In the Lapp of luxury

Up above the Arctic Circle, Sankha Guha and his family enjoy snowmobiling, reindeer safaris, skiing and a sumptuous resort in Finland

I love Jukka and Pekka. They are the bravest stand-up comics this side of the North Pole. Between them they have as much grasp of English as Jabba the Hutt, but they refuse to let it worry them. They blast on undaunted in front of an increasingly bemused audience. Pekka does the singing and plays the straight man, Jukka the Lapp tells the jokes.

I love Jukka and Pekka. They are the bravest stand-up comics this side of the North Pole. Between them they have as much grasp of English as Jabba the Hutt, but they refuse to let it worry them. They blast on undaunted in front of an increasingly bemused audience. Pekka does the singing and plays the straight man, Jukka the Lapp tells the jokes.

"In Finland we drink coffee. In England you drink tea, yes? You know what they drink in America?" teases Jukka, pausing before he delivers the killer punch line, "Red Martinis!". The audience giggles nervously. Jukka adds, "I think is true, but I don't know."

I don't know either and as the evening progresses I understand less - but it hardly matters. We are in Pekka's traditional kota- (tepee-) shaped restaurant for a night of "Finnish Folklore and Feast". Our hosts have spent most of the night singing incomprehensibly - maybe it's down to a Lappish tendency to do away with words when drunk and happy, but the lyrics of most songs have emerged as "loy, loy, loy". Both entertainers are dressed as outsize elves, and when they launch enthusiastically into a Finnish rendition of "Ghost Riders In The Sky" the night turns a lighter shade of surreal. "Yippee, yai, yea!" howls Pekka, "Yippie, ya, low!" rejoins Jukka. At least it's not "loy, loy, loy".

Surrealism seems to go with the territory. Most of what passes for reality at this latitude defies the imagination. We are 200km inside the Arctic Circle, yet fresh bananas, oranges and apples are readily available at the supermarket. The temperature can plunge to -50C, but the buses run on time and mobile phone coverage is total. Where once only reindeer roamed, 400,000 tourists are processed and packaged. In the depths of the polar winter charter flights from Manchester, Birmingham and London line up to deliver some 40,000 Brits. And to one of the coldest and darkest places on earth we bring our children.

I am here with my sons Tom, 11, seven-year-old Niko and my partner Lindsey, and the resort of Levi seems to have been designed specifically for us. Finland is not a great downhill-skiing nation due to one handicap: the country is a flat and hairy pancake. The tundra, hirsute with pine forests, does not offer much scope for thrill-seeking downhillers and snowboarders. So when the Finns find a mound higher than a house, they cover it in ski lifts and carve out runs on every possible flank.

At 530m, the hill at Levi is no Matterhorn - to be honest you could trip over it if you weren't paying attention. Nevertheless it is laced by no less than 50 slopes. The runs tend to be wide and flattering with just two graded as black. All are serviced by a very efficient network of lifts. It is, in short, perfectly suited to the dilettante requirements of Team Guha.

On day one the temperature displayed on a huge LED screen at the hotel entrance reads a moderate -14C. Niko is checked into ski kindergarten, and Tom and Lindsey also head for their classes. I have hired an instructor to remind me what skis do. We get to the top quickly and find a chocolate-box winter wonderland. The Arctic winds have spun sugar fronds of ice and snow on to every delicate finger of the fir trees through which we glide. The effect is dazzling. Fifteen minutes of this and I am in a trance, hypnotised by the light and blissed out on air so fresh you could bottle it.

Over lunch we compare notes. Tom has spotted the "Superpipe" run arranged along the left side of lift number three - and can't wait to be let loose on its half-pipes, stunt bumps and other life-threatening obstacles. Lindsey is looking pale - convinced that she and skis do not fit together. Her instructor, a Russian called Valery, is very energetic but also baffling. She re-enacts the lesson, miming Val as he rises, crouches and rises again: "You must go down, go very down - but never DOWN!!"

Cryptic Russians aside, the resort gets a big hug of approval. We love our chalet-style room, which is exceptionally well-equipped. The personal heated cabinet for damp ski-wear in the bathroom is a winner with me, while Tom and Niko are thrilled by the play area directly underneath. This is hyperactive kids' heaven - bouncy castles, slides, tricycles, computer games - all put together with a Finnish eye for, well, finish. Cosy, supervised and safe - I am impressed by the non-slip surfaces to stop kids ricocheting off the walls. Outside, the elements are doing their best to be wild but even in the raw, dark cold, Tom and Niko are whooping with joy, hurling snowballs and tobogganing down the drive. The Arctic? It's a playground.

Determined to inject some adventure into our expedition we sign up for the snowmobile safari. It will be cold - we have been warned the wind chill can reduce the temperature by up to 30 degrees. So all gloves, scarves, gilets, down jackets, thermals, hats and goggles are piled on. They all come off immediately at the snowmobile base, where we are instructed to change into unflattering one-piece romper suits and issued with fur-lined boots, balaclavas, helmets and special mittens.

Snowmobiles are not kids' toys. Children have to be over seven simply to ride pillion - so my two were OK. The 37-horsepower two-seater touring version is as fast as a hot-hatch. There is also a 107-horsepower sport version on offer - but that would be tempting fate. I feel a delicious pang of political incorrectness as our convoy of nine vehicles pulls away: the roar and the fumes are at spectacular odds with the pristine wilderness that we are off to explore.

We are all quite cautious to start with but then we approach a frozen lake, wide, flat and smooth - and some inner devil takes over. The guide leads the way and the rest of the pack instantly turns into a seething mass of testosterone. My speedo hits 60km per hour but it feels more like 150 miles per hour so close to the ground as the snow and ice kick up in clouds around us. I am so exhilarated that I forget to check if Niko is still on board or is buried under a snowdrift. He has gone very quiet but is present and accounted for when we stop at the far end of the lake - breathless and giggling.

The still beauty of the landscape reasserts itself. The air is sparkling with micro-crystals, the sky is smoky and through it a tired sun offers a ghostly presence - an intimation of warmth somewhere else. I am grateful for the hot air being pumped to my be-mittened hands on the steering column.

The peace is ripped up again as we resume, but some of the drivers are getting cocky. I pass a snowmobile that has unwisely attempted to climb a tree. Deep among the pines we stop at a farming village and discover that three of our machines have run amuck - spilling their riders untidily around the tundra. No one is hurt and bruised egos are revived with hot chocolate and cinnamon biscuits in a cosy hut.

Later in the week we try a more eco-sensitive reindeer safari. Reindeer have an inscrutable dignity. Under their thick white fur, long ice-streaked lashes and deep soulful eyes they seem above the exigencies of survival in this cruel climate. At the Jukka and Pekka show we learned that reindeer are a measure of wealth. A man with 100 reindeer is rich indeed.

Little Head is hitched to our sleigh and assigned to look after us. This he does with exaggerated courtesy, taking five steps then stopping and turning his head slowly to check that we are behaving in the back. Tom, Niko and I, huddled under a fur, meet his composed gaze. The deer turns his antlers around slowly and breaks into a trot. From our position Big Bum seems a more apt name than Little Head, or as Tom puts it, "The view wasn't as good as the snowmobiles - it was just a reindeer's arse."

On day five the unthinkable happens and a hot snap hits Levi. Temperatures rise above freezing and in the blazing sunlight the top layer of snow begins to glisten and melt. The sunset is spectacular, with fire tones raging across the sky in a parody of the northern lights. After dark Levi cools rapidly and at midnight we go in search of the après ski. We expect a cosy little bar serving mulled wine and a singer by the fireside "loy, loy, loying" his heart out. We find Areena Nightclub - a huge barn with a capacity crowd of over 1,500 dancing to house and europop in their moon boots.

Markus, a smooth marketing executive from Helsinki, tells me that Levi is the number one party destination among the movers and shakers of the capital. The margaritas flow, the booming sound system deadens my senses and at some point in the evening I lose my bearings. Can this really be the Arctic?

It is business as usual in the morning. The temperature is in negative double digits. The mini-thaw of the previous day has refrozen, leaving an icy crust on the slopes. This discourages some of the traffic but Tom and I head up and over to the eastern slopes taking a series of lifts and a gondola.

We are splendidly solitary for much of the time. On newly opened 7B, a wide boulevard of a run, the sun is glimmering and we float down on long sweeping traverses. The only sound is the crunch of icy snow being carved. The tundra down below is a study in monochrome dappled with patches of cold light. The spirit of the reindeer is with us. We are the ghost riders of the Arctic. The euphoria is back and inside my head a little voice of happiness starts humming "loy, loy, loy".

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Sankha Guha travelled to Finland with Inghams (020-8780 4433; www.inghams.co.uk). The brochure hotline number is 09070 500500 (calls cost 50p per minute). He and his family stayed at the Levitunturi in Levi. Prices start from £482 per person for seven nights' half-board accommodation and include flights from London Gatwick and resort transfers. Direct flights from Manchester or Birmingham are available for an extra £19.

A pre-bookable six-day adult lift pass costs from £79. Six days' adult ski and boot hire starts from £57 and three days' ski school (90 minutes per day) starts from £62. Inghams' Learn to Ski package costs £175, including ski and boot hire, lift pass and ski school.

Excursions can be pre-booked; a visit to Santa and Santapark costs £34 per adult and £30 per child. The reindeer mini-safari costs £24 per adult, £18 per child. Reindeer super safari: £37 per adult, £24 per child. Husky mini-safari: £29 per adult, £20 per child. Husky super safari: £55 per adult, £31 per child. Snowmobile (one adult alone) costs £60, two sharing costs £40 per adult, £12 per child. Seven days' thermal suit and boot hire costs £55.

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