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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; flysas.com) launches a direct route from London Heathrow to Luleå today. Prices start from £99 one way.

Staying there

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

* Quality Hotel Luleå (00 46 920 20 10 00; choicehotels.no). Doubles start at SKr650 (£61), including breakfast.

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

More information

* Swedish Lapland Tourism: swedishlapland.com