48 hours in Finnish Lapland: Searching for Santa in Saariselka

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to some unforgettable destinations - across Asia, Europe and North America.  Yet, I’ve never considered any of them a once-in-a-lifetime experience (although it’ll be a long while before I hike the Great Wall of China in August again).  If a destination is that great, then with a little luck and hard work,you can return.

However, as our recent trip to Lapland approached I realised that this was actually one of those trips. 

Mini is almost six, so very much still a believer, as are her classmates.  Her cousins are also old enough to maintain the magic, or deal with the consequences.  

More importantly, she can dress herself, sleep in hotel beds and pop off to the toilet when she fancies.

So, last January, we booked a two-night break in snowy Saariselka, within the Finnish Arctic Circle, with Santa’s Lapland.  

As it was only a weekend, we opted to fly from Exeter, our local airport, cutting out the eight hour round trip to London.  A good decision, too, as the flight to Ivalo was almost four hours. 

Mind, we were greeted by cheeky Elves, who surely have the best Job Title: Mischievous Elf at actual Santa's Lapland. Key Skills include Hat Swapping,Talking like a Teletubby and Keeping Kids Wildly Occupied. 

I just couldn’t imagine travelling on a one-day excursion from the UK; we spent Friday night just figuring out how to clamber into the thermal suits and boots.  

We could easily have filled two days, if not a week.  And there are a coupe of ski runs nearby, if anyone is looking for a ski-break with a difference. 

We stayed at the Reikonlinna, a 3.5 star hotel, which was about a 25 minute coach transfer from Ivalo airport, and either a fifteen or fifty minute stroll to the supermarket, depending on how many impromptu snow drifts your daughter slides down.  After chatting with guests, the Holiday Club resort, a little closer to town, was much sought-after for the swimming pool  (with wave machine and water slide) and the Angry Birds activity centre. 

Maybe that's one to consider for the, er, return visit? 

Transfers, half-board meals and flights were all included in the total £1900 cost, as was the suit and boot hire, which was handy as I’d forgotten my snow boots, and was only wearing fabric trainers.  But half the fun of travelling is the problem-solving; I’m awaiting an Amazon reply regarding how fast they’ll deliver to Santa’s home town, which I expect any day now.

On Saturday we breakfasted (cinnamon buns and coffee; thank you, Santa) and headed to The Arctic Centre for our five activities: a Reindeer Show, an Elf Show, Husky Sledging, Reindeer Sledging and...the Search for Santa.  

Unlimited snow activities (Snow Hockey, Mini-Skiing, Ice-Fishing, Tobogganing) were available as well as free hot drinks, pancakes and a stonkingly gorgeous spag bol lunch.

We had an assigned time for the husky ride, which a designated grown up in the party would drive.  Whilst the adults were receiving their speedy driving lesson, the rangers gathered the children for a handy sing-song distraction and snow ball chaos, to avoid boredom and frost bite...most of the songs had actions. 

However, all other activities could be competed in your own time.  We tried to arrange our Santa visit for the two hours of daylight, but Mini was too cold and hungry, so our visit was in the dark mid-afternoon.  Bless the rangers for singing so hard for us, but queuing for around 40 minutes to take the snow mobile sleigh ride in search of Santa was a bit much.  

Mini's face when we arrived at Santa's cottage, and saw the man himself, never mind when he read out her letter AND gave her a present, was very much worth the wait.  

We returned to the hotel absolutely shattered, but with just enough energy before dinner for souvenir shopping (me) and sledging (Mini and Daddy). 

After dinner the rangers invited the children into the games room for songs, which meant around a half an hour relax for parents (time to top up the glass).  

The evening ended with another visit to the hotel's ball pool - which I'm sure Mini wished she'd included in her letter to Santa. 

Although check out was 10 am, and our coach didn’t depart until mid-morning (others departed later) activities were still encouraged, and the hotel lobby had a flurry of snow and quick changes as people scrambled to drop off thermal suits at the hotel before departure.

Ivalo airport has a cafe and souvenir shop before security, and then a much wider choice after security, along with a play area for kids ... so whip through check-in to enjoy an extended holiday – why don’t more airports have children’s play areas? Plus, you’ll get to watch the bemused arrivals have their hats swapped by cheeky elves.

May have to rethink that once-in-a-lifetime holiday experience and plan a return visit.  If you’re thinking of searching for Santa next year, lots of places are filled by January.

Please note that we received no payment or sponsorship for this travel review, and all views are entirely my own. If you would like me to review a visit to Lapland in 2018, please do get in touch. I’m equally happy to be undertake CPD hours and become an elf for a weekend.

Copenhagen and an Icelandic ash cloud: a welcome travel interlude.

Eyjafallajokull's Easter eruptions.

Back in December 2009, I struggled with finding the perfect Christmas present for my boyfriend of almost two years (now Mr Dgtl) and, as we both loved travel, I eventually opted for a surprise trip to Copenhagen at Easter. 

Yes, April 2010. When Iceland's Eyjafallajokull's volcano caused a spot of travel bother. 

But before we took on the ash cloud chaos, I had to survive keeping the secret; Mr Dgtl's Mum was terrified we'd be away for Christmas Day and asked him outright when he was going to Denmark, leaving her with a ten pound turkey.  Thankfully, I was able to indulge in some creative fibbing as a distraction.

Fast forward four months and we set off on our mini-break; four nights in Copenhagen, with a hop over to Malmo, Sweden, across the Oresund railway and road bridge. 

Source: Wikipedia

We'd both wanted to visit Scandinavia for a while, and this was our first foray (we've also travelled to Norway, Finland and Estonia) into the northern European region. 

As Denmark is the home of the actual danish pastry breakfast, we had a perfect first few days, touristing our way around the fabulous Tivoli Gardens amusement park on our first night.  In celebration of Queen Margarethe II's 70th birthday, the park offered a generous discount, too.  

The next day we pottered around Copenhagen, walking along the Nyhavn (New Harbour) admiring the gorgeous colourful buildings: 

We also climbed the Rundetaarn for views across the city centre (well, I was eating a lot of breakfast): 

Sadly, the Little Mermaid was on her own holidays, in Shanghai, but we still enjoyed a boat tour: 

Then I got a text from a friend back home, asking if we were okay.  
Erm, yeah, Copenhagen is a great city, and we're off to Malmo tomorrow. 
Had we not heard about the ash cloud?  
The what?  
Clearly not.  

We found a news channel on TV, and commenced an online search.  Although travel had been disrupted, we were only halfway through the trip, so assumed everything would be sorted out by the time of our flight.  

Yeah, we were that optimistic. 

Still, Malmo was lovely, and felt like a home from home, when we spotted a cafe that could have been teleported from Cornwall.  

And of course, Swedish cider was served everywhere.  

We spent a lovely afternoon, just relaxing.  
R e l a x i n g. 
No pressure, nothing. 
(This was definitely a pre-child mini break). 

We strolled around Malmo, taking in the terrific architecture of the Turning Torso: 

Then it was back across to Copenhagen for one more day before our flight home.  

Yeah, that wasn't happening.  

We were't catching a train or a Eurolines coach back to the UK either, although clearly I don't look that bothered by the notice advising "Busses are FULL to Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and London until next week". 

Back to the hotel for more cider and pastries. 

Then we got chatting to a group of teachers, whose Easter break ended tomorrow and they had to return to London for class on Monday morning. Our European geography was good, so the ideas darted about.
Cycling to another town for transport was mentioned. 
I ate another pastry and waited for sense to prevail. 
We could hire a boat. 
Could anyone sail?
Think - think - think. 
Phone calls were made to car hire and coach hire companies, and then someone got back to us.  There was a coach leaving for Calais in half an hour.  Could we be ready? 
Could we....yes.  

The coach turned up.  A proper, real sized coach.  We got on, paid and thanked the driver and settled down, mesmerised.  We were the only six passengers on the 50+ seater. 
I've been into some vehicle hire conundrums in China and the Czech Republic, but nothing felt uneasy about this journey.
Then, twenty minutes later we pulled up outside a large building, and a bunch of teenagers scrambled on, back packs flying along with their chatter. 
We were paid stowaways on a school trip. 
The teachers stared at us, more out of curiosity than fear, and when all the kids were settled, we came forward with our own teaching and DBS credentials, and began the start of a beautiful 12-hour friendship, as we drove through the night and part of the next day towards Calais, through Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and France.  

The driver left us at Calais, where we'd heard reports of more travel chaos, but we bought tickets for the ferry to Dover without any hassle, and the Danish school teacher booked their onward travel from Dover. 
Oh, yes, where were they heading? I enquired.
A little language school in Paignton, had we heard of the town? 
Once we'd stopped laughing at the irony - from having cancelled flights, to a random coach journey through Europe - we nodded. Yes, it's an hour from Plymouth.
Could we cadge a lift? 
The teacher happily agreed, and more cultural moments were shared. 

Thanks for the memories, Eyjafallajokull. 

Half the fun of travel is the journey - what unexpected travel moments have you enjoyed? I'd love to read your memories in the comments!


What I'm listening to for driving inspiration

I don't know about you, but I'm motivated by music. 

Working, dancing or driving, I love music.  

I've been lucky enough to see my favourite singer-songwriters live lots of times, since heading to Blackpool for my first concert at the age of 11; almost missed seeing Shakin' Stevens as I was so ill with excitement the night before. But I struggled on, and a love affair with live music was born.     

As a lifelong writer, I probably appreciate country music more than most other genres, with a couple of rock storyteller exceptions.  

Tingles start behind my ears at a kick drum or steel guitar, but as long as the story is there, I'm hooked.  

There's been a definite surge in my writing lately, which I'm sure has something to do with the music in my trusty Fiesta. 

I also downloaded a free 30 day trial of Amazon Music Unlimited in the summer, and basically any new artist I wanted to explore, I can download for a listen, before I make the CD-buying decision (course, with the artists in this blog I buy the CD first).  Amazon's Music Unlimited is much wider than their book range, which barely stocked the titles I wanted to read.  

Plus, I can prop my phone up in every room in the house and listen to my choice of music.  The 30 day free trial was so good, it was the logical next move to switch to the £7.99 a month fee (which I can cancel at any time, should I ever tire of listening to music; not likely!)...

So, here's a little insight into who I can't stop driving and writing to: 

Kip Moore, Koko,London April 2016
Kip's first album, Up all Night has just gone Platinum, and with his Springsteen-esque approach to lyrics, it's not hard to see why. 

His second album, Wild Ones (2015) and third album, (Slowheart 2017) are always in my car - I swear my car runs on Kip, not petrol.  If you have the chance, see him with his band, Slowhearts, live - great guitar-based energy on stage. 

Stereophonics, Plymouth Pavilions, 2013

I've never had a bad night with these Welsh rockers.  I've probably seen them live each tour for the last ten years.  They're a band you can count on.  Saw them in Plymouth this Summer as they showcased their new music, #AllinOneNight, and celebrated their 20th anniversary of Word Gets Around. I have their latest album, Scream above the Sounds, too. Course. 

Fireroad: Flesh, Blood and Bone CD

Well, now, I also can’t stop playing Flesh, Blood and Bone from this band of Welsh rockers. Fireroad supported the Stereophonics on their their gad-about-the-country this Summer, and I absolutely can’t wait to see this band perform again (they're appearing at London's Borderline on 28th December, Santa!) Talented musicians, spot-on vocals and they sound like I'm listening to all my favourite rock bands (Foo Fighters, E-Street, Stereophonics, The Who), wrapped up in addictive originality.  I have Minute, Devil's Letter and Bones on repeat; They Got Sound

Tom Chaplin, of Keane, Plymouth Pavilions, 2009

I was lucky enough to see Tom play in Cardiff in May, and love his solo album, The Wavean honest account of his battle with mental health issues.  

You may know him as the voice of Keane, who I've also seen in Plymouth a few times, and I have much love for this piano-based music.  I now have my eyes open for child-friendly gigs; five year old Mini absolutely loves I Remember You, and has nailed most of the lyrics. Beats the hell out of Wheels on the Bus. 

Logan Brill 
Logan (is) Brill, London 2017

I got to chat with Logan at this year's Country 2 Country festival and Ireland's inaugural Harvest Festival. A fabulous singer-songwriter with clear vocals and stories to tell. I play Shuteye frequently, and especially love The World's Still Round, which had an exclusive UK release in October.

Bands I also download (thank you, Amazon Music Unlimited) a lot at home are: 

Rock and storytelling is almost as addictive as country and storytelling, and this veteran band of the 21st century from Kentucky are loud and honest.  

It’s not often I can impress my 21-year old nephew with new music, but the rock-guitarist in him couldn’t resist Gasoline Outlaws - he's also known about Black Stone Cherry for far longer than I realised, so I'm going to nab his phone for inspiration next time I see him. 

Chris Janson 
Effortless and insightful country lyricist who I'm desperate to see over in the UK. Multi-talented musician with insane harmonica skills and a penchant for Mountain Dew. 

Who have you been listening to lately?  I'm always on the lookout for new music - drop me any suggestions in the comments below! 

Affilliate Promotion: These musical choices are my own; but if you click on the Amazon links, I'll receive a few pennies (thank you), which will likely go towards buying more CDs. 

5 Reasons why Beach Staycays are better than LongHaul Vay-cays

I know, I know, next month is the start of Autumn, and once again it's raining.  

But you don't need a long haul trip to a faraway land (AKA the sun) to feel rejuvenated. 

Here are my favourite five reasons for enjoying a seaside staycay, rather than jetting off on a long haul vaycay.  

PS: Just so you know - I'm planning on a few long trips more than once next year.  But that's for the shopping and music :)  

1. Money

There is a definite argument for saving money by having a staycay (no need for an extortionate passport or four) but normally overseas there are cries of “either eat well or visit that gorgeous landmark”.  Enjoy a weekend at your nearest seaside, and it’s not so bad paying £2.50 for an ice cream on one of the world’s best beaches, even though we could almost buy a tub of Ben and Jerry’s for that price. 

St Ives, Cornwall

2. Weather

Ever wondered why us Brits are great at discussing the weather? 
Spend a weekend near the beach in the summer.  
On a holiday in the proper sun, our fair, pale, intriguing skin spends a lot of time indoors in air-conditioning, or our clothes are covered in SPF50.  Plus - that feeling when you’ve enjoyed a staycay in the sand without rain?  #OwnedIt!


3. Adventurers

With around 11,000 miles of Great British coastline, not to mention over 100 habitable islands, you’re never far from a beach, even if you live in Derbyshire (strong contender for furthest point from the sea).  Plus, you can live in your car, carrying everything you need, whatever the weather. There’s a reason the world’s greatest explorers hail from this part of the world.  
No car? No problem: I give you the holiday camp experience; 12 daily  hours of children’s activities for your little adventurers.

Butlins, Minehead

4. Food

Family and food go together anywhere in the world, but there’s nothing like introducing your child to these delights for the first time:
Cream Tea 
(Mini does it the Devon way – clotted cream first. I like the Cornish method of jam first, so my teeth can sink into the cream: gorg.)
Fish and Chips 
(granted we live in Plymouth so she’s had a few of these on the seafront, but each one is a new experience)
(Mini insists on chocolate every time, like Mr S15S always opts for vanilla; the more flavour the better as far as I’m concerned)
(she’s getting there – she loves the crust).
The Full English. 
Need I say more?

Porthtowan Beach Cafe, Cornwall

5. Beaches

Step aside from the main tourist beaches, and there are some outstanding finds in the UK. On our recent trip to Cornwall, in only three days we happened across 10 stunning beaches. You know...the kind that puts St Ives in its place.   We also popped over to Bigbury, only 40 minutes from Plymouth, and it was full of potential Olympians getting their first taste of the water in surf, swim and sail clubs.  And no trip to the UK seaside is complete without dipping your feet in the chilly surf for a paddle.  It’s why there are so many fish and chip shops near the beach.
Whitesand Bay, near Sennen Cove, Cornwall

Where’s your favourite seaside staycay? Would love to hear your adventures! 

Chicago: 48 Hours in the Magnificent Midwest

I first discovered Chicago in 2013, and have been fortunate enough to return several times since, usually for 24 or 48 hours, so I highly recommended this HIIT city destination. 

I also managed to fit in a 12 hour shopping trip layover when I visited Belize in April 2016.

A serial East Coast traveller (remember when everyone travelled to New York for a weekend break?) a work opportunity arose that saw me book a flight to Chicago for onward travel to a little student town called Champaign; four-hour return Amtrak trip, and well worth a visit for a true taste of America (they even have a freakin’ Dairy Queen).

Flights are around 9 hours direct from the UK, and, depending how organised you are, range from £500-£800 for economy return.  

For reasons I’m about to go into, I enjoy staying at Hilton O’Hare (the only airport hotel; handy for layovers) or the Hilton Rosemont (one MTR stop from O’Hare and an entertainment haven).  City-centre hotels are very competitively priced, stay near the Magnificent Mile to hit most of the attractions.

Must-eat Meals
When in Chicago, you have to try the Deep Dish Pizza.  Available all over the city. Garretts’ gourmet Popcorn is a perfect souvenir...just make sure you buy a few bags for yourself.  A great Ghiradelli chocolate shop offers you a free chocolate on arrival, each time you walk through the door; do with that information what you will.  Every other snack and restaurant chain is available.

Okay, okay, so what should I do with 48 hours in Chicago?

24 Hours in Cardiff

I love celebrating Christmas in May, don’t you? 

Last weekend I enjoyed a whirlwind visit to Cardiff, seeing (the fabulous) Tom Chaplin, off of (the amazing) Keane, thanks to my Christmas present from (the gorgeous) Mr D.

Now, I never have a bad time in the Welsh capital, and have stayed here a fair few times - love how accessible the city is....plus, the shops are open until 7pm! Anyway, no time for city-centre shopping on this trip. 

Here’s how we managed to spend our 24 hours of parental freedom:   

Waikiki in a Week

You know when they say it’s better to live with no regrets? I will never regret spending a week on Waikiki beach, even though I lost a day.

The infamous south shore beach on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu (which holds the capital, and is site of the international airport) Honolulu, was the scene of a spontaneous catch-up for my friend Kathy and I in 2008. We hadn't seen each other since we returned from teaching English in China two years previously; she lives in Canada, I live in England.   

So how did Hawaii happen?

From Ashford to Plymouth (and Cornwall) in a fortnight

So, Easter: how did you spend yours? 

I've just looked back over my recent photos and I think I know why this Pinot and Cadbury's egg is going down so well....we've packed in a fair bit over the last fourteen days.

Our adventures began in Ashford, Kent, via an overnight with friends in Chippenham - where I managed to leave my purse and my daughter's Kindle behind!  Time to pop on some sunnies and kick off your shoes: 

Thankfully we were staying with friends in Ashford, so we shared our budget for the five days of fun. 

First stop was Folkestone beach.  

That time I went to...

Twelve years ago I lived in China, teaching English as a Foreign Language.

And that inspired the start of some serious itchy-feet; I regularly popped across to the US, Europe and Asia over the next seven years, and when I met MrS15S