A Day in Helsinki

Helsinki is marketed as the “Christmas City” by Finland’s tourism board, but take note that it only holds true if you actually come before Christmas.

We arrived in Helsinki on Christmas eve before heading of to our winter adventure in the Arctic Circle to meet Santa and his elves and to see the elusive northern lights. But instead of witnessing a vibrant Christmas city, it was very, very, very quiet! Fins spend Christmas eve with their families. They visit the deceased in the cemeteries and have a merry Christmas meal at home, which we were lucky enough to be invited to. As for the city? Almost everything was CLOSED, even the local trams end at noon or early in the evening for the suburban trains. So if ever you’re heading somewhere, book a taxi in advance.

If you only have a day in the city, whether it’s Christmas eve or not, it’s relatively easy to visit the main tourist attractions on foot. Just that in winter there’s only a few hours of sunlight during the day (if it’s not cloudy) and it gets dark fast, really fast!

The Helsinki Cathedral is an Evangelical Lutheran church, originally built between the 1830s and 1850s.

Uspenski Cathedral is an Eastern Orthodox church. Completed in the 1860s, it is the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe and a symbol of Russian influence in the country.

Little Philosophie was fascinated by this giant snow globe completely made of chocolate, one of the lovely holiday window decorations at Stockmann’s department store.

Aleksanterinkatu, Helsinki’s main shopping street

We were happy to find this quaint cafe open on Christmas eve. Located on Senate Square, Café Köket serves delicious sandwiches, salads and snacks.

Love these glitter shoes by local designer Minna Parikka

Until my next post … take care!
Save the bees, save the environment!

Winter Adventure in Lapland

It was not just about visiting Santa and his elves during our recent trip to the Arctic Circle in Lapland, Finland. Young or old, single travellers, couples or families, this region offers activities for everyone. While little Philosophie had her Christmas fairy tale, we (meaning the parents) also had a fantastic winter adventure.

66°33′46.1″

The elusive AURORA BOREALIS

Little Philosophie:
Wow! This is the best ever! I saw the northern lights!

It has always been my dream to see the northern lights. I’ve had it in my bucket list for quite sometime now and missed my opportunity when I went to Iceland several years back. This time around, I’m not taking any chances. Of course, there’s really no guarantee that the aurora borealis will appear and on this particular evening, I even had low hopes because of the full moon and the somewhat cloudy skies. But lo and behold, Mother Nature had her own plan. The skies cleared and the lights appeared, presenting our family with the best show that month. Well, as told by other aurora hunters and guides during random conversations.

We went on a hilltop in a remote area, away from the light pollution of Rovaniemi,  to have better chances of seeing the lights. From 9:00 p.m. until midnight, the best time for aurora sightings, our eyes were focused on the skies and toward the north. It was -10C, with the chill factor making it feel much colder, but we held on. Even little Philosophie stayed awake and kept her composure. We made a deal that she could come if she wouldn’t whine nor complain when she’s tired. After all, it was quite late. During the so-called magnetic midnight, the aurora borealis gave us a spectacular show in intense shades of green and bits of pink, purple, yellow and blue. It felt like we could touch the lights, graciously dancing above us,  and the three freezing hours quickly passed. I still can’t believe I saw them!

Afterwards, we had barbecue in a teepee, still mesmerized by the experience yet craving for more. But, alas, it was over. I just wished I would have brought a tripod for better pictures. If you’re not going to chase the lights yourself, I highly recommend taking a full evening tour. Several companies offer short aurora sightings near Rovaniemi in the early evening. But based on our experience, I’m glad we chose otherwise as you really won’t see anything before 8:00 p.m, especially with the city lights. It would be a pity to miss the auroras, if they do decide to show up.

As there was a full moon, we didn’t have high hopes. But wow! Just wow! The northern lights appeared  and gave a spectacular show.

As the aurora borealis constantly moves, keep your eyes open at all times.

What an amazing experience and we were told by other aurora hunters and guides (outside of our tour) that this show was the best that month.

The SNOWMOBILE, our mode of transport
I’ve never ridden a snowmobile before so while I was searching for activities for our family, a full-day snowmobile ride visiting several sites caught my eye. It also didn’t take long to convince my husband. And as there are age limitations and legal regulations in Finland on who could ride a snowmobile, our guide attached a sleigh to his snowmobile for little Philosophie to ride on and to carry personal belongings and other items. We were also supplied with windproof snow gear (overalls, boots, gloves, thermal neck/face mask) and helmets.

Snowmobiling through the taiga forest was definitely a much better alternative than driving along the highway, we even had a lunch barbecue in a teepee in the middle of the forest. Even when we couldn’t feel our toes and fingers at the end of the day, we all had a great time. Just one thing, make sure you go to the toilet each time there’s an opportunity. Finding a huge tree to cover you to pee with snow up to your bum in -15C temperature is not cool. IT IS FREEZING COLD!

It was freezing cold even with our special snowsuits and gear supplied by the tour company, but it was a great experience to drive a snowmobile … through the forest instead of the highway.

Taking a break for barbecue lunch in a teepee in the middle of the forest

A license to drive a REINDEER sled
Yes, there is such a thing! Nah, it’s just another tourist trap. As we loved our sunrise reindeer sleigh ride through the forest the other time at Santa Claus Village, we wanted learn more about these lovely creatures. Reindeers are semi-domesticated animals with a population of about 200,000 in Finnish Lapland, all belonging to a herder. Only 10% are white. In addition, reindeers form an important part of the Sami culture.

We visited a reindeer farm and gained an insight into reindeer husbandry, which is still a major source of income for many in the region — meat and leather production.  Little Philosophie was also able to pet a calf and all of us learned how to drive a reindeer sleigh … and got a license!

We visited a reindeer farm to learn more about these lovely creatures and reindeer husbandry.

This reindeer sleigh ride was quick compared to the 30/40-minute sunrise ride we had the other time, but we got our license!

White reindeers are extremely rare, only 10% of the total population.

Little Philosophie petting and feeding this white reindeer calf named Sleepy

A fantastic HUSKY sled ride
Whoa! Faster! Faster! Going to the Arctic Circle won’t be the same without a husky sled ride and, OMG, what an experience. Shortly before sunset we visited a farm of Alaskan huskies to learn more about how the dogs are trained for sled competition. We were later whisked away to the forest, pulled by a team of sled dogs, to enjoy the winter landscape during the blue hour. Bred for speed and endurance it’s also amazing how quietly they run, time and time again eating some snow (without stopping) to hydrate themselves.

Getting ready for our sleigh ride through the taiga forest with these Alaskan huskies

Go! Go! Go! What a fantastic ride and it’s incredible how quietly the dogs run.

An ice (igloo) hotel, an ice bar and ice slides at SNOWMAN’S WORLD
We considered staying in an igloo but decided against it for several reasons: too cold for a small child and toilets were communal — not very practical when you have a six-year-old. But, of course, we had to see one.

Right at Santa Claus Village is Snowman’s World, a small ice hotel with an ice bar and fun “ice” activities for the whole family. We could visit all the igloos, each uniquely decorated, saw an artist at work creating an ice sculpture, and went again and again on those gigantic ice slides (keep your bums up, but inside the rubber dinghies, to avoid getting bruised …  the slides can be a bit bumpy). Little Philosophie would also have enjoyed the teeny skating rink but she didn’t like the hockey skates provided. But our (the parents) favorite? Having espresso vodka shots in ice glasses! She had a non-alcoholic drink.

One of several giant snowmen inside the ice hotel. Careful not to get your lips stuck Little Philosophie!

The ice bar — of course, everything made of ice, even the glasses!

We had several shots of this espresso vodka served on ice glasses, so good!

An artist at work creating one of the ice sculptures inside the hotel

Fancy a carrot or a snowman’s nose?

At Snowman’s World you can sleep in an igloo and dine in an ice restaurant.

Little Philosophie absolutely enjoyed the ice slides.

Until my next post … take care!
Save the bees, save the environment!

A Christmas Fairy Tale in the Arctic Circle

Little Philosophie:
Dear Santa,

I tried to be nice this year. I think I tried my best. My Christmas wishes are:

1) I want to go to your home in the North Pole so I can see you and the elves with my whole family, but without my cat.

2) Can I please have a camera.

That’s all I want. I don’t want to be too greedy. Goodbye Santa!

… and that’s how our family decided to spend Christmas in the Arctic Circle. Little Philosophie believes in Santa and we never said otherwise. We figured she’ll come to learn that he’s a mythical character at some point in time, but not now at six years old.

Each year, she waited for him in front of the chimney, falling asleep on the sofa and obviously missing his arrival. By the time she woke up, he’d left. So to increase her chances of meeting him this year, she made her Christmas wish way in advance and mailed her letter to Santa. We never said she’d get it. In fact, even if her wish would come true, we said that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Children who are lucky enough to be invited by Santa can only see him once. We said so mainly as a precautionary measure so she doesn’t make the same wish each year.

The day before Christmas eve, she received a letter from Santa in the chimney telling her to clean her room and pack! We first flew to Helsinki to spend a day/night in the city then took the 12-hour Santa Claus Express night train all the way to the Arctic Circle. We opted for a sleeping cabin with en suite toilet and shower, surprisingly comfortable, and had a good night’s rest. You can purchase the train ticket 60 days in advance with VR Finland and please do so as the cabins go quickly.

Little Philosophie never really asked us for a Christmas present so we didn’t give her anything else except for the trip (Santa told her grandparents to give the camera). Actually, we didn’t. Santa organized everything! For six days, she lived a Christmas fairy tale in the Arctic Circle, once again proving that what counts more are experiences and not material things. True for us adults too. Even when the time comes that she doesn’t believe in Santa anymore, at least, for that one Christmas, we were able to make her wish come true.

In another post, I also wrote more about our family’s winter wonderland adventure with husky rides, snowmobiles, ice hotels and the elusive aurora borealis.

Meeting SANTA at his village 
The “real” Santa officially lives at Santa Claus Village in the Arctic Circle. He moves around between the Santa Claus Office, Santa Park and the Christmas House. The latter is more personal and has a much shorter queue. Normally, only guests of the cottages at the village know of this location so that’s where we went. Little Philosphie was mesmerized to meet him and from that day on told everybody else that her Christmas wish came true — she met the real Santa Claus.

Aside from Santa, the village also offers a wide variety of activities such as reindeer sleigh rides, husky rides, Christmas-oriented shopping opportunities, ice slides, igloo or cottage accommodations and more. While the village can be crowded during the very short daytime (two-three hours, mainly at midday), it’s very calm in the mornings and late afternoons. The tourist buses either haven’t arrived yet or have already left. And since there are only a few accommodation possibilities in the village, you can have the place almost all to your own.

Who we came to see all the way in the Arctic Circle, the “real” Santa Claus, signing a certificate that little Philosophie met him. Our daughter was mesmerized!

A lovely Christmas tree adorned with all the country flags of the world at the main square. The blue line represents the Arctic Circle.

Going to Santa’s village won’t be complete without a reindeer sleigh ride. You can have a short ride around a track but we opted for a three-kilometer (30/40-minute) ride in the morning through the forest. It was such a wonderful experience, leaving in total darkness and then slowly seeing the sun trying (really, trying) to rise. Well, it barely did.

We finished our reindeer sleigh ride with barbecue and glögi.

We just love reindeers and went to another farm to learn more about them.

A gigantic snowman right at the main square of Santa Claus Village

Santa receives lots of mail each year and many are displayed at the Santa Claus Main Post Office.

Santa Claus’ Main Post Office is a real working post office where you can purchase special edition Santa stamps and order a letter from Santa for Christmas.

Being with the ELVES of Joulukka
While meeting Santa was a big deal, he’s a very busy man. You really only have a few minutes with him. So for that more magical Christmas experience, spending private time with his special elves at Joulukka proved to be very memorable and valuable. The morning we arrived in the Arctic Circle, little Philosophie was whisked away to the secret hideaway of Santa’s elves in the heart of the forest. Meeting Professor Elf Valke and Elf Neja made a huge impression on her. Together, they baked tähtitorttu (a star-shaped tart), drank glögi (a warm Christmas drink), made Christmas decor and, most of all, little Philosophie got her very own fresh Christmas tree from the forest. It was even snowing towards the end of the three-hour program.

Little Philosophie had so many questions for the elves and one thing shocked her the most, they’re not small! But Professor Elf Valke and Elf Neja quickly answered that elves come in all sizes, just like humans. The whole time, they also continuously reinforced the messages of kindness, patience and hard work. Little Philosophie also felt very special that Santa only invited her to meet his elves. While Joulukka can be expensive, her whole Christmas experience would not be the same without it. It was magical and definitely priceless!

Upon arrival in the Arctic Circle, little Philosophie was whisked away to a secret hideaway in the middle of the forest to spend a memorable time with Santa’s special elves, in private.

Little Philosophie was eager to make Christmas decor with Elf Neja.

Professor Elf Valke, concentrating on her tähtitorttu.

Off to pick and get her very own fresh Christmas tree from the forest!

She neither wanted a tall nor a teeny weeny tree, so she chose this one. What a truly memorable experience.

Time to decorate the tree with colorful balls and other items that she made together with the elves.

Merry Christmas from Professor Elf Valke and Elf Neja!

Yay, snowfall towards the end of her three-hour program with the elves.

A snack of tähtitorttu that little Philosophie baked with the elves and glögi.

Experiencing SANTA PARK
Another place other than Joulukka to meet Santa’s elves is at Santa Park, a Christmas-themed amusement park built completely inside a cavern. It’s a fantastic place for children where they can attend an Elf School (and get a diploma afterwards), make crafts at the Elf Workshop, write letters at the Calligraphy School, decorate gingerbread cookies at Mrs. Gingerbread’s bakery, take “Elfie” photos, and meet the Ice Princess (she has an ice sleigh and an ice throne, you know). Professor Elf Valke teaches at the Elf School and little Philosophie was so excited to see her again that she even attended the course twice!

Elf School normally takes 99 years but there is an abridged version for humans, roughly 25 minutes. You even receive a Santa hat and a diploma after finishing the course. Little Philosophie was so happy to see Professor Elf Valke again!

Decorating her own gingerbread cookie at Mrs. Gingerbread’s bakery, whose helper, Elf Mira, is also really funny!

At the Elf Workshop where she absolutely enjoyed making Santa Clauses, six in all.

Some have really been quite creative with their Santa Clauses. You can choose to bring them with you or nail them to the wall of the Elf Workshop.

The Ice Princess on her throne, of course made of ice!

As the story goes, every four years the ice polar bears Snowstorm and Snowflake can magically fly, taking the Ice Princess on her ice sleigh all around the Arctic Circle.

Have you been naughty or nice this year?

A live dance performance about the aurora borealis

Resting in the ARCTIC CIRCLE
We planned our trip in early September and thought we were booking our accommodation in advance. Wrong! All the glass igloos (with bathrooms) were fully booked and since we refuse to sleep in an ice igloo without a toilet (very impractical and cold for little children) we had to split our stay between the cottages at Santa Claus Village and the Arctic Light Hotel. Thank goodness we took the night train, otherwise, it would be a logistical nightmare moving from one hotel to the next. My tip? Book as early as you can, six months in advance if possible.

Santa Claus Holiday Village – ♥♥♥♥
Santa Claus Village, 96930 Arctic Circle
* Fancy having your own cottage in the Arctic Circle? This is the place to be, living next to Santa who will even give you a special visit in your cottage if you arrange in advance. The cottages can accommodate a family of four and has its own sauna, kitchenette, and sledges (available at reception) to drag your kids around the village. The cottages are basic but nonetheless charming, and perfect for keeping yourself warm in between the various activities in the village. We had half-board but food is only so-so … better to fill your stomachs in the restaurants nearby. Take note that the village is outside of Rovaniemi but there are hourly buses to and from the city.

We had cottage #17 and were very content with the space and amenities: private sauna, kitchenette and sledges.

Arctic Light Hotel – ♥♥♥♥
Valtakatu 18, 96200 Rovaniemi
* This newly opened boutique hotel is fantastic. Our room was spacious, service is top notch and breakfast was delicious with a wide variety of fresh smoothies, fruits and warm and cold dishes … just too bad they didn’t have karelian pies. I booked through Expedia, which had a better rate than booking directly with the hotel.

Eating in the ARCTIC CIRCLE
Restaurant Nili – ♥♥♥♥♥
Valtakatu 20, 96200 Rovaniemi
* Serving Lappish food in the heart of Rovaniemi, we absolutely enjoyed the traditional decor and ambiance of this restaurant. We ordered the Christmas menu consisting of a selection of Finnish starters, followed by a rack of really tender reindeer meat and finished off with cream cheese cake with cloudberries and raspberries. Each dish was also served with the corresponding wine. It’s best to reserve in advance, otherwise, you’ll have to wait for quite a while.

Reindeer Cafe Sirmakko – ♥♥♥♥
Santa Claus Village, 96930 Arctic Circle
* Tasty food and friendly staff, this is a fast-food restaurant at Santa Claus village. We had reindeer burger and traditional sautéed reindeer meat with mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam. The restaurant also serves reindog (reindeer hot dog), reindeer sausage and other Lappish dishes. Of course we drank glögi, with rum for us parents! All the reindeer meat served is guaranteed to belong to the restaurant owners, giving it that unique seal of “protected designation of origin” … just like with wine.

Santa’s Salmon Place – ♥♥♥♥
Santa Claus Village, 96930 Arctic Circle
* If you’ve had enough reindeer meat, this rustic teepee at Santa Claus Village offers freshly grilled Salmon and potatoes served on a natural wooden/tree-bark plate with wooden cutlery. Well, that’s the only thing in the menu. It’s a really cozy teepee with an open fire. The food is basic but delicious.

Fresh salmon grilled right in front of you; well, there’s really no choice, it’s the only dish in the menu.

Absolutely adore the ambiance of Santa’s Salmon Place, a traditional Lappish teepee.

Restaurant Pohjanhovi – ♥♥♥
Pohjanpuistikko 2, 96200 Rovaniemi
* Located inside Hotel Rantasipi Pohjanhovi, we ended up here because we wanted to eat reindeer meat again and Restaurant Nili was fully booked. While the hotel needs some much-needed renovation, it seems to be stuck in the 70s/80s, the restaurant has a lovely view of the Kemijoki river in its (partly) frozen glory. We tried both the buffet dinner and the à la carte menu; if you just want traditional sautéed reindeer meat with mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam, the buffet is ok. But for other reindeer dishes, you have to order them separately.

Until our next post … take care!
Save the bees, save the environment!