Northern Lights viewing isn’t the only perk at this Arctic Retreat
From ice fishing to dog sledding, this Swedish hideaway is all about sub-zero adventure.
I was butchering a block of ice the size of a tombstone, trying to etch out a jukebox with a sharp chisel, when there was an enthusiastic shout beside me. I tried to remain focused on my task – determined that my husband and I would beat my parents at ice sculpting; their own slab was starting to resemble its assigned goal, a bar stool.
We were standing in the middle of the frozen Rane River, in Sweden’s northern reaches, carving out this ice bar as the first activity on an action-packed birthday trip.
This is just one of the many seemingly harebrained – but physical and fun – tasks you’ll find yourself engrossed in during a typical stay at the Arctic Retreat. But our guide, Staffan Wallner, was urging us to look up. I diverted my gaze to meet his. No, he said. Up up.
The sky sat so low it felt close enough to touch, and in the swiftly fading light we saw a small iridescent splotch. It shimmered like celestial mother of pearl, with swirling oily pinks, limpid blues and mercurial greens blending into a small cloud.
“Wow,” I said, impressed in the way parents are when their second child stands up for the first time: It’s exciting but possible to move on relatively quickly.
After all, we were here to see the northern lights, not clouds – and, according to our weather app, the chances of doing that were high this very evening. And this chiselling waited for no one.
But Wallner informed us that this was the tops, as far as cloud spotting goes, that these pearly manifestations are rarer than the aurora borealis and usually only ever seen close to the North Pole.
He said these were polar stratospheric clouds, so uncommon that it was the first time that he, a connoisseur of clouds, had seen them. Created by the sun’s reflection on water molecules in the sky, the same particles are at play as with the northern lights.
We paused our ice sculptures to watch for a while, beginning to understand that you don’t come to the wintry North to show off, but to be a spectator to some of nature’s greatest shows.
Our arrival here earlier that day was a similar moment of understated magic: The turnoff to the Arctic Retreat, a small collection of posh log cabins operated and co-owned by Graeme Richardson and a group of local families, is unmarked and easy to miss.
Just over an hour’s drive from Lulea airport near Boden, the snowy path off the road looks too narrow to lead anywhere but trouble.
But the resort is a cosy oasis of warmth and luxury in the frozen expanse of Lapland, which my husband, Richard, and I first found in the autumn of 2020. It had never occurred to us to go to Sweden, but in the uncertain days of the pandemic it was one of the few countries open to tourists.
I was looking for a place to get a recharge from London life.
After I did some intensive Googling, the simple, confident vibes persuaded me to book the Arctic Retreat rather than the glitzy Treehotel, a magnet for celebrities an hour’s drive away.
I’m glad I did: The retreat was as remote as it possibly could be, nurturing the strange but wonderful feeling that we’d fallen off the face of the Earth and landed in some frozen world with amazing food.
Now we’d come back three years later with my parents, two 71-year-old Hungarians whose childhood winters resembled conditions in Swedish Lapland and whose birthdays we were here to celebrate.
Since the pandemic we’ve taken to meeting outside Hungary for a different experience each year, something fun but challenging, like rifle shooting in a Second World War bunker in a forest outside Berlin. Hence the three days of ice sculpting and other merriment, including mushing dog sleds and snowmobiling.
Above all, we came to catch a glimpse of the northern lights, which my parents had never seen. This part of Sweden is known for them; the abundant forests mean there’s very little light pollution.
You may have read recently about a commercial pilot who turned his plane 360-degrees so passengers could witness the lights. Perhaps that piqued your interest, and you should book now to catch them during the next peak season in December and January.
Those who’ve tried to see the aurora borealis will probably have stood in the middle of a field in freezing conditions, hoping the lights appear before the cold spreads to their every nook and cranny.
At the Arctic Retreat, the lights seem to come to you: It’s possible to watch them dance and shimmer from the comfort of your sofa, your cabin’s terrace or the private hot tub. But on our first night, we were disappointed – no aurora to be seen. I shouldn’t have been so cocky.
With a maximum of eight guests at a time, the resort is discrete and homey. Each of just three cosy cabins is furnished minimally, with north-facing floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Rane.
Despite temperatures that often dip well below -20C (-4F), the buildings’ sturdy logs are soothing on an elementary level – as if your body knows it’s protected. If that doesn’t work, there’s the aforementioned hot tub, ideal for drinking in the forest’s snowy silence.
The retreat has a sauna and provides massages in the comfort of your cabin. (For something a bit more invigorating, you can even plunge into a cleared section of the icy river.) Plus, as of this year, there are reiki and yoga classes.
Emanuel Swärd, the chef, prepares three-course dinners featuring dishes such as reindeer tartare, arctic char and cloudberry desserts. Leftovers are given to the chef’s chickens, whose eggs we devoured at breakfast. (Swärd will customise your meal completely to your tastes; my vegetarian mother was, for once, happy with the food.)
All meals and soft drinks are included in the nightly price, with activities costing extra. Prices in the peak winter season run to $1,700 (AUD$2,574) per cabin for two people. For about $4,300 (AUD$6,510), the whole resort is yours for a night.
Other activities include Swedish baking, ice fishing and a visit with local Sami families for music and a meal. As of last month, adventurous guests can ascend 40 metres (131 feet) in a hot air balloon to get closer to the northern lights.
There’s also plenty of wildlife, with a black bear living quietly nearby and reindeer herds wandering around freely. On our first morning, we got a very special visit from a family of moose.
As we fished, the now-familiar-yet-otherworldly polar clouds reappeared. This time, three glistening purply-pink creations shimmied low over the frozen lake, and we all got to appreciate them. We were so mesmerised we didn’t catch any fish. That was our excuse, anyway.
When we got back from our second day, happy, thawed-out and exhausted, we settled down for dinner as Swärd came into the dining room to ask if he should hold back our next course, as the northern lights were making an appearance.
With all the talk of the clouds, we sort of forgot about the lights. But now we rushed outside to watch the magic happen: A beam of light sliced through the dark sky and into the tops of the trees and suddenly arched over us like the dome of a cathedral.
Little green streaks waxed and waned behind us, playing hide-and-seek with our gaze. Then a curtain of colour hung down like a skirt – all emeralds and whites, oily and clear at the same time.
It was a small show by the resort’s standards, but it was enough that my mother announced she was going to move here. We finished dinner, drunk on the lights and glowing like clouds.
On our last day, my father unexpectedly revealed himself to be an innately talented musher. As I watched him take off at an alarming speed, his sled pulled by seven adorably friendly Alaskan huskies, I wondered if he and my mother would survive this adventure.
Then my own team of five huskies lurched down the hill in pursuit, beasting forward even though I was standing with my full body weight on the brakes.
As the dogs surged ahead, silence descended upon us, leaving only the steely whisper of the sleds against the icy snow (except for Dad, who had to take continuous advice about his driving from Mum, who was cosily ensconced in reindeer skins).
Driving a dog sled feels like flying, but with considerably more airborne poop. Up and down mountains we went, crossing vast frozen fields and running toward the low-hanging sun.
After an al fresco lunch of soup and toasties, warming up by a fire our guides Sanne Kouwenhoven and Lotte Molenaar conjured to life in waist-deep snow, we were back on the tracks to home base. Stiffly, we coaxed the proud dogs out of their harnesses, and they settled into their kennels for the night.
As permanent residents of this spectacular Arctic theatre, they see the lights and the clouds all the time. We were just happy to have been in the audience for a while.
This article is published under license from Bloomberg Media: the original article can be viewed here
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