A visit to the home of Santa Claus
I was lucky enough to get treated to a trip to Rovaniemi in Finland (also known as Lapland) by Chris (the bf). When I was a child my parents regularly talked about taking us to the home of Santa Claus but the cost for a family before Christmas was (and still is) astronomical so we never got the chance to visit. Our trip was booked for February, a much cheaper and quieter time to visit. Nevertheless, the place was still magical and I can honestly say this was one of my favourite ever trips!
We arrived in Rovaniemi early on the Friday morning and checked straight in to our room in the town centre. We stayed in the Hawaae Boutique Hotel which I couldn't recommend enough; this Aparthotel is cosy, welcoming and the rooms beautifully decorated with all the amenities you could possibly need.
We grabbed some lunch in the centre and then decided to take a walk across the bridge to the other side of the river and up to to the Hotel Sky Ounasvaara (roughly a 45 minute walk from the centre). En route we took a detour into the forest, following the Ounasvaara Walking Trail signposted shortly after the main bridge across the water river. This walk gives you easy access into the beautiful snow covered forests surrounding the town which are empty but for the odd hiker or skiier (yes people get around the town on skis). I suggest you follow the path to the observation point (about 15-20 mins from the start) for beautiful views over the forest and Rovaniemi.
Photograph taken from the top of the observation tower along the Ounasvaara walking trail.
You can easily follow one of the other routes back down to the road (I suggest you aim for Santasport). From here you can continue your walk to the Hotel Sky Ounasvaara which has a restaurant and terrace with amazing views over the forest and (apparently) the Northern Lights.
After heading back into town we grabbed a quick meal and then headed to the Beyond Arctic shop to join a Northern Lights Photography course. Our guide took us out to a quiet area with a clear view of the sky to wait patiently for the lights to appear as we were lucky to have clear skies on our first night. Although the Northern Lights were not quite as amazing as I was expecting, it was still a brilliant experience. I hadn't really appreciated that cameras are able to pick up the light in a different way to the human eye and that what we see in photographs is not what can actually be seen. We were still able to see the colours and the 'dancing' spectacle but the colours and brightness was not as vivid as the below photograph suggests. Once we had finished watching the lights we headed into a nearby Tepee for warm drinks, a fire and hot dogs.
Photograph of the Northern Lights and the night sky.
On our second day we decided to go snow shoe hiking through the forest. We were picked up and driven about 30 minutes outside of Rovaniemi to a quiet area of forest near a river. We were equipped with our snow shoes and took a guided walk through the snow. The shoes allow you to walk or run through the snow which, in places, is as deep as your ankles, without sinking into it. This was a great way to explore the area and just being out in the snow in a silent forest is a great activity for couples or families. After our walk we started a fire outdoors at a campsite and enjoyed hot dogs (again), soup and marshmallows.
Photograph of lunchtime after snow shoe hiking
We asked our tour guide to drop us off at Santa Claus Village which we passed en route for our afternoon activities. Perhaps the village just isn't as exciting out of season but it was quite a disappointment. The village doesn't have much to offer other than a few gift shops, tired looking cafes/restaurants and the Arctic circle crossing line. We considered going and getting our photograph taken with Santa but at EUR 30 a photo and a queue of an hour we decided against it. I have heard the queues around the Christmas Season can be 3-4 hours long at times. You can do a number of activities in the village such as husky sledding and reindeer trips but in reality I imagine these are better booked separately as you are taken deeper into the forest. One must do activity in Santa Claus Village, however, is lunch at Santa's Salmon Restaurant. You may have to queue to get into this tiny little restaurant in a tepee but its worth the wait for fresh salmon grilled over an open fire right next to you inside the restaurant.
Photograph of the Arctic Circle line at Santa Claus Village
The following day we got picked up early from the centre of the town to go Husky Dog Sledding. This was the part of the trip I had been looking forward to the most and we had done all our homework on the animal welfare issues and chosen to go with Bearhill Husky. Bearhill run their trips about 45 minutes outside the centre of Rovaniemi, in a forested area. When you arrive you are given all the necessary snowsuits, boots etc to keep you warm and then are led outside to meet your dog team. We were given 5 Alaskan huskies to pull the two of us but painfully you cannot give the dogs a cuddle until after their run - they will get too excited otherwise! One of you has to sit in the sled whilst the other directs the dogs but it doesn't matter which way round you start as you will get a chance to swap over half way through. The dogs pull you through an already carved out course through the snowy forest and across frozen lakes for about 2 hours whilst you sit back and take it all in. In reality, you don't need to direct them too much as they know where they need to go, however, you do get the odd naughty one who tries to run off if you have to stop at any point.
Photograph of Husky Sledding tour
Once you return to the base you get about half an hour to give the dogs a cuddle, take photos and explore the areas where the dogs live before being taken back to your hotel. The dogs are built for this type of exercise and clearly enjoy the run. We learnt from the guides that the dogs are found new homes when they retire or are kept on site in the house if they cannot be rehomed. A lot of the guides also have their own dogs which they bring to work which further reaffirmed that Bearhill Husky clearly care about the welfare of their animals.
Photograph of me and my two favourite Huskies
To finish off our trip we decided to go snowmobiling. Now, I love quad biking and was expecting this to be fairly similar but it was not and at times I found it quite terrifying. I still cannot decide whether I enjoyed this experience as some parts were incredible but at times I just wanted to get off and run back to the town! It started with me toppling the bike within 5 minutes (the only time it toppled) and it landing on Chris's leg and crushing him under it until the guide could lift it off him - don't worry he was fine. I was told I had to get back on and drive which I did but I spent the rest of the journey worried about falling again. We drove through multiple open expanses and breaks in the forest which meant, with the heavy snowfall, it could be difficult to see the person in front and so I found it stressful trying to keep up with the bike ahead - although the guide was very good at stopping. However, when we got into the forest and spent time winding through the trees rather than pelting it across the snow, I began to really enjoy myself. I found this part of the ride really exciting, fun and beautiful. However, when we swapped places half way through so that Chris could drive and I was the passenger, the fear came back as I has no control. So, did I enjoy this experience? Jury's out.
Photograph of snowmobilers just outside Rovaniemi
All in all though, my trip to Finland and to the land of Santa Claus was incredible and I couldn't recommend it more, The natural landscape is stunning and the activities which you can partake in are so different to those you can do back home in the UK. However, if you are a parent beating yourself up about not being able to take your child here, don't worry, they will enjoy it so much more when they are older (and they visit out of season).