St John in Canada is the furthest city away from Melbourne. I know, I’ve Googled it. With our trip to Sweden looming, I got to thinking about the furthest place away from home I could travel and that Kiruna in Sweden must be pretty close. In fact, it comes pretty close. St John is 18,205km away and Kiruna close at 15,282km.
I’m not sure I ever thought I would visit Sweden. It seemed exotic and expensive and somewhere that would remain on the ‘wish list’ but as the February school holidays rolled around, my internal travel clock started to become itchy at the knowledge that this may be the last holiday break in which to see the Northern Lights.
I began to Google search and it seemed that Norway or Sweden were the places to be and since I knew someone in Sweden this seemed like a great starting point. Coincidentally he was also joining a group of friends to visit the Arctic Circle and hunt down the northern lights at the same time as my holidays. It was meant to be.
A quick stopover in Stockholm
It seemed a shame to visit Sweden and not visit the capital, so we booked our flights so that we would have an afternoon to explore. We were greeted with -1 weather, which for Swedes isn’t really winter and to our UK accustomed bodies wasn’t as breathtakingly cold as it may have seemed last year.
The city itself is quite small and is made up of islands and reclaimed land. I didn’t know that much about the city previously, but it was almost Venetian with the number of bridges. The royal palace and surrounds were amazingly beautiful. Stockholm in winter has a magical feel to it, and I was sad we didn’t have longer to wander.
The Vasa Museet
Whilst we didn’t have time to visit the Town Hall and take a tour (this is where Nobel Prize winners are awarded their medals), but we did get a picture! Instead we opted to visit the Vasamuseet.
Home to a 400 year old, 4 storey wooden boat that was the pride of a burgeoning nation’s fleet… that is until it sank on its maiden voyage a mere couple of hundred metres from the shore. Unfortunately its grandeur meant that it was built too high for its width and a gust of wind sent it sinking to the mud below.
Luckily for us, the mud preserved it beautifully and after 30 years of restorations it is 98% intact and reconstructed in a purpose build museum. It certainly was a site to behold and definitely worth a visit.
After dinner we caught up with my friend Huhu from Australia, and headed off for a traditional Swedish dinner. I’m not sure what the meatballs at Ikea are like, but the real deal are delicious and I will be looking up a recipe and searching out lingon berries sometime soon! After an after dinner stroll through town we headed back to our hotel to rest up before our morning flight to Kiruna.
Entering the Arctic Circle - Welcome to Kiruna!
They call a visit to Kiruna a visit to the ‘real winter’. Its located in Swedish Lapland and within the Arctic circle. We were greeted with -6 degree temperatures, which apparently is not a real winter (to our bodies it was). Considering it gets as cold as -40 degrees Celsius, I could see their point that this was ‘mild’ weather, and felt glad that we did not have to brave a very cold day! Kiruna is a small town based around a tin mine and tourism. Our camp was around 20 minutes out of town set in the forest on the bank of a river and although secluded, a much nicer place to stay than town.
When visiting a region so foreign to your own, you are naturally drawn to things you cannot usually do. In this case, we were both keen to go for a walk on the frozen river. We were warned that because it was so ‘warm’ the river was melting in places, so there could be overflow, however it was still frozen and safe to walk on so long as we kept to the snowmobile tracks. Luckily neither of us came close to seeing a hole or any water and the main reason to stay on the tracks was to ensure you didn’t get stuck in 50cm of fresh powdery snow!
The days are much shorter in Sweden over winter, but as it was heading into spring, they were similar in length to the UK with the dark setting in around 5:30pm at night. As the evening rolled in, we got kitted up in nearly everything we own (think thermal tights, socks, ski pants, singlet, thermals, polar fleece, down jacket, two pairs of gloves and a beanie – we were then given another pair of socks, ski boots, balaclavas and coveralls to wear on top of what we already had on!!) and headed out on a snowmobile trip in search of the lights.
With Pete in control I had a great vantage point to search for the lights. To begin with I thought that I was wishfully seeing clouds a little greener than others, but after stopping for a short break the lights appeared through the clouds and we got our first glimpse. After about an hour of driving we stopped off in a hut for a cup of hot lingon berry juice, some moose and reindeer sausage some cured reindeer heart and some moose jerky. Other than the heart, which was really chewy, it wasn’t that bad and I could imagine wanting to eat rich foods like that if I lived in such a cold climate.
Luckily with modern technology, one can search when the northern lights may best be viewed, and the hot tip was to go back outside a midnight. We picked a vantage point about ¼ of the way across the river and were treated to a spectacular display of green and pink lights shooting across the sky. Earlier they had mostly been visible through the camera, but this time they were clear and vivid, snaking across the sky. It took my breath away how beautiful they were and for me it made the trip.
Seeing as we’d embraced Swedish food and were bound to camp all day, the next day we decided to embrace the traditions of a Swedish hot tub and spa. It did require quite a bit of fire stoking and waiting for the boilers to heat up, but it was very relaxing and warm enough that we could walk back to our cabin across the snow in our wet bathers and thongs!
Spotting the Northern Lights
Later that night we headed off for another chance to see the lights. This time on a husky pulled sled ride. Whilst it was exciting to be pulled through the snow on a sled, our driver was a bit of a lunatic and went over some bumps so hard at one point my hat flew off! We were lucky enough to see the lights again and to experience them in a completely different way. They were much greener and danced across the sky from one side to the next like snakes. It certainly is a special experience every time you see them, as they are quite unique.
By this point we were no longer alone at camp. The rest of the people we were meeting had arrived from the UK and Stockholm and we had a great time catching up and met some lovely new people (I now know where Leicester is). All in all it was a most fabulous 5 days! Particularly after our failed attempt in Iceland last year.
The round up
Although initially Sweden was not high on our list of travel destinations, our short visit highlighted to us that there are many reasons that everyone should visit Sweden at least once. Whether you are Northern Lights chasing, love good food, beautiful scenery, nordic history or beautiful cities, there is something for you.
This trip we: Visited a 300 year old boat, ate Swedish meatballs, saw the Aurora Borealis, had a Swedish sauna and hot tub, walked on a frozen river, went snowmobiling, took a husky sled ride, ate moose and reindeer, drank hot lingon berry juice and loved it, enjoyed the serenity of the wilderness, made snow angels, froze our feet off at -15 whilst husky sledding, had an awesome ex Swiss SAS Bear Grylls style snowmobile tour leader (he had beaver gloves!), traveled the furthest away from home I’ve ever been.