Myriad activities await visitors to Swedish Lapland

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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 really exist.

My prewinter visit began in Kiruna, Sweden's northernmost city, just as the season's first snowflakes began to fall.

Reindeer 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 phenomenon.

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 horizon.

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 1600s.

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 detailing.

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 extra workout.

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 way.

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

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