It would be hard to say who was more excited - us or the dogs. Having once seen a film about the harsh lives of huskies in the Arctic, I'd expected a bunch of thin, mangy-looking canines. But these dogs had thick, clean, healthy coats and seemed to be wearing permanent grins. The younger huskies had been so keen to get going that they'd whined and barked at the imperturbable older dogs who headed the team and placidly prevented them from setting off betimes.
As for me and my eight-year old son Liam, we had felt giddy with excitement ever since we landed at Kittila airport a few hours before - some 100 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland. I'd abandoned all attempts at maintaining a veneer of maturity as soon as we'd stepped on to the snow-covered runway and found a reindeer-driven sleigh next to the plane. "Look!" I found myself shouting: "Do you think that's Santa's?"
It wasn't. After patting the reindeer and exchanging Christmas greetings with several Lapp children in elfinesque red hats, we were transferred to our hotel in Yllas in a conventional coach. The drive was unremarkable (it was too dark to see anything by 3.30pm), apart from the fact that none of the vehicles on the road seemed bothered that it was covered by an amount of snow which would have gridlocked a British city.
Not that there are any cities out there. Kittila is the biggest town, with a population of 500. Yllas is a mere village. No wonder then, that within minutes of getting into the sleigh, we were out of sight of civilisation and entering one of Lapland's many forests.
At first it was dark simply with the normal darkness of a winter's evening. White light from the hotel and red and yellow light from the campfire softened the night around us. But as we drove further into the forest, the blackness increased, thickened and grew almost tangible.
Yet there was some light from candles swimming in molten wax in silver foil dishes, placed at odd intervals in the snow. They lit up no more than a few metres of track so that the one or two trees nearest to them stood out like the sharper-than-life 3-D images of a paperweight snowscene.
The contrast was audible as well as visual. We were surrounded by total silence, strange and rather disquietening to our city ears. Every swish from the rungs of the sleigh, every pant from one of the dogs, every short, infrequent command from the
driver had the effect, not of breaking the silence, but of magnifying it. "That was magic, Mum," whispered Liam, clambering off the sleigh. We walked back to the campfire. "Can we go on the toboggan run now?" Despite beginning to feel rather jaded (we'd been up since 5am), I quickly downed both cups of the hot, red cloudberry juice the guide had handed us (Liam had pronounced his too sweet). This was only a two-night trip and we wanted to make every moment count. We stayed on the toboggan run until l0pm, long after the last guide had gone. After several "just one more goes", we finally hung up the flat, bottom-shaped pieces of plastic we'd been whizzing down the hill on and headed for a likely-looking shortcut to our part of the hotel.
Halfway up the hill I realised we weren't alone. Two reindeer were coming down the same path. All four of us stopped. I ran over in my mind what I knew about reindeer. It consisted of "They can fly and sometimes have red noses". Were they vicious? Did they bite? One was obviously a baby. Would its Mum consider us a threat? I warned Liam not to touch it, which became difficult when the youngster decided we were interesting and came up to snuffle our clothes.
For a while Ma Reindeer looked as undecided as I was, then gave an impatient snort at our wimpishness, shook her head and leapt sideways. The youngster followed her at once and they ambled disdainfully off towards the forest.
The trip lasted only one full and two half days but we did more than we'd sometimes done in two weeks. We had a go at tandem cross-country skiing, which is like doing the three-legged race with both your legs tied to the person in front. It is absolutely impossible - especially for two people who have never strapped foot to ski before (one - me - vows never to do so again).
Still, we joined good-humouredly in the obvious amusement we were providing for the Finns and consoled ourselves with the knowledge that our Yorkshire- bred skills had enabled us to excel in the "chuck a welly through the hole in the snow-block" contest.
For me, the best experience was the snowmobile trip. It's like driving a powerful motorbike on skis without the fear of breaking lots of bones if you come off. One woman proved its relative safety by careering off the track into the forest at a bend. Although she managed to fell a small fir tree, the most she suffered was a loss of her dignity as three people lifted her and her machine out of several feet of snow.
Liam was disappointed at not being able to drive one of these (you must be 18), but loved the reindeer-sleigh ride in the afternoon. His favourite moment, however, was coming upon a pretty wooden cottage in the middle of the forest, which turned out to be the home of a fat man in a red coat and trousers. An affable, equally red-clad Mrs Claus dispensed smiles and sweeties while the Great Man wrote down Liam's Christmas hopes in a huge leather-bound book with a quill pen. This encounter not only quieted his growing doubts for another year, but it awed him so much that he only asked for another two modest toys. A week later, Santa delivered them both.
FINLAND fact file
Who goes there?
Finnair Norvista (tel: 0171 409 7334). Cosmos (tel: 01233 211608; brochure, 0161-480 5799). Canterbury Travel (tel: 01923 822388).
Finnair Norvista from Heathrow, Gatwick. Cosmos from Gatwick, Manchester. Canterbury from Gatwick, Manchester, B'ham.
How long for?
Trips are for between two and six days, 28 Nov to 30 Dec.
Places available in December but becoming scarcer.
Best value is Finnair Norvista, whose four-day trips are from pounds 553 for adults, pounds 385 for children. Cosmos charges from pounds 589 for adults, pounds 479 for children, for four-day trips. Canterbury charges from pounds 810 for four- or five-day trips. Trips which include Christmas Day cost from: Cosmos pounds 679, Norvista pounds 850, Canterbury pounds 1,025; Norvista's four-day New Year trips are pounds 750, Canterbury's from pounds 750. Prices include full board, thermal clothing (except Cosmos), equipment hire and guides.
Finnish Tourist Board, 30-35, Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LP. (tel: 0171 930 5871)