One thousand years ago, the Swedish resort of Are was "inhabited by Vikings, toasting each other in mead that frothed on their plaited beards – not unlike the après-ski crowds of today". Or at least, that's what the tourist brochure says. The description is not far off the mark. The Viking spirit lives on, but with beer and schnapps replacing mead as a way to warm the soul after a day of skiing.
It happens at lunch time too. The Buustamons Fjallgard restaurant experience was fascinating – but more for what happened after the meal, tasty though it was, than during it. I was shepherded into the basement, where I discovered a small schnapps distillery in action. What's more, despite operating in a country where you can buy strong liquor only in official government-approved and run outlets, it is all perfectly legal. The restaurant was granted permission in 2000 to run a distillery, using ingredients from local growers. The spirits are flavoured with spices such as cinnamon, saffron and vanilla, plus citrus flavours, to produce 10 varieties of fragrant alcohol, all of which are sold upstairs. The stills produce around 120 litres a week.
Oak casks from Scotland containing 16-year-old single malt whiskies from Mortlach in Speyside are imported and bottled here as Mac Are, and are used to flavour the schnapps.
It's a myth that alcohol warms you up, but few skiers worry about the science. "We all like the cold," says Niklas Danielson, director of the resort's ski-school.
Some people worry that Scandinavian resorts such as Are are dark as well as cold. Yet they are only dark – in terms of short days – in the depths of winter, from December to January. This is when night skiing comes into its own. There is little habitation in this part of Jamtland, Sweden's third-largest county, and the ski area floodlights are so powerful that, legend has it, Nasa once telephoned to ask if there'd been an explosion.
In late February, something rather special happens. The days lengthen until they are as long as those in the Alps. And then, after the vernal equinox, they get longer still, so that by the time April comes round, Scandinavia has far more daylight than "mainland" Europe.
Unlike the average Continental ski resort, Are has a strong measure of history. New Year's Eve 1718 was one of the darkest hours in Sweden's military history. General Armfeldt's army was marching home from an aborted invasion of Trondheim in Norway commanded by Karl XII. The 6,000 men were making for Duved – Are's sister village – when a ferocious snowstorm caught them on exposed terrain. Some 3,000 troops were left lying dead in the mountains between Tydal and Handol. The tragedy is commemorated at one of Are's finest restaurants, the Karolinen, named after the king. It specialises in do-it-yourself, hot-stone cooking.
Having eaten my fill in one of Are's oldest buildings, I headed to one of its newest and most imposing – the five-star, £40m, ski-in, ski-out Copperhill Mountain Lodge, the resort's flagship accommodation. Perched on Mount Forberget, it's at the end of the slopes, away from other accommodation, and has wonderful views across the frozen Aresjön. A lift connects it with the Bjornen area favoured by families. Beyond, there are the most hardcore runs, with skiing up to 1,300m – or even higher if you get a snowcat ride to the top of Areskutan.
Up here, the Sami people used to chase away wolves threatening their herds of reindeer. Today, you find them selling reindeer sandwiches instead. Areskutan's altitude sounds low, but the vertical drop is a respectable 900m, with powerful world class runs.
The sister village of Duved is linked to Are by bus. It's a pleasant alternative to Are, with largely tree-line slopes and a quieter atmosphere. But I couldn't spend long there, because Are is Sweden's most widespread resort. Unless you catch that final lift back to the hotel, you're in for a long walk – or a taxi ride – home.
To check out the accuracy of the tourism bureau's boasts, get back in time for some après ski. "The nightclubs are packed with groups of girls, loaded stockbrokers, local hunters and divas of the cities," says the brochure. "This is not the polite, cheek-kissing Are. It's the Are of bear-hugging and unrestrained happiness."
Then there's this final thought: "Sleep for a few hours and wake up happy; it's not your boss waiting for you out there, but the slopes of Mount Areskutan."
Neilson (0844 879 8155; neilson.co.uk) offers a week in Are from £299 per person, based on four people sharing on a selfcatering basis. It includes flights from Gatwick with resort transfers on 18 December, when the ski season starts. SAS (0871 226 7760; flysas.co.uk) flies to Ostersund via Stockholm from Heathrow and Manchester airports. Copperhill Mountain Lodge (00 46 6471 4300; copperhill.se) has doubles from SEK1,390 (£132), including breakfast.
00 467 7184 0000 or skistar.com for Are; visitsweden.com for the country as a whole.Reuse content