Lapland: The Burnell Edit

At the beginning of December we took the holiday of a lifetime and visited the Finnish Lapland town of Levi (which is pronounced Lev-ee, rather than Lee-vi).

I have had more questions about this holiday than anything else I’ve ever posted about on Instagram.

For me, this was a ‘Bucket List’ holiday. I have never done a winter holiday and Christmas is my favourite time of the year. Before I went, I thought that nothing seemed more perfectly magical than a visit to Lapland to visit Father Christmas.  Before we left, the expectations were through the roof;  I had been told by various people how amazing it was, and given the cost of it, it was too much of an investment for it to fail.

It didn’t. In fact it was even better than I was expecting.

So, this is what we did and how we did it….

Firstly, whatever way you do it, and wherever you go in Lapland, it will be expensive. There is no escaping that.

However, we found when we priced it through a tour operator, whether it be Tui or one of the smaller ones (there are lots of independents for this kind of holiday), it was significantly more expensive.

Last January we were quoted £4000 for four of us for two nights and three days 😯

We probably ended up spending a similar amount (just to be clear, this is more than double our usual holiday budget for a two week holiday). BUT we were there for a week and did additional excursions, this also included all our meals and drinks – the tour operator price was only half board.

Timing was a really critical part of getting this holiday right.  Going when the children were young enough to ‘believe’, but old enough that they would be able to A). remember it, and B). enjoy a winter holiday and the activities that come with it.

For me, I feel like we took the boys at the perfect age, not just to see Santa, but to enjoy the whole experience. Theo is 8 and still loves the magic of Christmas and Alex is 5, so everything is magical! They were old enough to ski and enjoy all the trips that we wanted to do. They were old enough to have a toboggan each and pull it up the slope themselves over, and over and over again. They were old enough that when we did the husky sleigh ride, they could sit in one sleigh with the guide and Scott and I could go in another.

It would have still worked well a year ago, but any younger than 4, in my opinion, would make it a lot more challenging. As far as an age limit, I don’t think there is any age when anyone wouldn’t enjoy this holiday, and if you’re not so hung up on Santa, you really could go at whatever age.

There are a few different resorts to choose from in Finnish Lapland. I favoured Saariselkä; as it is further north there is more chance of seeing the Aurora, but my husband did a whole lot of research and concluded that Levi had more to offer in terms of Santa Claus and excursions, which was the whole reason for going. I also had a friend who visited the previous year and had raved about it. Rovaniemi hosts the Father Christmas Village, but that seemed a bit TOO touristy for my liking.

We found the cabin we stayed in through Interhome, not a site I’d heard of before, but they had lots of options for Levi. This was where we stayed; the facilities were brilliant and less than a ten minute walk to the centre of Levi, and included a sauna, three bedrooms, washing machine and most things you would have in your own home. Simple but cosy. We saved a lot of money by being a ten minute walk away, rather than right in the centre.

Levi is a small town, dominated by the ski slope with just a small centre which makes it super easy to navigate and feel accustomed too quickly.

It’s also easy to get too. The closest airport is Kittilä, a 20 minute drive away, a taxi was €40, which was the sensible option when we landed and had no idea where we were going with tired children in pitch black. However, on the return we got a bus from a nearby hotel which was only €16 – this bus runs for all flights that land and arrive at Kittilä Airport, and has multiple drop off/pick up points around Levi.

All the direct flights are taken by the tour operators: we could not get one. But, having to get a connection from Helsinki was no trouble. And with hindsight, I wish we’d added a day or two on and spent some time in Finland’s capital.

I think after booking package holidays for the last few years I was somewhat nervous about doing this independently, especially as this holiday was such a big deal for me, but it was really only a few extra hours on the laptop and it meant we had a holiday tailor-made to us.

We found the flights through Skyscanner and flew with Finnair, though I’ve noticed since we came back that the flight prices with Tui for January start at around £140 return. Which, now we’ve done the Santa thing, is a definite contender, and if you wanted a brilliant family holiday that is a fast way to cut costs.

Finland, like the other Nordic countries, is an expensive place to visit. (Didn’t stop them from taking the top spot in the Happiest Place to Live for 2018 though, and also super friendly to tourists). We had planned to mostly eat at the cabin, but when we got there that soon turned into not eating out at all. We’re proper foodies, so this was purely an economical decision, we got speaking to a couple who didn’t have self catering accommodation and said their average evening meal bill was €200. Ouch. This was an expensive holiday anyway, and for me eating out just wasn’t necessary.

Also, if you’re like us and slightly alcoholic when on holidays, buy any booze at the airport. Generally higher prices and a significant alcohol tax in Finland make the cheapest bottle of wine €10 and spirits at least €20.

Having a whole cabin, rather than a hotel room, was perfect. Being able to go back and watch Christmas DVDs, or for the kids to just play with their toys and have some ‘down time’ in between excursions, or tobogganing down the slopes was invaluable. It also meant that we had a brilliant balance between being active and having some well earned chill out time. It also meant that the kids could go to bed at a decent time and we could have an uninterrupted conversation!

Lapland had had a terrible winter so far; when we got there it had rained and there was NO SNOW. My husband was almost crying. When we woke up the following morning, however, the world was white. We had to visit the first week of December as I work in retail and taking holiday is prohibited from November-beginning of January. I had to jump through some hoops to get it authorised (you can’t really visit Father Christmas at any time other than December, can you?!), and so I had to go as soon as I could.

This did mean that the snow wasn’t deep enough and a few lakes hadn’t frozen solid enough, for a quite a few excursions to take place. This is where Levi Tourist Office was a God-send. They have an endless list of excursions available to book through their website, so you can plan before you go – which I would highly recommend as many trips get sold out months before (we booked all of ours in August). They are also incredibly helpful. Most excursions start from in front of the tourist office (there is also a WC inside which was very handy 😉) so we were in there most days. If any trip was cancelled they phoned/text/emailed and we could easily book something else. Ironically the only trip we didn’t manage to do was a horse ride, which was due to a lame horse, rather than a lack of snow!

You can book excursions directly with the company (which we also did), but there is no price difference if you book with the tourist office, and it was much easier to transfer trips/get a refund/speak to someone directly (the voice of knowledge there) by booking it with them.

These were the excursions we did, and I would do all of them again and can recommend them unreservedly:

    Tundra Husky Safari (you drive your own husky-led sledge)
    Reindeer ride across a frozen lake
    25km Snowmobile ride to visit and feed the reindeer
    1.5 hour ski lesson for all four of us
    Visited Mother & Father Christmas

We also bought two plastic toboggans at a supermarket for €9 each, and they paid for themselves within an hour! Be careful though, we left ours in front of the tourist office while we did our snowmobile trip, and they had disappeared when we returned. Thankfully it was the last day, but we were told that a lot of people assume they are there for general use, not that they belong to anyone in particular. The boys were unhappy to miss out on a last pull-along ride back to the cabin, but I was pleased that someone else would have use out of them after we left.

Dressing appropriately will be the difference between awesome and disaster. The average temperature while we were there was -5, but it dropped to -14 on our penultimate day. I researched this to the hilt, as I am always cold anyway and didn’t want to let the temperature ruin the holiday. The rules as I came to understand them are….

  • Wear a thermal base layer (top and leggings)
  • Then a fleece (polyester/wool)
  • Then a wool jumper (can omit this for -5, but is needed for -14)
  • Polyester trousers/tracksuit bottoms (gym wear is good for this too)
  • Then a ski/padded jacket
  • Waterproof/ski trousers
  • Polyester/wool socks – 2 pairs
  • Balaclava or hat
  • Fleece gloves
  • Ski mittens (mittens are better than gloves)
  • Do NOT wear cotton (apart from your underwear – I refused to buy new underwear for us all, and it was fine!) as it wicks moisture away from your body – which is great in the summer as it keeps you cool; in the extreme cold it leaves you with wet clothes and a very cold body.
  • Snow boots (I wore my Sorel boots all week and they were the bomb. The kids had Trespass ones from eBay which were £8.) YOU WILL NOT NEED ANY OTHER SHOES! I normally have at least 6 pairs, so this was a very liberating holiday for me!!

Everyone looks the same (especially the tour operator holiday makers who have matching jumpsuits), so it’s really, really not about looking good. It’s about being warm. It’s a dry cold in Finland, so despite being surrounded by snow, waterproofs are unnecessary (my hair did not frizz once). Even when going out for dinner everyone looks the same, and there are clothes stands next to most tables so you can strip off your top layers before eating dinner.

I bought 90%  of what we wore from eBay.  The boys’ coats and trousers were all second hand, and the thermals/fleeces I had at bargain prices.  If they didn’t keep growing I may have invested, but as it is I knew the chances of them wearing any of it beyond this year was zero to none.

We were lucky enough that the snow DID come down for us to complete all the trips we wanted too, however, where there is snow, there is cloud.  Where there is cloud there is zero visibility of the Aurora (northern lights).  I downloaded the ‘Aurora’ app before we left and studied it furiously, to the point I even stayed up til 2am and then went wandering with my camera (ski coat on over my pajamas) to see if I could get a glimpse.  Alas, no.  But, the app was very accurate according to people we spoke with the next day who said that the Aurora had been spotted further north of Levi.  So, definitely worth downloading if that’s your kind of thing.

For me, it’s just a very good excuse to go again, and according to local insider knowledge, August is the best time, as it’s starting to get dark, but the skies are clear enough to see them.

This time of year is known as the Polar Night in the arctic circle, where the sun never fully rises above the horizon.  That means it gets light at about 10am, and gets dark again by 1.30-2pm.  Far from being depressing, it is really quite special, and makes for some spectacular colours when the sun does ‘rise’ and ‘set’.  This lady, Virpula captures it perfectly, and every time her pictures come up on my feed I smile instantly.

I could talk and talk (and I’ve already written A LOT) about this holiday, for us it was totally unique and we have the best memories; hearing the howling of excited husky dogs bursting with excitement for their first sleigh ride of the season, watching my boys faces when they saw the ‘real’ Father Christmas (he truly was the real deal), watching the sky turn pink and purple whilst zooming across a frozen lake on a snowmobile, seeing Finnish houses dressed up with fairy lights and hanging stars (I swear Ikea must be around a corner I didn’t see),  a lovely shared experience of us all having our first skiing lesson….it goes on and on.  It’s the kind of holiday that makes me cry a little when I think about it too much.  And I am not a soppy person.

If you can, do it.  I would do it again, but I would be far too scared that it wouldn’t even live up to my own expectations now.

Any questions, just hit me up, as I’ve already said, talking about this holiday is one of my favourite things to do!

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