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Travelblog Gone with the Wine

Travelblog and lifestyleblog. Life under the Californian sun - Gone with the Wine. Trips, food and wine from all over the world. Solo and family adventures.

Filtering by Tag: Christmas

Greetings from Rovaniemi - Santa Claus Village in Finland

Paula Gaston

Last summer we visited both SantaPark and Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finland. This was not our first visit to Santa Claus Village; we have been there multiple times; during summer, winter, even at fall. Every time, seeing Santa is equally exciting. The best photos however, are hands down the ones from winter time when the snow covers the trees and buildings. So I decided to use the winter photos in this post for that reason. It makes me feel more Chirstmasy here in California too!



The main thing in Santa’s Village is of course meeting Santa. The very best thing about visiting Rovaniemi in the summer time is that there are less people, and no lines to meet Santa Claus. Right before Christmas on the other hand, the line was TWO HOURS long! Meeting Santa in his office is free of charge, but they do sell a photo package after the encounter. On our first visit we did purchase the package. The photos were good quality and there were several of them with all of us or just Santa with our baby. The package also included some general photos of Santa’s Village and a video. Meeting Santa was rather pleasant. We didn’t feel rushed at all, even though the line behind us was long. So we did manage to give our Christmas list to Santa, and right before Christmas day!



Santa Claus Village is located right on top of the Arctic Circle at latitude 66°33′45.9″. So one can literally jump over the Arctic Circle line while visiting Santa. From the north of the line one can experience a phenomena called Polar night (kaamos in Finnish), when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon at all. At the longest the Polar night lasts for 52 days, depending on what part of Lapland one is in. And what a shock it was when we drove further on to Lapland! I felt like I couldn’t get over my jet lag at all, I just wanted to sleep and sleep and sleep.

If visiting Finland during the summer, there is the opposite phenomena to Polar night. It is called Polar day, or Midnight Sun as we Finns like to call it. During that time the sun doesn’t go down at all. It is a very special time, and big celebrations occur around the country on the longest day of the year.

After crossing the Arctic Circle, one should head behind the buildings at Santa’s Village and go meet the reindeer. They are fairly calm and docile animals who often let people pet them. We even got to take a photo with one of them. While driving around Finnish Lapland, one can sometimes see hundreds of reindeer as they herd freely around the northern parts of Finland.



The holiday season is fairly busy at Santa’s Village. The stores are full of people from all over the world and one can hear all kinds of different languages. One of the busiest places is also Santa’s Main Post Office where one can buy some post cards and mail them from the Arctic Circle. Santa has his own special stamps and a postmark. Some people even stamp their passports with this special Arctic Circle stamp. We also sent some post cards to our family in the USA. They think that Santa lives at the North Pole so we had to send some to prove to them that he really lives in Finland!

There are many, many souvenir stores in Santa Claus Village, and one very small grocery store with a very limited selection. I love all the Lappish things and always like to buy something to take home, but I have to say that if you visit anywhere else in Lapland or even in downtown Rovaniemi, you will find most of these same things way cheaper. Same goes with eating. The food in Santa Claus Village is very expensive and we weren’t super impressed with the quality.



In recent years Rovaniemi has gotten many new and nice hotels, and some accommodations a little more unique too. Last summer we did not stay the night there, but on our first visit we stayed the night in Santa Claus Holiday Village. It is located behind Santa’s Village, so not far at all. We were two families traveling together, so we booked two rooms. In each cottage there are two rooms which share the same main door but are in other ways separate. So it was perfect for us. Both families had their own rooms, but we could knock on each other’s door when we wanted to hang out. Each room had it’s own kitchenette and a sauna. As you know, we Finns love to warm up in our saunas before showering. We were desperately trying to see the Northern Lights, since my husband had never seen them. So we went out a few times before bedtime to look, but we were not in luck! He is starting to think they don’t exist!

The visit to Santa Claus Village is a great memory and particularly special for kids. Santa’s Village is actually very close to SantaPark, and I definitely recommend visiting them both. SantaPark is a little more pricey, but is worth it! You can read about our visit to SantaPark from here.


  • Consider visiting off season since it is less crowded, cheaper and equally beautiful

  • Downtown Rovaniemi has many nice restaurants, shops and hotels.

  • The local delicacy is reindeer stew which is served with mashed potatoes and lingonberries. A local dessert special is oven baked warm cheese with cloudberries. There are many other foods to choose from, and many international chains as well. Vegetarian food is not difficult to find and gluten free food is served in almost any restaurant.

  • When visiting during the winter, bring warm clothing since the temperatures can vary anything form 0C to around -30C. Use layers under your outer clothes. Don’t forget your hat, scarf, gloves and warm socks inside the shoes, especially for kids! Many Finns use wool socks (villasukka) to keep their toes warm inside the shoes and they are sold in most stores. They also might have wool gloves (lapanen) on top of their gloves.

  • Be prepared for the darkness if you visit during the winter. The few hours of light during the day looks more like dusk.

  • If you want to experience the Midnight Sun, the best time for it is in June. Nightless night is celebrated on the third weekend of June.

  • When visiting during the summer, be prepared to meet the local air force: mosquitos!

  • The best time to see the fall colours is September and early October


When Travel Plans Don't Work Out

Paula Gaston

This Christmas we were finally planning to do a little traveling again. Since we just had a baby 4 months ago, we have been home more than ever before. Like last year, we wanted to drive to Southern California and spend Christmas with my husband's family. After Christmas we planned to drive somewhere to have a little vacation, but one plan after another has been ruined. We will see, if we ever get out of the house this Christmas. 


The freeway is literally burning this year. Wildfires are everywhere in California, two of them are on our route. The fire has jumped from the other side of the road to another, and is now burning on both sides. I hope they won't have to close any of the roads or we might not be able to go anywhere.



Then I got an awesome idea for the days between Christmas and New Years! We could jump into a cruise ship in Long Beach and visit Mexico. On our way there, the cruise ship will stop at Catalina Island where I have never been. A cruise sounded so fun, plus it is always easy with kids and strollers. But after I started to read the fine print of buying a cruise, I found out that they won't take babies under 6 months onboard. I never found out why that is, but that ruined another plan of ours.



The next idea was to visit some national parks, since I am an enthusiastic national park explorer. There are two on the California coast that I have not yet visited; the Santa Monica Mountains and Channel Islands. But what else could have ruined this plan but another wildfire? I had been thinking about either glamping or staying the night in a teepee in Santa Paula. But that is exactly where the Thomas Fire is and I'm not sure if this camping area even exists anymore. I hope the fire hasn't destroyed it. 



Then we decided to look into cutting our drive in half and staying the night in the Madonna Inn in San Louis Obispo. The hotel is famous for it's rooms each having a different theme, and the whole building being very kitchy. I have stopped there a couple of times, and even the restrooms in that place are famous. The men's urinal is built as if it was a waterfall, and you can often run into some ladies in the men's room trying to take a picture of the urinal. 

We have often talked about staying the night in the Madonna Inn and now would have been a perfect opportunity for that. Especially since we are driving with a baby and this would have made the drive easier. But who knew that a place like the Madonna Inn would be full booked during the holiday season. Sigh!


We have no idea where we will end up; only time will tell. On the morning of our drive, we still have to check that all the roads are open, and we are able to make it without detours. I will also be checking the air quality in different places. Could you believe that here in Silicon Valley, they even have an app for that too?! So our plans are still on the table! Even the best plans don't always work out.

Have you ever had travel plans that didn't work out?

Thoroughbred Christmas Lights in Rancho Cucamonga, California

Paula Gaston

Once again we drove down to Southern California, close to Los Angeles for Christmas. Our trip lasted a total of five days, and during that time we spent time with the family, visited friends, stopped at the graveyard to remember loved ones, and drove up the San Bernardino Mountains in the middle of the snow. Our Christmas tradition, visiting a Christmas street to see some Christmas lights didn't quite work out as we hoped since the day before Christmas Eve it was raining, but our trip was still a success. 


Usually when we spend the Christmas in Southern California, we always visit the Thoroughbred Christmas Street. Finding well decorated Christmas houses is popular in America, and many towns have well known Christmas streets. In Alta Loma, city of Rancho Cucamonga, the residents of one normal street, have been decorating their houses for years already with hundreds, if not thousands of Christmas lights. I have never seen so many lights as here, and it is fair to say, that they went a little bit overboard with decorating. But it is all done with good cheer, and it has always been fun to see what the houses look like each year. Usually the residents sit outside their houses and do barbeque, or offer hot chocolate to visitors. 

In the last couple of years, Thoroughbred has become so popular that it is even difficult to get there. There are several police officers in the area, and they have restricted the parking. Getting to Thoroughbred Street from the freeway can take even a couple hours due to the slowly moving line of cars. We have always parked our car and walked through the Christmas street. People living close to the street have been complaining about the traffic, and the trash that visitors leave behind, and they have asked the city to close the street. But the city can not forbid people from having Christmas lights and therefore, the Thoroughbred Christmas Lights will go on until the residents decide not to do it anymore. 

Because of the rainy day, the pictures here are from previous years. We also managed to find a couple other highly decorated houses nearby, and we drove over when the rain was over. Finding Christmas houses can be fun, and especially our little daughter is excited to see them. 

One picture from the graveyard just to show you how different cultures can be. I am from Finland where graveyards usually only have a one simple flower or a candle at winter time. Many hispanic people rest in this graveyard, and everything was beautifully decorated and so colourful. 

One picture from the graveyard just to show you how different cultures can be. I am from Finland where graveyards usually only have a one simple flower or a candle at winter time. Many hispanic people rest in this graveyard, and everything was beautifully decorated and so colourful. 

Have you ever been on one of these Christmas streets or seen some over the top decorated Christmas houses?

Niles Train of Lights - An American Holiday Tradition

Paula Gaston

Many Americans have a Christmas tradition that was not familiar to me; a train ride on a Christmas train. You can find them all over the country, and here in the San Francisco Bay Area alone there are at least seven different operators. In many cases, it is the railway museums who offer these rides with old vintage trains, but also some regular trains will decorate for a Christmas ride they will announce beforehand. We did a Christmas Train ride in the city of Fremont in California. 

Niles Canyon Railway operates on one of the first railroad tracks of California. Construction of the track was first started in 1865, and they were part of the First Transcontinental Railroad, otherwise known as the Pacific Railroad. During the year 1987 the tracks were repaired, and they started the historical train rides with both diesel and steam locomotives. The timetables and the calendar for this train can be found here.

The train left right before dawn around 4.30 pm, and rode slowly through Niles Canyon to Sunol, and back. We were able to see the canyon during the light and the train lights after it got dark, so this was a perfect time. Each car in the train is different, and the brochure we were given recommended walking through the whole train. We sat down inside a warm enclosed car, but every once in a while we walked outside to the open car to see the views. If you plan to do this train ride, don't forget to dress up warmly since after the sun goes down, it can get pretty chilly. 

Everyone in the train seemed to be in a Christmasy mood, and we got to listen to some traditional Christmas music. Many had brought a proper picnic with wine, but they also sold some hot apple cider, hot chocolate and cookies in the train. There was also a Santa Claus who was talking with kids and posing for pictures. Also the conductors were very nice and talked with passengers a lot. Announcements in the train were very funny, and told us about the history of the railroad, and the decorations. 

We enjoyed the Niles Train of Lights, and especially our little daughter had fun. This event was very well done. Even though the ride was sold out, we felt like boarding the train and parking worked very well. The train didn't feel crowded at all. No wonder that this Christmas train is so popular, and the tickets sell out in one day. 

This was our first time on a Christmas train, but perhaps we will make this our new holiday tradition! 

5 Tips for Christmas Enthusiasts in San Francisco

Paula Gaston

If you want to get into a Christmas spirit, and you are in California right before Christmas, you should visit San Francisco. There are so many things to see and do in this iconic city. Last week I met with a friend in San Francisco just do some touristy things. Sometimes it's fun to pretend that you are just another tourist even if you live close by. We went to see what kind of things San Francisco has to offer for people who love Christmas. 


Union Square is the heart of San Francisco, and it's a good place to rediscover your Christmas spirit. Every year, there is a huge Christmas tree at Union Square, and an ice skating rink. But there actually is a heart at Union Square too. It is part of a charity programme called Hearts in San Francisco. These hearts can be found around the city, and every year they are auctioned to raise some money for the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation. The idea of hearts as art work came from Tony Bennett's song "I left my heart in San Francisco", and the heart that he donated got a permanent spot at Union Square. 


Riding a cable car is one the most popular things to do for tourists in San Francisco. It is a convenient way to see the city, and also a big part of San Francisco's history. Before Christmas some of the cable cars are decorated with some Christmas decorations, and they are a fun sight riding up and down on the famous hills of San Francisco. And it's not only tourists who ride cable cars, the locals still use them to commute to work.


Macy's department store is right across the street from Union Square, and usually has the most popular holiday displays in the city. Like most years, among the clothes and toys, they had some kittens and puppies in the windows. All the animals were looking for an adoptive home, and there were lots of volunteers telling people about the adoption programme, and getting donations. Right next to Macy's are both Louis Vuitton and Neiman Marcus, which also had festive decorations. 

Inside Macy's they have beautiful holiday decorations. Holiday Lane is almost overwhelming, and behind all the decorations sits none other than Santa Claus and greets the kids. If your little one wants to make his or her own toy, there is a Build a Bear workshop with many different stuffed animal choices, and don't forget to leave your wish list in Santa's mailbox. Even though we were not hungry yet, we visited the Cheese Cake Factory on the upper floor of Macy's. They have a great out door patio with an awesome view of Union Square.

Westfield Mall's attraction this year was a Christmas tree hanging upside down from the ceiling. It is located across the street from Macy's.




Right by Union Square is The Westin St. Francis hotel which displays some huge sugar castles in it's lobby. Their French executive pastry chef, Jean-Francois Houdré with his team, have created two sugar castles inspired by French chateaus. Hundreds of pounds of sugar have been used to make these castles, and they have so many amazing details. The other castle is rotating in the middle of the lobby, and has a little train riding around it. Tiny elves are climbing up to the castle's windows. The lobby is open for curious Christmas people, so don't be shy. You can also buy some pastries to go from the gift shop. 


Giant Gingerbread house in Fairmont Hotel

A short walk from Union Square is the luxurious Fairmont hotelFor many years now, they have displayed a giant gingerbread house in their lobby. This year the gingerbread house was made out of 7,750 pieces, 1,500 pounds of royal icing, and 700 pounds of candy. Hundreds of hours have been used to plan and execute this house. And every now and then, some guest can't resist to take a little bite from the gingerbread house. Even though you have to walk up hill to get to this hotel, it's well worth it!

Notice the Santa going down the chimney and the singing Christmas carollers. 

Notice the Santa going down the chimney and the singing Christmas carollers. 

Inside the gingerbread house

Inside the gingerbread house

Oops, someone must of been hungry!

Oops, someone must of been hungry!

These are some of my favourites in San Francisco, but there are of course plenty of other things to see as well. For example, the popular Pier 39 usually has a Christmas tree and other holiday things, same with Ghirardelli Square. When visiting San Francisco, you should always check out an events calendar to see what is happening on the days you visit. 

Wishing you all a wonderful Christmas spirit!