Buildings shaped from ice and snow, reindeer rides under the aurora bourealis and a midwinter visit to the village that Santa Claus himself calls home… Lapland promises the ultimate family adventure
December in Rovaneimi
Finnish Lapland’s capital city is located almost as far north as humans can comfortably live – six miles shy of the Artic Circle and bounded by an unspoiled wilderness of icy forests, lakes and mountains. And while the natural beauty of the region gives visitors plenty to do in summer, it’s the colder months that make the place a genuine winter wonderland for families. Snow begins to fall as early as October and lies thick on the ground as late as May. Solid blocks of snow have been used to build restaurants, hotels and chapels. Christmas comes right in the middle of the season and up to half a million people will travel to spend it right here, where Santa Claus lives, works and welcomes visitors even (especially) at his busiest time of year.
Official hometown of Santa Claus
The story goes that Santa has a secret headquarters even further north, but as of 1985 he also set up a more visible, sociable administrative base just outside Rovaneimi, with the requisite fairytale village feel. He’s there all year round, presenting himself as the world’s jolliest diplomat, an “ambassador of goodwill, love, and peace”. But the month leading up to Christmas sees a non-stop procession of kids coming to see him right before he begins his long gift-giving trek around the world – setting off on 23 December with great ceremony. (Parents, meanwhile, may be interested to note that Santa’s village began with a cabin built for industrious American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1950, who came to survey the city after it had been almost destroyed by German forces in the Second World War.)
Obviously, Santa has his own elite team of reindeer, who are essential to his distribution system. But there are plenty more where they came from. The native Sámi people have been reindeer-herders for centuries, and specialist farms in surrounding pastures now host all manner of visitor-friendly activities, from feeding sessions to “sleigh schools”. Packages for rides and safaris with these gorgeous creatures include nighttime treks to see the Northern Lights.
Fire in the sky
The Sámi word for the Northern Lights is revontulet”, which literally means “fox-fire”, and comes from an old native legend about a fox running over the fells of Lapland and whipping snow into the air to form the glittering sparks of the aurora. Science says it’s caused by electric particles from the sun colliding with earth’s atmosphere. But either way, you have a better chance of seeing them here than almost anywhere else in the world, and local apps provide alert systems to let visitors know when the lights are glowing bright. Local photographer Alexander Kuznetsov recommends the Ounasvaara Fell as a prime spot for aurora-watching.
Various farms and centres like the Arctic Circle Husky Park are famous for breeding and training Siberian husky puppies to be world-class sled dogs. Visitors are bound to get their faces licked and the resident doggos are always happy to give you a short ride around the park. But what they really want is to take you out on a longer tour, running deep into the surrounding forests.
Snowmobiles and skidoos can get you to off-track quarters that huskies and reindeer can’t reach, cutting fresh tracks across the untouched whiteness. Companies like Aurora eMotion now offer the enchanced experience of riding electric vehicles, which help sustain that pristine environment and run almost silently, so the rider feels as if they’re gliding through the trees.
Holes in the ice
Ice-fishing on frozen lakes is an age-old means of sustenance for the Sámi people, and it now makes for a popular form of tranquil winter sport. Fishing excursions from Rovaniemi range from short tasters of a few hours to major expeditions of a few days. And if you want to know what the fish actually feel like, there are bigger holes in the ice at Ounaskoski Beach that you can actually swim in – if you’re not averse to profound sensory shocks.
The December schedule is obviously packed with midwinter events, including snowboard and freeski displays, food fairs and Christmas market stalls highlighting Lapland cuisine, art and photography exhibits, ice-sculpture contests, and Moomins on parade in Santa Claus Park.
Obviously Rouvaniemi has plenty of brick-and-mortar hotels, but most families dream of sleeping between walls of snow. Options in that range include quasi-rustic ice cabins at Appuka Resort (apukkaresort.fi), exposed to the cold air but equipped with state-of-the-art sleeping bags. The Arctic Snowhotel has an annex of luxury glass igloos that allow you to watch the Northern Lights from your own heated crystal dome. For further information, visit arcticsnowhotel.fi.
How to get there
Daily flights between Rovaniemi and Helsinki are operated by Finnair and Norwegian throughout the year. For detailed info about Rovaniemi Airport, go to www.finavia.fi/en/airports/rovaniemi
As with other European nations that form part of the Schengen system, visitors from the UAE do not need a visa for entry to Finland. A valid UAE passport allows the bearer a stay of up to 90 days.
If you plan to visit at Christmas, it’s going to be cold. Average daytime temperatures at the Arctic Circle in December are –6°C and a few degrees lower at night. You should wrap up warm to do anything outdoors, from sled-riding and walking to just visiting a restaurant.