For the last few years, Lapland has been at the top of my bucket list for our family. The Bears have hardly seen snow and I thought it would be a good adventure for us all.
Timing was an issue. I wanted to go while The Bears were still young but we needed Little Bear to be confident on his feet. We decided that this year was a good time, when they were six and four.
We decided to avoid the crowded Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finland. Instead we booked a hotel four hours further north in a place called Nellim, a few miles from the Russian border. To say it was remote is no exaggeration. It was 40km to the nearest village and the nearest village didn’t have a shop.
The hotel was all-inclusive and ran a number of excursions, including a private visit to Santa.
Just after we booked our holiday of a lifetime, we had a deluge of snow.
It was then I discovered three important things a) Little Bear REALLY didn’t like the cold, b) HATED the snow and c) would NOT wear gloves (or any kind of warm clothes).
We told The Bears about the trip four days beforehand but we had to start the preparations a bit earlier to get Little Bear used to wearing some of the new clothes. To find out how we prepared them for what was to come, read How to prepare your autistic child for a holiday to Lapland
Read on to find out what happened on our trip and whether we managed to persuade Little Bear to wear any warm clothes in minus temperatures…
(note: this is not an ad or any kind of collaboration)
For a lanyard-obsessed boy like Big Bear, arriving at Manchester Airport was a dream come true. We went straight to the special assistance office where the man behind the desk presented him with his very own lanyard.
It wasn’t any old lanyard. This one enables families with additional needs to skip the queues for check-in, security and passport control. We also chose whether to board the plane first or last. Everywhere we went, the airport staff were super-helpful and friendly. As we waited to board the plane (we chose to board last), they entertained The Bears. It couldn’t have been a better start to the holiday.
We had two flights to take. Big Bear didn’t have an anxiety attack, which I had feared because he doesn’t remember the last time he went on a plane a couple of years ago. Luckily both Bears were excited about their adventure.
Big Bear wore his ear defenders on the first flight from Manchester to Helsinki and they both sucked lollies and drank water to help with popping ears. On the second flight, from Helsinki to Ivalo, Big Bear didn’t need his ear defenders.
I took children’s magazines, a few small toys, a couple of games and tablets for entertainment. We didn’t have any meltdowns. I think excitement got us through.
To find out how we prepared for the flight, read 10 essential secrets to flying with an autistic child
We had booked a log cabin suite at the Nellim Wilderness Hotel. It was open plan with a twin bedroom on the mezzanine level and the main bedroom downstairs. We had a kettle, a fridge, a wet room bathroom and our own private sauna. The hotel also has rooms in the main building and log cabins without saunas.
Buffet meals were served in the main hotel and there were a variety of options for each meal including at least one crowd-pleasing children’s option (usually sausage or chicken nuggets and chips). There was always at least one fish and meat option as well as vegetables and salads. However, I noticed the accommodating kitchen staff were happy to make bespoke vegetarian options if required.
The dining room was warm and cosy with its twinkling lights and Christmas decorations. It also had a lounge area and a well-stocked bar at not-too-expensive prices.
The hotel offered a choice of activities. We decided to go for:
- Husky safari
- Santa visit
- Aurora snowmobiling
- Reindeer day with snowmobile
- Aurora camp
The set up: Two people per sledge. The driver stands at the back steering the huskies. The passenger sits in front. We decided it was too much for Little Bear to sit on his own in the sledge for the two-hour trip so I sat in the sledge with him while a (slightly scary) man from the husky farm drove. J drove his sledge with Big Bear in front.
We were only a small group – our family plus an Australian couple – and Laura, our guide. We raced across frozen Lake Inari with incredible scenery all around us and not another person to be seen. It was an exhilarating ride and The Bears were laughing their heads off when we first set off. By the end of the trip both Bears were asleep. We woke them up to meet some of the dogs at the husky farm, which, according to Little Bear, was his favourite part of the whole holiday.
Our first activity in Lapland was a test of how well our layers were working. To be honest, I was a bit cold at the end, probably because we hadn’t moved for two hours. I could have done with an extra layer on my body, and a second pair of gloves with some heat packs inside. The Bears were ok as they had an extra layer on, although keeping their gloves on was a bit of an issue.
This was a truly magical trip. In the afternoon, after our husky safari and buffet lunch, there was a knock on our log cabin door by one of Santa’s elves who asked if we wanted to go on a ‘special ride’. Outside there was a snowmobile pulling a sledge.
We all boarded the sledge and our driver, Jonny, drove us across the frozen lake and through the forest. We passed log cabins with twinkling lights, until eventually we reached another elf standing by the side of the road. She took us down a candle-lit path, past a sleigh filled with presents, and up the steps to a log cabin. The door opened and Santa welcomed us in. There was a Christmas tree next to his chair with presents underneath and children’s letters from all over the world on the wall.
We all sat next to Santa while he talked to The Bears. They were really shy and declined his invitation to sing Christmas songs with him. Instead, we drank hot blueberry juice, ate ginger biscuits and talked about what The Bears wanted for Christmas. We were able to stay for as long as we wanted before the elf took us back to the sledge.
It was everything you would hope for from a visit to Santa and the big kid inside me was probably even more excited than The Bears.
After the visit we went back to our cabin for a rest before our final adventure of the day.
We booked two evening trips on consecutive nights to try to see the northern lights. The first night we were on our own with our Dutch guide, Pim. He took us out on snowmobiles (I rode on the back of J’s and The Bears went in a sledge pulled by Pim’s snowmobile), over the frozen lake and through the forest where we set up camp by another lake. We drank hot chocolate and ate ginger biscuits next to an open fire. The Bears were tired and screaming when we set off but after less than a minute they fell asleep in the sledge under blankets and stayed asleep for two hours until we returned to our cabin. It was the best scenario we could have hoped for as we had an evening to ourselves and since we didn’t see the northern lights they didn’t miss anything anyway.
Reindeer day with snowmobile
Day two was reindeer day – and minus 18 degrees (about 10 degrees colder than the day before). Both Bears were pretty tired after their busy first day but we were due to meet our guide, Pim, at 9am so we had to get going. Big Bear was happy to put on his warm layers but Little Bear wasn’t so keen so it was more of a struggle to get him into his clothes after breakfast. We filled our rucksack with heat packs for our shoes and gloves and even popped a couple inside the all-in-one suits provided by the hotel.
Pim pulled The Bears’ sledge with his snowmobile and we rode our snowmobiles in a line behind him. J and I shared a snowmobile with me riding behind We briefly swapped later on.
First of all we rode to the reindeer farm. The reindeers are free to roam around the forest but in winter they come to the farm to find food. The Bears had great fun feeding the reindeers, although spacial awareness was an issue as they kept bumping into the antlers.
After feeding the reindeer, we went into a hut with a roaring open fire where the farm owner told us about the reindeer while we drank hot blueberry juice and warmed up. Next, we went outside again and he showed us how to catch a reindeer with a rope. The Bears were more interested in running down a hill to the frozen lake but J had a go.
We then rode across to a wooden hut near the Russian border where Pim cooked reindeer soup and toasted sandwiches for lunch (he joked it was a ‘meet & eat’ trip). Even though they eat a wide range of food, I wasn’t sure how The Bears would feel about eating reindeer. Turns out they didn’t mind at all (I don’t think they’d made the connection with the animals they’d just fed) and Little Bear in particular wolfed down the food.
After lunch we went on a little walk through the forest to the Russian border zone. There is a kilometre no-go zone between Finland and Russia so the yellow ‘stop’ signs in Finland are as far as you can go without a one-way trip to Russia. The Bears weren’t really keen on the walk at first – and J carried Little Bear – but once Big Bear realised that walking warmed him up a bit, it got easier. I pushed him along pretending he was a snowmobile as he made the sound of the motor. I’m not sure what the other two couples on our trip thought but it helped us finish the walk.
Then it was back on our snowmobiles for a ride back to the hotel. I briefly drove the snowmobile across the frozen lake and Pim invited Big Bear to ride with him on his snowmobile at the front, which he loved. The scenery was absolutely stunning with nobody else around and it felt like we were on top of the world.
Back at our log cabin, we had a rest for an hour or two before dinner and our last trip of the holiday.
After our success of the previous night (The Bears falling asleep in the sledge and J and I having a nice quiet evening), we were a little cocky the second night.
This time we were with another family with a five-year-old boy and Jonny, our guide from the Santa visit. Jonny took us to an island on the frozen lake where he made a fire and we huddled round under blankets. As we hoped, The Bears fell asleep as we crossed the frozen lake. “We’ve got this down to a fine art” we boasted to the other family as their five-year-old wriggled around wide awake. All was fine for about an hour and then Little Bear woke up. We sat him next to us round the fire under a blanket. He was half asleep and didn’t make a noise. Then Big Bear woke up, cold and confused. We couldn’t settle him down again so we abandoned the camp and headed back to the hotel half an hour early – the northern lights nowhere to be seen again.
I always thought saunas were a luxury item for the Scandinavians, even though they are as common in homes as conservatories in England. However, having spent two days in minus temperatures, I’ve come to the conclusion that jumping into a sauna for 20 minutes after a day in the snow when it’s -18 degrees is an absolute necessity.
The next day it was time to head home. Another two flights, which The Bears were impeccably behaved on (check out who was flying one of the planes).
We didn’t pre-book any special assistance on the flights back – mainly because we were unable to contact the airports or Finair beforehand. However, when we arrived at Ivalo airport, we explained our circumstances and they allowed us through the priority lanes. We did the same at Helsinki airport and we kept the lanyard for landing in Manchester on the way back.
Are there easier ways to visit Lapland? Possibly. A longer holiday with activities spread across more days might work for some families. Especially if you’re going to the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi where there are museums and more activities nearby. However, getting Little Bear to wear his warm clothes over a longer period would have made our trip harder in my opinion. It’s also worth considering a January trip when it’s quieter (and cheaper).
Although it wasn’t an easy holiday for a family with autism – a long journey, freezing temperatures, and lots of activities packed into a short amount of time – it was an amazing experience and I’m so glad we went. Big Bear and I have made a photo book of the holiday so The Bears can show people where they went and it gives them visual prompts to talk about the trip.
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