Our mission this weekend was to hunt for the elusive Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. The quality of the lights depends on solar winds, sky clarity and moon phases. Your chances are best if it is winter, cold, clear and as far north as possible. Even though we knew that there was no guarantee to catch the light shows, we journeyed 200 miles north of the artic circle - to the Swedish Laplands.
We started the journey via a direct flight to Stockholm, the birthplace of Erin's great grandmother. We left Luxembourg early Saturday morning from our local airport. Lux airport is small and modern. In under 20 minutes we checked in, dropped bags and passed through security without a hitch. Then we strode onto the tarmac and climbed up the airstairs into the 20 row Bombadier q400 propeller plane. We flew 2 hours to Stockholm, stored our bags, and began an 8-hour walkabout in the city.
The weather was in the 50s and sunny. We were immediately impressed with the integration of water in Stockholm. Canals and bridges weave through large palatial squares. As we walked, we stumbled upon stunning views of the water. The streets were clean and the people seemed fit, healthy and attractive. During several interactions, local Swedes spoke to Erin in Swedish. She felt flattered each time she was mistaken for a local.
In Stockholm, we visited a gigantic warship that sunk in the Stockholm waters just after it was built in 1628. The ship sat in the brackish Swedish waters for 333 years before it was dregged up and reassembled piece by piece. It is now the most famous attraction in Sweden. We were blown away by the sheer size of the vessel combined with the incredibly detailed wooden carvings.
From there we walked to Ostermalm Saluhall - which is sort of like the Ferry Building in San Francisco - a covered market with various merchants selling Swedish produce, meats and specialty foods. We stocked up on picnic snacks for our upcoming 15 hour train ride to Northern Sweden. We picked fresh bread, truffle goat cheese and salami. We tried other Swedish specialties like smoked salmon, Kanelbullar (cinnamon bun) and potatoes with lingonberries. From there, we walked around Old Town, through winding cobblestone streets and watched the sunset on a pier surrounded by sail boats. We made plans to come back to explore the parks and sail during the 18 hour summer days.
Our overnight sleeper train left from Stockholm at 10:40 pm. We learned from our last night train experience to make sure we had our own sleeping chamber "couchette" all to ourselves. Even though we didn't have to share with strange German men sleeping in their undies, the space was TINY. There was a little sink, three fold-out bunk beds, a ladder to reach the upper bed and a fold out table, all crammed into the space of a broom closet. We accepted it as part of the adventure though, and we enjoyed climbing around, eating our picnic, and watching our favorite train journey movie "The Darjeeling Limited." Even though the train rocked and rattled, we managed a few hours sleep and woke up for a gorgeous pink sunrise casting over pure white snow, pine trees and frozen lakes. We spent 12 hours heading up to the Swedish Lapland towards Kiruna, 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. In the middle of the tundra, we transferred to a Swedish commuter train for the final 3 hours, and then arrived at our remote wilderness boutique eco-lodge for the night. We ventured so far north that Google maps flipped upside-down.
The lodge had 7 lofts with simple Scandanavian decor amidst pristine natural surroundings. The owner of the lodge is a dogsled racer. We enjoyed petting his dog team while drinking tea and hot lingonberry juice during check in. We did a quick change and then took a long walk around the property. If we stayed on the snowmobile tracks, we were fine, but a few times Dave ventured off of the path and immediately fell waist deep in snow. At dinnertime, the chef prepared a special meal for us with local vegetables, fruits and meats. The first course was fresh salmon with dill on a cracker, followed by potatoes and meat sprinkled with fresh carrots. Although we would never choose it, we couldn't refuse the main course...reindeer! We felt uncomfortable eating it in the first place, but to make matters worse, the walls of the lodge were decorated with life-size photographs of reindeer enjoying themselves in the wild. For dessert, the chef introduced us to Swedish "cloud berries" that only grow in Scandinavian mountains - kind of like golden raspberries.
The chef then lead us upstairs to their private Swedish spa ritual. We started with a sauna. The snow bath was the second step. We both warmed up in the sauna and then jumped out the door and did our best to rub snow on our bodies for as long as possible. Neither of us lasted more than 30 seconds but it was exhilarating. From there, we ascended stairs up to the rooftop for a private hot tub session. We had to wear beanies as it was at least 15 below zero. When you splashed any water to the edge of the hot tub it froze instantly. We sat and stared up at the starry night, dreading the painful climb back out.
After the spa experience we headed down to the field to gaze at the Aurora. We sat on reindeer pelts around a bonfire. We roasted marshmallows and scanned the sky for the Aurora. It crept over top of us like green, wispy undulating lights. Dave thought it looked like a horizontal dancing tornado. We were really happy to be able to see this wild natural phenomenon. It only made us want to see more. We headed back to our room around midnight and continued to watch the Aurora out of our bedroom window until we passed out.
The next morning we woke up early for our dogsled adventure. Our private guide, Ulf, picked us up and drove us to his compound in the woods. As we drove there, Ulf regaled us with the history of Kiruna - how there is no unemployment due to the largest iron ore mine in the world being located there, and also how the Swedish space program is headquartered in the nearby woods. Ulf's compound featured a traditional Swedish house, about 50 snow dogs, and a barn filled with dogsleds, four wheelers, vintage motorcycles and various winter gear. We didn't know quite what to expect for the days' excursion, so we watched intently as Ulf packed his bag with a soup pot and an axe.
We couldn't wait to meet our dogs, Ulf's favorite team of 5. When Ulf let them out of their pens, the other 45 dogs howled and jumped so wildly it could be heard a mile away. Apparently, these dogs love to run and know that once 5 are let out, the others don't get to be the sled dogs that day. Ulf told us that female dogs are the best lead dogs because they are lighter and faster and they listen to him as the Alpha. Ulf gave us a few directions as he hitched the dogs to our sled. Mostly he said hold on, don't fall off, and if you want them to slow down step on a metal grate near the skis to make the sled catch in the snow a bit. From there, he hopped on his snowmobile and took off. Once Dave let off the anchor, the dogs full out bolted. We flew out of Ulf's driveway, through a winding forest path, and then out onto a giant frozen lake. We cut tight corners, slammed into low hanging branches, and even got air! The unbridled wilderness stretched as far as the eye could see, and the pine trees, white snow and clear bright neon blue sky were awe inspiring About halfway we switched and Erin drove for a while. She would break down laughing when we fish-tailed, almost tipping over on a few corners and also when we went airborne on bumps. The dogs were totally in charge. They chomped at snow and ice while they ran mid-stride - even though it bloodied their gums - a pretty impressive rehydration technique. If we paused even for a moment, the dogs howled to get back to their full sprint.
We were sledding through a wooded area when Dave shouted out, "Look at that teepee!" louder than the dogs howling. As we neared it, Ulf slowed down his snowmobile and started unpacking his gear. Dave saw this and exclaimed "Oh man I think we get to go in it!" Wide-eyed, we crouched to enter the Lavvu, a traditional local Sami teepee for lunch. Ulf chopped wood and built a fire (and rebuffed Dave's offer to help chop wood). He prepared a vegetable stew over the flame, hanging a pot from a metal chain strewn from the tip of the teepee while we sat on reindeer pelts and played with the dogs outside. Ulf told us stories about the origins of dogsled races, named some of his personal racing heroes and told us about his wife's racing career. While the stew was boiling over the fire, he added in a pouch of fresh salmon and continued to tell us stories of his life. He boasted that during summer days with 24 hours of sunlight he doesn't even close his drapes to sleep. He said the only downside is when you go out drinking with friends you can lose track of time and before you know it you have to head to work on no sleep. After eating the salmon stew and some simple sandwiches and tea, we climbed back on the doglsed for an adventurous ride back to Ulf's place.
On the way back, the dogs became anxious to get home to their lunch and sped up on the ice causing us to play chicken with an oncoming snowmobile - a la Kevin Bacon in Footloose. At the last minute, the dogs veered right which nearly capsized the sled. There are no steering mechanisms, just a break, so we just had to go with the flow. Once we started getting closer to their home, the dogs stopped obeying all orders, including Ulf's, as they knew the trail. They bolted out onto the main road home so fast our sled ended up doing a Tokyo drift-style sideswipe onto an icey road. Totally invigorating, funny and scary all at once. We went over a giant frozen lake and made it back to Ulf's property to learn a bit more about the dogs and how they are trained. From there, Ulf took us on a 15 minute ride to the original Ice Hotel.
Each year the Ice Hotel is rebuilt completely, only to melt every summer. It is built on the banks of Europe's cleanest river, and the river is frozen so thick that you can dogsled, snowmobile, drive cars, and basically build on the river itself. In a few spots there are wells dug into the river, not for ice fishing, but for cold plunging. The Swedes don't mess around with their saunas, and the ice plunge seems to be the other side of the coin. The Ice Hotel property includes an ice church for weddings and a one of a kind ice bar. The ice bar is a two-level ice shaped dome with a DJ, outdoor concert stage with reindeer pelted seats and a full bar. Later in the night, we ordered some drinks and Erin's cocktail came in a glass made of ice.
The ice hotel is like an art installation. The lobby featured a long hall of ice pillars, chandeliers and ice sculptures. At the end of the hall sat a giant ice throne, carved with ornate detail. Long hallways branched off from both sides of the lobby. Each winter, the Ice Hotel commissions artists to create rooms with imagination as the only limit. Each room includes only a bed, thin mattress and fur blankets, so other than that the artists are given free reign. There was a peacock room with blue ice feathers and a giant bird emanating from the wall, an elephant room with a sparkling snowy elephant head with clear ice tusks, outer space themed rooms with sparkling snow stars, impressionist art rooms with ice sculptures of men, women and animals. We took our time wandering from room to room, not knowing what was coming next.
After exploring the various rooms we walked about on top of the frozen river, past moored houseboats, into "town" for a cultural experience. The Sami were the original locals in northern Sweden, and the culture still exists outside the small towns in the north. Although the reindeer are armed with a sharp crown of antlers, we ventured into their enclosure all by ourselves to feed them lichen. It was surprising that there was no supervision of any kind watching us in there, but we found them to be very docile (and guilt inducing due to our dinner the night before). Dave eagerly crawled into a Sami structure on all fours while Erin took time to read the plaque first..."Goat Hut." Despite feeling exhausted from the adventures of the day, we did another cold night walk to look for more aurora.
We woke up early on Sunday, enjoyed a full Swedish breakfast, and took the first flight out of Kiruna to Stockholm, and then from Stockholm back to Luxembourg. We both loved Sweden with its bright skies and untouched nature. We will definitely be back. Next up, Bond-inspired ski trip to Solden, Austria for Easter weekend.
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