Walking in a winter wonderland at Winterval in Waterford

The Winterval Express Train

Can’t afford Lapland this year? Take the family to Winterval in Waterford, writes Vickie Maye

The discussion continued long into the car journey home.

“It was the real one, it had to be, did you not see his real beard?”

I catch a glimpse at the faces of my three- and five-year-olds, staring at me intently in the rear view mirror.

It was nearly 24 hours since their Santa visit, and they couldn’t stop talking about it, about him.

I nod in agreement. That beard, trailing down to his chest, certainly was the real thing. That laugh truly was the jolliest thing I’ve ever heard.

I have an 11-year-old so I’ve done my fair share of time in Santa grottos already, but this really was something different.

There was a little bit of magic last Saturday on the ground floor of Waterford’s Medieval Museum, where Santa has based himself for Winterval. We all felt it.

Perhaps it was the day we had spent together — horse-drawn sleigh rides; the express train; the Christmas market selling hot chocolate and crepes.

By the time we came face to face with Santa, we were already had trickles of that magic, that feeling that envelops you as you watch your children carefully lay out the cookies and carrots on Christmas Eve.

By the time time we finished our visit with Santa, it felt like Christmas morning.

Lapland is the ultimate Christmas destination. But the reality is it’s beyond the reach of most.

Truth is there’s something very special right on our doorstep.

Five years ago Waterford played host to the very first Winterval. And it has evolved into a festival that is nothing short of perfect.

There’s no snow, or it’s unlikely at any rate. Other than that, it’s all there. Instead of reindeer sleigh rides there’s horse drawn sleighs. There are wooden market stalls, as beautiful as any you’d see in Europe’s famed equivalents, selling crafts, crepes and hot chocolates.

And, of course, there’s Santa Claus himself.

The ferris wheel
The ferris wheel

Last weekend I took my kids to Waterford, and we arrived to see Santa — the same real deal we would meet a day later — turn on the Christmas lights on in the city. It took time for him to make his way to the top of the crowd for the countdown; this was because he was intent on shaking every child’s hand.

Afterwards we strolled to Waterford Illuminates, a light show beamed every half hour after dark that sees a beautiful period house transformed into scenes from children’s classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The markets line the little lane so we sipped hot chocolate and marshmallows as we watched.

The kids were tired so we walked to the car to make our way back to our beds. And it was then that I really appreciated the beauty of Waterford.

This festival really works because of the intimacy of the city. Nothing is too far for tiny three- year-old legs to manage.

Walking from the lights, to the markets, back to our car, took just minutes. It’s a village feeling wrapped up in a beautiful city. Parking never seemed to be an issue either. It’s why cities as big as Dublin or Cork could never host an event quite like Winterval.

Our base was a holiday home at Faithlegg House Hotel. And it was perfect. Three bedrooms to sleep four of us, and in the morning we could have breakfast in the main house. The kids were still talking about that too.

I always say the big calling card for a hotel is its breakfast and Faithlegg is up there with the best. No hot breakfast buffets here and soggy scrambled eggs. You can help yourself to cereals and fruit, but everything from bacon to pancakes is served fresh to your table. (My 11-year-old pancake connoisseur rated these the best she’s ever eaten.)

It’s a stunning hotel, all old country house charm, and it’s truly beautiful for Christmas. Illuminated reindeer line the entrance path and Christmas trees stand by the open fires at reception.

We were on our way the next morning by 10am ready for a day of all things festive. The Winterval programme is one other festivals should use as a template, it’s well laid out, clear and informative, prices and opening times included for every event. We began with arts and crafts, at Frosty’s Creation Station. Winterval have called on local people who do art classes with children to host these workshops (we experienced the same level of expertise at the Grotto later), and it shows.

Lana and Mia with Faithlegg’s reindeer
Lana and Mia with Faithlegg’s reindeer

My children were so at ease with Roxy as they made snowmen out of socks, that I was able to nip out to the bank to pay the €9 admission fee.

Quite a feat with my usually clingy three year old.

From there it was over to Reginald’s Tower for (free) storytelling on top of the winding 56 ‘castle’ steps. Here we heard tales of dragons and giants. The three and five year olds were captivated.

A stop for more hot chocolate at the market, and then there was a detour to Penneys. We needed more hats, more scarves, more layers.

It was our own fault. We’d been warned about how cold it would be.

Right outside was a vintage carousel, to help us put those Penneys’ queues behind us.

From there we took the Winterval Train around the town, and after caught the horse drawn sleigh through the city.

The ferris wheel was tempting, and right in our eyeline as we stepped off the carriage, and nearby there was ice skating and the Reptile Park – but our booking with Santa was the priority.

We crossed the road to the Medieval Museum. We stepped inside and instantly I had one thought - the Late Late Toy Show. Surely this is what the studio must be like.

Toys, giant jenga, jigsaws, arts and crafts - it was so perfect, so age appropriate, that I had to drag the five year old away when we were called to see Santa.

They were captivated. And so was I. The toys he gave, perfect choices of play doh and a doll with make-and-do dresses, distracted the kids just enough for us to have dinner upstairs at the Reg.

Staff there were kind enough to give us a beautiful little room off the main restaurant, so we didn’t disturb other diners as much as I feared we might.

The kids’ pasta was sensational, I’m still thinking about it.

There’s always one Santa visit that stays with you a lifetime. Mine was a visit to Cashs in Cork. I can still remember leaving convinced I had seen the real thing that day, that Santa had come from the North Pole just to see me. It was a lovely feeling last weekend, driving home from Waterford knowing I’d given my kids that same memory.

Winterval continues until Dec 23. www.winterval.ie

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