INext to a snowy yurt, deep in a forest 250 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, my six-year-old giggles as an Elf (yes, an Elf) called Poko holds her upside down and plays her like a guitar. This is not surprising. So far on our three-hour ‘Searching for Santa’ adventure at the Northern Lights village in Saariselkä, Lapland, he’s also tried to drive a ski backwards and, as we stopped at the fire on the rim to find Santa, he did a magic trick which has my seven-year-old blushing red reindeer noses.
I don’t know what Poco gets paid – “Loco!” he helpfully adds, in case it’s not clear logic isn’t his strong suit – he gets paid, but whatever it is, it’s not enough for the enjoyment he creates.
Does he have an ace card? knows Santa’s location. After some gingerbread cookie baking (Santa’s favorite), we traveled by reindeer sleigh into this middle forest, awaiting further instructions. It’s all a bit that James Bond encounters Frostedand everyone joins the adventure – from Essa the reindeer, who is an expert in flying sleigh mechanics, to the receptionist who revealed at check-in: “Oh, I have something for you”, handing the children a roll of ribbons glittering in his eyes.
The note is from the Elf Department asking for their help the very next day to look for Santa Claus. But will it be home? There are no promises.
Suspense builds from the moment the plane door opens like a Narnia door, revealing the frozen airfield of Ivalo and framing a plane screaming SANTA’S LAPLAND in 20m high red letters (owned by a tour operator). In case this geographical indicator is too thin, 10 minutes later we were stopped by a traffic jam in Lapland – a herd of reindeer in the middle of the road.
“Things are a little different up here,” smiled the taxi driver, and as we passed the silhouettes of white trees, lights glinting intermittently through branches, I felt like we were a frozen breath away from serious magic.
And the magic continued at The Northern Lights Village itself. It’s not all saint-centric – others travel here to see the aurora borealis, sleigh rides with huskies and reindeer, ice fishing or sauna detox. However, everyone stays in glass-roofed cabins built for unparalleled viewing of the northern lights (signaled by an in-room tablet notification).
My excited children put their feet on the floor, approvingly examined the glass canopy, the double bed, the folding sofa and the cover. The photos failed to capture the charm of the igloo (as we are renaming it). It looks spartan in the pictures. Personally it’s Scandinavian minimalist with the clean scent of pine and touches like a heated bathroom floor where socks and gloves dry.
Other small but profitable details that don’t make the brochure include the warm bread in the main reception/dining building, the smiling cook constantly replenishing the buffet groaning under salmon, vegetarian food and specialties such as reindeer osso bucco. Oh, and themed dressing. We spied glowing antlers on a top, Christmas bauble patterns and a restaurant that put LED lights on its Christmas tree sweater – setting the bar incredibly high for the rest of us.
So what to do with the little ones in the afternoon darkness (it’s already dusk at 3pm here, December days are short)? Fortunately the nearby Holiday Club Saariselkä welcomes guests to their pool. It’s kid-friendly, with a lazy river, graded entrance and calm water of 30 degrees. It was also a bit wild. Five planes had arrived in three days and were at full capacity.
I couldn’t help but feel we’d hit a winning combination – burning off energy in the tropical pool before retreating to our secluded woodland wonderland, stopping to make snow angels in the pristine snowflakes and discussing hopes for Santa before bed.
So by the time we get to the yurt the next day, the kids are excited about gingerbread cookies, marshmallow roasting, and Poco’s elf energy. There’s only room for one more family on the hunt for Santa, and they’ve already set off with their personal elf into the wild. Thirty minutes later we also set off in a covered sled pulled by the skidoo. We’re closing.
Suddenly, Poco stands up and whispers, “That’s it.” A small red log cabin appears among snowy trees, a curl of smoke rising from the chimney with a dim light shining warmly in the window. It’s the first and only time Poco is serious. “I think it’s home,” she tells my daughters. “But we have to call him.” Clasping his hands, he shouts, “Santa, are you here?” She urges the girls to help. “Santa Claus!” we all shout with excitement. “Are you at home?”
There is silence, then the creak of a door and, in the hazy gloom, a figure shuffles in with an unmistakable red coat and long white beard. He pauses dramatically before addressing my girls by name: “Lote, Lenny, finally we meet.” After a moment of pure shock, my girls run in for a hug as he holds out his arms in welcome. They are surprised to finally meet the one and only Santa at his (almost) North Pole home.
At least, that’s what happened in the video. Over-excited, I tripped first on the ice, but somehow managed to continue filming – my own Christmas miracle.
As Santa beckons us by the fireplace, Poco and I exchange loaded glances, knowing we are witnessing the creation of an unforgettable childhood memory. There’s a hint of something mystical in the frozen air, a once-in-a-lifetime event that will make this December family folklore.
My parents’ concern is that someone will accidentally slip up and Santa’s credibility will be character bombed. But the aura that is created is so inclusive that even I am lulled into Santa’s cabin by his soft voice and comforting conversation. When I find out that he is actually a kindergarten teacher from Greece, I am borderline shocked. He was so convincing, I was beginning to believe he was Santa Claus, Santa Claus.
We spend three days playing with affectionate huskies who pull us through the forest at warp speed (the girls’ favorite post-meeting-the-big-man event) and calmer reindeer (my favorite). Sinking under blankets holding hands, we listen to it splish splish sound of hooves paddling softly in the snow and contentment spreads. We may have been looking for Santa Claus, but we found something just as important along the way: being fully present with our children, away from the everyday hustle and bustle, while on a journey as unique and beautiful as a snowflake.
The essentials for the trip
Trying to fly less?
It is possible to travel by train and ferry to Helsinki, go by rail to Stockholm via Hamburg and from there to Finland by sea. Once in Helsinki, the Santa Claus Express runs two to three times a day to Rovaniemi, from where there is a bus to Saariselkä.
Fine with flying?
Ivalo is the northernmost airport in Finland. Finnair operates over 20 flights from London to Ivalo each week with seasonal direct flights available in the winter months. Charter airlines such as Jet2, Titan Airways and TUI Airways also fly direct from cities such as Bristol, Manchester and Glasgow.
There are 80 Aurora Cabins at Northern Lights Village Saariselkä. Overnight prices for two people start from €299, half board. saariselka.northernlightsvillage.com
Book activities in December so choose one of the North Light Villages activity packages when booking. Santa Claus, children’s sleds and reindeer are on site and huskies are coming to the Village.