Christmas is coming and I want to see Santa
To meet the genial man in red, complete with the full works of reindeer, jingling sleigh, enticing parcels and much snow, head to northern Scandinavia. St Nicholas, the protector of children, morphed into roly-poly Santa Claus in the 19th century. He actually hailed from Myra in south-western Turkey. Yet over the last two decades or so, Lapland has become regarded as the traditional homeland of Santa. That is partly because of the magical look of the snow-white winter world there. Yet it is now also because of the quantity and quality of Christmas-related trips to the region. Accessibility from the UK is a key element, too, with packages offered from a host of departure points around the country Glasgow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff among them.
When and where?
The Santa season starts at the very end of November, with the range of trips varying from one-day ventures to shorts breaks of up to three or four nights. You fly over the Arctic Circle to a choice of destinations in the north of Finland. Best known is the large and bustling Santa Claus Village (santaclausvillage.info) just outside the town of Rovaniemi and its eponymous airport. You can visit the village at any time of the year, meeting the jovial man himself and chatting to his elves in the large post office that receives genuine letters from across the globe. And you can also go shopping there along with Santa outlets there's a range of discount designer stores stocked with Marimekko, Arabia other Finnish brands. In addition, every year a special Christmas season is launched at the village with much elf pageantry - this year's Grand Opening being on 28 November.
You can also find Santa in quieter, more rural locations close to alternative airports at Ivalo, Kittila and Kuusamo. You may meet him in a log cabin in the village of Yllas (00 358 40 5440 585; lappvillage.fi), for example, or at Nellim by Lake Inari. The Nellim Wilderness Lodge (00 358 400 41; nellim.fi) organises arctic activities that include reindeer and Santa visits. Prices for Santa trips range from 305 per person (based on two sharing) with First Choice (0871 200 7799; firstchoice.co.uk) for a three-night trip to Roveniemi in early December including accommodation and flights from Gatwick, to 1,195 per person with Scan Meridien (020-7554 3530; scanmeridian.co.uk) for a four-night break at Lake Inari, including accommodation and flights from Heathrow via Helsinki. Other travel companies offering Santa packages to Finnish Lapland include Esprit (01252 618 300; santaslapland.com), Transun (01865 265200; transun.co.uk/lapland), Santadays (01206 711277; santadays.co.uk) and Magic of Lapland (0870 351 1310; magicoflapland.net).
What exactly is Lapland?
A vast region containing some of Europe's best-preserved wilderness areas, Lapland is the homeland of the Sami people. Traditionally they were a nomadic group who roamed far and wide around the northern extremes of mainland Russia, Finland, Sweden and the north coast of Norway. They lived in tepee-like tents known as lavvus and, at least by the mid 16th century, their economy and culture were based on farming and herding reindeer. They observed no frontiers, taking their animals inland during the winter and out to relatively mosquito-free coastal reaches in the summer. It was largely through the Sami people that the Norwegians, Finns, Swedes and more from the south learned how to survive in the extreme climate above the Arctic Circle. Today the Sami live in modern houses but many continue the time-honoured rites of herding reindeer even if they now have to respect international boundaries.
The Sami people refer to their homeland as Sapmi. "Lapland" was originally a pejorative term deriving either from the Scandinavian word "lapp" meaning patch of cloth or the Finnish "lape" denoting remoteness. However, today the administrative areas of northern Finland and northern Sweden are known respectively as Lapland and Lappland, while the Murmansk Oblast contains the Sami region of Russia and Norway's Finnmark is also home to Sami people (and their many reindeer).
Quite apart from the intriguing culture of the Sami people, Lapland presents amazing natural drama: intensely beautiful fjords, inland lakes and trees and, of course, extreme contrasts with more or less sunless winters when the snow-covered world around shimmers in a haunting blue light and with bright summers of abundant wildflowers. And at any time of year Lapland offers remarkable scope for activity and adventure.
Give me the ultimate icy thrill
Go ski-mountaineering in Sweden. Kebnekaise a Sami word meaning cauldron crest is the highest mountain in Lapland. About 150km north of the Arctic Circle, it has two peaks and it offers great opportunities for summer and winter sport from a remote mountain lodge run by the Swedish Tourist Association (00 46 980 550 00; svenskaturistforeningen.se; doubles from SK1,340/116 for non members). From this base mountain guides accompany you on adventure tours, including demanding snow trips that combine rock and glacier climbing with a descent on skis.
Or head out to the wilds of Norway with a team of huskies. One of the best and most environmentally-friendly outlets for dog sledding in Lapland is based just outside the town of Karasjok which is home to Norway's Sami parliament. Engholm's Husky Lodge (00 47 915 86625; engholm.no) presents a collection of eight cabins, all beautifully designed and built by hand, on a working husky farm. You spend a night here before setting off on a guided three-day snow safari with your own team of four to six dogs. The trip includes two nights in a wilderness cabin and provisions supplied by the lodge. You return to a sauna and a feast of a warm dinner. The five-day safaris cost from NOK8,200 (870) per person.
Alternatively, why not join a midnight snowmobiling venture from the Finnish town of Kemi? Throughout December Safaris Unlimited (00 358 16 253405; safarisunlimited.fi) runs night drives on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The trips cost 63 per person and last about an hour and a half, setting out across ice fields and heading to remote regions far from any artificial light. The quest of the journey is to see V C the Northern Lights shimmering through the inky dark.
I want to see the bright lights tonight
Given clear, cloud-free conditions away from urban lighting, the aurora borealis is often visible across Lapland between August and April, with the best viewing generally during the autumn and the spring.
In Finland, Kakslauttenen Holiday Village (00 358 16 667 100; kakslauttenen.fi; doubles from 945 for a minimum three-night stay) is among Lapland's prime places for Northern Lights watching. Set just 30 minutes from Ivalo airport, and 80km from the Russian border, this resort pioneered the concept of glass igloos there's nothing quite like lying in bed and watching the magical night sky.
New this season is a "Sky Panorama" bus complete with a neat skylight: so should the Lights prove elusive at the resort, guests can be taken out aurora hunting.
Or head out to sea. Norway's coastal ferry, Hurtigruten, provides the means of making a sublime voyage around the amazing shoreline of Finnmark. Part cruise operation, part cargo ship, Hurtigruten (020-8846 2666; hurtigruten.co.uk) has been carrying passengers, post and fish along the coast for more than a century. Today, a range of holidays is offered, which include flights from the UK.
You have a good chance of seeing the aurora borealis on any trip between October and March, although several packages are specially billed as Northern Lights breaks. One such is the "Voyage North" a seven-day cruise from Bergen to Kirkenes costing from 895 per person (based on two sharing) and including flights from Gatwick or Heathrow and half-board accommodation.
Sweden has a dedicated Northern Lights centre. The Aurora Sky Station (00 46 980 402 00; auroraskystation.se) is set on Mount Nuolja in the Abisko National Park. You can learn about the science of the Northern Lights at the exhibition here, watch them from the viewing platform and even listen to the accompanying electromagnetic sounds. The station opens 10 December to 27 March, Tuesdays to Saturdays, from 8pm until midnight. The SK485 (41) admission includes the chairlift ride up and down the mountain.
And for really cool accommodation?
Take your pick of breathtaking ice hotels but you must wait at least until late December before you can check in. Construction of these wonderful feats of snow-and-ice architecture usually starts in November, once the weather is consistently cold enough. Building them generally takes a good month, though parts of each hotel may be open sooner.
The first ice hotel was created in Sweden 20 years ago. Set at the village of Jukkasjarvi near Kiruna, the country's northernmost town, it has proved a booming enterprise and has added a (conventional) conference centre and a wilderness camp as well as presenting ice accommodation, ice chapel and ice art gallery. The Ice Hotel (00 46 980 66 800; icehotel.com) offers ice rooms (costing from SK2,500/ 215 for two sharing) and warm accommodation (from SK2,700/ 233), the idea being that you stay at least two nights, one in the cold and one with all the creature comforts.
In Finland an 18-bedroom snow castle is created annually at the port town of Kemi (00 358 16 258 878; snowcastle.net; doubles from 140 per person per night) and an igloo-like snow 'village' at Lainio near the ski resorts of Yllas and Levi (00 358 40 416 7227; snowvillage.fi; doubles from 120 per person per night).
Near Lake Lehtojarvi, the Arctic SnowHotel (00 358 40 769 0395; arcticsnowhotel.fi; doubles from 110 per person per night) even boasts a snow sauna.
Norway's ice hotels include the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel (00 47 784 33378; sorrisniva.no; doubles from NOK2,195/231 per person per night including dinner and breakfast). It offers stunning ice art and is within fairly easy reach of the Alta Unesco Heritage Site of Stone Age carvings. While at the very top of the country, close to the Russian border, the Kirkenes Snowhotel (00 47 789 70540; kirkenessnowhotel.com; doubles from NOK2,100/221 per person per night including dinner and breakfast) is set close to a husky farm and reindeer park part of the joy of coming here is to ride out into the wilderness, with the snow emanating an eerie blue light.
Enough of the dark!
Above the Arctic Circle the sun all but disappears from the end of November. Its re-emergence is, of a cause of much celebration.
At the Norwegian city of Tromso, about 400km north of the Arctic Circle, the first dawn of the year occurs towards the end of January and is celebrated with a lively music festival whose remit runs from classical to jazz and folk. In 2010, the Tromso Northern Lights Festival takes place from 28 January to 6 February, adding an energetic buzz to this cathedral city.
Thereafter Lapland lights up quickly and by the March equinox (20 March in 2010) the daylight in many areas lasts a good 13 hours.
Meanwhile conditions continue to be excellent for winter sports. You can still, for example, be skiing in Sweden at the end of April. From the UK, Discover the World (01737 218 801; discoverlapland.co.uk) offers a wide range of winter holidays in Swedish Lapland and can arrange three-night ski packages to Bjorkliden resort north of the Abisko National Park from 858 per person in April the price includes flights from Heathrow via Stockholm to Kiruna, transfers and B&B accommodation.
A little more than a month later, of course, Lapland becomes the land of the midnight sun...
Lapland, via Tunbridge Wells
Next Saturday, 14 November, Lapland comes to Kent. Or at least the northern land is recreated there. Now in its third year, Lapland UK offers an alternative to flying up to the Arctic Circle to meet Santa and his happy band of elves. Set in a forest swathed in artificial snow, twinkling with fairy lights and populated with red-hatted elves, this is an increasingly popular Christmas theme park. You and your young crew meet huskies and reindeer, visit an all-important post office as well as a toy factory, go ice skating and of course have a session with Santa himself.
Lapland UK is at Bewl Water Estate near Lamberhurst (0871 221 9627; laplanduk.co.uk) and is not associated with Lapland New Forest, which opened and promptly closed after a few days in 2008. Lapland UK is open this year from 14 November to 24 December. Tickets cost from 57.50, with sessions usually lasting between four and five hours.
* Finland: SAS (0871 521 2772; flysas.co.uk) and Finnair (0870 241 4411; finnair.com) fly to Rovaniemi, Ivalo, Kittila and Kuusamu via Helsinki from a choice of UK airports. Blue1 (0906 294 2016; blue1.com) flies to destinations in Finnish Lapland via Helsinki from Heathrow. Packages to Finnish Lapland on charter flights start in December (see main article).
* Sweden: SAS flies to Kiruna via Stockholm from a choice of UK airports. Between December and the end of March, direct flights from Heathrow to Kiruna are exclusively offered by Discover the World (01737 218 801; discoverlapland.co.uk).
* Norway: You can fly from Heathrow and Manchester to Oslo and on to Kirkenes and Alta in Finnmark with SAS. Alternatively, the Finnmark region of Norway is dotted with small airports served by Wideroe (00 47 75 51 35 00; wideroe.no) from Tromso. Norwegian Air Shuttle (00 47 21 49 00 15; norwegian.no) flies from Gatwick to Tromso.
* Contact the Norwegian tourist board on 020-7389 8800; visitnorway.com; the Swedish tourist board on 020-7108 6168; visitsweden.com; and the Finnish tourist board on 020-7953 7470; visitfinland.com.