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 nig