As far as bucket list travel goes, journeying to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus is a dream come true for every child (and yes, us adults). Yet despite our long-held belief that Santa’s magical village is situated at the North Pole, the reality is this jolly old soul actually lives in Finland.
When I broke the news to my favorite six-year-old that I was heading to Finland, to visit the ‘real’ Santa, she was confused. And then rattled off a million and one questions. “Why isn’t he at the North Pole?” “How do his reindeer fly?” “Do they really like carrots?” And the big one: “How did Santa get his magic?”
Santa Claus’ Village
And so it was that I found myself – and my inner child – armed with those pressing questions as I waited to meet the legendary white-bearded, red-suited old gent at his home office in Santa Claus Village. Which as it turns out is indeed located in Napapiiri (Finnish for Arctic Circle), approximately four miles from Rovaniemi. Before my meet and greet, I visited the main post office, also part of Santa Claus Village where Christmas carols played and around 700,000 hand-written letters from around the world spilled from a giant sack on the floor. In the corner of the room, hung giant strings of colorful pacifiers.
“Many children send their pacifiers to Santa when they are finished with them,” one of Santa’s helpers explained. As a sweet three-year-old climbs onto Santa’s knee, and he greets the family in Swedish, I remove my questions from my purse. A sense of childhood wonder washes over me. Something intuitively tells me that this Santa is special, definitely not the shopping-mall Santa, rolled out in his place as the real Santa prepares for the big day. His beard, white mixed with wisps of gray, is the longest I’ve ever seen. A long, white nightshirt, covered by a red vest, spills over baggy, pajama-like pants, which are tucked into knee-high brown moccasins. A red cap sits cockeye on his head.
Well, Hello Santa
As if reading my thoughts, Santa winks at me, and motions for me to come over. Like a starstruck child, I sprint forward and introduce myself. He eyes me with amusement, lapses into Polish (my last name) then Hungarian (my birth name) but, receiving no fluent response in either, laughs and resumes in English. “What have you there,” he asks, pointing to the paper in my hand, before gently taking it, and perusing the questions.
“Why don’t I live at the North Pole? That’s a very good question, everyone does think that. I live in Finland. It’s just too cold in the North Pole; even the reindeer couldn’t live there. As for how my reindeer fly,” Santa pauses thoughtfully, rubs the wire-frame glasses perched on his nose. “Now, that’s a big secret. All of the details are known only to Rudolph and me. But I can say that it has to do with the wind and the moon and the Northern Lights.” Ah yes the famed Northern Lights, discover the best places on the globe to see this iridescent natural wonder for yourself. And for those wondering about the carrots, Santa, his blue eyes twinkling, explains, “Lichen is their favorite food.”
Naughty or Nice
I linger longer hanging onto every word this fascinating gentleman, whom I’ve now heard speak four languages in as many minutes, says. “See those books on the wall?” Santa points to two floor-to-ceiling-sized volumes. “The blue one has the names of all the children in the world. I receive very touching letters, I try to answer as many as possible, but many don’t have a return address and many are just wishing me a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Many children write to tell me how things are going, not just at Christmas time but all year round. Adults write, too, they love to share problems with Santa,” he laughs.
Santa and his helpers have answered nearly five million letters, mail yours to this address: Santa Claus, 96930 Napapiiri, Finland. He also points out a red book, which is devoted to chimneys. “It reminds me which households have them and which do not, so I know where best to land on Christmas Day.” Two little girls, about two and four have now taken their place in line, squirming with anticipation. I tear myself away. “Have a wonderful trip around the world,” I call. Santa laughs. “As soon as I return, I will have a long sauna. I sauna all day every December 26th.”
Turns out even Santa loves his Finnish saunas. I had only been in Finland a few days before it became abundantly clear that sauna culture is deeply rooted in the Finnish way of life. As essential to their identity as fish and rye bread are to their staple diet. There are five million people in Finland and nearly two million saunas. Hotels have them. Private homes. Summer cottages. Individual apartments. Even passenger and cargo ships. Most Finnish children have had their first sauna before age two.
Where to Stay in Finland
Every year, more than 500,000 people from all over the world visit Lapland, stopping at Santa Village, which includes hotel accommodations, restaurants, and snow-ice adventures like husky-dog sledding and reindeer safaris through the dark, snowy wilderness, to take in those magical Northern Lights. Or for an equally thrilling immersive experience – hello igloos – we highly recommend these.
Arctic SnowHotel & Glass Igloos
Constructed entirely of snow and ice at Arctic SnowHotel & Glass Igloos travelers can sleep in the seasonal snow hotel, or an all-glass igloo under a 360-degree see-through roof, magnifying their chances of seeing the Northern Lights. There’s also an ice bar, ice restaurant, ice chapel, and even a snow sauna.
As its name suggests, the Glass Resort offers 24 igloo-style glass apartments each with a private sauna (well, naturally) and outdoor hot tub. Inspired by the native Sami’s (indigenous Lappish reindeer herders), Kota huts – the igloos feature Lappish handicrafts, Scandinavian design, and unobstructed views of the snow-filled forest and Northern sky.
For a more festive option stay at the Christmas Chalets, charming wintry wood cabins each with a roaring fireplace, private porch, two bedrooms, kitchen, living room, sauna (of course), and an already decorated Christmas tree.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Longtime luxury travel, spa, and wellness writer, Shari Mycek has circumnavigated the globe, traveling to 65 countries in her search to unveil – and indulge in – the latest massage, steam-and-sauna circuit, facial and energy treatment (it’s a tough job but someone has to do it. A regular Travel Curator contributor, Shari’s byline has also appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, The Robb Report, Travel Curator, Travel & Leisure, Spa Magazine, MSNBC, Elite Traveler, and Town & Country. When not on a flight/the massage table/pounding the keyboard, you’ll find Shari enjoying time by the sea, practicing yoga, and making smoothies. Check out her Instagram and Linkedin more of her adventures in wanderlust.