Trail Of The Unexpected: Swedish Lapland

Sweden's Arctic north provides a very different Yuletide experience to its Finnish rival, says Tam Leach

"Flea market and fika at the church," read the sign, which also promised "Twenty varieties of cake". Of the many pleasures in life, coffee, cake and the search for second-hand treasures come pretty high on my list. You may have heard of the term fika, the single Swedish word that encapsulates "sitting down for a nice chat in a cosy place with a strong coffee and at least a couple of choices of cake, if not seven." Combine that with the opportunity for design inspiration and vintage scavenging, and I'd be in a sort of heaven. But this wasn't quite what I'd expected when I'd headed to the far north, outdoorsy adventure in mind.

Today SAS launches a direct flight from Heathrow to Swedish Lapland, just in time for Santa season. A plethora of pseudo-Lappish activities are now nearer, courtesy of the airport in the town of Luleå: reindeer herding and ice-fishing, husky sledding along the Arctic Circle, and cosy sleigh rides into the woods to visit the great man himself. Though Finnish Lapland may appear to have the Santa thing sewn up, with ski resort Santa packages and practically the entire city of Rovaniemi ("The Official Hometown of Santa Claus") a shrine to all things Yule, Swedish Lapland offers its own more restrained take on things.

Lulea's location on the brackish Bay of Bothnia adds extra activities to the mix: the opportunity to take a snowmobile out on the frozen ocean, for example, past the cute-as-a-button little red fishing huts of the coastal archipelago to where the ice flows creak and groan on the edge of open water. Or the sparkling enchantment of dinner on the same frozen sea, in a tented palace of reindeer skins, candlelight and crystal.

All these activities have much to recommend them, depending on one's inclination for adventure. Another Lappish attraction, the chance to catch sight of those Arctic nights in white – or purple, or green, or blue – satin, is an ethereal experience which more than makes up for the loss of belief in Father Christmas, should the sleigh rides and the grottos fail. Gazing up at the aurora borealis restores a sense of childhood wonder at the world, and is an activity that should really be experienced by everybody, and as often as is affordable. This too, today's flight brings closer.

Yet it turns out that there is much more to northern Sweden than the Lapland bit – that is, than these images of outdoor adventuring and fairytales. There is the fika, for a start. And the omnipresent influence of Scandinavian design. And the second-hand shops. I rummaged happily through the bounty of several second-hand shops and garage sales. In a mere couple of days, I had a perfect Seventies hanging lamp (the equivalent of £3), about four metres of vintage fabric (£2), a Sixties needlepoint cushion cover (£2 – there seems to be a lot of needlepoint up in the north), and a thick wool cardigan (£6), lovingly hand-knitted, I like to think, by a Swedish granny.

Luleå itself, population 45,000, is a pretty city by the standards of Scandinavian architecture – which, although cosy and inspired within, can often be rather utilitarian and weather-resilient without. Surrounding the red-brick turn-of-the-century grandeur of downtown are pretty streets reflecting the Swedish country style, of red- and yellow-painted gingerbread homes nestled between firs and silver birch, windows and gables picked out in white icing.

While Luleå is not exactly heaving with evening entertainment, it has some excellent restaurants, specialising in the surprisingly light and more-ish local produce: tender moose, venison-like reindeer, rare golden bleak roe from the Bay of Bothnia, and a harvest festival of chanterelles and berries. It also it makes a pleasant jumping off point to the wilds of the great north. These are wilds, I should point out, though very wild indeed – endless forest, mist rising off the coast, snow up to your neck by January, bears and moose and not a person in sight for miles nor a sound but your own breathing – that are hardly lacking in civility.

In between second-hand shops, I spent a couple of nights bunking down in the recently opened Treehouse hotel, set in the forest an hour out of Luleå, communing with nature and doing the outdoors adventure thing. The growing crop of treehouses have received worldwide plaudits, and no surprise: each is the painstaking work of a different architectural firm, a mini-design oasis in the sky.

These boutique boltholes are run by possibly the friendliest and most socially-conscious hoteliers in the world. But Britta's Pensionat, their original hotel, has somehow escaped the radar. Britta's is a lovingly-restored former retirement home, decked out in vintage trimmings, from the bed linen to the basement spa. The experience of sleeping up in a tree, swaying gently while watching the horizon, is another, like the Northern Lights, to recommend to all – but I was just as happy sitting in one of the dining room alcoves, sipping coffee and gazing out to the forest.

My last purchase in Luleå was from the Red Cross: a thick, Scandy-patterned wool sweater (£4). Like the idea of a trip to the far north in mid-winter, I wasn't sure, when I first tried it on, if I would love it or if it might, after a short honeymoon period, grate on me. Needless to say, it has become a mainstay of my winter wardrobe.

Travel essentials: Lapland

Getting there

* Scandinavian Airlines (0871 521 2772; launches a direct route from London Heathrow to Luleå today. Prices start from £99 one way.

Staying there

* Treehotel, Harads (00 46 928 10403; Doubles start at SKr3,500 (£328) including breakfast.

* Quality Hotel Luleå (00 46 920 20 10 00; Doubles start at SKr650 (£61), including breakfast.

* Brittas Pensionat, Harads (00 46 928 10403; Doubles start at SKr850 (£80), including breakfast. To make a booking, send an email

More information

* Swedish Lapland Tourism:

sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all