KIRUNA, Sweden -- Those prone to think of winter in Sweden's
Lapland as a dark landscape paralyzed by arctic ice will be
satisfied to know that a multitude of outdoor and indoor activities
My prewinter visit began in Kiruna, Sweden's northernmost city,
just as the season's first snowflakes began to fall.
The small airport was a taxidermist's dream -- preserved native
wildlife welcomed visitors and was a stark reminder that I had
entered what some refer to as Europe's last wilderness.
Just 15 minutes from the airport is the village of Jukkasjarvi,
home of the famous Ice Hotel. What began nine years ago as an art
gallery inside an igloo has grown into an annual construction
According to Arne Bergh, one of the Ice Hotel's designers and
resident ice artist, this year's structure will house guests from
Dec. 13 through mid-May. Thirty-five rooms and 12 individually
designed suites will make up the main guest quarters, where guests
sleep in special arctic sleeping bags on top of reindeer skins. A
chapel (available for weddings and christenings), an art gallery,
the "Absolut Ice" bar, cinema and several traditional igloos
complete the property.
For a nominal fee, guests unprepared for the Ice Hotel's
internal temperatures -- approximately 20 degrees F, a temperature
that is, I was assured by Bergh, feels comfortable after coming in
from the outside -- will be outfitted with overalls, boots, hats
and gloves. The permanent (heated) guest lodge next door provides
hot meals and a sauna.
Various activities also can be booked through the Ice Hotel,
including snowmobiling, dog-sledding, Lappish cultural experiences,
rope courses and guided area tours. Rates for the Ice Hotel start
at approximately $90 per person, double, including breakfast, use
of the sauna and a sleeping bag.
Jukkasjarvi has more to offer than ice.
My journey to the native land of the Sami people came to life
through Nils-Torbjorn Nutti, a fourth-generation reindeer herder.
Nutti welcomed me in traditional Sami clothing, his colorful wool
garments in stark contrast with the increasingly whitening
He had nine of his 400 reindeer penned in nearby, on a riverside
location. It was the herd's dinnertime, so I was allowed to enter
the corral to witness the power of these animals.
Under Nils' watchful eye, I approached cautiously as the
reindeer fought for prime positioning at the feeding troughs.
Reaching through a group of entangled antlers, I ran my fingers
through their hides, marveling at the thickness.
In winter, Nils takes visitors by sled to his herd's mountain
location. It is not unusual for the Sami to move large herds using
the modern conveniences of snowmobiles and helicopters.
Nils effortlessly prepared a delicious dinner of reindeer meat
(yes, I felt guilty, but it was delicious) and arctic char over an
open fire in a traditional Sami lavvo (a tent structure resembling
a teepee). He talked of the Sami people's history, the struggles
they faced as a indigenous people and the current efforts to keep
their traditions and language alive.
Next to the open-air Lappish camp and well worth a visit is the
Jukkasjarvi Church, the oldest wooden church in Lapland, dating to
The interiors are painted in light colors, emphasizing the
joyous colors used in the unusual altar murals. The large pipe
organ is ornamented with intricate reindeer horn and birch wood
Back in Kiruna I was surrounded by modern amenities at the
quaint Hotell Vinterpalatset, the oldest hotel in the city. Tucked
away on the top floor were the sauna and Jacuzzi, tanning bed and
lounge area with floor-to-ceiling windows.
There was no better way to chase the chill from my bones before
bed than to sit in the Jacuzzi and watch the still-falling snow
swirl beneath the light of the street lamp and coat the birch tree
branches outside the windows.
Kiruna has an history as a planned city surrounding the LKAB
iron ore mine, said to be the world's largest. Rather than build
the streets in a grid-like pattern, planners followed the irregular
terrain, helping to retain the area's natural beauty as well as
gain protection from the wind. Because of Kiruna's mountain
location, the climate is milder than the valley areas, where the
cold air settles.
There are many city locations open for touring, including the
LKAB mine, Esrange Space Center, the Sami Museum, City Hall (with
an impressive art collection and guided tours), Kiruna Church
(built to resemble a Sami lavvo), Mattarahkka (a Sami women's
handicraft cooperative) and Hjalmar Lundbohmsgarden (a museum of
the city and its founding father).
The tourist office in town is an excellent source of information
and activity suggestions.
Kiruna will be celebrating its centennial in 2000 as well as
hosting the Winter Cities 2000 conference Feb. 12 to 16, 2000.
A visit to the subterranean world of the LKAB iron mine gives
visitors an in-depth look at the scope of operations of the city's
main employer. Driving into the entrance (there are over 200 miles
of underground road, some that accommodate tour buses) was like
entering a science fictional world of darkness. Thankfully, the
tunnel terminated at the new, state-of-the-art visitors center.
A slide show, historical displays and machine demonstrations
help define the awesome undertaking of mining the iron vein that
cuts through the mountain. Back up on the earth's surface, the snow
continued to deepen, surprising even the locals.
I was pleased because my next stop was a visit with Conny
Bergstrom, managing director of Oh So Fast's Dogsledge Tours.
Even before we approached the kennel facilities, the air was
filled with the excited barking, whining and howling of almost 100
Alaskan huskies eager to begin their training run. I laughed as the
volume increased to a level I never thought possible. Since the
sledding season hadn't officially started yet, Bergstrom was
training his dog teams by having them pull all-terrain vehicles
along the trail.
I hesitated boarding the vehicle and adding my body weight to
the load. But when I looked into the dogs' eyes, they all silently
commanded me into quick action -- I was definitely holding up their
fun. Bergstrom led the team effortlessly over the woodland trail,
occasionally adding to the challenge by steering off-road for an
The snow was coming down harder, creating the winter wonderland
I had always envisioned the terrain would look like. Stopping for
breaks, the only sound we heard was the panting of the dogs as they
lapped up the fresh snow to quench their thirst. It felt
invigorating to enjoy nature with my new best friends leading the
Dogsled tours can vary in duration from several hours to
overnight or weeklong trips with your own team of huskies. Winter
clothes are also provided, and group discounts are available.
Advanced booking is recommended.
For travelers not content to let the dogs get all the exercise,
a visit to Sweden's highest mountain is in order. About 53 miles
west of Kiruna is the Kebnekaise Fjallstation, a lodge, which marks
the area's main entrance to Sweden's best known skiing and hiking
trail, the Kungsleden ("Kings Road").
The fjallstation can only be reached on skiis or by snowmobile
in winter and offers Kebnekaise peak tours, glacier tours, ice
climbing, high alpine courses and telemark skiing. Rental equipment
and guides are available. Accommodations start at $30 and up, and
there are facilities for groups.
There is an on-site restaurant.
The Swedish Touring Club has built cabins about a day's trek
apart along the Kungsleden route for skiiers and hikers use, so
lugging heavy provisions is not necessary.
Swedish Travel & Tourism Council
Phone: (212) 885-9700
Fax: (212) 885-9764
Web: www.gosweden.org or www.visitsweden.com