Many of the destinations exhibiting here at Seatrade try to pull you in with local flavor -- could be a guy playing a steel drum from an isle in the Caribbean or a non-stop espresso machine in the Italy booth. In Finland? Proud of the fact that the fabled Santa Claus and his equally fabled North Pole are located just about the Arctic Circle here, Mr. Claus and an "elf" flew in -- by reindeer, he told us, and wouldn't budge from that story -- to spice up the booth. But you can actually visit him!
Just about any tour you'll experience in Finland is arranged and coordinated by a family-owned and operated company; Kaj Long and his wife Hellevi (pictured here with Santa and the Missus), along with their two grown sons, are very hands-on -- if you've cruised there you've seen them hanging out on the dock, making sure everything's running smoothly.
In fact, one of the most exotic shore excursions available to passengers calling at Helsinki is a trip to the North Pole; yes, you can do it in a day. It's not offered widely, mind you, and at $700 a pop it's not cheap.
This tour is logistically demanding. It's only available on ships that arrive in Helsinki by 6 a.m. and it transports passengers to the airport where they fly on regularly scheduled Finnair service to Lapland, way to the north of Finland (and frankly just about further north than anywhere). Unbelievably, the flight takes just an hour!
And even more surprising, according to Kim Long, is that "weather can act up -- or be at T-shirt temperatures!"
The rest of the 9.5-hour tour involves a ride in an elongated gondola (a historic boat in these parts) along the Kemi River. About halfway through you're met by another gondola, this one loaded with Champagne and folks in folkloric costumes. Afterward, you pull up at a reindeer farm with its own history; it has been family operated for 100 years. Passengers can pet the reindeer, as well as learn about herding them and about Lappish culture. Long tells me that reindeer are used in Finland for food, pelts and for the powder out of their antlers; it's an ancient equivalent of Viagra.
After an Arctic-crossing ceremony (be prepared for a few surprises) travelers head to Santa's Village, where they can shop, chat with Santa and mail cards home.
For 2007, only Holland America offers the tour (it's the only line whose ships get to Helsinki early enough), but Crystal and Seabourn offer a similar experience -- via private jet, with a maximum of four people -- at a much higher tariff. As well, folks on any version of the tour have to sign up at least two weeks in advance as it involves air transport.
Speaking of exotic, for travelers who've been there and done that in the Baltic, the Gulf of Bothnia (not to be confused with Bosnia), which runs between Sweden's east coast and Finland's west coast, is the new hot destination for adventurers. Others include Finland's Rauma and Pori; and Sweden's Lulea, Umea, Sundsvall and Hudiksvall.