In December I fulfilled my ambition to sleep in a UFO, the Ice Hotel and under the Northern Lights
Things I had no eyed deer about Sweden
- I would get to sleep in an UFO in a tree
- I would know what minus 25 degrees felt like
- I would visit a city that is being moved 3 kilometres east
- I would have to avoid getting iced to a toilet seat
- There is no beginning to my talents in ice sculpting
- That I can now recognise the smell of a reindeer anywhere
I love snow, really really love snow, so much so that a few years ago after I moved from the UK to Australia my Mum knowing how I would miss a white Christmas posted me some fake snow. Disappointedly it never quite made it on time, its delivery was delayed by Australian customs, who eventually delivered it resealed up with a letter. Who would have thought that a white powder in a test tube would be remotely suspicious?
To guarantee snow at Christmas and to cross numerous items off my bucket list this December I visited Sweden for the most action packed week I have ever had in my life. To name but a few things the week included sleeping in an UFO, a tepee and an ice hotel, dog sledding, ice sculpting, and trying hard not to get iced to a toilet seat in minus 25 degrees.
The action started the second that I got off the plane in Lulea where the Northern Lights were in full dancing motion. I have to admit that my jet lag from travelling over from Australia meant that I didn’t fully appreciate the full honour of seeing them flood the sky like this and deludedly thought this was going to be an everyday appearance. Nothing can really describe their movement and how mesmerising they are. My eyes didn’t know whether to focus on the sheer thickness of the snow on the roadside or the beauty above.
The candelabra on the frozen lake
On reaching my accommodation at the Tree hotel in Harads there was no rest for the wicked – it may be going on for 9pm at night but my bags put to the side, my host Kent kitted me out in Arctic clothing. Note whatever clothes you take with you to Sweden is not going to be warm enough for the Arctic cold – take everything the Swedes give you! I found myself a child again on an adventure sitting in a sleigh being pulled by a snowmobile through trees to a frozen lake. Sitting low to the ground the snowy branches went whizzing by in this Narnia-like landscape. In the distance in the middle of the lake was a tepee. As we drew closer and dismounted Kent could see that I was slightly pre-occupied by the cracking noises coming from the freshly frozen lake and assured me that was normal and the ice really was very thick. The path to the tepee was lit by candles, and within, places were set for dinner, complete with candelabra. Whilst my host prepared the meal on a fire outside – my look of horror requiring confirmation again that the ice really was very very thick, I tried to record the moment on my iPhone but it couldn’t cope with the cold and kept cutting out. I learnt to keep it close to my body for the rest of the journey after that and only bring it out when necessary. After an amazing three course meal it was back on my sleigh to my UFO for the night.
A night in a UFO
I had been absolutely insistent with my travel company that I only wanted to do the holiday if I could stay in the UFO, the other tree houses were magical but only the UFO would do. The UFO sits four to six metres up in the pine trees with 5 other unique tree houses – a mirror cube, birds nest, blue cone, cabin and room with a view. The adventure started in true movie style with the pressing of a hidden switch on one of the pine trees – upon which a hatch opens and the ladder descends in true Close Encounters of the Third Kind fashion. (I resisted the temptation to hum the theme tune as I had company.) Upon ascending the ladder the inside of the UFO is almost Tardis like with every section of the circular room fully utilised. There is a double bed and two singles which can double up as sofas, and a separate toilet. It has all of the amenities you would expect and those you wouldn’t, such as wifi and even a star machine for the ceiling. I press the button to retract the stairway and close the hatch. Now in my own little world. I have a peaceful night’s sleep, due possibly by the rocking motion caused by the light swaying caused by the movement of the trees.
The mystery of the icey moustache
After a good night’s sleep I was so excited to get up the next morning and look at the other tree houses. In the peace of the woods I watched the sun come up over the trees, then I followed the snowy path with just the sound of the snow crunching under my feet to the Britta’s Pensionat for a hearty breakfast. Then we were off again, en route to the Aurora Safari camp. Now seeing the roads in daylight for the first time, I could see how really really deep the snow was both on and off the road. We were joined quite often along the way by reindeer who appeared completely unperturbed by the cars on the road. Apparently they are attracted to the roads by the salt, which they lick for nutrients. There have been taste tests done with reindeer to find out which salt they like the least, and then this salt is used on the roads. On the way to the camp we stopped by the side of the road to talk to some men whose job it was to keep the snowmobile tracks open. I was mesmerised by the fact that one of the pair’s moustache was completely iced solid but he didn’t seemed bothered by it. Equally they must have been equally fascinated by seeing an Australian in the Arctic Circle, newsworthy enough that they tweeted so later that day.
Meeting Santa’s doppelgänger
Next was a visit to the home of Lars Eriksson to learn about the Sami culture and how his life raising reindeer has changed so dramatically over time: From a semi-nomadic life to now being in demand for fashion magazine models to pose with his herd. Whilst we fed the reindeer he educated us on their lives and all of the ways that reindeers are used. Their antlers are the fastest growing tissue in animals, and grow at a rate of over an inch a week. An injury to one of their legs will result in an antler not growing properly. I have to admit whilst he was talking I was distracted by the fact he did look a lot like Santa and I wish I could remember more facts. I do know though that by the end of the week I was very familiar with reindeer, whether stroking one, sitting or sleeping on a hide, or eating one in every form possible. And no, despite what Kanye West says, they don’t taste like Christmas.
Ice sculpting… another career that I wont be taking up
To reach the Aurora Safari camp we set off on a snowmobile for a high speed journey over a frozen river. The camp itself is set in a forest beside the river and is magical and a little surreal (in a nice way). The camp consists of a number of “lavvu tents” like tepees. But most striking is a unique outdoor seating area with framed photos on the trees and a reindeer hide covered seating area. The stunning photos are those of the creator of the camp, photographer, Fredrik Broman. It is like just like sitting in you own living room, …but full of snow. The view from this room is what looks for now like an ice version of Stonehenge, but will change in the coming weeks as it is ice slabs that Fredrik has brought in for guests to learn to sculpt on. We go down to the river and after a lesson in how to use the tools I sat and chiselled away at a highly ambitious angel project for quite awhile. Unfortunately one slip and it went horribly wrong and the whole thing crashed down. Stonehenge was tarnished along with my dreams of applying to design and construct an Ice Hotel room next year. Fredrik then put me to shame and created a beautiful ice heart in about ten seconds flat.
Avoiding getting iced to a toilet seat
After dinner I retire to my tent. But before I do, my host gives me an alarm clock as he shows me the inside of the spacious tepee. The log burner in the centre of the room is key, he explains. The fire has to remain burning to maintain the heat, as it is around minus 20 outside, therefore the alarm clock is so that I wake up to do it. I think he is joking, but he isn’t, and as I am on my own I can’t share the duties so that means getting up a few times. Unfortunately my poor (but now improved) fire lighting skills meant having to set my alarm for every 90 minutes to just catch the fire from going out. I was assured though that there was someone there to check the chimney and would notice if there was no smoke. I was in no danger of freezing in my Arctic sleeping bag but it was definitely a crash course in how to light a fire.
The shared toilet and washroom tepee is 20 metres from the tents in the woods. I was particularly grateful for the red light outside for guests to turn on when the washroom is in use, therefore saving an unnecessary journey from the warmth of the tepee. Inside the toilet tent there is a nice warm heater but I was still conscious that there is ice on the toilet seat and I practised my squat as I didn’t particularly want to have to be rescued from being glued to the seat.
The next morning, back across the lake, the journey continues on the train for the three hour journey through a landscape of more snow than you can possibly imagine to the town of Kiruna. As the train goes by, the enormous weight of snow on the trees suddenly avalanches and propels the branchs and their snowy missiles upwards like huge catapults. You could have a lot of fun as kids with this. The wrong kind of leaves on the line might stop British trains but no amount of snow stops this train. Indeed, Ice and snow don’t stop the planes or the cars.
Sleeping in a room made entirely from ice
Today’s destination is the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjarvi. The hotel melts and is rebuilt every year from ice harvested from the Torne river. The ice blocks are stored for the summer, and then when the weather drops below zero again ice artists from all over the world arrive to build the hotel. When I arrived, as it was start of season, not all of the rooms, including the famous wedding chapel, were completed and work continued. This was fascinating watching the ice slowly take shape. I’m staying in an Art Suite for one night but I can’t get access to the room until later in the day as the hotel is open for tourists to explore during the day.
Guests are given warm changing rooms that double as a locker until they retire to their cold room, preferably with little other than their Arctic sleeping bag. I retire to my room and place the bag on the reindeer skin covering the ice. It is eerily quiet and apparently the few people that don’t stick it out for the night are more disturbed by the silence than the cold.
I have an amazingly peaceful sleep in my room and I’m relieved when I wake up to find that my nightmare of somehow welding my face to the ice has not occurred. My next night will be in the one of the warm chalets as one night in an ice room usually satisfies most people’s curiosity.
The disappearing dog sled
Next morning the adventure continues with dog sledding with Mats Pettersson and driving our own two person sleds. On reaching the kennels what really strikes me is the excitement of the dogs. They are absolutely raring to go and noisily let us know that, jumping over each other to be chosen. You would think that they would perceive this as work but they are so excited. We are all given dogs to take to be attached to their sleds and I am quite literally bowled over by my tiny dog’s power. Even the smallest dogs have superhuman strength. All of the dogs attached, and after a lesson in how the brakes work we are off across the countryside. I watch the trees go by and occasionally a flying poo as dogs do not stop to do their business and are masters of the three legged running wee. We stop for soup and toast in a tepee and let the dogs rest. It is at this point that two of my fellow tourists accidentally discovered how many kilometres the dogs can go on their own when they both got off without engaging the brakes. We suddenly saw the sled disappear into the distance.
The sled dogs getting excited for their run
Next day is a snowmobile expedition from Mattarahkka Lodge. I was incredibly nervous as these things can go fast, they weigh a lot and you could probably balance my Fiat 500 on the back of one of them. But once we set off I was hooked as immediately we had reindeer running along side us. My initial trepidation of not going too fast turned into me hanging back as far as possible behind the others simply so that I had an excuse to go as fast as I possibly could to catch up.
From space stations to sky stations
Snowmobiling over, we were on our way to our final destination, Abisko Mountain Lodge. I was sad to not have had time to explore Kiruna more. The northernmost town in Sweden, it is currently moving it’s town centre 3 kilometres to the east due to subsidence caused by the iron ore mine that has always been so crucial to its economy. It is also the site of the Esrange Space centre including rocket launches.
My first trip in Abisko is to the Sky station, arguably the best place to see the northern lights in the world. We board the chair lift to the top of Mount Nuolja to the restaurant and observation deck and a panoramic view of Lapporten. The lights do not come out tonight, but the meal is wonderful. Our descent down on the chair lift is eerily silent bar the noise of the machinery and wind, interspersed with voices carrying down from the top of the mountain. For awhile we swing in the breeze looking down into the abyss as we wait for the people up ahead to dismount. The Northern Lights had not performed on cue at the top of the mountain but back at the Lodge they make a sudden appearance and there is a mass exodus out into the freezing night, heads raised excitedly looking at the sky.
The following day is a trip to the Norwegian fjords including a picnic on the shore of Lake Tornetrask. A more sombre day, we pass through the area of one of the first large scale battles of World War Two: The Battle of Narvik. I was disappointed that we visited on a day that the war museum was not open as my Grandad fought in Norway. But admittedly a little relieved too.
What did strike me in Norway was how expensive it is. Apparently Norwegians cross into the Swedish side to make purchases. Norwegians pay half tax in December (and none in June) to stimulate spending but according to locals it is all equalled out over the course of the year.
The next day is a snow shoe walk, it takes place in the pitch black but due to the all day night at this time of the year, it is actually only 2pm. I’m not a natural at snow shoeing and keep losing my shoe and ending up in a pile of snow as I try to keep up with our white shaggy Dog Samoyd guide. As we walk along we learn about the multitude of animal tracks and how to find fresh water wells in the snow.
Following the green haze
Next, in the evening, we are straight out on a Northern lights photography
course with Lights over Lapland. Each of us is given our camera and tripod. After a quick lesson we wait patiently for the lights to appear. We don’t have to wait long, and are treated to an amazing and constant display of dancing lights. A few years earlier I had taken a flight from Manchester over the Arctic Circle purely to see the lights from the sky and this was way way better. We move about spinning round and round as we follow the lights and try to get the best shots. Looking through each other’s lens and admiring our handiwork. Apparently Auroras also make noises, a bit like radio static. However, the only noise we heard was the sound of some local boys, who judging by the smell of what they were smoking, were creating their own green auroras. We return to the lodge to look at our photos over and over again.
My final day, I pass the time by exploring the town. I watch the school children being pulled on a sleigh behind a snow mobile, an unconventional school bus. One of the tour guides told me that every 100th iron ore train carriage was a golden one, and so I turned around quickly every time I heard one coming, but I have a feeling that is something they tell tourists to keep them entertained. No golden carriage spotted, it is time to go home.
To be honest I never picked Sweden as top of my list for a holiday, it just happened to be the destination with the most activities that I wanted to do in close proximity. Indeed, I was a bit worried when one form I filled in before my trip asked only one dietary question, not the usual vegetarian or vegan, but simply, do you eat raw fish? But I fell in love with it. How can you not fall in love with a country that gave us IKEA, Fartlek, and a great tourism campaign where you can dial a phone number and get connected to a random Swede. I crossed so many things off my bucket list, (I passed on the ice climbing), experienced almost all day darkness, and new foods like cloudberries and lingonberry juice. I’m now Sweden’s biggest fan.
I booked my trip though Aurora Nights.
This is not a sponsored post. This represents my personal opinion.