reindeer sleigh-rides, husky sledging, and the chance to participate in a traditional Sami ceremony commemorating the fact that you have crossed into the Arctic Circle. Where it could so easily have been tacky and commercial, on the contrary it was all very sensitively done and conveyed the necessary sense of magic and mystery. [Note: Santa’s Resort Kakslautannen has since been rebranded and extended to become the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, including on-site accommodation in glass igloos and log cabins].
The reindeer and husky rides serve as taster sessions for longer experiences that you can book as optional add-ons to your holiday. Hence, after returning to Saariselkä for a bit of a break, we took another short bus ride to a husky farm for a longer excursion. Nobody had explained to us that, as parents, we’d be entrusted to drive our own husky team with our precious children in the sledge through an unlit forest, but once our initial panic had subsided this proved to be wildly fun and I don’t think Ripley suffered any long-term trauma – the initial shock of it all seemed to be smoothed away by a mug of warm berry juice in front of an open fire, followed by the chance to cuddle some baby huskies.
Surreal experiences continued the next morning with a snowmobile adventure up into the hills around Saariselkä. Another optional extra, this allowed we adults the chance to drive one of these powerful winter utility vehicles across an otherworldly, icily barren landscape as our guide pulled the children – smothered in reindeer hides and blankets – in a chariot behind his own. This was another genuinely thrilling experience – heightened, perhaps, by our guide showing us where he kept his emergency number and mobile phone so that we knew what to do if ‘something happened’ to him.
The pace slowed with our last optional activity – a visit to a Sami reindeer farm to take a leisurely reindeer sleigh ride through a magical winter landscape but also to hear from the reindeer farmers themselves, who shared fascinating facts about everything from antler growth and shedding to human footwear suitable for temperatures that have been known to plunge below –50°C, while feeding us cake and more warm berry juice.
Northern Finland is another world, and visiting it changes you for ever. Just about everything we did there affected us profoundly, and when I asked Ripley what was his favourite part of the trip, he listed every activity. Our one regret was not seeing the Northern Lights – the Snowflake has its own viewing room for those hoping to see the natural phenomenon that Sami legend attributes to the flicking of a fox’s tail against snow. But that’s all the more reason to go back to Finnish Lapland one day. And go back we will.
Read more about family holidays and breaks at the Hotel Snowflake and Apartments, Saariselkä.
During their stay, Rhonda and Ripley were privileged to meet a group of families with children suffering from the extremely rare disease Niemann-Pick Type-C, which causes irreversible neurological damage and to date has no cure. Their trip was partly funded by TUI. To support the campaign to find a cure see the Hope for Hollie website.