Meet Os­car

Dis­ney Cruise Line ex­cur­sion in Helsinki al­lows you to get up close and per­sonal with Fin­land’s na­tional an­i­mal

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - DESTINATIONS -

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.

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