The Number 51 express to Rovaniemi pulls away from Helsinki Station. For me train travel is a time to enjoy being alone. I decide to avoid chatting with other passengers in favor of having ten gloriously captive hours of solitude before arriving at destination: Santa's official office on the Arctic Circle just in time to whisper this year's Christmas wishes to him.
We click-clack through Helsinki's suburbs to the outskirts of the city. It is after ten in the morning, but the sun has only just risen, and this rare light throws a golden hue over a cityscape dusted with new snow.
Where I'm from, history has never given us snow, so I'm fascinated, and with sunset just a few hours away, I resolve to stay awake until darkness renders the view out the window invisible. As we travel north the varying landscape makes it easy for me to avoid the usual temptation to snooze on a soothingly rocking train. Small villages sneak up on me, clusters of five or six houses with high-pitched roofs and colorful paint visible above snowdrifts.
Not unexpectedly, the train track wanders mainly through forest, which covers almost seventy percent of Finland. The snow cover is thickening noticeably, and the pine trees are surrendering their green to white chunk by chunk. The occasional parked cars I see look like abandoned wrecks left to the elements of winter. Dusty snow is being kicked up off the tracks, obscuring my vision – I can't see the snow for the snow.
Sunset colors streak across the sky and by half past two, it's nearly night black. Only the lights at passing stations confirm that snow lies all around us. Shortly before eight in the evening, the xylophone signaling a pending announcement sounds for the last time. Rovaniemi, capital of Lapland, just a few miles shy of the Arctic Circle, is the end of the line.
The remaining passengers begin dressing for the outdoors. Initially I'm reluctant to leave the warmth of the train, but then it pulls up in a vast, exquisitely pure white winter wonderland, and it seems that Santa has granted one of my wishes before I've even had a chance to talk to him.
I can hardly wait to meet Santa, and now I'm ready to enjoy other people's experiences, too. When half a million visitors head north to Santa's village every year, and sixty thousand of them arrive at Christmas time, you can be sure to be able to share some Christmas spirit with like-minded revelers.
I feel a nervous flutter as a smiling Santa's helper directs me into his office where I take a seat to his right. Of course, Santa is a master at small talk and we're soon chatting like old friends about my hometown and that always-safe topic, the weather. When I see the two children waiting next in line jumping and twitching, though, I thank Santa and move on.
For the rest of the morning, I perch above Santa's office, where a comfortable sofa in the attic affords a perfect view. The sisters who enter after me tell Santa their ages, eight and four, and the younger one confidently asks Santa for an electronic car while the elder shyly hands over her letter.
While I watch, less than half of Santa's visitors are children, and just before I leave to catch the bus back to Rovaniemi, a middle-aged couple from Australia arrive with their grown son.
"Is there anybody left in Australia today?" Santa wonders aloud. "I've met a hundred Australians today. Is there anybody left there taking care of things?"
The woman assures Santa that great-aunt Jane is taking care of their house, so there is no need for concern. When Santa asks more about their holiday plans, she excitedly tells him, "We have to build a snowman!"
After a helper takes their photo, the parents leave quickly, but the son turns back to speak to Santa one last time. "Santa, I just want to ask for a special Christmas wish." Santa nods.
"I really want to get into my university course," the son says.
"I understand," Santa answers seriously, "I'll see what I can do about it."
After my visit to this enchanting place, I'm reluctantly ready to board another train and return south to the real world. This time I can enjoy one of my favorite travel experiences, the sweet rocking rest of a night on a sleeper train. I miss observing the white landscape, but lie back comfortably and begin thinking about what I should ask Santa for next year.
Train Info: VR trains operate daily between Helsinki and Rovaniemi Finland.
Santa Claus' Village is open every day. Nearby is the SantaPark amusement park.
Rovaniemi: There are hotels in Rovaniemi to suit all budgets. Be sure to book ahead if you go at Christmastime. A number of companies offer a range of half-day and day-long activities including ice fishing, snowmobile safaris, snowshoeing, and reindeer or husky sleigh rides. The Rovaniemi Tourist Information Centre has a good collection of information on its website.