A Swedish Roadtrip
Seeing the Northern Lights has always been high on my travel wish list. I mean, do you even have a bucket list if that's not on there?! Towards the end of 2016 I bit the bullet and booked two flights to Stockholm. The original plan was to fly to the North of Sweden and spend a week in a cabin exploring the frozen landscapes and trekking through the snow with huskies to discover the Aurora Borealis. I was incredibly naive to believe this could have been possible on a reasonably small budget! I discovered we could fly to Stockholm(for just over £50 each return!), hire a car and drive the 14 and a half hour journey up to Kiruna, about an hour south from Abisko National Park - legendary for it's views of the Northern Lights. I booked a few overnight stops along the way meaning we would only travel 3-5 hours a day, and would give us time to appreciate the beautiful scenery. The cost of all this was less than half of what the moneybags holiday would have cost! We flew into Skavsta airport which is about an hour South of Stockholm, but meant we didn't have to negotiate the city roads. Accommodation for the first night was an Airbnb in Sundsvall - just under a 5 hour drive from the airport. We stopped off for lunch in Uppsala; a trendy, vibrant, busy university city which is the fourth largest city in Sweden. I'd read all about 'Fika' before the trip so was desperate to find an uber cool coffee shop to experience it. Fika is essentially coffee time, but it's more about taking time out of your day to stop thinking about work, recharge your soul, chat with family and friends and enjoy a great cup of coffee. Somehow we ended up with two mugs FULL of espresso. It was UNBELIEVABLY STRONG but delicious and truly kept us going for the rest of the afternoon! The Barista just laughed when we thanked him for the 'extra strong' coffee!
We made a pitstop in the beautiful coastal Hudiksvall for some beers and snacks before travelling the last hour to the Airbnb. Or so we thought. All I really remember about the 2-3 hours it took us to find the house was worrying how on earth we would stay warm having to sleep in the car, and if I would get my money back for the accommodation. After eventually establishing that the address we had been given was wrong, I made broken contact with Sally* and she proceeded to give us the correct instructions ending with ''My house is the small red one by the lake''. If you've ever been to Sweden or even seen photos, you'll know that every damn house is red, and this gathering of red houses were all on the edge of the same bloody lake. The eventual welcome from Sally was far from the warming one we'd been promised in the Airbnb reviews. We felt like naughty teenagers who had stayed out way past their curfew, and squirrelled ourselves away in the bedroom as she took herself off to bed.
I was pretty desperate to leave first thing but Dan convinced me to stroll around the frozen lake, and we were even allowed to borrow a cool sit-on scooter/sledge. It was great fun but I was glad to be back on the road and away from the scolding frowns of Sally. Day two took us further up the Eastern coast and past a number of National Parks. We decided to stop in one for a picnic, and turned off the main road into what I can only describe as a winter wonderland. It was totally magical. It was a beautiful clear day so the contrast of the blue skies against the pure white snow was divine. I could literally have been in an American Christmas film! We enjoyed a car picnic lunch of bread, shrimp paste, dill crisps and some Swedish chocolate before taking a hike through probably the most beautiful National Park I've ever seen. It wasn't until a few days later we discovered there are moose, lynx and even bears living there! Oops!
After spending a night in an apartment in Skelleftea, we hopped back into the car and gradually made our way up to Kiruna. The further North we got the snowier the landscape was and the icier the roads were. We couldn't understand how lorries were flying up and down the relatively narrow roads until we realised that even though we had snow tyres, they all had studded tyres! Apparently not a requirement (and also illegal) in a car hire city such as Stockholm! Late into the evening we turned off the main road down a track just visible beneath all the snow. We eventually pulled up at Aurora Camp Kurruvaara - a cluster of wooden huts within a small wooded area on the edge of a frozen lake, each one with a whispy trail of smoke dancing out of the chimney. Ready to dump our bags and head straight back to the car to travel the remaining 45 minutes to Abisko (the National Park at the border between Sweden and Norway, apparently the best place to see the Northern Lights), we were elated to be told that we would get our very own show in the sky from our wooden hut. It gave us some time to explore our home for the next 2 nights and it didn't disappoint.
My initial dreams of spending some time in a hut surrounded by snow and cosying up to a log burner practicing all the Hygge I knew were suddenly a reality. The beautiful cabin was compact but perfect for the two of us. It had a heated floor and a burner full of smouldering birch - this smell now takes me straight back to Kiruna. There were two pairs of super cosy slipper-booties, a small kitchenette, the beds were dressed in black sheets (still a move too bold for me to emulate!), there was a walk in shower off the bedroom and even a small sauna.
We kept glancing out of the window like kids on Christmas Eve, hoping for a glimpse of a green shimmer, only to be faced with pure black sky and twinkling stars. On one lookout I spotted some twinkling red and green lights on the opposite porch which suddenly shot up into the sky to reveal a whole wave of dancing colour. Had I not looked out at that second and spotted the drone leaving the ground, we may have missed it! I've never put so many layers on in such a short space of time! We ran out down to the lake and lost all awareness of time whilst watching the green hues flitting about above. If you've ever experienced the Northern Lights you'll understand it's quite difficult to explain. If you haven't, its kind of like the movement of sand blowing along the beach, a hundred flames dancing in the wind. But green. So much beautiful green.
The next morning we were still on a high and decided to visit the Ice Hotel before heading up to Abisko to ride the cable carts to the top of the mountains. The Ice Hotel was another breathtaking experience. One small tip though, don't pay for the tour - we didn't realise you can actually just wonder round the hotel without paying. We were shown a number of incredibly designed and carved rooms, each one created by a different artist with a different theme and story. I'd have loved to stay in one of the rooms but the price was extortionate, and I think it's a bit of a gimmick. The level of skill of the artists is just amazing, I urge anyone visiting Northern Sweden to check it out!
We ended up staying longer at the Ice Hotel than expected, so raced the sunset up to Abisko, arriving just in time. Unfortunately we missed the last cable cart and weren't prepared to hang around in the minus 20 degrees unlit it reopened a few hours later. So we found our own spot to watch the sunset over the Gateway to Lapland - a natural curve in the mountains. I've never seen a sunset quite so beautiful as the combination of pale blues and blush pinks of a Swedish one. I could sit for hours gazing at the evening sky! But we did manage to drag ourselves away to get back to the cabin for one last shot at the Northern Lights. And we were not disappointed! We were treated to a display in all it's green and purple glory! The Aurora Borealis is caused by particles that have been electrically charged by the sun collide with gases such as nitrogen and oxygen after entering the Earth's atmosphere. Apparently the purple hues aren't as common and we were super lucky to have seen a display like the one we did!
We reluctantly left Kiruna after two unforgettable nights and began the journey South. Our first stop was a big house on the outskirts of Skelleftea. The house was FREEZING as the owner had only heated the rooms we would be using, so we spent the evening playing cards by the fire, drinking beer and eating chocolate. The host had left us fresh eggs, water from the local spring and Cloudberries from the forest nearby. The berries only grow in the summer so these ones had been frozen and tasted like feet - I've heard much better things from the fresh ones!! We had a stroll through the village after breakfast and made snow angels in the garden. We also spent some time exploring the house and discovered a wood work studio where the owner whittles her own spoons and carves all sorts of wooden wonders. I'd love to head back to there in the summer to explore more of the area and make more use of the house!
Our final stop before Stockholm was another small Airbnb cabin on a holiday park. It was a typical bachelor pad - fridge full of beer, freezer full of hot dogs, poker and vodka in the cupboard and a woman's razor in the bathroom - seemed to have tinges of 50 shades..!! It was a lovely cosy little cabin but not a patch on the hut in Kiruna!
We were due to stay in an Airbnb just outside Stockholm on our final night but there had been some violent interactions between refugees in the days before we were due. On the way out of Stockholm I had spotted a super trendy hotel and decided to book in last minute for a final night of luxury. For anyone planning a trip to Stockholm I can't recommend The Winery enough. It's lobby and rooms are styled to contemporary, Swedish perfection and the heated rooftop pool is a surreal experience in the snow! We had an evening swim and booked into the restaurant for a 3 course dinner with the wine flight. I had an oaky white wine that blew my mind I was so convinced it should be a red! The lobby had wine vending machines where you could swipe a pre loaded card and try as many wines as you wanted. The breakfast spread was INCREDIBLE and we filled up on eggs, cheeses, sourdough, pastries, melted chocolate, loose leaf teas, espresso and fresh fruit. It was MILES above the hotel breakfasts I experienced when working away with LA!
It was sad leaving the Winery, not only because it was such an amazing experience but also because it marked the (almost) end of our trip. We had a few hours to spare so walked as far as we could through the cobbled streets of Stockholm old town, and along the glitzy rows of department stores and coffee houses in the new town. I'd love to go back and spend longer in the city - it seemed so vibrant and full of design and culture.
Arriving back at the airport we were actually sad sad to say goodbye to the car. When we arrived at the car hire a week previously, we were asked where we were travelling. Our response was just 'North', as part of the deal was unlimited milage. Little did they (or we!) realise that trusty little clio was to take us nearly 2000 miles through the ice and snow of Sweden. It did us proud! The week we spent in Sweden was totally magical and unforgettable. I'd love to go back one day with a slightly bigger budget and spend more time in the North, perhaps even splashing out on that longed-for husky ride! For now I'll just continue to gaze over the beautiful memories we made...