Searching for Santa in the Arctic

Katie Hope and her four-year-old son James embark on an 18-hour journey to find the real Father Christmas

TRACKING down Father Christmas in Lapland is akin to hunting an extremely rare and precious species.

Come December, his impersonators are lurking everywhere you look, but the genuine article is tucked away in the icy depths of the Arctic Circle in Finland. Or three and a half hours by plane followed by a 45 minute bus ride, to be precise. Once you allow for an hour and a half check-in, this means it’s about a 12-hour round trip to seek out the bearded one. By the time you actually get to meet Father Christmas, it’s pretty much time to come home again. It’s a long, long way, especially in a day, which is what my four-year old son and I were attempting to pull off.

But there’s also an attraction – especially at this busy time of year – to efficiently wrapping it all up in a mere 24 hours. It’s an amazing mini adventure without having to take time off work or school and it’s a lot cheaper than staying overnight.

The equipment required for our lengthy journey made it clear that tracking down the man in red was no light-hearted amble. We needed layers – thermals underneath, at least another two layers on top, coupled with balaclavas, head torches and scarves. And this was just for starters.

The moment we got off the coach in the already-darkening, snowy vastness, we were whisked straight into a giant shed where we were given snow boots and all-in-one thermal suits so thick they pinned our arms to our sides.

We were also told in no uncertain terms that we were on “a schedule”. And this schedule was incredibly tight, with the pressure etched all over our group leader’s face as she herded us around, regularly urging us to keep up.

When we emerged from the shed, it was already pitch black and the anticipation was building. It was time to see the man in red. Large, twinkling lights guided us along the path as my son regularly and exuberantly threw himself headfirst into the snow drifts on either side. He’d never seen so much snow and it was “very tasty”, apparently.

When we reached an open field, we were given a crash helmet and boarded a sleigh pulled by a snowmobile. We were finally about to see the big man himself and the excitement was palpable.

We sped silently through the isolated landscape as it got increasingly freezing. The sign at the airport said it was minus 16. I wasn’t really sure how cold that was but, combined with the wind, I felt almost tearful at just how bone-chillingly frozen I felt. It was like bathing in ice cubes having downed ten slush puppies.

Just as I was wondering what the exact symptoms of frostbite were, we drew up at a log cabin to be greeted by a red and green bedecked elf, inexplicably doing star jumps. Although I suppose, without a snowsuit, it may just have been the only way he could keep warm. Knocking on the door, a convincingly grumpy voice shouted at us to go away because he was still sleeping. But if it was James, he added, then he was very welcome.

Father Christmas greeted us jovially and managed to convince the terrified four-year-old to sit on his knee. He seemed old and kindly and, for the first time on the trip, there didn’t seem to be any rush whatsoever. By the end, an initially dumbstruck James was discussing the merits of his headwear compared to Father Christmas’ hat.

With a final “ho, ho, ho” and an assurance that both he and his reindeer would come to see us on Christmas Eve, we said our goodbyes.

While the next family went in, we roasted marshmallows on an open fire, all alone in the forest except for the star-jumping elf. It felt intimate and special.

I’m guessing (look away now, kids) that there must have been a few Father Christmases dotted around the forest in log cabins to see all the guests, but the most important part of the day was definitely well executed.

We went back to the open field where we were immediately reunited with the group. The packed itinerary included a husky sled ride, a reindeer sleigh trip and snowmobiling as well as lunch and time to play in the snow.

I had wondered how on earth we would be able to fit all this in. The answer was a very, very tight schedule.

Our husky ride – racing through the darkness at speed – was thrilling. But we weren’t on there for long. Our single circuit was about the size of a tennis court. The reindeer trip and snowmobiling were on a similarly small scale. One poor girl needed a wee but this was not on the schedule so she and her family missed out on the husky ride.

The tight timing puts a lot of pressure on parents who want to make sure their child relishes every moment of their once-in-a-lifetime trip. But really, all the kids wanted to do was throw snowballs at each other. Many of them had to be cajoled tearfully onto rides and nerves were beginning to fray among both the adults and the children who had been awake since before dawn.

If you’ve got the time and the money, it would definitely be preferable to stay overnight and enjoy everything in this magical landscape properly without the time pressure.

But James didn’t seem to mind. He was totally thrilled by the sheer abundance of snow which meant simply throwing snowballs and tobogganing down a small hill made his day. He’s still talking about his encounter with Rudolph and how the snow came all the way up to his chest.

We left our house at 4.45am and returned at 11pm – in total 18 and a quarter hours to spend five minutes in a log cabin with Father Christmas.

On the same day, my two-year-old daughter went to Bromley and she had met him before our plane had even touched down.

James, red-eyed and still sleepy, wasn’t remotely bothered. “But you didn’t meet the real one,” he told her, in a patronising manner.

Need to know
Transun offers both day trips and longer trips to see Father Christmas in Lapland and still has availability for both this season.

The daytrip package starts from £489 per person departing from London Gatwick and regional airports between 14 and 24 December.

Selected dates offer free child places.

There is also a three-night package starting from £1,389 per person, available between 8 and 20 December 2013.

For further information, visit www.transun.co.uk.