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Beyond the Northern Lights—Visiting the Swedish Arctic in Winter

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Seeing the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights is a popular bucket list item. But even in the best viewing spots, catching them can be elusive. Fortunately, there are plenty more exhilarating experiences in the Arctic and it’s not as hard to get there as you might think. There are daily direct flights from Stockholm to Kiruna, the northernmost city in Sweden and a convenient base for exploring.

While there are plenty of ice hotels to choose from around the world, the original in Jukkasjärvi just 20 minutes from Kiruna is quite special. It was created on the banks of the Torne River, which freezes over in the winter. The Ice Hotel began as an art project and the hotel has worked with hundreds of artists for the past 27 years to design unique rooms and interior spaces. There is also a chapel and a bar composed entirely of ice.

Staying at the hotel means spending the night in a room with a constant temperature of 23 degrees. Bathrooms are down the hall and there are no electrical outlets, just a light switch. You change your clothes in a dressing room and lock up your things, then borrow a snow suit and boots to get to your room then quickly slide out of your outerwear and into a sleeping bag which is set upon reindeer skins on a mattress on a bed made of ice.

If you don’t want to spend a night at the Ice Hotel, a tour of both wings of the hotel is still a must — both the original hotel and the brand new year-round Ice Hotel 365 right next door. Ice is a major part of the Ice Hotel business and they sell it and carve it for clients all over the world, so naturally they also offer activities like ice carving and ice fishing.

Learning about the Sami, a nomadic group of people who live in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia, is another activity found in nearby Jukkasjärvi. Ida-Maria Svonni of Sápmi Life graciously shares her culture inside her lavvu, a type of tented teepee. You’ll learn how her family follows the reindeer through the seasons, try the local cuisine and if you’re lucky you may get to hand feed one of her reindeer too. A daily three-hour program includes coffee and lunch as well as transfer from Kiruna or Jukkasjärvi.

A ride on a dog sled is an exciting way to get in touch with nature and experience the beauty of the pristine and glistening landscape. The dogs are extremely energetic and they bark, jump and tremble with anticipation prior to the ride. You’ll get a chance to help harness them to the sled if you so choose, then glide seamlessly on a snowy path through the wilderness, and enjoy hot lingonberry juice served from traditional wooden mugs on a break. It’s a smooth and relaxing ride as the huskies do what they do best.

When it comes to traveling to the Swedish Arctic in winter, you don’t want to go it alone. While independent travel is just fine in most parts of the world, the Arctic is an exception to the rule. Just recently, wind records were broken as gusts reached 106 miles per hour, effectively shutting down all forms of transportation. A plan B is not good enough. You may very well need a plan C, plan D and plan E should the weather take a turn for the worse.

Arctic travel specialists with staff and connections on the ground are essential. An expert in the Arctic with years of experience, such as Off the Map Travel, will make all travel arrangements, plan a customized itinerary working with a wide variety of partners and help with any changes in plans due to weather to make your trip as enjoyable as possible. Last but not least, if you’re worried about being cold, don’t be. Stock up on thermal layers then head to a sports or ski shop to rent snow boots, gloves, parka and snow pants. You’ll stay warm while enjoying the coolest vacation ever.

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