'That's not real snow it's bubbles." OK, so it wasn't crunchy underfoot. My heart sank as I realised I might have raised my six-year-old son Calum's expectations too high. "But doesn't it look lovely? The pine trees, the forest floor covered in snow..." I tried to persuade him.
We were visiting Lapland UK, a new seasonal attraction in Bedgebury Forest, Kent. The idea came from ex-City trader Mike Battle and his wife Alison; their aim is to re-create a flavour of the authentic Lapland Christmas experience. Visits take about three hours, with an average of 300 visitors passing through the three-acre venue at any one time, and activities are timetabled so that everyone gets a chance of some Christmassy fun.
Between late November and 31 December, some 35,000 people will have been to Lapland UK, most of whom booked their tickets within weeks of them going on sale in July. By September there were none left.
We took our "flight" in the transporter an inflatable dome with uniformed cabin crew 10 minutes later arriving in a landscape of firs and fairy-lit log cabins, the snow gently falling. I thought it quite magical, but then as an adult I can suspend disbelief. Children, as we know, will spot an inconsistency at 10 paces.
We got the important stuff out of the way first, making a beeline for Father Christmas's Post Office, where Calum sent a letter to Santa. Next stop, the (two) reindeer. Unimpressed, Calum gave them a cursory glance ("It stinks around here"), though my one-year-old daughter, Sophie, greeted them with shouts of glee.
We hurried on to our appointment in the Toy Factory, where Calum earned a certificate for helping the elves to assemble wooden puzzles, before joining his sister for a half-hour with Mrs Claus decorating gingerbread men and listening to a story.
Next, we peeped into the Saami kotas (tepees), where some elves were inviting kids to join in with Christmas classics such as "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer". Then we went to see the husky dogs another twosome. I looked around for the sleighs. But there are no fake rides here; this was never meant to be a theme park.
Our audience with Santa the climax of our visit was upon us. So far, the timings had been just right; much more spare time and I fear the elves would have got it from frustrated families. We crowded into a big tepee, Santa's waiting area, with our fellow passengers. The kids' excitement mounted, but there was some kind of delay Santa was lavishing too much attention on each family. By the time we made the front of the queue we'd been waiting more than an hour.
At last, Calum was able to persuade the main man that his good behaviour all year had earned a Nintendo DS Lite. We posed for a photo and said our goodbyes, my son clutching his gifts of a wooden puzzle and book. "Mum, that was definitely the real Santa because he was wearing furry boots." There's nothing like true happiness on your child's face to warm freezing toes.
With 100,000 people having already registered their interest in visiting next year, I guess we weren't alone in judging the place a bit of a hit. But if you yearn to see Santa in an authentic snowy landscape, you'll need to join the 77,000 people a year who visit Finnish Lapland to frolic in the white stuff, take sleigh and snowmobile rides and deliver their wish lists into the hands of the man himself.
Calum and I took a First Choice package holiday to Levi, a scenic Finnish ski resort inside the Arctic Circle, to make the comparison. For winter holiday novices such as us, a package is the easiest way to acclimatise to an environment where the temperature can drop to -25°C or lower. Most of your essential clothing and the transport are sorted; all you'll have to think about is how long it will take to undress and dress again. We had to attend a welcome meeting and sing the "Crazy Reindeer" song, but, excursions booked, we soon escaped to fill our snow boots at the restaurant buffet.
Next morning we were whisked off for our free "taster" rides in the lantern-lit snowy wilderness. While I was taken by the romance I was less taken by the length of the rides: two minutes in a sleigh pulled by huskies and snowmobiles left Calum and some fellow travellers feeling rather disgruntled.
Thankfully, we'd booked the full-length Husky Trail Blazer later that day (an extra 55 per child and 79 per adult kerching!). A team of eight dogs took us on a 15mph moonlit rollercoaster ride along forest tracks. Twenty-five minutes later, noses hung with icicles, cheeks whipped by twigs, we clambered out exhilarated and in love with those beautiful dogs.
We spent the following morning tobogganing and ski-carting at the bottom of the local slopes. Up and down, up and down; we could have stayed all day. But we were off to a reindeer farm, a genuinely informative excursion (child 55, adult 79), though the reindeer sleigh ride in the dusky light was a gentle alternative to the huskies and more suitable for little ones.
On our final day, we spent the morning at Elf Workshop (included in the price), home to Santa's little helpers. Scores of little people in red and green ran around a powdery playground, cheerfully herding us like reindeer from one activity to another. It was a big hit with the kids, who got to make gingerbread and decorations and to visit Santa's Post Office. There were more mini sleigh rides in the grey light. But, predictably, it was tobogganing and kick-sledding that brought the most pleasure.
Santa made his appearance in Levi that evening at the gala dinner, having tied up Comet and his sleigh outside to screeches of delight (and that was just the parents). Table by table, 200-odd people traipsed up to pose with him. We didn't get our turn until just before 11pm.
These two experiences are quite different but they offer a clear choice for families looking for Christmas fun. At Lapland UK, our meeting with Santa was a more personal encounter. Though I overheard some moaning ("I thought it would be bigger"; "There were only two huskies") about the value for money a family of four pays 90-150 including kids' presents.
Finnish Lapland is a more authentic landscape, but families had to lash out hundreds of pounds extra each day on excursions on top of what they'd paid for the holiday (from 2,500 for a three-night trip for a family of four). Though for those I spoke to this was a one-off trip and they were happy to pay.
Then, of course, there's the fact that Lapland UK offers a green alternative to a three-hour plane journey to the Arctic Circle. A family of four travelling to Lapland on one of the popular day trips will leave a carbon footprint of two tons. Keep on like that and there won't be any snow left up there.
So what was Calum's favourite moment? "The tobogganing," he confirmed. It seems "bubbles" just couldn't replace real snow.
Further reading 'Lapland', by James Proctor, is published by Bradt Travel Guides at 13.99
How to get there
Simone and Calum travelled to Finnish Lapland with First Choice (0871 664 9012; firstchoice.co.uk/ lapland). A three-night, half-board break at the Crazy & White Reindeer Complex, including flights, starts at 2,576 for a family of four in December 2008, based on two adults and two children sharing a two-bedroom apartment.
Tickets for the next season at Lapland UK will go on sale in February 2008, or as soon as the new site is confirmed. Register your interest at laplanduk.co.uk.