DANNY ROBINS' INDIE TRAVEL GUIDE - MEETING FATHER CHRISTMAS
Not long till Christmas now, so I thought for this week's Travel Guide we'd look at how and where to meet the man it's all about - no not Jesus (meeting him is whole different story) - I mean Santa, Father Christmas, Saint Nick, Richard Attenborough, call him what you will...
Lapland - Home of Santa Claus
What we know as Lapland stretches across Sweden and Finland - it's named after the Lapp people, though these days it's no longer politically correct to call them that and they go by the name Sami. The Sami population stretches into Norway and Russia too but it's only the Finnish-Swedish part that markets itself to tourists as Lapland.
For some reason this area has now been branded as Santa's home - perhaps because the North Pole, where people used to say he lived, is more awkward to get to and perhaps because the thing the Sami people are most famous for is reindeer herding, so there's no shortage of Rudolph's running around.
There are lots of different places you can visit that are set up with little Santa cabins in the woods but the strongest claim for where Father Christmas (or 'Joulupukki' in Finnish) actually 'lives' seems to be the mountains of Korvatunturi on the Finnish/Russian border. Finnish folklore claims that this is where he holes up making his list of who has been naughty or nice. For a nice twisted take on this legend, check out the Finnish comedy horror film Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale which is in cinemas at the moment. Well worth seeing.
Korvatunturi is a bit remote though and the main focus for trips across to meet Santa is the Santa Claus Village, a tourist attraction in a place called Rovaniemi.
Amazingly, you can do it as a day trip or you can choose a 3 day or 5 day option. It's touristy for sure and it certainly isn't cheap but, by all accounts, it is fun and the kids love it and get to meet real huskies and reindeer - have you ever met a reindeer? They're a lot smaller then you think...
Jon Ronson wrote a funny article for The Guardian about his trip to meet Santa in Lapland with his son.
Lapland after Christmas...
If you don't have kids, aren't desperate to meet Santa but do want to see Lapland, to avoid shelling out a fortune and having to battle the crowds leave it till after Christmas. It's one of the best places in the world to see the spectacular Northern lights and offers loads of fun stuff to do like husky dog sledding and snowmobiling.
I've actually only ever been there in the summer, when it becomes the land of the midnight sun.
You can get there pretty cheaply. Flying Ryanair to Stockholm and then picking up a flight to either Kiruna or Luleå with Norwegian Air is one cheap way. Or you can fly for a bit more with SAS - it may even work out cheaper in the long run as you won't need to take the shuttle bus between airports that the Ryanair flight necessitates (they don't fly to Stockholm Arlanda, where the Kiruna flights leave from).
When you're there, if it's anytime between early December and late April, you could stay at the famous Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi. This is quite an experience. You're sleeping in temperatures between -5 and -8 degrees. You have to wear your thermals and you get warm sleeping bags and lots of reindeer skins to lie on. You can't take your luggage into the room as that would freeze! That stays in the warm (non-icy) building which is where you'll also be for the rest of your stay - you're only allowed one night in the Ice Hotel proper.
One thing you might like to try and time your visit for is the traditional Sami market in the town of Jokkmokk in February. It's about 3 hours drive from the Ice Hotel. There's loads of Sami handcrafted products on sale, reindeer races and traditional Sami music. It's been going every year for 400 years and is quite an experience. This year's market is 3rd to 5th Feb (it's always the first weekend in Feb). Go and sample some smoked elk.
One other place you could stay near Jokkmokk is The Victoria Fort, a Cold War bunker located inside a mountain - everything in it is preserved as it was in the 1960s and it can take up to 30 guests.
For really cheap accommodation though you want to be looking at a Swedish Youth Hostel - they're generally pretty good quality - there's not the same stigma attached to hostels in Sweden as there is here.
Meet Santa without leaving the UK...
Back to Christmas time though, and, if you can't afford the trip to Scandinavia, then you can still get to meet Santa here in the UK.
There's actually a place in Kent that bill itself as Lapland UK. It's very much a British version of it though - it had to close last year because of snowfall! They don't do that in Sweden or Finland. It's been a bit controversial as it went into administration last year owing quite a few customers money. They're back this year though and apparently tickets are 40% lower. Whether it'll be any good or not I don't know.
To see some real reindeer in the UK, head to Ayrshire Reindeer in Scotland. They'll be having a Santa's grotto at Whitehills Farm until Christmas with a chance to feed reindeer and have your photo taken - remember, they're smaller than you think...
Some other, slightly quirkier options are:
National Coal Mining Museum
A grotto where hard hats are essential. At this museum in a former mine near Wakefield in Yorkshire, you can take a trip 140 metres below the Earth's surface to meet Santa and his elves.
Santa underground tours run from 10.00am until 3.30pm on Friday 17, Monday 20, Tuesday 21, Wednesday 22 and Thursday 23 December. Tickets are £6.00 for children and £4.00 for adults (includes a gift for the kids - not for the adults sadly!). Booking is essential.
A grotto is for life, not just for Christmas when it comes to this place. The Shell Grotto may sound like a Christmas attraction sponsored by a petrol company but it's actually a rather eccentric and pretty tourist attraction in the seaside town Margate. No one really quite knows what it is or where it came from but it's a series of underground caves decorated with shells in amazing patterns that were accidentally discovered in 1835 under a farmer's field.
Some people believe it is an ancient temple for some secret sect - the shell patterns include trees of life, phalluses, gods, goddesses and something that looks like an altar. Some people just think it's a Regency folly built by some rich bloke.
Anyway, whatever it is, it's a atmospheric and unusual place to meet Santa, who camps out there in the weekends leading up to Christmas - last chance to see him is this Sat and Sun (18th&19th). Tickets are £5.50 for kids, which includes a gift.
King Arthur's Labyrinth
By now you'll have noticed I've got an underground theme going... Also worth a mention is King Arthur's Labyrinth, in Corris in Mid-Wales. Normally an Arthurian inspired tourist attraction where you can sail in on a boat into caves, over the Christmas period it becomes a Santa's grotto and the boat will lead you face to face with the cheery one.
Children are £6.75, adults are £4.25. Booking is recommended. Last chance to catch it is this weekend . 18th and 19th.
Staying subterranean, this is a Santa's grotto with a bit of an indie alternative twist in the crypt of St Pancras Church near Euston in London. It's run by an arts group called Illumini and is a kind of installation piece suitable for both kids and adults. You're taken on a torch-lit tour of the crypt, the walls of which are lit up with colourful projections, artworks and special effects - and, at the end of the tour, you can meet Father Crypt-mas, a futuristic robotic Santa Claus.
And you can even meet Santa without leaving your house...
Santa, like so many of us, has embraced the digital age. The charity Shelter have set up a thing called Santa Cam, which allows you to get a real life Santa to record a personalised message for someone you know. Meant to be a child I think, but no one need know if you do it for an adult mate (or even yourself). You give a donation in return.
And, thanks to the US Military you can also track Santa's exact position on Christmas Eve night as he travels round the world delivering presents. For years, NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defence Command, have been purporting to track the bearded one as he flies through the sky and providing updates to children on their website. The whole thing stems back to 1955 when a department store misprinted a 'direct line to Santa' phone number, printing the number for NORAD's predecessor , the Continental Air Defense Command instead. Whoops. Apparently the chief on duty took it in his stride and got his staff to give children who called a 'current location' for Santa - a tradition that has continued ever since.
These days of course you don't need to ring America to find out where Santa is. As well as the NORAD website you can also follow his progress on Facebook Twitter and even by typing 'Santa' into Google Maps on your phone. Excellent.
If you see Santa, say hello and if you've got any good Christmassy travel tips yourself let me know at www.twitter/danny_robins