A cold blast

Sweden in winter has a reputation for being cold, dark and boring. Not if you're speeding across the ice on a dog-sled, says Alex James

"It was minus-20 degrees yesterday morning," our taxi driver said as we pulled away from the hotel with a perfectly executed handbrake turn. It felt as cold today. In front of us lay the frozen sea, an ocean turned to ice. Nature was even more beautiful than breakfast, and breakfast was pretty groovy. Out of the window were vast swathes of spruce and silver birch. The trees here have a presence like a body of water, sometimes inviting, sometimes foreboding, depending on your mood.

"It was minus-20 degrees yesterday morning," our taxi driver said as we pulled away from the hotel with a perfectly executed handbrake turn. It felt as cold today. In front of us lay the frozen sea, an ocean turned to ice. Nature was even more beautiful than breakfast, and breakfast was pretty groovy. Out of the window were vast swathes of spruce and silver birch. The trees here have a presence like a body of water, sometimes inviting, sometimes foreboding, depending on your mood.

We were staying in Lulea on the Swedish mainland, and heading to Brandon, an Outward Bound-style camp just out of town. When we arrived the first thing we saw were rows of shiny skidoos - and a couple of dudes waiting to show us around. Climbing into big overalls, boots, a head stocking, thick mittens and a helmet, I felt bomb-proof and invincible. And pretty excited about the skidoo ride to come.

Claire, my wife, wanted to drive, so I just hung on as we zoomed out to sea and into a vast, frozen, yawning, silent and pristine wilderness. The most bewildering aspect of being confronted with nature like this is the huge scale of the world outside the one that we know. There were hulking great chunks of ice littered around and whacking great hunks of granite. Huge boulders littered the shores of the islands, left there by some inconceivably immense glacier during the last ice age. The silence was worth about three months' yoga and meditation. There was a perfect quality to the stillness when we stopped for some hot fruity elixir, a local speciality, I assume, as it got to all the right places. We soaked up the view.

The islands that are just off the Swedish coast are populated with colourful wooden beach houses and wigwams. The ice, a few feet thick in February, will have melted by April. A small arctic fox ran across the middle distance as we re-mounted our skidoos. Now warm inside, we headed for one of the bigger islands of the archipelago, where we followed woodland trails to the top of a little hill. It was like being in a painting. At the top was a wobbly old observation tower and a barbecue made from half a forty-gallon diesel drum. The snow was scooped away and reindeer skins were laid down to make a cosy little den. One of the guys started to produce an impressive range of foods from a holdall - a whole salmon wrapped in foil; chopped onions and peppers; some leftover roasties. He even had lemon pepper in a catering-size pot. I knew we were in good hands, so I strapped on some ex-army cross-country skis and went exploring. The snow was deep, and just walking anywhere was next to impossible. Mind you, cross-country skiing is pretty tricky, and I spent a lot of time falling over and getting up, which is excruciating. The dude who wasn't cooking was very encouraging and was obviously well versed in dealing with idiots.

After all the exertions involved in skiing a couple of hundred yards, and the cold, we were ravenous. The cold really sharpens the appetite. I think the best cup of coffee I've ever had was in Sweden; a big steaming cup of cappuccino in the warmth of a Stockholm café. And that salmon barbecued on a reindeer skin on a frozen hilltop in Sweden's northernmost county was truly one of the best meals I've ever eaten. The food felt nourishing and wholesome. The freezing weather was a great sauce but there's no doubt that the chef had some flair. The roasties were a masterstroke.

The Swedes are very gregarious, and it was all very convivial - a perfect picnic. We decided to have coffee in a wooden wigwam on another island. So after Claire and I had climbed the wobbly tower we set off at high speed, this time with me driving. The little conical log-house was in a perfect miniature encampment, the fire had been lit earlier and the windows were glowing. The fire was in the middle of the cabin at eye level, so everyone could sit around it and feel the warmth. By the time we climbed back on the skidoos I was getting pretty cocky, ragging the thing around at 70 miles an hour. It was hard to believe that people would be swimming here in two months' time.

That night a fresh coating of snow fell. It was like the cleaners had been. If it snowed like this in England there would be no school and the trains wouldn't run, but they've got all the right gear here so everything was perfectly under control. A dude wearing a Dolce & Gabbana shirt was driving a huge snowplough past the hotel. It looked like an advert for snowploughs, or the start of a film, but it was just another day in Sweden - and we were off for another picnic.

We were greeted at Aebbenjarka by a dozen mad-eyed jabbering dogs roped to a sledge, and a pretty lady. I've never seen a dog-sleigh before - it's quite a production. Ours consisted of a lot of polypropylene rope, something quite at odds with the rich brown colours of the dogs' furry coats, and a wooden boat-like sleigh. The dogs were all very excited, apart from the two leaders. It looked like it would never work as we made ourselves comfortable, but as soon as the anchors were off, the whole caboodle leapt forward in total silence, and we were racing across a frozen lake faster than a man could run. Trees had been stuck in the snow to mark out a track. Boy, those dogs were happy. They slurped up little mouthfuls of snow as they went.

"They are born to run," said the grinning pretty lady, who was standing behind us on the sleigh giving the dogs instructions, encouragement and reprimands. Particularly Einar. Einar was a star. He got into a bit of a disagreement with his brother when we stopped, and they had to be moved apart. It was a circus. We had been warned, with a fair amount of sniggering by various people, that the dogs fart a lot. It's as inevitable as the smell of diesel on a boat, I suppose. It's not as bad as the smell of moose cheese. Now that really pongs.

We had moose for lunch, in a stew, with blackcurrant jelly sauce, and then it was time for go-karting. Once you get the hang of go-karting they let you go for a spin in a real car. There were three big circuits for ice-driving on the lake, which featured a couple of locals thrashing their sports cars around. We were thinking "losers" to ourselves when we were offered a ride in a red Subaru. "My mum has a Subaru," I thought as we climbed in. I was instantly silenced by a preposterously handsome, tall, skinny 19-year-old who floored it, and with absolute composure, drove mainly sideways at terrifying speeds around a track shaped like a squashed pretzel. He had Moby playing at low volume on the stereo. "Is this your mum's car?" I asked him. It wasn't. His name was Anders, and Claire is still telling her friends * * about him. Then it was my turn to drive. The appointed car for me was an old Volvo 244, which, incidentally, my dad used to have. We loved that car and it was a delight to see all the clunky heater controls and familiar gear lever again. My dad used to let me change gears for him and it was nice to be allowed to drive that car the way I'd always wanted to drive it when I was 10 - at high speed with lots of skids. But I will never be as cool as Anders. The tow truck had to come and pull me out of a big snowdrift.

We thawed out around the fire in a big roundhouse, with another Anders, who runs the place. We were chatting about this and that, he was cracking a few jokes, as Swedes do, and then he said there was, actually, a guitar player from a famous band coming on Monday. I said: "Oh, that's quite interesting. What famous band is that?", to which he replied: "It's a really, you know, really famous band. People like that, they want to come here, no one knows who they are, no one bothers them. They like that." I said: "Oh. Nice."

We spent Saturday afternoon with a New Zealand guy we'd met during our stay who runs Roasters coffee bar on the high street. He'd fallen in love with a girl from Lulea on his travels and ended up living here. So we dropped in and had his magic coffee and read the papers. It would have been churlish not to have a sauna in Sweden, so we squeezed one in before dinner. I'm a ten minutes cold shower, two minutes warm shower man. Claire told me: "A good sauna makes you feel thin," and it's true.

We thought we'd go upmarket for dinner, as so far we'd taken the rustic route. Thomas Kok + Matsal was hidden around a quiet corner, but was humming inside. It was like walking into the latest New York hotel. Scandinavian design is one of their greatest exports.

I went for the Nordic menu, a full-on multi-course extravaganza. Claire went à la carte. The bread was good - warm, with a pot of herb butter, which you often get here. If there is one thing that brings Sweden to my mind, it's the taste of dill. The courses kept coming; lumpfish caviar followed by creamy herby herring, both of which people eat for breakfast. Venison carpaccio with tiny carrots, swedes and porcinis for Claire. My reindeer was really rare and juicy with mushrooms and crunchy roast potatoes. Madame's lamb fillet came with a blini saucepan of fried beans. It was what Robbo, the old chef at the Maison Rouge Studio, would have called "oat kersine". The lights were low, and the ambience was intimate. There were a couple of big tables, but no one sang "Happy Birthday", which is always nice. We lingered over dessert - cloudberries and ice cream for me, and arctic raspberry sorbet for her, both of which really twanged.

We wandered back through a fuzz of fine snow, wishing we were staying longer. I could be happy here. The Swedes are good neighbours. North is good for holidays. Stockholm is just two-and-a-half hours from Heathrow, and Lulea another hour on a 737, but that makes it sound like it's not far away. It's another world.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The best connections to Lulea are available at Arlanda airport in Stockholm. SAS (0870 60 727727; www.flysas.com) flies from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Heathrow and Manchester to Arlanda; British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow and Finnair (0870 241 4411; www.finnair.com) from Manchester. Alex James travelled to Sweden with Discover the World (01737 214255; www.discover-the-world.co.uk), which offers three-night ice-driving holidays from £1,140 per person based on two sharing. The price is valid for departures until 10 April and includes flights between Heathrow and Lulea via Stockholm, transfers, three nights' half-board accommodation at the Elite Hotel Lulea, dog-sledding, snowmobiling, ice-driving and use of winter clothing and boots.

STAYING THERE

The Elite Hotel Lulea (00 46 92 06 7000; www.elite.se) has doubles from Skr990 (£75), with breakfast.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Swedish Travel & Tourism Council (020-7108 6168; www.visit-sweden.com)

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