Adventures in Åre and the Arctic
I thought I had Scandinavia sussed: gentle, welcoming skiing with a great family offering and enough of a challenge to keep a mixed group happy. But having only been to the south, I had barely scratched the surface. Travelling much further north on the Arctic train, I discovered a hidden world of adventure. A remote wilderness where the pistes are few and the powder is plentiful, without a compromise on the usual high standards of accommodation, cuisine and hospitality. Sweden truly is a country of contrasts.
First Stop, Åre
This wasn’t a first visit to Åre for any of us and it was as much fun as we remembered. An interesting and varied ski area, the greatest variety is in the main area above the village. Åre Björnen is more set up for beginners and early intermediates, with the fun and rolling slopes of Duved and Tegefäll a short bus ride away for the more adventurous. But perhaps the best bit is the easy access to a whole lot more off-piste terrain. We didn’t need to hire a guide on this visit though, as the snowfall meant we didn’t have to stray off the piste at all!
There is a good range of accommodation from the very sophisticated to simple but high standard apartments, and both ski-in ski-out in various areas of the resort and village based hotels and apartments just a short walk from the village lifts. The shuttle system is very efficient and no matter where you’re based you’ll be able to ski all parts of the resort.
We had a lot of fun exploring Åre’s slopes, and although we spent most of our time in the main ski area, we caught the ski bus over to Tegefjäll & Duved (included on your lift pass) for a day - I’d definitely recommend you do so too! Our final day gave us plenty of powder (and quite a bit of wind) but the great thing about Åre’s spread-out ski area is that you can usually find a good spot in any conditions.
After a few days in Åre we caught the Arctic Circle train north, I loved it! There wasn’t a lot of space for the four of us and our luggage in a six-berth compartment but we managed to fit it all (and ourselves) in with a little train tetris. It reminded me of the old Brighton to London compartment trains with fixtures and fittings from last century, but everything worked and the beds were comfy. It’s worth bearing in mind that the refreshment car is closed at night (before we joined this part of the journey) so you need to have water with you.
Sweden's Most Northerly Ski Resort, Riksgränsen
When we reached the Riksgränsen Hotel, the snow was deep and the anticipation was palpable. You immediately get the impression that this is a serious resort, all about the backcountry, and there was a constant movement of coming and going while people waited for heli pick-ups or returned from heli drops, guiding or ski touring. Our guide, Ella, was passionate about being there too, and showed us how easy it is to access the powder from the lift system with very little hiking, just a little traversing and the views were pure wilderness.
A recent storm had left a lot of powder, and while in some parts we had to check speed because of hidden windblown ice, it was a lot of fun. My favourite run was down through a gully and on into the trees.
Later that afternoon we were lucky enough to meet the heli-ski operators out of the hotel and they took us up for a quick sightseeing tour - the terrain is huge and we didn’t even see the larger parts of it apparently. It’s something I now have to go back and try!
40 minutes further south at the edge of the Abisko National Park, Björkliden’s atmosphere is entirely different. Still wonderfully wild, the skiing here is suitable for all abilities, with other winter activities to try and a high chance of seeing the Northern Lights. Dominating the horizon is the Gateway to Lapland, which was incredible, like something out of the Lord of the Rings!
Our guide, Jorem was super knowledgeable about the environment, the Sami and their history and customs. He provided us with possibly our most fun morning in the powder - lots of fresh lines and totally empty of people. He took us to try a drop off a cornice and showed us some really fun steep drops through the trees.
There was a lot of varied off piste terrain, easy to access from the lifts, and none of it gets tracked out quickly because there are so few people here. The main thing I took from the experience was how much more you get out of the area with a guide (although you could have a lot of fun just accessing the parts you can scope from the t-bars on the way up) as there is so much that you wouldn’t know to explore. It was pretty amazing.
In the afternoon we tried ski touring. We weren’t so lucky with the weather with high winds and little visibility, but that just added to the adventure. It made me want to try it again as I could see how peaceful it would be - and absolutely the best way to find untracked terrain. The weather was so quick to change - that morning we had woken up to a whiteout with blizzard conditions, then just half an hour later we had the perfect bluebird day and everything was calm and quiet. A few hours later and we were stormbound again. Due to its geographical location the weather can change in an instant, so it's best to prepare for all weather conditions to get the absolute most out of your day.
Amazing Aurora Borealis
The night before we left the Northern Lights made an appearance. This felt like the icing on the cake as the skiing and boarding had been more than enough to keep us happy. Our guide took us up to the viewing hut above the Hotel Fjället. This involved a hike up the piste in -19˚C but the hut was really warm with panoramic windows, comfy seats and total silence. It was truly mesmerising, you could spend hours up here just gazing at the light show.
Our final morning's journey took us to the ICEHOTEL where you can go dog sledding across the snow and sleep in an ice-sculpted room. The ICEHOTEL was spectacular. It was very cold but nothing that the warm clothes provided can't combat, and there is always the option of warming up with a cocktail from the bar (in a glass made from ice of course). You can even try your hand at creating your own ice sculpture.
We visited also ICEHOTEL 365. Being housed in a refrigerated building means it is open all year round and allows for more spacious rooms and more ornate sculptures as they are permanent. I prefered the winter only structure with its igloo-esque rooms though - it feels more authentic.
Where to Eat in Åre & the Arctic
Åre village is the only ski resort in Sweden with a genuine alpine atmosphere and the food was one of the highlights of our visit. We were lucky enough to try the following:
Büstamonn: a wonderful dark wood log cabin with an open chimney, Büstamonn was really cosy with stunning views and its own distillery in the basement (one of Sweden’s smallest legal distilleries). We sampled frittata, reindeer wraps (enormous), reindeer stew with lingonberries and a salmon, spinach and camembert salad. Its ethos is to cook using raw materials of high quality, preferably naturally present in Jämtland (the local county) with recipe inspiration from other mountainous areas all over the world. This would be perfect place to book a snowcat evening with a five course dinner.
Vinbaren (in Hotel Åregården): a must visit while you’re in Åre (you’ll probably need to book), this is mini fine-dining at its best. The menu is planned around customers trying many small dishes so that they can be sampled with a variety of different wines to complement them. The wine list is very impressive!
Supper: a fantastic off-shoot of a Stockholm restaurant, serving the best cocktails in Åre and Latin American food. If you tell your waiter what you like they’ll recommend the best dishes for you and the drink to accompany them. Everything tastes amazing and there’s a central bar where you can watch the bartender mix the cocktails.
Copperhill Mountain Lodge: our most popular property in Sweden has a new à la carte restaurant where the library used to be - we had lunch here on the first day. Their set menu is a delight. On that day the menu was celeriac soup and risotto with chicken. Beautifully presented and delicious.
And for the best afterski, of course, the Hotel Fjällgården: the best ski-in ski-out location in Åre if you’re an intermediate or above. The afterski here is part of Åre legend and it’s not something to miss - we even met a couple enjoying the festivities with their baby in ear protectors. It's very entertaining, energetic and participatory (if you don’t like this then hang back at the bar, like the baby), loud and pretty hilarious.
Waiting for the train from Åre there’s a great last food stop - The Bahnhof café: next to the railway station. It’s a great place to hang out, eat sandwiches, big salads, and cakes. We had apple crumble cake with vanilla custard, which was delicious.
Not to forget the food further north! Although secondary to the activities here, it was still excellent. The half board option at the Riksgränsen Hotel includes a varied menu offering superb quality and big portions, perfect for fuelling up, and the same applied at Björkliden. Among the options on offer were Arctic char, reindeer and lingonberries (obligatory).
The whole trip was a real eye opener for me. Before I visited any of the resorts further south in Scandinavia, I had a picture in my mind of how it would be and I didn’t find it. But in the Arctic Circle it was exactly as I had imagined. Totally remote, really wild, and wonderfully quiet. The people are friendly and passionate about skiing and their environment, and enjoy sharing it with those who would like to learn more. Oh, and there is a lot of snow here!
Experience it Yourself
For anyone wanting to experience unique landscapes, incredible snow, wonderful food and welcoming people on their backcountry adventures, the Åre & the Arctic Ski Safari is just incredible. I'm due to fly back to Riksgränsen on Easter Sunday to test the heli-skiing a little more extensively! Call Andy, Sam or Kat on 01273 224068 or request a quotation online for more advice on skiing in Sweden and the Arctic Circle.
Boarder/Skier: Five ski seasons: La Plagne, Les Deux Alpes, Kitzbuhel, Serre Chevalier, Courchevel, and all the UK organisation in between before joining Ski Safari in 2008.