From spotting the Aurora Borealis to sampling moose meat, living it up at Ice Hotel and soaking in an outdoor hot tub in -14 degrees, here's how to make the most of your holiday in Northern Sweden
All through my Emirates flight from Bengaluru to Stockholm via Dubai, followed by a SAS flight to Lulea (a good 11 hours of flying time through multiple time zones), I repeatedly read through my Swedish Lapland itinerary. The many experiences listed there made me feel like I was embarking on a magic carpet ride to a whole new world! And a whole new world it was – filled with snow (lots of it!), encounters with reindeers, dog-sledding, hot-tubs under the Aurora Borealis aka Northern Lights, meals at White Guide restaurants, and so much more.
My journey began in Lulea and moved through the Arctic Circle and then beyond it – to Kukkolaforsen and the Torne Valley, Kangos, Jukkasjärvi (home to the Ice Hotel and the Sami people, the oldest indigenous people of the region), and ended at Kiruna, the northernmost town of Sweden – approximately 340 kms from Lulea, our starting point and 1,200 kms from Stockholm, our entry to Sweden.
Take a walk
One of the best ways to explore towns in the Swedish Lapland region is to walk around. You can walk the perimeter of Lulea town comfortably in less than an hour. Bound by the Baltic Sea (which was on its way to being frozen solid when I was there) on one side, quite literally, every road you walk leads back to the center. So even for someone like me, who is geographically challenged, getting around was easy. Step into the 17th century Nederluleå Church and take in its serenity, or spend some time at the Gammelstad Church Town, a UNESCO-protected heritage site which has preserved a 400-year-old church village in its original form. These 424 wooden homes are barebones structurally, having just a living and sleeping space and a chamber pot for your ablutions. They were used on weekends by villagers who lived far away as places to stay in order to participate in Sunday church services. A guided tour is the best way to explore this town.
Walking around Kukkolaforsen Turist & Conferens in Haparanda, you have the rapids of the Torne River thundering past you. Standing on the banks of this river, you can see Finland on the opposite bank and that is a quite a thrill. Huuva Hideaways (they reopen for bookings in January 2020), set in little village Liehittäjä with only nine inhabitants, is an experience in itself in winter, with knee-high snow in some places. If you are at the Lapland Guesthouse in Kangos or Camp Ripan in Kiruna (and you will be well into the Arctic region by then), a small walk post dinner to scout out the Northern Lights should be on the cards.
Driving around, what you need to watch out for is snow dust. Oncoming traffic can throw up a huge amount of snow, blocking your view for a bit. Navigating this, during heavy snowfall is for experienced drivers. Do keep your eyes peeled while driving – you may spot reindeer walking alongside or the much large moose suddenly dart by.
Thanks to IKEA, it’s the meatballs that first come to mind when you say Swedish food. For a really authentic version, have your share at Café Metropole in Lulea, where the very dapper owner, Bengt Wikström, will regale you with stories of how his café is a hangout space for those over 55 years of age (of course all others are welcome too).
For truly gastronomical experiences, restaurants from the White Guide are the places to be. The White Guide is a definitive authority that recognises efforts in gastro-nomy and sustainability of restaurants in the Nordic and Baltic regions, Denmark and Sweden.
Lulea has six White Guide restaurants and you could do a dinner hopping tour like we did – try a reindeer starter at Bistro Norrland; an Arctic Char main course at Restaurant CG, and indulge in dessert at Hemmagastronomi. Consider a meal at the artistic VillGott at Bryggeriet that overlooks the Lulea River. Here is a restaurant that is a brewery, a tattoo parlour, a music venue and a space for the arts all rolled into one. James Thomson, head chef, along with his international team put together a seven-course meal that had at the core of every dish, the Kalix Löjrom (vendace roe), Sweden’s first produce to be labelled Protected Designation of Origin. To present roe in seven different ways is not an easy task to pull off.
But, it is the indigenous foods of Sweden that will steal your heart. Pickled herring is one dish that can take on so many avatars. Reindeer blood pancakes are for the adventurous. Considering the long winter months, a range of leaves – from spruce, to birch to forest moss and lichen — are foraged and frozen during the summer and used as garnishes, each adding their own distinct flavour. Among the many firsts for me was the ptarmigan, a small bird (very close to the quail, but less bony), which we cooked ourselves at Camp Ripan. The meat is soft and makes for a great main course. The västerbotten cheese, a hard cow’s milk cheese has a mildly sweet flavour, a hint of spruce. It finds place on cheese platters and is used in some quiches.
On the bean
Coffee lovers have to try the kaffeost (coffee cheese) – black coffee served in birch burl cups into which you drop chunks of cheese (made from reindeer milk traditionally, but now made with cow’s milk).This version of cheese absorbs coffee like a sponge and once you are done with your caffeine shot, you scoop up the cheese and eat it. Johan, the owner of Lapland Guesthouse in Kangos welcomes you with kaffeost made on an open fire, with cinnamon buns on the side. Shivering in my mitts, this was a great way to warm up.
A great food experience is the cooking of sik (white fish from the coregonus lavaretus family) and gahkku, a flat bread with Johannah Spolander, the owner of Kukkaloforsen Turist. As you sit in a really old smoke room (built in the 1700s), listening to the Torne rapids, the traditional Muurikka, an iron pan is placed on a birch wood fire. The fish is gutted, scaled, scored and then skewered on pinewood. It is then placed vertically on the side of the fire during which the fish naturally releases oils onto itself. Once done, the skewers are dunked whole into a bucket of salt water and a few ladlefuls of water are poured on them, and it is served. The flatbread dough is made with flour, fresh cream, fennel, whole wheat and spices. This is shaped into balls and then flattened by hand and thrown onto the murrikka for a few seconds. Garlic butter is liberally applied to this and a whole lot of white fish salad spooned onto it. Besides reindeer, you can also eat meats like moose and elk. The region is known for its berries – lingonberry, seabuckthorne, cloudberry and so many more. You will find these in jams, sauces, garnishes, juices, and in many other ways. Swedish Aquavit and its variants make for great shots and cocktail bases. And always is a good time for fika, the Swedish tradition of taking a break over coffee and snacks.
The great outdoors
What I noticed about the Swedes in general is that they are in tune with nature and love the outdoors. Trekking, hiking, walking, hunting, skinny dipping in freezing waters are all a part of life. As is the sauna – a steam room that is a part of most homes. Not only is it a great way to socialise with friends, family and colleagues, but is believed to be a remedy for simple illnesses and stress. The temperatures in a steam sauna go up to 47 C. You can follow that up by walking bare foot to an outdoor hot tub usually set around 35 C. The feeling of sitting in a swimsuit in -14 C and being as warm as a cookie is an example of contrasts. Kukkolaforsen has several variants of the sauna and hot tub for you to choose from. Camp Ripan has the Aurora Spa that is a delightful 14-step DIY style treatment system that ends in a hot tub outdoors. With both, you stand a chance to spot the Northern Lights as you soak.
A real session of pampering can be had at Kropps Balans in Lulea that offers treatment packages that are based on specific Arctic herbs. Not only do you get pedicures and back massages with all things birch-based, but you also get to eat and drink foods with the herb as a base.
Nature’s light show
On top of the list for anyone visiting the Swedish Laplands is a sighting of the Northern Lights. The best months for sightings are December to early February. However, you must know that you are dealing with nature and sometimes, it can disappoint. An Aurora tracker can help you better your chances.
I was at some brilliant Northern Lights spots – Kukkola-forsen, Lapland Guesthouse and Camp Ripan, but it was only at Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi that the skies were kind to us and put on a spectacular show. Remember that you have to venture out as far away as possible from artificial light. When you do spot the Northern Lights, it’s your camera (this is when a DSLR is worth carrying around) that will capture the best of the lights, much more than what you see with the naked eye. The experience of staying in an Ice Room (you get a certificate for spending a night here successfully), having a drink at the Ice bar, dining on an Ice Menu at the hotel’s restaurant is perfectly topped with an Aurora sighting. Another brilliant way to experience it, is to get onto a dog-sled, like the one I went on by Lapland Wilderness Tours and be taken deep onto the frozen Torne River to Aurora Domes where you can watch the sky while you stay warm on reindeer fleece and over a cup of coffee, which was the perfect end to our Swedish Lapland discovery.
Laplands, a magical winterland:
Lappland (in Swedish) is located in the northernmost part of Sweden, covering more than a quarter of the country’s land area. It borders areas like Jämtland, Ångermanland, Västerbotten (yes the region of the famous cheese by the same name), Norrbotten and countries like Norway and Finland. If you are looking for a winter vacation, you couldn’t ask for a better place. Depending on your level of comfort, you can fly or try the train or bus to get there from major cities likes Copenhagen and Stockholm. Smaller towns like Lulea and Kiruna have airports as well, giving you complete connectivity. Cars are available for hire if you would like to discover the region at your own pace.
Experience Arctic winters:
What makes the Lapland region a perfect winter vacation spot is the miles of snow covered landscapes, and temperatures going down all the way to -30 C in the peak of winter, which is January to February. With the right clothing, an itinerary that has a good mix of indoor and outdoor activities, you are sure to have a great time. If you are thinking thermals, you thought right – but, cotton thermals do not work here at all. In fact, they make you colder. You ideally need Merino wool thermal wear and socks (try buying in Sweden, they have the most gorgeous prints), good fleece-lined leggings and sweaters, thick wool caps, ideally with a balaclava that protects your neck, face and mouth. You need thick, snow boots, particularly once you cross over into the Arctic zone. There are options to rent boots as well with most of the resorts in the region. Ski pants are a great addition. Wool-lined leather mittens are what will keep those fingers warm. Dress in layers – the last thing you want to be is under-dressed for snow, or over-dressed when indoors.
Ruth Dsouza Prabhu visited the country on invitation from VisitSweden