'Magical' is overused word in relation to holidays - likewise 'trip of a lifetime'. But in truth it's pretty hard to describe a trip to Santa's Lapland without resorting to them at least once.
For a start, it's Lapland! Huskies, reindeer and a Narnia-like landscape, about as far north as many of us will ever go. The plane touches down in a genuine winter wonderland, and it all feels wonderfully strange from the off - the landscape is quite different from anything else we've seen, and there IS something strange and marvellous about a place where the snow stretches before you for miles and miles and miles in the twilight.
The fact that most of the day takes place in semi or complete darkness adds quite dramatically to the sense of mystery and excitement, of course. If you've ever looked out of your window at night to see snow falling, and rushed outside into the silence, you'll be able to imagine the special magic o fthe place. It's dream-like and only semi-real - everyone can feel it.
The resort itself is sweet and manageably small, set around one main street with a few low-key shops, bars and restaurants on either side. This certainly isn't an ersatz facade designed to squeeze every last penny from visitors - It feels resolutely uncommercial overall. As well as we Santa-seeking visitors, there are plenty of Finns and other Scandis here for a weekend of winter sports - it's got the feel of a provincial ski resort, pleasantly empty with few queues (and no wealthy kids bolting gluwein).
If you fancy, you can pay extra for some skiing (cross-country or downhill) either through Santa's Lapland or the other activity organisers in the resort - prices seemed pretty consistent from what we saw. On our 'free' day we booked a family ski lesson (complete novices!) and had loads of fun learning to grab the ski lift thingies between our mitts/thighs, and drag ourselves half way up the beginners' slope before swishing our way down.
It's all genuinely charming and remarkably un-Disneyfied - in fact, it's sort of the opposite of every 'themed' thing that you've ever done. There are toboggans left lying around the resort for anyone to borrow, and an amazing sledging hill about five minutes from the hotel. Whenever there was a spare moment the kids were begging to go - and it WAS huge fun to whizzing down the slope. Little ones can take the gentler paths at the edges, while older kids come down the centre of the hill at a cracking pace; adults even faster, as I discovered. After my third time landing in a heap at the bottom I gave up trying to sledge gracefully to a halt, and just enjoyed the adrenalin rush.
Every trip centres around one big day of activities, culminating in a private visit for just your family to Santa's cabin. You're collected bright and early by coach and driven through the snowy landscape to the arctic circle centre where all the big stuff happens. We kicked off with a ride through the snow on a sled pulled by reindeer, which was really pretty wonderful. There are lots of photo opportunities with the animals throughout the day, and a very sweet elf show in a real igloo (!) which is lots of fun for the little ones. Lunch is a jolly affair in a sort of Arctic canteen, and there's also a cute ice bar where you can grab some hot berry juice to warm your insides for a bit.
There are lots of fun things to try (ice-fishing, snow-hockey, kick-sledding (abcross between a scooter and a toboggan!), tandem skiing, and mini-skidoo rides for the children). Generally, we're not big 'organised group activity' types - but as with the rest of the trip, the day somehow manages to seem genuine and unforced, and charmingly uncommercial; we really, really enjoyed ourselves.
For me, the absolute highlight of the trip was the chance to drive a sled containing the kids and DH, racing through the twilit snow behind a team of six gorgeous huskies. An old war-wound of DH's meant he wasn't up for it - so, despite being generally a bit of a scaredy-cat , I drew myself up to my full height and stepped up to the plate. Once in a lifetime and all that.
It was indescribably exciting to be standing (standing!) on the back of the sleigh controlling these amazing animals, the rest of the family snuggled up in blankets below me. I felt, truly, like a character from a novel. You whizz around a pre-cut (but by no means 'fake', if that makes sense) route. Effectively, the dogs and sleigh have a guide path, but you still have to keep your wits about you in controlling the speed of the huskies, and the adrenalin is real enough! The drive lasts about ten minutes, which in all honesty, feels like plenty when you're up there slicing through the snow - five minutes for each adult to have ago if they fancy it, with an opportunity to swap half way through.
The huskies, like the reindeer, seemed very well-cared for and happy. Each team had a dedicated human to look after them, and make sure no tourists did anything silly that could put themselves or the dogs in danger. We spoke to ours (perfect English, natch) - he was from Helsinki, and not a local after all. Having fallen in love with Huskies as a boy, he'd moved here to follow his dream of working with them. I was not far off doing the same by the end of the day - only the pitiful cries of my children prevented me from chucking it all in to play out the rest of my days with lovely, lovely blue-eyed huskies.
Finally, time for our own special trip further out into the forest to find Santa's cabin. Hard to describe the excitement we all experienced setting off into the twilit forest in a reindeer-pulled sleigh under blankets - If you've ever done anything similar in the UK, put it out of your mind now. This is an experience completely unlike any we'd had previously. In part it's the location of course - as the sleigh rushes through the Narnia-like landscape, you glimpse signs that the naughty elves have been at work and play in the clearings, and stop for a little chat with them too. But there's something genuinely magical about the way that the thing is pulled off - the big guy himself is literally the most Santa-like personage I'd ever seen, for example, and completely and utterly convincing in his manner. It was genuinely moving to hear him talking to the children so kindly and gently, and (even though they're no longer believers) their eyes were like saucers - particularly since, following a bit of clever sleight of hand with the parents help, Santa was able to pull from his bag the letters that we had 'posted' back in England. He reads it carefully out and tells the kids that he'll do his best to bring them something nice, and to remember that the most important thing in life is to be kind to one another. The whole thing was perfect, and even the most unsentimental amongst us (DH, lookin' atcha) seemed to have something in their eye.
Finally, a coach back to the resort, and supper, before an exhausted early night for everyone.
Food on the half-board option was an all-inclusive buffet at breakfast and dinner, with a gala dinner on the last night. It was all completely fine - not gourmet for sure, but certainly good enough (bearing in mind that almost all food is imported); everyone found something that they enjoyed every night. Chalet rooms are pretty basic - but again, perfectly serviceable. We were in a one-bedder, so the kids slept on a pull-out sofa bed in the living room. There's a kitchenette and a very handy clothes warmer to help you dry your gear - and a little woodburner too, if you fancy. No need though - the rooms were toasty warm.
In fact despite the fact that the temperature regularly drops to below ten degrees and sometimes as low as -30, it doesn'f feel horribly cold. The air is dry and so is the snow - no soggy bottoms here. Great quality thermal snow suits, boots, socks, ski gloves and hats are provided, by the way, so no need to bulk buy costly skiwear for the whole family if you don't own any already. You could turn up in your undies and be perfectly protected from the subzero temperatures, though an extra pair of warm socks and some woolly gloves to go under those provided are useful. I took my comedy furry trapper hat which covered my ears - because if you can't wear ridiculous winter headgear in Lapland, where the hell can you?
Top tip - if you're not able to stretch to one of the add-on sleigh/skidoo trips out into the countryside to look for the Northern Lights, grab one of the locals and ask them to point you towards the best place to see them within the village itself. There's a great spot about a five minute walk away from the main drag where the lights of the little village are not so bright, and it's consequently much easier to see the show if the lights make an appearance. We were completely thrilled to witness a jaw-dropping display of eery colour - not once, but twice on consecutive nights! It's really worth mooching around between 9-11 and keeping your eyes up towards the beautiful Arctic sky, in the hope of crossing it off your bucket list.
In truth, everything about the trip felt pretty 'bucket list'. I feel enormously lucky to have been to Lapland, and I would be back like a shot, to be honest. The kids still regularly talk about it; perhaps in a couple of decades when they have kids of their own, we'll all be back to do it all again!
Note: I was a guest of Santa's Lapland; trips are accepted on the understanding that it won't affect the resulting review in any way.