When it comes to choosing a country to visit in Scandinavia, there is no easy answer. Each country promises something unique – Sweden has the Ice Hotel; Iceland, its hot springs; Norway has the Viking history; Finland, its wildlife, the glass igloos and of course its claim to fame for being the land of Santa; Denmark for its Lego, cookies, pastries, Lurpak butter, Hans Christian Andersen and my all time favourite – author Karen Blixen who is best known for her work: Out Of Africa. Each country promised snow but not the Northern Lights. How then do you choose?
With no promises to view the Northern Lights, I based my decision on 2 of my life-long dreams: reliving my childhood through ABBA and visiting the land of the Vikings – who doesn’t love them!
Along the way, I learned about the Sami, discovered cinnamon rolls with cardamom (delish!!!), realised just how doubly delicious hot chocolate tastes on a snowy day, saw the elusive Northern Lights, experienced what freezing cold means standing in a frozen lake 145 miles north of the Arctic Circle, learned about Norse pantheon of gods and unlearned some of the myths about Vikings, saw the beauty of the fjords that gave a new meaning to “crystal clear”, travelled the famous Lofoten Islands and became magnetically drawn to the blazing sun only to realise just how tiny an entity I am in the nature’s scheme of things.
Below are a few highlights from the itinerary we followed. We had only 10 days at our disposal and couldn’t do everything but managed to pack 2 countries and a number of experiences which made our trip one of the most memorable ones till date.
1 Feb, 2019 – Day 1
Finn Air to Stockholm via Helsinki
Finn Air is establishing Helsinki as a hub and has some fantastic connections from Asia. From Helsinki, we travelled west to Stockholm’s Arlanda airport. The first aerial view of Helsinki is miles and miles of snow as seen from the aircraft camera.
Stay at Hotel Rival in Stockholm
Hotel Rival in Mariatorget was once a cinema and now converted into a hotel. Incidentally, it is partially owned by ABBA singer, Benny Andersen and organises a number of live shows and events which makes the evenings in the hotel really buzzy. The hotel has a delicious spread of breakfast with cheeses, breads, yogurts, meats and hot food.
2 Feb, 2019 – Day 2
Visit to Gamla Stan
Hotel Rival is within walking distance from Gamla Stan where you can watch the changing of the guards and walk in the old quarter with brief interludes of hot chocolates, cakes and pastries. The Swedes really do make their varm choklad delicious BTW. The old quarters has the Nobel Museum, the Royal Palace and numerous alleyways that are totally “grammable”.
3 Feb, 2019 – Day 3
A ferry ride from Sodermalm brings you to Djurgarden Island which has the famous ABBA Museum. It is one of the finest museums I have been to that has made the effort of creating holograms of the singers, television snippets, sing-along, on-air and on-stage performances for fans, clothes exhibition, quizzes, trivia and the gift store. Highly recommend for a great afternoon visit. Fans – be sure to be enthralled.
Art in the metro
Stockholm metro is home to more than 150 works of art including sculptures, mosaics, paintings, installations, engravings, and reliefs by artistic pioneers. The art work is spread over 110 kilometers long and can be found in 90 out of the 100 subway stations, making it the largest art gallery in the world.
When in Sweden, you just gotta have meatballs. Wild boar, elk, beef, pork, moose, reindeer and even vegan meatballs come with classic accompaniments such as cream sauce, potato purée, lingonberries and pickled cucumber. A popular place to visit is Meatballs for the People.
4 Feb, 2019 – Day 4
Fly to Kiruna
There is no guarantee you will see the Northern Lights, surely not in the city because of the city lights. Abisko in Sweden and Tromso in Norway are known to have among the brightest viewings of the Northern Lights as they are 250 and 350 kms respectively north of the Arctic Circle. We flew to Kiruna which is about 93 km south of Abisko and stayed at Camp Ripan. SAS has 2 flights from Stockholm to Kiruna every day.
Spa at Camp Ripan
One of the highlights of a snowy winter experience is to sit in a warm spa while watching the snow fall and turn your hair into icicles – it makes you look like Frozen princess, Elsa (kinda). Camp Ripan also has saunas, an indoor pool, fragrant teas, snacks (and ice cream too) to get you into the holiday mood. Later, you can go to its warm and cosy restaurant for a tipple or a meal. The best thing about Camp Ripan is Dennis – one of the nicest guys you will meet at the reception. Only he promised me Northern Lights and boy! did that come true or what.
5 Feb, 2019 – Day 5
Ice Hotel in Jukkasjarvi is about 20 km from Camp Ripan. Each year, Ice Hotel rebuilds its ice experience inviting artists from across the world. It is quite an experience to stay in the hotel and sleep on a block of ice as bed – c’mon, how many times will you be able to share such an experience.
The ice carving and room concepts are on another level all together. We couldn’t stay in the hotel but did meet a few travellers who did. It is definitely an experience to be had. We did have drinks at the Ice Bar – another experience you shouldn’t miss. The drinks are delicious and come in a glass carved from ice. You can get varm choklad too but not in the ice glass for obvious reasons.
Nearby, there is a church and a Sami Museum which you can walk to. Allocate at least 3 hours to be able to do the Ice Hotel, drinks at the Ice Bar and walking up to the church and the Sami Museum.
Shopping at Wennbergs
Back in Kiruna, Carl Wennberg has some of the most beautiful objects like rugs, blankets, woolly socks, Sami jewellery, wood carvings, hand-knit sweaters and other gift items. The shop also has a small museum of Sami artifacts which are really beautiful to see up close.
I saw the lights – a beautiful palette of green a plum colour lights on nature’s own starry night canvas from a frozen lake about 145 km north of the Arctic Circle in temperature of minus 32 degree Celsius. It is an experience you can never forget.
Our Sami guide told us about her own experiences as a child, being out late in the night with her friends, making fire in the forest to keep her warm, seeing some of the most magical colours of the Northern Lights and even using her torch to create light effects for our photos. She also made fire and offered tea and coffee and all the time, never wore gloves!
We were lucky to have one of the clearest days to view the Northern Lights. The day before and the day after were overcast. But then again, even on clear nights, there are no guarantees to be able to view them, so it was rather special to sight them.
6 Feb, 2019 – Day 6
Train from Kiruna to Narvik (Norway)
The train journey is meant to be quite scenic from the right side of the train but that morning, our trains were cancelled, creating a bit of a mayhem. There was no alternate arrangement made and we had to make our way to Narvik all by ourselves.
Joel from Visit Abisko came to our help. He suggested we take the bus to Abisko and get a taxi from Narvik to do a round trip and pick us up. One of the travellers managed to get a taxi from Kiruna to Narvik which is about 3 hours in all. (Note that there are not a lot of taxis in Kiruna so once they get booked, there is nothing else you can do. We did see a few Narvik taxis come all the way to Kiruna – don’t know if this is possible but suspect that those who managed to get that were from the tour company and negotiated this for the disruption caused. In life you only get what you negotiate for. I realised this in Kiruna.
Stay in Quality Hotel Grand Royal, Narvik
Nothing eventful but a clean and decent hotel for a stopover. I would have liked to have seen the Nazi Museum in Narvik but we didn’t have much time to do this.
7 Feb, 2019 – Day 7
Bus journey from Narvik to Svolvaer
Lofoten Islands in Norway have one of the most stunning landscapes. Thanks to Instagram, the red cabins on snowy beach in Moskenes has become really popular. Our aim was to drive down from Svolvaer to Moskenes, which takes about 2 hours, but because of the train disruption, we ended up losing one day to a bus journey. It didn’t let us down. We even spotted moose by the side of the road.
The Norwegian fjords are a combination of snowy mountains and crystal clear water. On a sunny day the bus journey makes for one of the most beautiful journeys you will ever make in your life, compensating for the train journey we missed and the views it promised. The 3 1/2 hour journey from Narvik starts at 9.30am and reaches Svolvaer at 1pm.
Stay at Lofoten Suite Hotel
Borre at Lofoten Suite Hotel generously gave us a large suite with a kitchenette, 2 rooms, a living room and a view you couldn’t ever be tired of.
Day 8 – 8 Feb, 2019
Visit to Henningsvaer
Henningsvaer is an old fishing town that is about 30 mins drive from Svolvaer. On a sunny day, you can probably see the town being a hive of activity. On a wintry day, it is best to find a comfortable couch in the local coffee shop. We went to one that is also a candle shop that had just brought out a fresh batch of cinnamon buns with cardamom. A mug of hot cocoa and you are sure to experience sheer bliss.
Lofotr Viking Museum
About 45 mins away from Henningsvaer is the Lofotr Viking Museum – the only remaining Longhouse to be discovered in Norway. The last chieftain to have lived here is Olav Tvennumbruni. It was abandoned in 950 AD when Tvennumbruni left his homeland for good and relocated to Iceland.
9 Feb, 2019 – Day 9
Flight to Oslo via Bodo
Flight on local carrier, Wideroe to Bodo and on SAS to Oslo. Left Lofoten with a heavy heart hoping I will visit again.
Stay at Radisson Airport Hotel
10 Feb, 2019 – Day 10
Finn Air from Oslo to Helsinki and then to Hong Kong
A few observations
- Food is expensive
- People are really friendly
- Disruptions in winter are not fun. We experienced 2 disruptions during snow – one was for trams in Stockholm (it didn’t affect us much as metro is more reliable) and the train journey between Kiruna and Narvik. There was no alternate means of transportation offered and there was no one we could speak to at the train station, creating a huge inconvenience to passengers.
- Supermarkets are really cool. Mostly everything is local and you can come across products you have never seen before. Definitely try Chok Skalle chocolate which is in the shape of a skull and has double fillings. My fave was raspberry and licorice – yummmmmm….
- Wine and liquor are sold in government controlled shops – Systembolaget in Sweden and Vinmonopoly in Norway. They are the size of a super market and carry local varieties. Particularly liked drinks made from raspberries.
- Set more time aside for Lofoten Islands. They are really beautiful and deserve at least 3 full days. We had 2 1/2 which was not enough but that too got fudged up because of the train disruption.