From the coolest hotel in the world to the magic of reindeer sledding, the winter wilderness of northern Sweden is a magical experience.
By Andy Round
At Sweden’s Kiruna Airport the temperature is minus-18ºC. Inside the famous Icehotel nearby at Jukkasjärvi it is a more cheerful minus-5ºC. But in the hotel’s bar, the wedding party atmosphere is warming up. Fast.
‘My niece Claire is marrying Lee in a couple of hours,’ says guest David Murrow. ‘They decided to do something different rather than hold the wedding in the UK and, well, this is certainly different.’
There is no word on the bride’s dress, but when you’re 200km north of the Arctic Circle, thermal boots, insulated jackets and furry hats are certainly de rigueur for guests.
‘We have about 150 weddings a year at the Icehotel’s church,’ says representative Beatrice Karlsson. ‘But the main reasons more than 40 000 visitors come here during the winter is for the tranquillity of Europe’s last wilderness all around us; the chance to stay in a unique work of art and the opportunity to experience activities such as dog-sledding, snowmobiling and moose safaris.’
Every winter the 5 500-m² hotel is built from scratch using 2 500 gargantuan ice-cubes chain-sawed from the frozen Torne River and 30 000 tonnes of snow and ice (or ‘snice’).
‘The hotel has a church, exhibition hall, lobby, bar and 65 rooms including 15 ‘art suites’ each individually carved by artists from countries as varied as the Netherlands, Germany and Spain,’ explains guide Robert Siverhall.
Their work is open to the public during the day. To walk from the carved ‘ice-belly of a whale’ in one suite, into a crowd of ice statues in another, before finding yourself face-to-face with a frozen transparent ice dragon, is a joyously eccentric experience.
But what’s it like to stay overnight? ‘Surprisingly, it was not the cold that we found so strange,’ says American Ken Gould, fresh from a trip across Russia on the Siberian Express.
‘It’s the unusual sensation of sleeping in so many layers of clothes in a giant thermal bag that I found unusual. Still, I’ve travelled to 92 countries and this is a great thing to say I’ve experienced.’
The hotel has become a magnet for curious travellers like Ken Gould, but it is just one highlight of an extraordinary region.
‘There is a great contrast here between the mountains, the forests and endless empty countryside,’ says Mattias Mannberg of Kiruna’s Tourism Authority. ‘Kiruna Municipality is 19 500 square kilometres – half the size of the Netherlands – but just 23 000 people live here.’
The region, he says, has become a major draw for tourists from the UK, Germany and France and is increasingly popular with Chinese and Japanese travellers with a handful of direct flights from Tokyo recently introduced for the winter season.
So, what is the big appeal for long distance travellers? Simple. The fantastic swirls of colliding charged particles known as the Northern Lights – or aurora borealis – that illuminate this incredible Christmas card landscape like dancing ghosts.
‘From September to March they are a major attraction for most travellers,’ says Mannberg. ‘I took them for granted when I was young, but today when I see what they mean to tourists, I realise we are blessed.’
Crunching across the packed snow of Kiruna town from the pretty 100-year-old wooden church to the boxy municipal hall with its art installation clock tower through a park with two-metre snow sculptures by Russian, Mexican and Spanish artists you quickly appreciate how winter is frozen into the DNA of daily life.
From November to April, metres-thick duvets of snow coat everything, daylight seems to last for minutes and countryside temperatures can plummet to minus-30ºC.
Getting dressed in the morning involves insulated ski-pants and extra socks, collecting the shopping is easier with a sledge and plugging your car engine into the mains overnight is essential if you want it warm enough to start the next morning.
A short drive from town is the Sámi Siida Culture Centre, featuring a small museum, handicraft shop and a deliciously warm café. Here, over coffee, Sámi representative Lennart Pittja outlines the philosophy of VisitSápmi, an organisation funded by the Swedish Government and European Union.
‘Sámi are one of the world’s indigenous peoples and Lapland is often promoted as our land,” says Pittja. ’Sápmi is the true Sámi name for the region that extends across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia and VisitSápmi was established as the tourism and information organisation to do this.’
At the heart of the organisation’s philosophy is a commitment to sustainable tourism that ‘gives back’ to Sámi communities and the transferal of Sámi knowledge worldwide.
That transfer of knowledge comes to life at the centre’s reindeer lodge. ‘We offer reindeer sled excursions into the wilderness, overnight stays in cabins and plenty of story telling around the fire,’ smiles Sámi reindeer herder Anders Kärrstedt, strolling into the paddock.
‘We also have a circuit cut into the snow for high-speed ‘Formula 1’ sledding, but all our young ‘Ferrari’ reindeer are out with tourists at the moment,’ he laughs
Not to worry. Lennart Pittja reins up a more pedestrian 15-year-old ‘pensioner’ reindeer, and demonstrates the 10kmph art of trotting a sled gently through the forest snow.
It’s a truly memorable sight.
Kiruna town was built to serve what is now the biggest iron ore mine in the world. Run by the government-owned company Luossavaara Kiirunavaara Aktiebolag (LKAB), it is a unique tourist attraction with 30 000 visitors every year. “Why should people visit? It’s an opportunity to go 540 metres underground to experience a mine that’s working 24/7,” says LKAB’s Ylva Sievertsson. “It’s the most modern mine in the world and a lot of mining technology was invented here.”
Fast track travel
Dog sleds are fun, reindeer sledges are enjoyable, but the thrill of powering up a snowmobile and racing off into the wilderness of northern Sweden is joyous. As the sun sets, the snow glows, trees become shadows and the wind whips your visor, the world is reduced to a 40kmph slither and a headlight-illuminated snow track. Wonderful.
I suppose these are BOX OUT?