This is the tale of two Englishman, an Irishman, eleven Australians and two Kiwis, who all left the UK to experience a REAL white Christmas. Oh the irony; As I sit typing this blog post from Shropshire, England, the world outside my window looks like a scene from Narnia. If only they’d waited 12 years.
Let’s rewind to December 2005, when our story begins.
Our Antipodean immigrant friends had been living in England for about five years, yet had never seen a white Christmas. They all seemed a little surprised that the weather was as grey, rainy and miserable in winter as it was the rest of the year.
Contrary to Christmas cards and any “Scrooge” movie ever made, England rarely sees snow during the festive holidays. And with climate change in full swing these days, you’ll be more likely to see it in June.
And so our Aussie mates decided to fulfill their dreams and experience a proper, twinkly, winter-wonderland white Christmas, by giving Great Britain the elbow and flying to Sweden instead.
The itinerary was set: We’d land in Stockholm, take a train north to Östersund, then swap for a 12-hour coach ride to the Arctic Circle, finally arriving in Sweden’s northernmost town of Kiruna after a gruelling 21-hour journey.
We were so excited to be heading to Lapland for Christmas that the grim reality of sitting in a moving vehicle for almost an entire day hadn’t really entered our minds. Besides, half the journey was on a sleeper train, right?
Our excursion-organiser, Matt, had misread one of the tickets for the trip and it turned out our night train to Lapland was seating only.
But in true “no worries” Aussie-style, Matt had made some Christmas travel packs of puzzles, sweets and games to keep ourselves entertained along the way, which helped him avoid a public lynching by ten other Aussies and their British friends. Bonza!
In the early hours of the morning, our train pulled into Östersund and we swapped our train seat for a bus one. Our coach was a fancy, modern affair, and our travelling band was so big, we completely took over the entire first floor of the vehicle. There were plush seats, huge windows and toasty heating on this journey. It was time to break out the Baileys Irish Cream (we even added a little snow from outside for a little Arctic-mercury addition to the beverage) and commence the carol-singing.
We watched the Swedish wilderness speed by: Frozen lakes, acres of snow-smothered pines and sweet little houses in the middle of nowhere, with Christmas candles twinkling in the windows. It was like seeing an ever-changing Christmas card scene from our cosy, Baileys-scented bus.
12 hours, three bottles and numerous Christmas songs later, we finally arrived in Kiruna.
Now, it’s worth noting that the Kiruna I’m writing about has changed a fair deal since 2005. For one, the entire town is being moved three kilometres east, one building at a time, to avoid being swallowed up by the very industry on which the town depends: a huge iron ore mine.
Some people have said that Kiruna lacks the same postcard-scenes that other Scandinavian towns have, but we thought it was quite a pretty place in the Arctic light, and the church there is certainly something to see too. It was once voted Sweden’s prettiest building and with its Sami-tipi shaped design and intricate wooden carvings, its easy to see why.
Our Lapland accommodation was at a resort called Camp Ripan, where our group divided into four wooden cabins. Matt’s original plan was for us to have a real winter holiday experience by staying in igloos at the same resort, but that year the snow was the “wrong sort” for making ice houses, so we were ‘relegated’ to wooden ones instead.
Call me unadventurous, but I was quite relieved not to be sleeping in an igloo for four nights in sub-zero temperatures.
When we weren’t chilling out in the cosy cabins, we were exploring Kiruna’s town centre and enjoying a hot drink somewhere to keep warm. The midwinter sun barely came above the horizon, so the whole region just blushes in a kind of strange pink sunrise half-light for about three hours, then goes midnight-dark again.
I remember sitting in a café at 3pm one day, looking outside and wondering how the locals survived such freezing darkness for so many days of the year.
At that moment, a guy in a colossal Parka shuffled by the window pushing a shopping trolley full of vodka.
On Christmas morning we rode snowmobiles across a frozen lake under a soft vanilla Arctic sky. Absolutely one of those “pinch me, I must be dreaming” moments.
I let my ex-partner Jon drive for most of the ride, as I have the coordination-skills of a dyspraxic lemming and would have had us imprinted on a fir tree within minutes of setting off.
We followed the lead skidoo riders through snow-clad pine forest, eventually reaching a frozen lake. Not that we knew it was a frozen lake of course. It could have been a huge football pitch for all we knew. Only when one of our group drifted out of the line and the leaders start waving their hands for them to stop, screaming something about “Icy death in the water”, did we realise where we were.
Having safely negotiated the wilderness between Kiruna and Jukkasjärvi, we parked up outside the world-famous Ice Hotel and trooped inside to ‘warm up’ (when you go from -25˚C outside to -7˚C inside, this still counts as warming up apparently).
Stereotypical Brits, Aussies and Kiwis to the core, we all bee-lined for the hotel bar. Although the drinks menu was pretty much just blue vodka, red vodka or green vodka, the fact that it was served in glasses made of ice made up for the crap selection. I recall Jon getting his tongue frozen to one of them. Good times.
The Ice Hotel is an astounding feat of human ingenuity. The structure is made entirely of ice blocks cut from the nearby lake, and is remade every year in a different form. As well as the ice bar, there’s also a church, all completely sculpted out of ice. Each year, international artists are invited to fill the temporary building with sculptures. It’s hard to believe the entire thing melts away in the summer months.
I recall speaking to two Aussie girls in our group who had spent a night in one of the Ice Hotel’s themed rooms. They told us about their thermal sleeping bags, reindeer-skin bedding and the need to pee at 3am, which resulted in having to climb out of their insulated beds, into insulated clothing and walk across the street to the toilet block over the road in night-time temperatures hovering around a rather brisk -27˚C.
En suite bathrooms would be a great idea at the Ice Hotel. If you don’t mind yellow snow and a hole into the neighbouring room, that is.
I’m sure a few nights in the Ice Hotel would have been an unforgettable experience, but for me the novelty of sleeping in rooms at -5˚C would have worn off pretty quickly.
If you’re out of your mind and would like to experience a stay in the world’s chilliest hotel, you can head to the main website here.
Something else we ended up missing in Kiruna was the ski-scene. Back then, my 26-year old self was even more of a nancy and probably would have hidden under a duvet at the mere mention of strapping some pieces of wood to his feet and throwing himself down a mountain.
Instead of enjoying some powder on the piste in Kiruna, I joined the Aussies in snowball fights, building snowmen and sledding down the drifts made by the daily snowploughs. Snow has this effect on most adult men; jobs and mortgages and marriage might give the illusion of being all grown up, but snow reveals that practically all of us have the maturity of a nine-year old.
Alas, our snow-shenanigans were to end in disaster.
Despite avoiding the perils of snowboarding and skiing in Kiruna, we suffered some snow-related casualties during the trip: Matt shattered his wrist bone after spinning down a slope on a plastic tray; Jon bruised his coccyx after coming down hard at the bottom of the same hill, and our friend Tracy twisted her knee after being pushed over in the snow during a bit of festive frolicking.
Meanwhile, I managed to break three ribs after sleepwalking out of my bunk bed. Without a snowflake in sight. What a drip.
If you’d seen our group staggering across the airport at the end of our stay in Lapland, you’d have thought we’d been mauled by Arctic wolves.
Speaking of which, we did encounter some canines of the friendly kind in Sweden.
Dashing through the snow on a six-huskie open sleigh is what we did on Boxing Day; a “polar safari” booked through the resort we were staying at.
Even though the Arctic night was cold enough to turn every exposed hair on our faces into a frost-covered follicle, (we all looked like Abominable snowmen by the end of the ride) we still loved every minute of it.
The only sounds in the otherwise silent forest were the swishing of the sled through the snow, the excited yelps of the dogs as they hauled us along, and tinkle of bells on their harnesses.
There might also have been the odd dog-fart from at least one of the six huskies, but let’s not ruin the magic.
Our huskie drivers took us to cabins in the forest, where we were given a warming lunch of mushroom soup and reindeer sandwiches (yes, we ate Rudolf).
As we sped back to the resort under a sapphire-diamond sky we realised that nobody had seen the northern lights during our stay. It had been one of those sensational Arctic sights that we’d been hoping for. You can’t visit the Arctic Circle without aiming to see the Aurora Borealis.
That night we trudged through the deep snowdrifts to the local bar, despondent that it was our last evening in Lapland and that we still hadn’t seen the northern lights. Our parade was pissed on even more when a killjoy bartender said she hadn’t seen them once in the whole three years she’d been living in Kiruna.
Several other spoilsports backed her up, telling us that getting a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis is trickier than you’d imagine. There’s the issue of cloud cover, for one and getting the right temperatures for a clear sky. There’s also something about charged particles from the sun, and high energy to low energy goings on among photons in the atmosphere.
But we didn’t care about science. We had come to the Arctic and we were expecting to see the northern lights, goddammit. I’m quite grateful that extortionate Swedish prices of alcohol stopped any of us from drowning our sorrows in that bar that night, because as we left to head back to our cabins, tramping out into the freezing Arctic night, we saw a glimmer of green suddenly appear over the mountains to the north.
The glimmer turned to a shimmer and the shimmer to a glowing curtain of emerald light.
The Aurora Borealis lanced and looped over our heads like eerie spirits from another world. It was one of the most enchanting things I’ve ever seen. You could almost imagine the sound of glass windchimes and frosted fairy wings tinkling in time to the lights dancing in the sky. It was mesmerising.
Lying like snow angels on the ground, we watched those lights until we couldn’t feel our extremities any more. It is a very fond memory of mine, despite almost losing the end of my nose to frostbite.
Our departure from Kiruna was a very satisfied one. Everyone had experienced a real white Christmas, with ice-palace buildings, huskie-sleighs, reindeer sandwiches and even the northern lights. The only thing missing had been Santa, but we discovered he lives in two places at once, over in Finnish and Norwegian Lapland. Maybe splitting himself three ways is a bit much for the elves.
But the absence of Old Saint Nick didn’t make our Arctic adventure any less enjoyable. If anything, it’s an excuse to head up to Lapland again someday.
The practical stuff: Planning your trip to Lapland
When to go
Naturally, if you want to experience real snow and a Christmassy feel, you should head to Kiruna in December. We arrived around the 23rd and left on the 27th, and the prices we paid reflected that. Expect to pay more over the Christmas and New Year period. If you want to have some winter fun but you’re on a budget, there’s still plenty of snow in January and February.
How to get there
We flew into Stockholm’s Skavsta airport with Ryanair airlines. Arlanda airport is served by SAS airlines, which also runs domestic flights to Kiruna from Stockholm. Norwegian airlines also do direct flights to Kiruna from London.
For night trains to Kiruna, you can book at the EuroRail website while GoEuro also provide a search engine for booking rail trips to Lapland. Be prepared to travel by (luxurious) coach for part of the trip on some journeys.
You can also plan a trip using the site https://www.rome2rio.com
What to pack
It would be a bit dim of anyone to head to the Arctic Circle during winter and not take layers of warm clothing. For any dimwits who need some examples of clothing, we packed thermal underclothes, ski-socks and insulated walking boots. Hats, scarves and the kind of gloves you’d need on Pluto are all a must. And take a bloody big coat.
The resort where we stayed did supply thermally-insulated suits for any of the activities we booked with them.
Some of our group packed sunglasses in the event of glare off the ice, but in all honesty, the Arctic’s 3-hours of daylight means you probably won’t see much sun anyway.
Lip protection, soothing lozenges for sore throats and plenty of tissues for drippy noses are also a good idea.
Extra batteries for your electricals are handy (the sub-zero temperatures can cause electronics to freeze, fail or run low on power).
Hand warmers are another smart thing to add to the list.
Options for where to stay include hostels, hotels, cabins and even tipis, with the Ice Hotel at Jukkasjärvi being one of the most expensive but memorable choices.
Rooms at the Ice Hotel range from 130-470GBP per night. Hotels, hostels and cabins such as Camp Ripan cost around 160GBP per night.
For a great selection of places to stay, head to https://www.kirunalapland.se/en/accommodation/
We stayed at Camp Ripan, which provides cabins or igloos (climate change permitting), as well as polar tours and excursions (see below)
Tours and activities
You can book snowmobile safari and huskie sleigh safari through the resort Camp Alta:
At Camp Ripan also offered tours with the local Sami people and a chance to see traditional reindeer herding, as well as dog sled and snowmobile tours of their own.
The Ice Hotel also has events and activities which can be booked through their website.
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