Christmas with Santa Claus

As the years roll by, each Christmas marks a milestone in life. Every Christmas is important but, for me, last Christmas was very special indeed. That was the year I met Santa Claus at his place.

While I write this, I'm looking at Santa's business card. It states, simply "Joulupukki [his Finnish name], Santa Claus, Arctic Circle, 96930 Rovaniemi, Finland". For obvious logistical reasons, he omits his telephone and fax number.

"What's Santa like?" has been the question I've been asked most by adults and children alike. Well, he wears a very red suit and has a most impressive snowy white beard, as we all know. But he's younger than I expected, with a real twinkle in his eye very much in keeping with his timeless character. He is fluent in some 20 languages. Most of all, he exudes an almost saint-like calm. Overall, he's a wonderful person to visit.

Every year, I receive a letter from Finnair, the national airline of Finland, suggesting some Australians might like to spend Christmas with Santa. This year I accepted the offer - it was a surreal experience right from the beginning. Leaving a Sunday barbecue on a sweltering Sydney summer day, I went straight to Mascot and flew to Frankfurt, Germany where I changed planes for Helsinki, Finland. These flights were with Lufthansa so even while looking down on Ayers Rock from 11,000 metres, the caviar and pleasant German accents made Australia seem much further away.

Arriving in Helsinki, I went straight from a well-heated terminal to a heated bus. So it was a shock when I stepped out of the bus into a Helsinki winter night. To anyone watching, it would have looked like a roadrunner cartoon - I had a bag in each hand and my feet were going like crazy but the footpath was sheet ice so I wasn't going anywhere. I finally gained traction and gingerly walked to my hotel, the Hotel Hesperia, a member of Leading Hotels of the World and a remarkably civilised place to stay. Any Finnish accommodation - down to camping grounds and youth hostels - can be guaranteed to have at least one sauna, Finland's major contribution to world culture. The Hesperia has four saunas.

On first appearances Helsinki, the capital of Finland, seems strangely familiar to Australian eyes. That's because it has been used as an easily accessible alternative to Moscow by generations of spy film producers so it matches our preconceptions of the Russian city. That is, until you see Moscow itself. From Helsinki, Moscow is less than two hours away by plane and Leningrad is at the end of a fascinating six hour train journey.

Sandwiched between the glum giant Russian bear and the Volvos and tennis players of Scandinavia, Finland is the odd man out. While the rest of Scandinavia shares a relatively common language, Finnish is completely different. There are even fewer blondes in Finland.

Helsinki is on a peninsula extending out into the Baltic Sea and its heart is the neoclassical buildings of Senate Square. With a population of only half a million, it's not a big city. The colourful Market Square is close by the Viking Line ship terminal while islands in the harbour house an open air museum, the zoo and the Suomenlinna fortress.

A small park houses the very unusual Sibelius monument built like a floating cluster of organ pipes. It's dedicated to Finland's most famous composer. At the lakeside Finlandia hall, the Helsinki Philharmonic invariably has some Sibelius works in its program. One of the most bizarre buildings in Helsinki is also the most beautiful. Built in a disused quarry, the Temppeliaukio Church is a futuristic blending of timber, bare rock, copper and glass. The end result looks like a spacious spaceship that settled into a hillside.

Besides having about the most difficult language on earth, Finland also has one of the world's highest living standards and prices to match. So it's certainly not a shopping destination - even the classic Finnish designs such as littala glassware (note to Barry: that's a brand name - with lower case "L") are cheaper outside Finland.

Finnair in Australia sells Helsinki as a gateway to Europe. The airline doesn't fly into Australia but connections can be made through Bangkok and Tokyo non-stop over the North Pole. From Helsinki, Finnair offers free add-ons to London or many other European centres. Finnair reports that as soon as the Iraq crisis started, Australian interest in the North Pole route increased dramatically as people sought to avoid the Middle East.

Alternatively, you can do as I did and fly with Lufthansa to Germany and take Helsinki as your free intra-Europe excursion. Lufthansa has a connecting service to Helsinki from Frankfurt and flies to Frankfurt from Sydney and Melbourne four times a week. Lufthansa is one of the world's best airlines and now it is flying into Berlin again, it's a direct line to the heartland of Europe's political revival.

Politics was a long way from my mind however as I flew from Helsinki to Rovaniemi early the next morning. Less than two days after leaving my summer barbecue, I was across the Arctic Circle and in Finnish Lapland.

In fact, I was on a snowmobile riding up a frozen river to meet some reindeer herders. My outfit was everything I possessed plus arctic thickness overalls, moon boots, thick mitts and a balaclava. The winter sun shone weakly through snow-covered trees, illuminating a scene of breathtaking beauty. Indeed the air itself shimmered with light reflected from frozen moisture in the atmosphere.

Part of the tour package was a ride on a sleigh pulled through the snow by reindeer, complete with bells tinkling and their every breath freezing into a mist. In the crystal air, it felt as if I had suddenly been transported into David Jones' Christmas window display.

Even through adult eyes, the memory seems a magical experience. But it wasn't a dream - I now have my official Reindeer Sleigh Driver's Licence to prove it. Lunch was a raucous and very funny multilingual tower of Babel as we tried to communicate with the reindeer herders in English, French, and German. They had already taken us through a short initiation ceremony that involved us repeating a "pledge" in Lappish. From the reactions of the other Lapps, the words we unknowingly parroted were extremely vulgar. Still, they could prove handy if I'm ever cut off by a hot rodding sleigh driver.

Unbelievably, the day got even better after we left the reindeer farm. After the sun set (at about 2.30 pm - days are short in the northern winter), we visited Santa's workshop and met the man himself.

When Australian children write letters to "Santa, North Pole, The World, The Universe" the letters end up in a cute wooden building just outside Rovaniemi. The postie must be fit - about half a million letters arrive from around the world every year.

While Finnish children write most, Australians are the third biggest letter writers to Santa - after the Japanese and well ahead of American or British children.

There may be numerous pretenders around the world but the Santa in Lapland is clearly numero uno - I was looking forward to seeing if he measured up. He did. An unexpected bonus was discovering that the story of his elvish helpers was a myth: his assistant was a charming blonde girl in a matching red outfit.

For those who wait up for Santa this Christmas, expect him to be walking with a bit of a limp. I couldn't resist sitting in his lap in Lapland to have my photo taken. He was still smiling when I left but his child-proof knee may have been dented by the bulk of an adult travel writer full of Lufthansa caviar and champagne.

That night, I was back in the down-to-earth bustle of Helsinki. The flight back revealed the moonlight shining on many of Finland's 200,000 lakes, all frozen. The silver scene was interspersed by the golden glow of Finland's heated greenhouses, struggling against absolute cold to produce fresh vegetables for the city markets.

The best travel is that which leaves you with memories so pleasantly alien that they seem almost like a dream. That was certainly true of this sojourn. Looking out my window now at the gum trees below, my recollections of snow-capped fir trees in a world of white, populated with endearing reindeer and their quaintly-dressed keepers seems like a vision of another world.

I can't imagine what effect the trip would have had on me as a child. I can only guess it would be as if the universe had shifted and make believe had become fact.

This would not be a cheap family holiday but anyone considering a Christmas holiday in Europe should seriously think of disappearing into Finn air as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The forests and fantasies of northern Finland are worth any journey to explore.

Even for those travelling without children, the trip has an unexpected benefit. Whenever I'm with children that aren't behaving well, I can resort to the ultimate sanction. A quiet suggestion that I may have a word with my close personal friend Santa Claus immediately pulls the most recalcitrant child back into line.

For further information on Finland contact Finnair in Sydney on (02) 328 1377. For flights via Frankfurt, contact Lufthansa German Airlines in Sydney (02) 367 3800 or Lufthansa offices in Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth or Canberra.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd