Searching for Santa: A once-in-a-lifetime trip in Finland’s snowy Arctic
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Last December, COVID was getting worse (again) and we were canceling our planned trips. Even our usual holiday visit with Santa had turned into visiting him by Zoom from our living room. It was as that Zoom call unfolded that I had an internal Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation epiphany (or mental break, as the case may be).
I vowed that while Christmas 2020 might have been a weird wash, for Christmas 2021, I was going to make up for it. Sitting with the laptop by our Christmas tree, I decided that the next time the holidays rolled around, we were going to Santa’s house — his real house — in the Arctic.
I’d long heard of Santa’s Lapland in northern Finland and had always hoped to go one day. After that fateful Zoom call to the North Pole, I got serious about planning that trip in a hurry. I was lucky that my friend and coworker, Nick Ewen, was already neck-deep in research on these sorts of details after having to delay a 2020 trip to Santa’s Lapland because of the pandemic.
By the time the 2020 holidays were packed away, I had made the deposit on the trip and had booked four round-trip tickets to Europe in United business class using 88,000 ANA miles transferred from Amex Membership Rewards.
While there were plenty of moments in 2021 that made it feel like this trip was going to melt out of our grasp before it could materialize, this time, the winds were in our favor.
When late November came around, we bundled up, crossed the ocean and headed north into the Finnish Arctic in search of Santa.
In case that’s exactly how you are hoping to spend next Christmas, here is what we learned when visiting Santa’s Lapland.
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It’s absolutely magical
First things first, before we get into any logistics: This part of the world may be remote, harsh and unforgiving — but it is also truly magnificent.
This time of year, it never gets truly bright, but the mid-day twilight shining on the white blanket of snow is something from a winter storybook.
Whether you personally go in search of Santa or just want to experience a place that barely looks real, the Arctic is every bit as mesmerizing as we’d hoped.
We saw and did things that took us very far from our comfort norms. It was like we were living in a fairytale flanked with reindeer and elves.
You don’t have to go to Santa’s Lapland on a packaged tour, but it does make it easy
You can visit one of the cities and villages that Santa frequents in the Lapland region of Finland without being on an organized tour, but if you want to hit the easy button on planning, a tour may be the simplest solution.
We went with Santa’s Lapland, which offers three- and four-day trips from the U.K. to Finland. These packages have gotten quite pricey, so steel yourself for sticker shock, but the trip does include charter flights from the U.K., lodging and ground transfers in Finland, most meals (except a few lunches), winter activities such as sled dog rides, reindeer sleighs and snowmobiling and the use of thermal snow gear. They even aid you on your hunt for Santa’s hidden house.
In our case, the package started and ended at London’s Gatwick with flights to and from Ivalo, Finland.
If you go this packaged route, as we did, there’s not much more you will need to do other than shell over your credit card and book your positioning flights to the U.K., assuming you don’t already live there. We actually booked a couple of add-ons to the package, but very much didn’t need to, as plenty was included.
If I were to go outside of a package, I’d likely connect through Helsinki and target Rovaniemi as our final destination. In fact, I hope to one day visit Rovaniemi on our own since it is Santa’s official hometown. In that case, you’d need to schedule activities such as dog sledding on your own.
This is an all-in experience
If you do decide to join a package experience to experience all things Santa, be ready to go all-in for a few days.
On our trip, the plane lightning was red, and there was Christmas caroling at 36,000 feet, on the bus and basically everywhere else we went.
When we landed in Finland and headed to baggage claim, naughty elves were laughing and spinning around on baggage carts and sneakily sent our bags back on the belt and out of our sight.
In the ensuing days, they would throw snowballs, mess with people’s hats and just generally cause mischief. To have a good time, you have to lean into this Christmas chaos and enjoy the ride.
Where you stay matters
On our trip, there were some lodging choices to pick between and we went with the Star Arctic Hotel.
While you are going to be quite busy during your time in Finland, where you stay still matters as that’s where you’ll have most of your meals and enjoy your downtime. It’s not easy to hop around when it is so frigid outside.
Where we were was away from the town but it was right on the ski slope. I wish we had selected skiing as our extra activity at this most northern ski resort in Europe. Planning that instead of extra reindeer sled time is the only thing I would have done differently if we had it to do again.
The Star Arctic Hotel has a few different lodging options. During our stay, we tried out two of them, including a spectacular aurora glass cabin that is designed for looking out for the northern lights.
We booked a night in that glass-roofed cabin via Hotels.com simply to try it out — and we loved the ability to stare at the sky all night. But most of our stay that was booked via the package was in a suite with a sauna. It was a little tight for the four of us but ultimately worked out fine. (I certainly missed the glass roof, though, after being spoiled with it that first night.)
Yes, it’s really cold … but that’s OK
The temperatures hovered around 0 degrees Fahrenheit during much of our visit, which is clearly (well below) freezing. It is cold to the point that just walking two minutes across the parking lot to the reception area with the restaurant is about all we could do without getting in full thermal gear.
Speaking of which, don’t worry much about bringing real clothes to the Arctic, as what you mostly need are good base layers and comfy clothes to layer under the clunky thermal suits. Glove liners, hats, good wool socks and neck warmers are also essential.
Even with the provided gear plus the layers you brought from home, it’s still really cold at times (especially when the wind gets going) — but it didn’t stop us from having fun.
I’m glad my 6-year-old wasn’t any younger, as the cold would have been tough for her. But once bundled up, the temps were doable for periods of time.
Know that from your hair to your eyelashes and beyond, anything exposed for any length of time is going to freeze.
The included Arctic activities are legit
When I heard we were going to experience dog sledding, I assumed we’d be passengers riding along with an experienced guide. Wrong.
This isn’t a fancy Aspen version of winter, this is the real deal where you’re expected to be ready to steer yourself through activities. From being pulled by reindeer sleds to driving a sled team and being at the helm of a snowmobile, this was a highly participatory experience that was wilder — and more fun — than I even expected.
This is no Disney-ized Norway pavilion at Epcot. This is all the very real deal that is equal parts wild and exhilarating.
Even our 6-year-old was able to rev up a little kid-sized (tethered) snowmobile.
We found Santa
Skip this part if you don’t want any spoilers for your own journey, but we found Santa’s house in the woods.
At the end of a reindeer-led sleigh ride through the snow, we came upon some elves at an adorable red hut hidden in the trees.
I’m not sure if the elves were really thrilled that we happened upon such a special spot in the magical woods, but they readily welcomed us in all the same.
After missing Santa in person in 2020 and traveling thousands of miles to try and find him in 2021, it was quite the experience being welcomed into his cozy cottage.
He was as kind as you’d expect and somehow he had the girls’ letters to Santa that they had sent weeks ago at the ready. I don’t know how the magic all works exactly, but I know that it’s very real.
It wasn’t always perfect, but it was so worth it
Not everything on this trip was fairytale perfect.
At times there was some scheduling confusion, communication wasn’t always perfect and sometimes everyone on the trip showed up to do the same things at the same time, resulting in lines and delays. And while Finland does have mask requirements on things like buses and planes, that was more of a mild suggestion than a mandate in practice. With the newest variant catching headlines while we were there, that was a little unsettling for us personally.
The food was all served buffet-style — fingers crossed that you like salmon.
Seriously though, the food was fine but not the highlight. There were nuggets and fries available for kids at most meals, but more traditionally Finnish offerings were most commonly available on the buffet.
Note that you’re also going to be around other families and other people’s kids a fair amount over the three or four days. Know that if there’s a strong personality in the group, you’re going to cross paths with them a lot.
But none of that is a huge deal most of the time. Most of the time, you’re just thrilled to be somewhere so special. You know full well you may never be lucky enough to experience it again so you savor as many seconds as you can.
We’ve skied across the country, been to Alaska, seen Santa at Santaland and even explored a bit in Norway, but this experience was in a class by itself. Every family trip is special and memorable in its own way, but after the couple of years we’ve had and the things we’ve all missed out on, this first truly big trip back in so long was truly unforgettable.
This journey to Santa’s Lapland was so different and unique that it is forever etched in our collective story banks.
If we had any doubt about the enduring magic of the holidays before, it’s gone now. Things may not yet be back to normal, but Santa and the holiday spirit are as alive and well as ever — especially if you go all the way to the Arctic to find it.
Featured image by author.
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