Q&A: Sleighbells ... in the best possible taste

The Independent Parent: Your questions answered
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Q. My children are desperate to go to Lapland before Christmas but I'm not sure that I can cope with the whole Santa thing. The thought of saunas, skidoos and dog-sledding appeals more, but obviously my children (aged seven and nine) will be more interested in the fat fellow with presents! Is there some way we can have a "rounded" experience? Jerry Smith, Leeds

Q. My children are desperate to go to Lapland before Christmas but I'm not sure that I can cope with the whole Santa thing. The thought of saunas, skidoos and dog-sledding appeals more, but obviously my children (aged seven and nine) will be more interested in the fat fellow with presents! Is there some way we can have a "rounded" experience? Jerry Smith, Leeds

A. Lapland is a true winter wonderland and, with guaranteed snow and plenty of outdoor activities, it doesn't have to be all Santa theme parks. For those who aren't entirely sure where Lapland is, it's the area of Europe north of the Arctic Circle and includes bits of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. For your purposes, though, you will probably want to concentrate on short breaks in Swedish or Finnish Lapland.

A few years ago I had the most wonderful holiday in Finnish Lapland with not a Santa in sight. Dressed up like Michelin men for most of the time, we sped across the crisp snowy landscape on skidoos, tried our hands at dog-sledding (did you know, incidentally, that the lead dog in a team of huskies is always female?) and stayed in a little log cabin, enjoying its steamy sauna and eating (don't tell your children) the most delicious reindeer stew with cloudberries, washed down with icy vodka. I even saw the Northern Lights - a magical experience when vibrant colours lit up the night sky.

The vast, snowy landscape is scattered with pine forests, rugged mountains and lakes. The native Lapps, or Sami, were once a nomadic people, but have now mostly settled in villages, working in agriculture, tourism, mining or forestry. Those that still herd reindeer often do so on snowmobiles!

The Swedish Travel and Tourism Council (020-7870 5600, www.visit-sweden.com) and Finnish Tourist Board (020-7839 4048, www.mek.fi) are good places to start finding out more about the area. Both will send out information packs and details of tour operators running trips to Lapland. Among those operators, Arctic Experience (01737 218800, www.arctic-discover.co.uk) and Norvista (020-7409 7334) are two of the main Lapland specialists.

Arctic Experience has a seven-day Lapland Husky Sledge Adventure where you learn how to drive your own team of dogs. The trip aims to take you away from the main tourist trails to encounter Lapp communities still herding reindeer and living in traditional tents. It's not cheap, however; mountain hut and camping based tours start at £1,250.

As for your children's Santa fantasies, Norvista's Christmas brochure includes Santa Claus trips to Finnish Lapland. You'll be pleased to hear that Santapark in Rovaniemi can be bypassed, however, with a trip instead to a log cabin in the forest where a more authentic Santa experience awaits you. Traditional reindeer sleigh rides and dog-sledding can be combined with a visit to a husky farm, forest biking and snowmobile safaris. Your children can try out the mini snowmobiles or ride tucked up warmly in sledges. Ice fishing and tandem skiing are other activities on offer. Prices start at £589 per person for adults and £429 for children for a two day trip, including flights.

Operators such as Baltic Travel Service (01449 743121) can also organise more traditional tailor-made packages to Lapland, with visits to Santaworld in Dalarna, Sweden (cue Santa's house, Santa's toy workshop, the Sleigh House and Santa School), and activities such as sleigh rides, treasure hunts and sledging all part of the tour (for further details on Santaworld visit www.santaworld.se).

Finally, Archer's Direct (0870 751 2000) has also just launched three-night and four-night packages to Finnish Lapland with prices starting at £409 for children and £519 for adults.

Q. My 18-year-old daughter would like to spend next summer doing some sort of volunteer or conservation work abroad before going to university. She is quite an adventurous person and has already travelled extensively with us. She has also spent six weeks on a youth expedition to Iceland and sailed in the Tall Ships race. A friend will probably be going with her next summer and they are both very interested in green issues and conservation. Where is a good place to start finding out about organisations that offer these kind of trips? Mrs E. Baker, Bristol

A. There are a number of companies you could contact for more information. Earthwatch (01865 318838, www.earthwatch.org) is by no means the cheapest option - the company funds training for overseas scientists as well as running the different volunteer projects - but it takes volunteers from age 17 upwards and offers a fund-raising pack for students who might have difficulty raising money for its trips. The Earthwatch options available to your daughter next summer include projects focusing on the Green Turtles in Malaysia, Costa Rica's Tropical Forest, Manatees in Belize and Sea Turtles of Baja California in Mexico.

In Costa Rica, for example, volunteers help Dr Eric Olson monitor dry-forest dynamics and the relationship between insects and plant life in this endangered environment. The trip lasts for two weeks and costs £720 excluding flights, but including accommodation in dormitories. With the Baja project, the local Sea Turtle population which has been drastically reduced is studied. The project work in this area involves helping to research migratory routes and nursery areas to try to prevent the further decline of the species. The cost for two weeks here would be £1,060, again excluding flights.

However, if your daughter doesn't have this kind of budget, there are plenty of other options to choose from. One of the best would be to join one of BTCV's (01491 839766, www.btcv.org.uk) international conservation working holidays. These start from around £200 for two weeks, excluding flights.

As a parent, I can understand that you would rather your daughter joined an organised trip, but a cheaper option still would be for her to organise the volunteer work herself once she arrived in a particular country.

When I was in Ecuador I joined the South American Explorer's Club (00 593 2 225 228, www.samexplo.org) in Quito. As well as being a good place to hang out with fellow travellers, catch up on e-mail and store luggage, it also had a noticeboard advertising local volunteer projects which travellers could join. These ranged from planting trees in the rainforest to working with deprived children in schools in Quito. "Volunteer" in these situations usually means that you pay for food, lodging and travel to the project site.

A final alternative that your daughter might want to consider is booking a holiday where the local community would benefit directly.

A good resource for finding out details of companies which offer these trips, as well as information about volunteer projects abroad, is Tourism Concern's (020 7753 3330, www.tourismconcern.org.uk) recently published Community Tourism Guide (£9.99).

Send your family travel questions to S F Robinson, The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL. Or travel@independent.co.uk

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