Head to Finnish Lapland, the home of Santa Claus, the Sami people and...Lordi

In the depths of winter, daylight on or above the Arctic Circle is a precious commodity to be savoured in all its muted glory. The sky lightens for a few hours in the middle of the day, acquiring a silvery tinge before dwindling to gunmetal grey and finally surrendering to the greedy polar night. In Finnish Lapland, as the frozen sky melts into the horizon, you realise this is part of the appeal of midwinter at 66 degrees north.

North. Of all the compass points, "N" is simultaneously the most forbidding and the most engrossing. Previous generations of children have regarded Lapland as territory that is simply off the map. Home to elves rather than dragons, the swath of tundra and taiga, lakes and marshes that stretches across Scandinavia from Norway's Lofoten Islands to Russia's Kola Peninsula seemed unimaginably distant, unattainable except in Yuletide dreams.

Happily for the ambitious traveller – as well as the tourist industry in northern Scandinavia – reaching Lapland is now a piece of Christmas cake, so long as you choose the Finnish tranche of this mystical terrain.

Norway, Sweden and Russia also claim a swath of Lapland – the preserve of a culture, belonging to the Sami people, that defies national frontiers. But Finland claims the Lapp heartland. The only Scandinavian nation in the eurozone can also profess to have the polar bear's share of the Lapland market, with charter flights from airports across the UK non-stop to Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland and de facto seat of Santa Claus.

A few flights even stray a degree or two closer to the North Pole, to the Arctic playground of Levi, reached via Kittila: if you want a Finnish family snow patrol, this is the place to book your trip. Some flights also go to Ivalo, close to the Russian frontier.

The entry-level Lapland journey is a day trip to Rovaniemi. Every December, thousands of youngsters – often financed and accompanied by generous grandparents – depart from their local airport for a lightning trip. Many report a thunderingly good day out. But permit a Scrooge-like interjection: because of the onerous check-in requirements, combined with a flying time of at least three hours and a two-hour time difference, families often face a wickedly early start coupled with a late return. Leaving home at 3am may not be too painful, given the rewards that await, but returning at midnight may see red eyes replacing happy memories of red-nosed reindeer as exhaustion erases enjoyment. If you can allow three or four days, the gain:pain ratio dramatically improves in your favour.

Time for some gain. Rovaniemi may have cornered the Santa Claus market by dint of some fancy footwork by the marketing elves, but the show the town puts on never misses a step.

Many day-trippers are whisked from the plane to a strange-looking hill five minutes away where, evidently, some pretty powerful magic has been at work. Santa Park ( santapark.com ) is a sequence of man-made caverns filled with festive attractions. And why did man make this subterranean fun park? Because after a bitter 20th century in which the nation was ravaged by war – and Finnish Lapland was devastated by Nazi Germany's scorched-earth policy – national civil-defence law demands that towns and cities have a robust bomb shelter.

From late November to mid-January, the bunker is transformed into Santa Park, which children will interpret as Christmas Central thanks to the dazzle of entertainments, festive restaurants and even a classroom for would-be elves. Santa himself takes up residence for a time, and adults may take refuge in the Ice Bar.

Visitors are funnelled in to Santa Park – and, if you continue far enough in the same direction, you find yourself back in the great outdoors, where suitably wintry activities are on offer, from snowmobile rides to sledges drawn by huskies or reindeer.

Arcticians who want proof of their achievement in getting 66-plus degrees north should head for the nearby Santa Claus Village. Critics may describe it as little more than a Santastic strip mall beside the highway, but if you want your Christmas card stamped and sorted by Santa's little helpers, the post office here will oblige – and, look, there is a line that declares itself to be the Arctic Circle. Snap!

The camera shutter will be clicking elsewhere in Rovaniemi. Like practically every other settlement in northern Finland, it was devastated in the closing stages of the Second World War during the German retreat, but has come back to life as an engaging destination, largely because of the miraculous Arktikum Museum. Half a hillside (those elves have been busy) has been taken apart to accommodate a spectacular sequence of galleries that tell the story of Lapland with eloquence and energy.

Intellectual curiosity satisfied, the traveller's next requirement is to sustain the body as well as the soul. Whisper it quietly, but some of the reindeer who are surplus to Santa's requirements find themselves on the menu of restaurants in Rovaniemi.

As you nibble on carpaccio of Rudolph, be aware that Finnish Lapland revolves around the centre of this modest metropolis. And note that it has the greatest claim to fame in the North: this is the home of none other than Lordi, the heavy-metal band who monstered their way to victory in the last reliably judged Eurovision Song Contest. The main square has been named after these friendly ogres, and at least one bar has capitalised on the only Scandinavian musicians to take Europe by storm since Abba.

Rovaniemi has something of the feel of a frontier town, which is curious in a region where national borders are meaningless (except in the case of Russia, where the Iron Curtain lives on).

Beyond it lies a land of legends, of incredible human endurance and a sense of space unknown elsewhere in the EU. Even in Rovaniemi, on the cusp of the Arctic Circle, you should remind yourself that for every 10,000 citizens of Europe south of here, only one is north. Rare joy, indeed.

Travel essentials: Lapland

Getting there

*A wide range of direct flights to Rovaniemi is available at weekends from the start of December until the end of the festive period. At other times, connections are readily available in Helsinki.

Staying there

*The Hotel Santa Claus, part of the Clarion chain, is at Korkalonkatu 29 (00 358 16 321 321; hotelsantaclaus.fi ). It features in many package holidays, and often has no availability at peak times. At other times, the internet rate for a twin room is as low as €89, including breakfast.

*For those on a lower budget, try the Hostel Rudolf at Koskikatu 41 – part of the Hotel Santa Claus operation, through whom you book, check in and check out. The low-season rate (until the end of November) is €53 for a double or triple; breakfast, taken at the Hotel Santa Claus, is an extra €11 per person.

More information

*James Proctor's Lapland (Bradt, £13.99) is an ideal companion: knowledgeable, engaging and comprehensive. The author even offers 27 Sami terms for "reindeer", or at least reindeer-related activities.

*Finnish Tourist Board ( visitfinland.com/uk ).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations should be regarded as an offensive act
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Morrissey pictured in 2013
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices