Destination Santaland

By Jim Eagles

Santa really does his homework and delights kids when they visit him at home. Photo / Supplied
Santa really does his homework and delights kids when they visit him at home. Photo / Supplied

Fancy doing something different next Christmas? It's probably too late to book anything for this year. But next year how about swapping our sun, sand, surf and pohutukawa trees for a visit to Santa's real home north of the Arctic Circle? What could be more different than that?

The frozen charm of Lapland, in northern Finland, which has been marketing itself as Santa's home for more than 70 years, is recommended by several travel agents as the perfect Christmas destination for families with young children.

But isn't that a bit, well, kitsch?

No, according to Stacey Thompson, from Flight Centre Parnell, who knows Santa's Finnish residence well. She spent Christmas 2000 there as a tour guide, an experience she describes as "awesome".

"I must admit that beforehand I thought, okay, it's going to be really tacky, and it's true some places are like that.

"But where we went, at Yllas Humina, it wasn't tacky at all. It was very small and low-key and quite traditional. The accommodation was in log cabins and it was really, really nice.

"In the end I think the parents enjoyed it more than anyone. At the end they were saying, 'I had no idea it was going to be this wonderful'."

A Christmas visit to Yllas Humina usually starts with a personal welcome from Santa.

Stacey said, "When he arrived on his sleigh drawn by reindeer he came round the side so all the kids could see him through the windows and they were all running round yelling, 'Santa's here, Santa's here'.

"Afterwards when Santa wanted to leave, all the kids rushed out of the building and chased after him. There he was, running down the road trying to get into his reindeer sleigh with the kids trying to catch him. The poor guy had to run about 2km down the street in the snow before he could get picked up in a car and driven off."

Other highlights she recalls include:

* Husky sled rides and reindeer sleigh rides.

* An afternoon at a traditional Lappish village, where the homes are "like tepees in the snow", hearing locals explain their history and legends and sharing "a special ceremonial milk drink for adults ... actually milk with Baileys in it".

* A chance for the adults to drive a snowmobile "which is like a jetski in the snow".

* An evening walk across a frozen lake to join locals singing carols by candlelight.

But the big moment was, of course, the visit to Santa's own home.

"For that we took the kids into the forest with little elves set up along the way peeking out from the trees ...

"Then each family would go one-by-one through a candlelit pass to visit Santa's little grotto with his log cabin, all set up with a reindeer outside."

Stacey said Santa had been told beforehand about each child.

Santa would "greet them by name, and say he'd got their letter and knew what they wanted, which the kids would think was fantastic.

"It was incredibly well-done and he was dressed really well for the part. I remember thinking, 'God, he does look like Santa'.

"Because he had an accent, because he was Finnish, that added to it too, made him seem more real.

"After all he does live over the Arctic Circle so he should sound different. The kids loved it, even the older ones, and I swear the adults had even more fun than the children."

Several other travel agents agreed with Stacey that Lapland was the perfect place for a family with young children to go for Christmas.

But not everyone liked the idea. In fact Gary Nicholson, from Palmerston North Flight Centre, said, "Everyone will say Lapland but it is actually really touristy and unbelievably cold.

"The best place to be for Christmas is on the Garden Route in South Africa, having a sunset braai with freshly caught fish and boerewors, sinking a few Castle lagers. Guaranteed great weather, friendly people and cheap."

Certainly if you've got teenage children the expert advice is to head for the sun rather than the snow.

Debbie Pavlovich, of House of Travel WestCity Henderson, strongly recommends heading across the Tasman to the Gold Coast and staying somewhere like the Turtle Beach Resort.

In between the sunbathing and swimming, she says, there are all the Gold Coast's theme parks to visit where the kids can enjoy fun activities like the Claw, Tower of Terror, Giant Drop, Mammoth Falls, Terror Canyon and Shark Attack.

And if you stay on for New Year's Eve you can also enjoy the family festival at Southport or the fireworks at Broadbeach, Surfers Paradise and Sanctuary Cove.

For couples without children, most travel agents recommend heading to the northern hemisphere for a white Christmas.

United Travel says its older customers' all-time favourite destination for Christmas is London where they can see the famous Christmas lights on Regent St and the Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony in Trafalgar Square.

Alternatively, there is Austria where people can enjoy the "charm, atmosphere and culture and the wonderful Christmas markets in Vienna and Salzburg".

Sandy Book of Shore City Flight Centre recommends northern Italy.

"You get the cold in the mountains combined with the most amazing food."

Nicky de Clifford, a product-development manager for Flight Centre, prefers the French Alps resort town of Merbel.

"It's a gorgeous chalet-style town with great bars and restaurants, awesome skiing in the most picturesque valley and the weather at Christmas is normally blue sky and sunshine."

Clare Ritchie, from House of Travel Newmarket, also fancies France and suggests couples spend Christmas in "the most romantic city in the world with a special Taste of Paris package".

But the advice to singles is to stay at home.

Pam Hardley, team leader of the Auckland Airport Flight Centre, recommends spending the festive season in the Bay of Islands.

Angela Peters, from Upper Hutt Flight Centre, recommends Mt Maunganui, both places well-known for their big outdoor parties.

But Ramona McCambridge, of House of Travel Ponsonby, reckons the unattached should head for Queenstown "and be right in the heart of the action ... in the singles party capital of New Zealand".

Something to think about this Christmas if you find yourself wishing you were somewhere else.

- NZ Herald

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