Nine of Scandinavia’s most acclaimed chefs are busy preparing a feast featuring a corresponding number of courses and Michelin stars. It’s a rare culinary coterie, made even rarer for its unusual outdoor setting near Harads, a small town in Swedish Lapland. The chefs have no permanent kitchen apparatus in place, no electricity and no appliances. Instead, they’re slow-cooking lamb in an underground pit, in one area, and deploying a flambadou, a cast iron cone reminiscent of a candle snuffer made red-hot from being left in the coals, to douse bubbling grease over a dish in another.
Hungry attendees arrived at the scene by strolling down a wooden plank walkway, passing through a doorframe signaling they’ve entered the outdoor restaurant Materia, a pop-up built amid a patch of woods for the two-night Stars du Nord extravaganza. The chefs are busy at their outdoor prep stations set amid blazing fires and a smattering of a few dozen dining tables and chairs carved out of logs. Reindeer in multiple forms, foraged chanterelles and Nordic langoustine, a lobster relative, are among the highlighted ingredients, a delectable regional bounty.
As the dinner rolls on, the temperature drops and guests bundle in furs and huddle around braziers. Even in late summer, the locale teetering on the border of the Arctic Circle makes its presence known. And as if the night wasn’t enough of a fairytale already, the payoff for the pop-up’s remote Swedish Lapland setting comes out in full force, with a dramatic and spectacular unveiling of the northern lights.
Waving drapes of faint green hang in the sky, staking out position with a flowing, rhythmic dance. The impressive luminescent display is then suddenly charged and explodes into a bright burst of neon green, white and purple, now churning across the heavens like a fast-flowing river, a corded rope of auroral abundance.
Guests and chefs alike are oohing and aahing at the performance, the much hoped for, but never confirmed, guest of honor making her grand entrance. The rolling, soft greens return, but again they jolt and erupt with ferocity from time to time as the night continues. The lights have a personality —they’re dynamic and alive — and starstruck witnesses can only sit and stare, relishing the moment.
While this may seem like a singular experience, it is instead an encapsulation of what’s on offer to those who visit the idyllic region, if you know where to look (though northern lights are never guaranteed, folks). To plan your own trip to Swedish Lapland, start with this weeklong itinerary, filled with wild, unique accommodations, endless eats and incredible excursions.
Getting to Swedish Lapland
Swedish Lapland is the northernmost province in Sweden, and about half of the territory is above the 66-degree north boundary of the Arctic Circle. It’s up there. International flights will come through the capital city of Stockholm, from which point you can hop on connections to several regional airports. Start at the top, by flying into Kiruna, then rent a car and work your way down and across the region over a week to maximize your time.
Stay: Niehku Mountain Villa.
Do: Drive northwest from Kiruna for about two hours, arriving at Riksgränsen and your accommodations at the Niehku Mountain Villa. The ski resort area is nestled against the border with Norway — you can walk across in about two minutes from Niehku — and provides an ideal jumping off point to explore the northernmost reaches of the country.
Niehku’s design is a mix of classic Scandinavian lodge with a touch of industrial chic, paying homage to the railroad industry which originally built up the area and served as a transport hub for the region’s mines. Rooms feature a mix of wood and leather with fur throws, sliding wooden barn doors, and glass doors which open to the wilderness, should a morning hike or a nighttime northern lights display come calling. A massive stovepipe fireplace serves as the centerpiece of the property’s main, multi-level gathering spot, while the adjacent dining room incorporates preserved stone ruins into the building’s design.
A glass cutout in the floor provides a glimpse at a wine cellar accessible via a remote control-operated panel which pops open to reveal a staircase, while the kitchen churns out excellent fare emphasizing local ingredients and traditional dishes. Get your first — and certainly not last — taste of reindeer and moose here, as well as lingonberries and cloudberries, with fresh baked breads that will provide the fuel for the adventures to come.
Pro tip: The best welcome to the region is an immediate introduction to one of Swedish Lapland’s specialties: sauna life. Niehku has an on-site spa, including a sauna with sweeping views of the mountainous surroundings. Work out the kinks and sweat away the stresses of a long travel day before heading to the lodge’s restaurant for dinner and drinks.
Do: Now well settled into your environs, it’s time to take advantage of Niehku’s specialty. During ski season, the property fulfills its raison d’être as a preeminent heli-skiing operator. Multi-day packages at the luxury outpost include daily helicopter excursions, with your chariot landing right at the hotel’s front door before dropping you off atop picture-perfect peaks covered with unspoiled powder. Rinse and repeat all day long for the duration of the stay.
At other times of the year, you’ll have to settle for heli-hiking, or scenic rides. Don’t worry about missing out — as far as backup plans go, that’s not too shabby. The region offers much to explore, including Abisko National Park, renowned as one of the world’s best viewing spots for the northern lights (sensing a theme here yet?), Lake Torneträsk, myriad hiking trails and small Sámi summer villages dotted with reindeer corrals. You could do worse than simply enjoying a scenic ride in a chopper taking you to a remote mountaintop for a casual Swedish fika break, enjoying a coffee and pastry in a surreal setting.
Do: Drive two hours back through Kiruna en route to the original Icehotel. The operation harvests about 1,100 two-ton ice bricks each March, then gets to work constructing the annual enterprise in the fall. The hotel naturally melts away when the temperatures finally warm up at the end of the long season.
But with Icehotel 365, the experience can be enjoyed year-round. A separate building is kept chilled to -5 degrees throughout the year — via renewable energy provided by solar panels — with 18 guestrooms, including premium suites which include warm bathrooms with private saunas, cordoned off between a spaceship-style, two-door airlock system.
Fill out the afternoon with an ice carving workshop and a tour of the property, enjoy beverages at the Icebar, and partake in an assortment of ice-centric activities and dining experiences. Of course, you can do all of that without spending a night in the frigid conditions, in which case you can pop over to nearby Kiruna and stay in a homey cabin at Camp Ripan when you’re ready to thaw yourself out.
Pro tip: Camp Ripan’s Aurora Spa is worth a stop either way. The outpost offers a comprehensive self-led spa experience with numerous stages, including warm baths and cold plunges, multiple varieties of steam rooms and saunas, and assorted scrubs and treatments — and, yes, you guessed it, an outdoor tub offering a prime locale for viewing the northern lights during a post-dinner session.
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Stay: Arctic Bath.
Do: Begin the day with an exploration of the newly inaugurated town of Kiruna. The entire town — town center, homes, landmarks and all — has been moved to accommodate the Kiruna mine. Apparently the largest iron ore mine in the world is lucrative enough to pull off such billion-dollar enterprises instead of closing up shop.
Keep heading south and break up a three-to-four-hour drive with a stop in Gällivare. It’s another entire town — and I cannot emphasize how much I am not messing with you — that has been relocated out of the path of an ever-expanding mining operation.
Continue on towards your new digs, the Arctic Bath hotel in Harads. The property, part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group, is the stuff of your Arctic hygge dreams. The property features a dozen cabins, half of which float right atop the water in the summer, and then are frozen into place during wintertime, alongside a string of lofted land cabins with floor-to-ceiling windows. The floating cabins feature sloped, high ceilings and a clean, natural palette of white, wood, grey and brown, and boast picture-book views. Cabins also have all the cozy creature comforts you need: throw blankets, leather chairs and electric fireplaces, with private outdoor lounging decks.
The hotel’s centerpiece is its circular main building, home to its bar, restaurant and spa. The center cutout of the building — the absent doughnut hole of its design — is a small dipping tub where you can lower yourself straight into the frigid waters. The spa has multiple sauna and steam rooms, as well as outdoor jacuzzi tubs, to help you along on your insatiable quest for the quintessential indoor-outdoor, hot-cold sauna routine.
Pro tip: If you’re starting to get your fill of reindeer and Arctic char, take a lunch break at Fat Tony’s in Gällivare. The casual local hangout operates as a microbrewery and serves up a wide range of craft brews to help wash down a loaded lineup of burgers, pizzas and fries. On the latter front, order the Greasy Bermuda. You won’t regret it…even if your waistline does.
Do: The Arctic Bath offers guests an exciting array of activities, ranging from dog-sledding rides to snowmobiling and skiing to moose safaris. Choose wisely.
Or consider opting for something else entirely, such as a sightseeing excursion to Gammelstad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known officially as the Church Town of Gammelstad. The quaint destination is a preserved collection of hundreds of wooden homes which served as temporary lodging for churchgoers coming into services from the countryside, unable to make the round trip in a single day. For more cultural exploration, visit Havremagasinet, a contemporary art gallery set in what was once an enormous oats storehouse used to provide feed for military horses. It’s located in the town of Boden, a one-time military hub that was viewed as so essential to the country’s security that foreigners weren’t allowed to visit the place. Thankfully, it’s much more welcoming these days.
From there, head to the nearby city of Luleå, the largest in Swedish Lapland. The waterfront destination has a charming and walkable downtown shopping district. Go to Hemmagastronomi for dinner, a bustling harborside hotspot that’s one part butcher and grocer, one part casual bistro and bar, and one part fine-dining institution. Afterwards, consider a bar crawl at a few of the nearby pubs, or head back to the Arctic Bath to capitalize on another glorious evening of stargazing and aurora chasing.
Pro tip: You absolutely must jump into the water at the Arctic Bath and do a cold plunge. The key, of course, is to fortify yourself with the sauna beforehand, and immediately retreat back to a jacuzzi tub after. In the summer, though, when the water isn’t frozen, it’s actually a touch warmer to take your plunge along the outside of the spa, as opposed to the internal bathtub cutout. Now you know.
Do: Leaving your Scandi paradise that is the floating cabin at the Arctic Bath may be difficult. But the good news is you’re about to shift to an even more magical accommodation. Say hello to the Treehotel, home to a collection of eight creative and captivating treehouse suites.
Whatever you’re starting to imagine, forget it. These rooms are off the charts, with designs such as the Mirrorcube, a totally reflective, seemingly levitating cube in the middle of the wilderness; and the UFO, which is a quite literal, classic saucer-style UFO with an electronic drop-down ladder and lighting display when you come and go from your quarters.
Spend the afternoon exploring the hotel’s grounds and appreciating its imagination, stopping to gawk at all of the not-so-humble abodes, from the Bird’s Nest (which appears to be a gigantic jumble of twigs) to the just unveiled Biosphere (which is encircled in 350 birdhouses). Be sure to schedule a time to stop into the sauna, too, because you’re pretty dependent on your daily schvitz at this point, aren’t you?
After working up your appetite, head to Norrbottens Distillery, makers of ND Gin. You’ll need to schedule a time for a tour and tasting in advance, and you’ll be glad that you did once you’re greeted with fireside snacks and cocktails, and the potential to opt into a massive pairing menu showcasing the distillery’s range of gins and other experimental offerings, matched with avant-garde cuisine showcasing more of your favorite Swedish Lapland ingredients coming to the forefront yet again.
Pro tip: This is an essential one if you’re heading to Norrbottens: bring along a designated driver, or schedule a driver for transport.
Stay: The Wood Hotel.
Do: Make your last full day an unforgettable one with an excursion via Brändön Lodge, located about 30 minutes outside of Luleå. It’s a coastal retreat at the edge of Bothnian Bay that also has guest accommodations, and offers a tantalizing selection of day trips capitalizing on its seaside positioning and allowing you to explore the surrounding archipelago. All types of activities are on offer depending on season and weather. Consider a boat ride to a near-deserted forested island where you’ll spend a few hours foraging for berries and chanterelles before munching on the fruits of your labor — a feast conjured up from your surroundings as if on command.
Take your final drive, about two and a half hours south, to Skellefteå, the southernmost destination in Swedish Lapland, completing your jaunt across the region. And since you’ve stayed at an Icehotel, a Treehotel and an Arctic Bath, why not the Wood Hotel? The property sports all-wood décor to match the name, along with an equally fitting sustainability ethos, including the use of 100% renewable energy. You have time for one more sauna session, so head to the hotel’s rooftop spa, which includes an outdoor pool and a number of experiential indoor areas.
For a fitting farewell, head to Chef Jón Óskar’s Bryggargatan, a culinary tour de force where a starter might be something in the realm of slivers of moose heart from a successful hunt of Óskar’s two days prior. If that sounds of interest, then select the chef’s choice 10-course dinner with the requisite wine pairings and go along for the ride. Oskar is also the founder of Ógin Distillery, taking an entirely impractical approach to small-batch, super seasonal, hyper-local gin production.
All that’s left to do is fly out of Skellefteå in the morning, connect back through Stockholm and begin to immediately plan your return trip. Because one visit to Swedish Lapland is never enough.
Pro tip: How do you pronounce the mouthful that is Skellefteå? She-left-ya. I’ll never forget and now neither will you.
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