21st January 2019
Snowshoe hikes, ice fishing, husky sledding, meeting Santa Claus: a family holiday near the Arctic Circle is as magical as it sounds, says Amanda Statham and Sonny, six
Ruka Resort, in the Kuusamo region of Finland, is just 37 miles from the Arctic Circle and one of most beautiful places on the planet. Seriously, when you wake up in the morning and open the curtains, you’re gazing at a magical white wilderness of untouched sparkling snow and pine trees so heavily blanketed they look like sculptures.
However, with temperatures sometimes hitting -20°C, it’s natural to worry little ones may suffer from the cold or be intimidated by the landscape (10ft snow drifts are rare in the UK), so it was a joy to see that, far from being fearful of the fathomless whiteness, Sonny threw himself (sometimes literally) into nature’s frozen playground and the many experiences it has to offer…
Ruka’s a brilliant place to take kids skiing or boarding for the first time as it’s so effortless. Sonny and I hopped on the (free) bus to the Rudolph & Rosa Family Park 10 minutes away, got fitted for boots and skis by friendly staff at the hire centre and then strolled (OK, waddled like penguins in our ski boots) over to the ski school. From sofa to slope in less than 30 minutes – impressive. Sonny, a first-time skier, was in a small group and his instructor, who spoke a variety of languages including English, had the whole class achieving snowplough turns and mastering the travelators, which glided them effortlessly up slopes – no falling off button lifts here – in under an hour. Post-lesson, we enjoyed hot chocolates and pastries at the on-site chalet restaurant, then tried out the tube slides at the snow playground. FYI, Ruka has a long ski season (Oct-May).
Once the fiddly snowshoes had been strapped on to boots (tricky wearing ski gloves) and Sonny realised he could walk anywhere (up a snow drift, down a snow drift) this turned out to be a fantastic experience. We trekked for around 30 minutes in Oulanka National Park to the Kitkajoki River, with its stunning Jyrävä waterfall and an old mill, where a fire had been lit and kids were encouraged to roast marshmallows on sticks.
Guides taught us how to drill holes in a frozen lake close to Ruka Safari Centre and then feed hand-held, baited lines into the icy waters below. It’s a waiting game (we made snow angels and ate chocolate as time passed) and, despite several kids in our group catching fish (perch, roach, even pike are swimming around beneath the ice), it’s a good job Sonny and I weren’t fishing for our supper as we didn’t get a single bite.
Definitely one of the most exciting things you can do on snow, husky sledding takes place along winding forest tracks in Lammintupa Winter Village, around 10 minutes by bus from Ruka. After a quick pep talk from an instructor (‘Don’t fall off or brake going downhill or you’ll slide into the huskies.’ Gulp), it was time to mush, with Sonny seated at the front of the sleigh and me standing behind. When the leading dog was released, the pack hurtled off at a tremendous speed and it was exhilarating to cling on, navigating corners and inclines. Once we relaxed, however, we were able to take in the amazing surroundings and it was incredible: pristine trees, silence aside from the crunch of snow beneath the sled runners and everything sparkled.
After a gentle reindeer sleigh ride through forest at Lammintupa Winter Village (made slightly less idyllic by our reindeer’s flatulence, cue lots of laughing from Sonny), we got a chance to get close to the lovely creatures. Buckets of their favourite food (lichen) were handed out and we were taught how to feed them (‘Palms flat, they won’t bite’), before heading to an enclosure where they were waiting. Lots of interesting information from the friendly guides made this fun for all: who knew Rudolph was a girl? Apparently, male reindeer shed their horns well before December 25th…
Sonny wasn’t tall enough (less than 140cms) to take control of a full-size snowmobile, so we sat in a sleigh behind a Ski-Doo driven by a guide, which was fun, but not as much fun as driving one yourself. Luckily, when we headed back to the Ruka Safari Centre, we discovered a miniature snowmobile which children were allowed to take for a spin.
Every. Kid’s. Dream. Tucked away in a gingerbread-style house in a forest a 25-minute coach ride from Ruka, Santa’s Secret Cottage is an enchanting place to meet the big man. Our group was greeted by elves, who played games with the kids and took them sledging, followed by cups of hot, spiced, berry juice and grilled sausages. Then it was time to go in and meet Father Christmas (and his rosy-cheeked wife), who looked just as he should: white beard, traditional dress and, importantly, friendly. Everyone left with a gift and a huge grin.
On our last night in Ruka, we sat on our balcony stargazing (lack of light pollution means the sky’s filled with more stars than the Hollywood Hills) and were rewarded with the green wisps of the Aurora Borealis. Eagle-eyed Sonny was the first to spot them and for the next 20 minutes we had our own personal light show, as green and purple atoms swirled around in the sky above us. Sites close to the magnetic North and South poles between October and March offer the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights and we celebrated our luck with high-fives and hot chocolate.
A chair mounted onto a sledge – who knew this was a thing? And it turns out sitting on a chair on a sledge while your mum stands on the runners behind screaming is way more fun and adrenalin-pumping than normal tobogganing. Available to try for free at Ruka Safari Centre, 10 minutes from the resort. Sonny couldn’t get enough of this new sport and we dragged our sledge up the slope more than a dozen times so we could whizz back down.
Watching your six-year-old hack into an ice block with a full-size man saw and a massive grin on their face is not something most mums dream of. However, after 30 minutes and no kids (some as young as four and five) had lost a limb and none of the other (largely Scandinavian) parents seemed remotely bothered, I relaxed. Note to self: kids are more sensible than we think.
Flights to Kuusamo from £197pp.
A Ruka Suites Ski-Inn Apartment sleeps four from £337 for four days ruka.fi
Sonny’s top 10 activities were arranged by Ruka Safaris rukasafaris.fi
For more information on Ruka and Kuusamo, go to visitfinland.com
Amanda and Sonny were guests of Finnish children’s wear brand Reima, as part of its Kidventure Challenge, a campaign launched last year to get children worldwide off sofas and outside to collectively achieve a million hours of joy. reima.com