In January, as a blizzard was bearing down on Washington D.C., Matt and I flew away from the two feet of snow that was on the way and headed to Sweden to see the Northern lights. Seeing the Northern Lights is not an easy thing. Seeing any natural phenomenon is very hard and planning a vacation around an attempt to see a phenomenon can be risky.
So I did what every modern dreamer does. I searched the internet for the best places to see the aurora. A place in Sweden, Abisko National Park, kept coming up. Sweden? Not Norway or Iceland? No. Abisko. Why? The theory is that Abisko is located in an area with a microclimate that creates a very good chance of clear skies. Abisko is also in Swedish Lapland, far north of the Arctic Circle and very near Sweden’s northern border with Norway. So we were pretty sure it was going to be dark and cold.
I bought it. So I started obsessing about taking a trip to Sweden. I called my sister Michele and said, let’s go. She said, sure, why not? So off we went.
We started in Stockholm of course, where the weather went from freezing cold, a bit of snow and then rain from day-to-day.
We took in the sites including the ABBA Museum and I am here to say that it is utterly ridiculous that there is a museum dedicated to ABBA but people sure were paying to get in, including us because my husband is a devotee. But they had some stuff that was completely campy too, so you just had to go with it.
Matt will never forgive me if I do not mention that we made a pilgrimage to the brewery opened in conjunction with Brooklyn Brewery, Nya Carnegiebryggeriet (Carnegie Brewery I think). They had some good beer, good atmosphere and good food.
But Stockholm did not detain us long because we had to go north to the Lapland frontier.
We stayed in Bjorkliden, a resort in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing there but the hotel we were staying in, but it was a beautiful spot.
The sun was coming up for about five hours. All of that night time atmosphere just made us want to sleep all the time We were fighting off the need to hibernate and not really doing a very good job. Our goal was to be awake at night to see the auroras so it was actually okay for us to sleep.
Our first attempt to see the aurora was a visit to the Abisko Sky Station. That is the tiny dot of light at the top of the mountain in the opening picture to this blog. We opted for the dinner and stars package. They have a small restaurant at the top and it serves a very fine gourmet meal to help with the energy needed to sit and wait for an aurora. The trip to the sky station was by ski lift, a mile long ride up the mountain in the fresh air Remember, it is night time above the Arctic Circle in January. They gave us survival suits to wear and none of us said no. I am glad because it was COLD on that ski lift. Holy smokes. It was so cold and we were moving so fast, neither of us got out the cameras. I was afraid I was going to drop it because of frozen fingers.
At the top we found–clouds. Yep. Clouds on the one place that the internet guaranteed their would be good weather. Stupid internet. The weather changes on a dime, we are told, and maybe, just maybe, the sky would clear. So we went inside for a lovely dinner with about 50 strangers. All of the meal preparations are brought up on the lift as well. And given that it was all prepared and brought up in lift chairs a little at a time, it was an amazing dinner.
It started with smoked Arctic char, then mushroom soup with pork belly, an entree of roast moose with a sea buckthorn berry sauce and for dessert, vanilla pana cotta with cloudberry sauce. Yes, that was very yummy. We had a drink selection of local schnapps, beer, wine and a dessert wine. Yikes, the beer was not really very good. The schnapps, homemade with a sing-along, went down fine.
But that great meal did not change the weather and after a short wait, we headed back down the mountain, disappointed the Gods did not favor us with a solar flare.
But we had another chance that we almost gave up on. We woke the next day to find that it was snowing and would probably snow all day. We went snowmobiling in the morning and spent a few hours watching a herd of reindeer. We had scheduled to go on another aurora photo safari and we figured we might as well just bag it. But we could not cancel without eating the entire cost of the tour.
Then a miracle happened. We had gone back to take a nap and I saw a glint of sunlight peaking over the mountain. This made me re-think it. We flipped a Kroner a few times–heads we go, tails we don’t–and it kept telling us to go. I told my sister the Kroner had spoken so we got ready for a night in the cold.
At a small park that served as an interpretive center to the Sami people, we waited. The photo guide had an app that told her when coronal flares were being shot off the sun and when they would arrive in Swedish airspace. Too cool. But there was nothing. We were allowed to use the hut (really a tepee) to keep warm. We sat on the reindeer skins in front of a fire and had a spot of hot toddy of some sort (warmed lingonberry juice) while we waited.
And we waited and waited and waited some more. It was very, very cold. I can’t tell you the temperature because if they said it, they gave it to us in Celsius and I am an American so that is meaningless. But it was probably in the teens. It was so cold that after more than an hour my toes and fingers were in distress. But we soldiered on.
Matt and I were standing in the field waiting behind our camera tripods and we could hear the others talking about packing up. We had to walk back to the van waiting to pick us up. And suddenly, there it was. The green curtain, dancing in the sky. We were yelling, there it is! We went into emergency mode, just snapping and snapping away until the guide insisted that we leave. We did reluctantly.
But a funny thing happened. When we saw our pictures on the computer, they were blurry. Why? It was so cold that the cameras were covered with frost. At some point, the guide wiped off my lens cover. Unfortunately, she left behind spots that are crystal clear in the picture, The lens focused on the spot. Oh well. We saw it anyway. Some of the pictures are here:
Mission accomplished. Lesson we have learned again and again. Never question the toss of the coin. When the coin speaks, follow.
On to the Ice Hotel. We were in the far north and not far from the Ice Hotel so we took the opportunity to visit. No, we did not sleep in an ice room. I am a sensible person and I have no intention of sleeping on a block of ice covered only with reindeer skins. We stayed in the warm rooms. We did go to the Ice Bar and drank way too much out of ice glasses that were shaped out of water from the clean Torne River. We kept the glasses and we drank the melted water the next day.
Another slide show:
The Ice Hotel rooms are designed each year by artists who enter into a competition to give each room a theme or personality. For example, the elephant was a gorgeous sculpture in one of the rooms, that I believe was about memory. Another room had the arches, another the peacock. And yes, it is all sculpted from ice. The Hallway was beautiful, like an ice castle you would imagine in a fantasy. A chandelier and vases and columns all glowing white and blue.
Now for the review. Nice hotel, very unpleasant staff. We travelled to a lot of places in Sweden and this hotel by far had some of the rudest people we came across. We could not figure out why. They seemed either bored and really could not be bothered. Or so harried that they just did not care.
We ate at the Ice Hotel restaurant, Jukkasjorin. When the chef found out there were Americans there, he came to our table and talked and talked. He had worked in the U.S. and loved it. We had the Ice tasting menu which included bleak roe, salmon, and a smoked ptarmigan with porcini consumme, which bowl licking good. Gosh, that one was good. Smoked right on premises, the bird was cut into small pieces which were presented in a jar. Opening the jar let out a waft of smoke and the flavor permeated the nostrils. Into the soup and viola, heaven. Then finally, reindeer with chocolate sauce and lingonberries. For dessert brambleberry gelato. Holy smokes, that was good too. But it was way too much food. The serving sizes were too large and we were absolutely stuffed.
We did not stay long at the hotel. It was time to head back. Off to Stockholm we went for another trip around the city, touring the things we had missed. The Nobel Museum was surprisingly interesting. Shopping in the Old Town led me to some wonderful sheep inspired gifts. We had an early dinner at Den Gyldene Freden. This was going to be our truly traditional Swedish meal–herring, meatballs, and homemade schnapps, and they did not disappoint. We tried all of the herring–traditional, mustard and herb. The homemade schnapps was crisp and went perfectly with the fish. The meatballs were flavorful and substantial and they came with mashed potatoes so it was hard to complain.
A short mention of the food. We ate well everywhere we went. For the record, we ate reindeer–both steaks and uncooked carpaccio, moose, ptarmigan, artic char, herring, cloudberries, brambleberries, sea buckthorn, lots of smoked salmon. The Swedes have something called Fika, the Swedish coffee break. But I would think of it as similar to a traditional afternoon tea but they have it any time they want. There are cakes and cookies and sandwiches involved, but they drink coffee instead of tea. You can find afternoon tea too, but fika is the tradition. We liked fika. How can you not like an elaborate coffee break?
I had one last Swedish goal–to have a sauna and then jump into cold water. We searched and consulted and the only place where they opened a hole in a frozen lake for a plunge was too far from town. Instead we went to the spa a the Grand Hotel. They had a cold water pool. Yes, I was going to do this.
The spa separated the ladies from the men for some of the activities. The sauna and cold bath were in the segregated areas. We signed up for a massage and then parted into the changing rooms. I said to Matt as he walked away, “You better jump into that cold water!” He assured me he would. I know I did. I steamed myself for a few minutes and then took the plunge. Gaahhh!!!!. After that steam, it was cold! And while I tried to ease myself in, it really is not worth it. Like tearing off a bandage, you just have to fall in. So I did. I did this about four times–sauna then another jump into the cold pool. Needless to say, I was the only person in the changing room doing this. Then I went for my massage. The masseuse told me not to jump into the cold water after she worked on me. But I did anyway. It was invigorating. When we met again, Matt said he had gone into the cold water too. I have to believe him.
And that was our trip to Sweden.