Modern life is full of second chances. From political rehabilitations to second careers to third marriages, mine is Generation Re-do – and, to many minds, this represents progress. But in a pleasantly retro way, there remain certain opportunities in life for which there is a window.
Between the ages of four and eight, children’s imaginations are primed to accept enchantment. Fairy tales give way to imaginative play before school channels them on to more prosaic paths. And this window is the time to visit elves.
Father Christmas, as any child could tell you, lives with his wife and a gaggle of elves in a snow-covered cabin where he builds any toy a child desires. The great thing about Father Christmas, my daughter has observed, is that you don’t have to pay him back: anything you ask for, he’ll give you. What a hero.
Now imagine that your parent suggests that you go visit this benevolent sprite in his home. Who’s the hero now?
A few days before last Christmas, this is just what I did: I spirited a then four-year-old Antonia out of London to Finnish Lapland, specifically to the tiny resort town of Luosto in the heart of the mountainous Pyha-Luosto national park, a 90-minute drive north-east of the Arctic Circle.
This was where, according to the British operator Canterbury Travel, we were likely to find the big man with the beard. Here also the daily temperature is between -7 and -10, and daylight comes and goes in less than four hours.
Clad head-to-toe in the provided snowsuits and boots, you are launched outside into the darkness each morning with your fellow enthusiasts, after gobbling down decidedly simple and UK child-focused fare, to track down the elusive bearded man via a series of encounters with elves.
In a way that will appeal to character-focused young people, the search has a well-developed narrative and a rousing theme song – with dance moves – which your group of 20 or so families will sing at least once per hour for the duration of your stay. Will Snowy Bowie, the charming sprite in charge of Christmas wrapping, have a clue? Or Noisy Nod, Santa’s chief bell-maker?
Over the space of four days, your children will gain detailed knowledge of each of these sprites as they offer clues as to what – in the weeks before Christmas – the big man is up to. Your child will also forge profound friendships with these extraordinarily squeaky people (who will, for an extra fee, come read them bedtime stories) while tobogganing with them in the snow. There’s punch to be drunk, metaphorically speaking, and if you and your child willingly partake, this is the trip of a lifetime.
Peppered throughout the organised search each day are splendid outdoor activities. At the reindeer camp, an actual Finnish man (a rarity on this trip), decked out in traditional furs, teaches children about his way of life as a reindeer herder. After you feed the deer by hand, and take an eerily silent trip on a reindeer-pulled caravan of sleighs – through spectacular woods, perhaps pausing in the quiet to wonder whether a reindeer skin would really suit your bedroom back at home.
There are Ski-Doos available for adult-led trips (you drive, your child hops on the back, and you have a safe, wintry Hells Angels moment together); but there are also child-sized Ski-Doos (my four-year-old was a daredevil, but the oodles of engaged, chirpy staff kept safety and communication at the top of the agenda). While all of these activities require taking turns, those waiting are entertained, having snowball fights or tobogganing with yet more sparkly elves.
The highlight of the activities is the husky ride. A pack of six dogs, so strong that they could probably move a house, pull your child in a sleigh, while you stand at the back of the sleigh, “driving” at breakneck speed through a snow-covered pine forest, in a scene more romantically wintry than any other I can imagine.
The mission of finding Father Christmas is never off the agenda; each time you board the coach (you drive to every single activity, which grows wearisome) you sing the Santa song, led by your two abnormally kind and spirited camp counsellors. And the pinnacle of the trip – a private audience with Santa – is as charming and magical as any child would wish.
For sleeping, there’s a nondescript corporate-feeling hotel, or picturesque log cabins of widely varying decorative order (each is individually owned and, while some were luxurious, ours was of the most basic variety, with sheets whose purchase must predate my birth). While all meals are included, I would recommend skipping the dull buffet at the hotel restaurant and heading across the road to the Ravintola Vaisko, which serves reindeer in a variety of ways and has a pleasant wine list with Scandinavian prices. After a lunch of jacket potatoes with beans while out on the search, you’ll want something reasonable – plus, the chic wooden interior of Ravintola Vaisko will go some way to resetting the parent-child balance of the trip.
With so many similar holidays on the market, it can be difficult to choose the right approach for your child. Many operators, including Canterbury, offer one-day trips but I found that the luxury of four days allowed for a full exploration of this mystical land of beautiful darkness. Canterbury’s itinerary, and inventive character-led narrative, had a wild appeal for my daughter, whose love for performance and drama knows no bounds. For children more focused on activity, and perhaps less inclined to spend time with elves, read Henry Druce’s sports-led adventure.
One of the great joys of having children is allowing them to restore innocence and optimism in adults – and at no time of the year does this happen more than at Christmas. If stag and hen parties give us the chance to let our hair down, a trip to Santa’s Lapland is an opportunity to return, for a moment, to a time of short trousers, plaits and hope. It cultivates the sort of wonder that embodies Christmas spirit. A video I recorded on my phone during our hunt for Santa betrays this: the children sing of their search with gusto. But the parents in the background are also singing with childish abandon – for Christmas, after all, is all about the child.
Canterbury Travel (santa-holidays.com) offers a three-night Magical Interlude trip, with flights from Gatwick and Manchester, from £5,308 for a family of four sharing a log cabin. The price includes return flights, all transport, full room and board, and all activities. Spots book up quickly, and most tours are full by mid-October.