Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Emma Fast-Field packs it with adventures for all the family. And yes, elves make an appearance!
It would have been simpler to fly direct to Rovaniemi in Finland: the official hometown of Santa Claus. But where’s the fun in that? Take the night train from Helsinki, on the other hand, and you cross five lines of longitude. As you journey north to the Arctic Circle, the scenery morphs from streetlight-lit suburbia to a moonlit expanse of snow as you sway along the rails.
However, the overnight train to Rovaniemi was only the first adventure of our trip to Finnish Lapland. My husband Craig and I wanted this holiday to be about adventurous new experiences for Albie, aged 8, and Esme, 5, as well as a chance to reel off wish lists to Santa.
After a day exploring Helsinki, excitement levels were already high when we boarded the train. They soared even higher when we found our cabin on the top deck – a double-decker train! And rose higher still when we found the dining cart dishing up meatballs and mash. To top it all off, bunk beds! We slept top-to-tail in berths less than a metre wide. Or didn’t sleep much at all, as it turned out night trains are just too exciting!
Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi delivers Santa and so much more
We woke to an alien landscape of snow-covered plains punctuated by stands of silver birch, the horizon a blur of snow and mist. Bleary-eyed, the kids pressed their faces against the chilly window as we ploughed on to Rovaniemi.
While the real adventures of our trip were planned for further north, it would have been rude not to drop in on Santa when in Lapland. Santa Claus Village is a conglomeration of around 40 different businesses, 10 minutes from the centre of Rovaniemi. It’s packed with shops, Christmas markets and activities, such as husky sledding and learning the craft of toy making at the Elf Academy. But the clincher for me was the great big beacons marking the line of the Arctic Circle.
Three hours after our arrival in frozen Rovaniemi, Albie was sprawled like a slug across that line, moaning about how tired he was. It wasn’t quite the ‘intrepid family crosses the Arctic Circle’ moment I’d envisaged.
Luckily, there’s not a level of tiredness that a visit to Santa can’t cure. Elves in curly-toed shoes ushered us along wooden corridors, past the Earth’s Rotational Speed Regulator to Mr Claus himself. Twinkly eyes? Check. Big belly? Check. An enormous beard so realistic I had to stop myself reaching out to tug it? Check. Genially batty, he was close to the real deal as you can hope for.
“Keep your curtains open on Christmas Eve and if you see me in the sky, wave,” he said to Albie and Esme as they gazed up at him, open-mouthed. “I’ll wave back!”
Then, as we left his office: “I own thousands of reindeer across Lapland. Make sure you take a ride.” Of course, we took his advice, gliding on a red sleigh beneath branches laden with snow as reindeer skins warmed our bottoms.
From Santa Claus to Pyhä-Luosto National Park in Finland
We could have stayed in the Village but, sticking with our adventure-first approach, we drove ourselves further north into Finnish Lapland along snow-banked roads to Phyä Igloos, on the southern edge of Pyhä-Luosto National Park.
From our porch, we could see Pyhätunturi ski resort’s slopes; from our bed beneath the igloo: treetops brushing the enormous sky. The next few days were dedicated to snowshoeing along the national park’s pine tree-lined trails, sledging, and skiing.
Pyhätunturi is spot on for beginners. The kids had ski lessons on the barely-there nursery slope, while Craig and I whooshed (him) and wobbled (me) along the higher slopes and back to our igloo for a cup of coffee. We all cooked sausages over open fires in cosy communal kotas (traditional barbeque huts) dotted around the mountain, and at Pyhä Igloos.
After a long day on the slopes, Pyhä Igloos‘ hot tub and sauna hit the spot. The Finnish way of life had clearly rubbed off on the kids, who dashed out of the tub to roll in the snow, jumping back into the steaming water with their cheeks aglow.
One day, we swapped the slopes for snow-crusted Lampivaara, Europe’s only active amethyst mine. A full-bearded miner showed us huge chunks of amethyst before letting us loose in the mine where we literally raked the semi-precious stones up from the rubble.
Back home, these purple gems have pride of place in the kids’ bedrooms – and Albie and Esme are already begging for another journey on a night train.
How to plan a family trip to Rovaniemi
How to get there
Direct UK flights to Helsinki take from 2 hours 50 minutes.
Overnight train Helsinki to Rovaniemi from 12 hours. Free for under 10s sharing a berth.
Where to stay
Pyhä Igloos in Pyhä-Luosto National Park, Finland
Good to know
Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi is free, and all activities are individually priced.
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