Northern Highlights: 10 Cool Ideas

Take to the water, track polar bears, lounge on a beach by the Baltic... Where do Scandinavians holiday at home? Harriet O'Brien reveals all


1. Join the bridge and tunnel crowd

The Lofoten Islands, about 195km north of the Arctic Circle, are some of the most beautiful regions of Norway. The archipelago is made up of seven main islands and dozens of smaller ones, most linked by bridges and tunnels. According to myth, the islands were created by the Viking god Thor, when he threw handfuls of rock into the sea, and at times they have an appropriately elemental and brooding quality. The islands are dotted with lakes and dominated by a range of mountains, the breathtaking 100km Lofotweggen or Lofoten Wall. At this time of year they are bathed in near-mystical Arctic light nearly 24 hours a day.

How to do it? Walking holiday specialist Inntravel (01653 617906; inntravel. co.uk) has an eight-night break combining driving and hiking across some of the most spectacular parts of these islands. The "Journey to A" trip starts on the island of Skrova and proceeds westwards, ending at the village of A (pronounced "Oh"), which was named after the final letter of the Norwegian alphabet. Accommodation is, for the most part, in former fishermen's cottages converted into guesthouses. The price, from £1,298 per person, includes flights from Heathrow via Oslo, transfers, six days' car hire, and eight nights' half-board.

2. By boat, from sea to shining sea

The Gota Canal is a 190km waterway - effectively a series of man-made links between exceptionally lovely lakes - providing an inland water route between the Baltic Sea and the North Sea in southern Sweden. It is regarded as a national treasure by the Swedes and provides a picturesque route through Swedish landscape at its best. Built between 1810 and 1832, the route officially starts (or ends) at Mem, south of Stockholm, and passes through 58 locks to finish at the huge inland sea of Lake Vanern. Most visitors begin (or end) their trips at Stockholm, their boats meandering to Mem through the city's outlying archipelago, and on reaching Lake Vanern continuing on to Gothenburg.

How to do it? You can make this trip in a 19th-century steamer, beautifully maintained and offering a mahogany-clad saloon where excellent food is served. The cabins, though small, have elegant, Art Nouveau styling. Scantours (020-7554 3530; scantours.co. uk) has a six-day itinerary on a choice of three such steamers. The cost, from £890 per person, including flights, three nights' full-board accommodation on the steamer; and two nights' b&b hotel accommodation at either end of the canal trip.

3. Go where the Goths once gathered

The largest and sunniest of the many islands in the Baltic Sea, the Swedish island of Gotland, 90km off the south-eastern coast, has a winning combination of great beaches, pretty scenery and absorbing ancient sites. Traditionally it was the home (or at least one of them) of the ferocious Goths and it is known to have been an important base during Viking times. The medieval town of Visby, with its cobbled lanes and ancient walls, is a Unesco World Heritage site. Today sees the start of its annual Medieval Week, a festival with jousting tournaments, minstrels, markets and more. The island is dotted with standing stones as well as medieval churches, 70 of which have frescos and stained glass dating back to Middle Ages.

How to do it? There is an extensive network of quiet roads so one of the best ways to explore the island is by bicycle. Best Served Holidays (020-3119 3022; bestserved holidays.co.uk) offers a cycling break here as part of a trip that includes a visit to Stockholm. The five-night holiday costs from £469 per person which includes return flights, a ferry crossing to Visby, two nights' b&b hotel accommodation on the island, bike rental, and three nights' cabin-style accommodation near Gotland's long beach of Tofta.

4. To market, In medieval Finland

The oldest city in Finland, Turku dates back to at least the 13th century. The name means marketplace in Finnish - and indeed there is still a lively market square here. This evocative harbour town on the Baltic Sea also has a Swedish name, Abo, or settlement (bo) on the River Aurajoki (just "A" in Swedish). Under Swedish rule it was the capital of Finland, but after the country was ceded to Russia in 1809 that role was transferred to Helsinki. Today Turku is a charming university town with a good 50 museums, a huge medieval castle and a glorious, 900-year-old cathedral that is one of Finland's finest churches.

How to do it? Specialised Tours (01342 712785; specialised tours.com) offers a 10-day city tour of Scandinavia with three nights spent in Turku. The cost, from £775 per person, includes flights, transfers, three nights' b&b at the Nordic Sea Hotel in Stockholm, a day-long cruise to Turku, three nights' b&b at Turku's Scandic Hotel Plaza and three nights' b&b in the Finnish capital at the Radisson SAS Plaza Hotel.

5. Head into a frozen wilderness

Spitsbergen is the largest island in Norway's Svalbard archipelago, which lies high in the Arctic Ocean about 1,000km south of the North Pole. The scenery is simply spectacular, a dramatic combination of glaciers, vast ice caps, open tundra, long fjords, and at this time of year carpets of Arctic wild flowers as well as intensely coloured lichens and moss. Walrus, narwhal and orca inhabit the waters while, if you're lucky, polar bear, Arctic fox and reindeer can be seen on land.

How to do it? Among a number of Spitsbergen trips offered by Discover the World (01737 214255; discover-the-world.co. uk) is an Arctic Week holiday during which you stay at Spitsbergen's tiny capital Longyearbyen and take organised day trips into the pristine wilderness beyond. These include guided wilderness hikes, tundra walks, and a cruise to the extraordinary Isfjord. The price, from £1,354 per person, covers return flights to Longyearbyen via Oslo, eight nights' b&b, several excursions and the services of a guide.

6. Hike the peninsula time forgot

The unspoilt Bjaere peninsula in Sweden is more or less opposite Denmark, which lies across the narrow Oresund Strait. It is a wonderfully quiet area, with a lack of any major development due mainly to the fact that the region is bypassed by the rail network. You can relax into an old-fashioned world here, a place of colourful fishing villages, white-sand beaches and, at this time of year, a profusion of wild flowers. Bird life is abundant, too - cormorants, guillemots, shearwaters - and seals can sometimes be seen basking on rocks.

How to do it? Headwater (08700 662650; headwater.com) offers nine-night independent walking holidays here. The trip starts in the medieval village of Angelholm from where you proceed gently northwards to the seaside resort town of Bastad, passing sandy beaches, shingle coves, pine forests and cheerful little towns. Accommodation along the way varies from cliff-top guesthouse to a beach-front hotel and luxury cabin. This summer's price, from £1,038 per person, includes flights from Heathrow to Copenhagen, rail transfers, accommodation, most meals, and luggage transfers.

7. Join the puffin spotters' club

Denmark's far-flung Faroe Islands drift in the North Atlantic about 600km west of Norway and 280km north of Scotland. These 18 wild and weather-tossed islands have a compelling, elemental beauty - towering cliffs knifing into the sea, crashing surf, weirdly shaped mountains, vibrant green valleys lit up in blustery sunshine, clouds of squawking sea birds. The population of a little under 50,000 is scattered across the islands, which are linked by bridges and tunnels. Many of the people still live in traditional houses with turf roofs, and even the local parliament building in the little capital, Torshavn, sports a turf top.

How to do it? Brightwater Holidays (01334 657 155; brightwaterholidays. com) arranges four-day breaks based in Torshavn. The capital is within easy reach of a number of intriguing sights, and optional excursions include visits to the ancient farm and church centre of Kirkjubour and boat trips to the phenomenal cliffs of Vestmanna, which teem with kittiwakes, razorbills, and sometimes even puffins. The cost from £545 per person includes return flights to Torshavn from Aberdeen or Stansted and three nights' half board at Torshavn Hotel.

8. Get back to nature, with a luxury hotel

A tiny four square kilometres, Furillen lies off the harbour town of Slite on the east coast of the island of Gotland. Much of Furillen used to be a limestone quarry and an extraordinary hotel has been created from the old factory that processed the rock. Hotell Fabriken's 17 minimalist rooms are packed with luxuries, from Bang & Olufsen DVD players to sheepskin rugs. The hotel also offers accommodation in a wooden hermit hut set in complete isolation on a cliff. With no electricity or running water it presents perhaps the ultimate way of getting back to nature.

How to do it? Hotell Fabriken Furillen (00 46 498 22 30 40; furillen.nu) charges from SEK1,950 (£145) for a double room. The hermit hut can be hired only with a double room in the hotel: b&b costs from SEK2,750 (£204) per night.

9. The best for bear watching: See nature in the raw

The vast sweep of Finland's eastern coniferous forests is one of the last great wilderness areas of Europe. Beyond the remote little town of Suomussalmi on the eastern side of Lake Kainta lies the Martinselkonen Wilds Centre. This peaceful, unspoilt landscape supports a wealth of bird life as well as big carnivores from lynx to brown bear and wolverine. Naturetrek (01962 733051; naturetrek.co.uk) has a three-night bear-watching trip from £795 per person.

10. The best Viking experience: Sail back in time

Harold Blue Tooth, king of Denmark, established the tidy town of Roskilde in the 10th century. In July, hordes of rock fans arrive for its famous annual festival. Otherwise, it is a quiet place with a mighty cathedral, cobbled streets and a large Viking ship museum. Andante Travels (01722 713 800; andantetravels.co.uk) offers a 10-day group holiday which takes in two nights at Roskilde where you can sail in a replica Viking boat. From £1,850 per person.

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