Disney Cruise Line excursion in Helsinki allows you to get up close and personal with Finland’s national animal
Beneath a scary rack of antlers, Oscar the reindeer’s big brown eyes couldn’t be more inviting.
Feed me more lichen, they urge.
Scratch my ears and stroke my ultra-suede nose, they seem to say.
My 12-year-old daughter and I oblige, presenting a steady stream of lichen, reindeer’s favourite food and a strange plant that’s best described as a weird cross of mushroom and moss.
As Oscar nudges our pockets searching for more grub, we pat his soft face and neck, hardly believing we’re this up close and personal with a reindeer in Finland.
After all, Finland is where reindeer originate and the species has secured global fame as the flying Santa’s helpers able to pull the toy-laden sleigh around the world in just one night every Christmas.
Caribou, Canada’s cousin to the reindeer, just don’t have the same cachet because they don’t have the cool name and aren’t as integrated into Canadian culture as they are in Finland.
“There are 200,000 semi-domesticated poro (the Scandinavian word for reindeer) in Finland,”says Suzanna Almen, the owner of Sea & Mountain Adventures, the tour company that operates the White Reindeer Park.
“We have parks like this where you can interact. We do sleigh rides in the winter and we even put them on leashes and go hiking the way you would a dog.”
My daughter and I immediately imagine adding a reindeer pet to our family back at home and showing off to the neighbours.
We’ve found ourselves amongst the reindeer after stopping in Finland’s capital of Helsinki on the Disney Magic cruise ship.
The Reindeer and Nature excursion immediately pulled us in.
Who needs to wander another museum or cathedral in a European capital when there are cute critters on the itinerary?
Just a 40-minute bus ride north of Helsinki, we come to Kansallispuis National Park and hike two kilometres through the spruce-and-pine woods to the reindeer enclosure.
While Oscar and his tiny herd of four other poro were born in captivity and live behind a fence, the park is as natural as possible.
It’s in the middle of the forest and features a big rock outcropping where Oscar can pose majestically against a summer sky and evergreen background.
A platform for the humans is where the lichen is kept and the reindeer aren’t shy about coming over for some hand-feeding and pats.
The anticipation amongst our tour group is palatable as the lichen is handed out, adults and children alike prance with excitement and cameras snap.
Oscar, the leader and bull male with the most-impressive antlers, is the star of the show. Everyone wants his attention. But bull Niila and females Lumi, Taika and Nella are just as friendly and photogenic.
When the lichen runs out, and thus the attention of the reindeer, people find their way into the huge kota, the traditional teepee-like tent home of the Lapland people of northern Finland.
It’s very civilized in there with a campfire, benches covered in reindeer furs and servings of the Finnish delicacy grillig sweet bun with French wine or Finnish beer.
Here, the conversation turns a bit morbid considering Oscar and his crew are within earshot.
We learn reindeer fur and leather is coveted for everything from traditional blankets and clothes to modern high-fashion and handbags.
And the meat is apparently delicious, especially in the national dish of poronkaristys, a stew of sliced, dried reindeer and onion best served with lingon berry sauce, mashed potatoes and pickles.
Our tour guide’s mouth waters as she describes the stew. Our’s, not so much. A Disney cruise is an exceptional way to see five Scandinavian and Baltic countries in just seven days.
Roundtrip from Copenhagen, the ship also stops in Tallinn, Estonia, St. Petersburg, Russia and Stockholm, Sweden.
While onboard the recently renovated Disney Magic, my daughter and I repeatedly ride the new AquaDunk waterslide, dance along with the new movie-inspired Frozen show on the top deck and swim in the deck nine pool.
While my wife and daughter get manicures in the spa, I go round and round on the deck four running track.
As a family we enjoyed dinners together in three-themed restaurants and when our daughter went to movie night we dined Italian at the adultsonly Palo.
Oscar the reindeer meets Grace MacNaull, 12, at White Reindeer Park north of Helsinki, Finland.
While bull male Oscar is the star of the show, Nella, one of the female reindeer, is awfully cute too.