Lapland: Walking and sledding in a winter wonderland

Photo of Ebony Swetman

The temperatures may be chilly, but a visit to this region of northern Europe is warmed by winter magic. 

We begin our winter adventure into Lapland in Sweden’s capital, Stockholm. The city effortlessly blends old and new — modern convenience with Scandinavian history rich with Viking folklore.

It’s 3C when we arrive and our first stop is Gamla Stan, Swedish for “The Old Town”. 

Across a bridge from the city centre, to the island of Stadsholen, in Stockholm’s Old Town the streets turn to cobblestones and narrow alleyways lead to hidden treasures. It’s here we stop at Sweden’s oldest Christmas market, operating since 1837.

 As soon as we arrive in the town square, the air is filled with the smell of smoked sausage, spices and mulled wine. Small red wooden market stalls are brimming with Swedish specialties and goods.

It’s the perfect start to our journey, and the next day we meet our tour group and guide. 

We’re travelling with Scanbalt Experience, experts in Lapland and adventure.

Our first overnight bus takes us into Finland, where we wake up in Korvalan Kestikievaari, a camp in Korvala, owned by the fourth generation of the Nasi family. Janna and Seppo greet us dressed in traditional Finnish warm clothes and have breakfast prepared for us — meats, cheese, salads and juice.

Here, 60km north of the Arctic Circle and Lapland’s capital of Rovaniemi, the sun no longer rises above the horizon. 

At 11am, the sky slowly begins to lighten. Everything is covered in thick snow, which glows and gives off just enough light. With not a single shadow in sight, it’s picture perfect.

We spend the day enjoying our winter wonderland, borrowing snow shoes, ice fishing, cross-country skiing and tobogganing down small hills in frozen forests. 

It’s -14C but we’re wrapped up tight in three layers of wool, snow pants and winter jackets.

Before we lose the light, we join Yaana for dog sledding. 

The family own a husky kennel and offer tourists the chance to drive their own sled team.

My partner and I are given a six-dog team and after a lesson in how to drive, we’re off. 

The huskies are surprisingly fast and in just a few minutes, we’re far from the rest of the camp, flying along a forest path. 

We drive for 5km and by the time we’re done, I’m exhausted.

We relax by playing with the huskies in the snow. They’re hot after their run and bury their faces in the snow or roll around to cover their fur. They’re gentle and sweet and love a good cuddle after their work.

By 4pm, it’s almost dark again. We meet for dinner, a traditional Swedish meal of meatballs in gravy, with mashed potatoes and lingonberry sauce.

Before bed, we spend an hour at the sauna — a cabin in the forest on the edge of a frozen lake. Our group spends a good 20 minutes in the steam, then we watch those brave enough to leave the cabin and take an Arctic swim in the lake.

We spend the night in log cabins, all built by Seppo.

He cut the trees and made each one by hand. 

They were upgraded in 1994 and 2006 so all have heating and running water.

In the morning, after a quick stop at Rovaniemi’s Arktikum Museum, where we are first introduced to Sami culture, the indigenous people of Northern Scandinavia, we make our way back into Sweden to stay in Kiruna, a fascinating mining town in the middle of a huge physical and social upheaval.

Kiruna’s inception and expansion is heavily linked to the biggest iron ore mine in the world, which sits on the outskirts of the city.

Continued mining means the ground under the city has become unstable, so the Government has decided to move part of the city centre more than 3km to the east.

Our guide, Sigrid, takes us on a walk through what used to be a busy historic suburb. Only lampposts remain as the buildings have either been knocked down or picked up and moved to New Kiruna.

It’s here, on our first night in the city, that we see the northern lights. 

It’s a clear night so we’re able to spot them while outside our accommodation.

It starts like a light green fog, stretching in a thin line across the sky. 

Then it brightens, gets bigger and begins to move, dancing and shimmering.

A glow of pink appears underneath it. 

Even Sigrid, who is no stranger to the lights, is excited.

It lasts a few minutes and vanishes. It’s what we all came this far to see.

The next morning we head to Jukkasjarvi to visit the famous Ice Hotel.

We’re booked on a tour of two hotels — the hotel made entirely of ice, reborn every winter, and Ice Hotel 365 which, as its name suggests, remains all year. 

The hotel’s rooms are all art galleries until 6pm, when guests take them over for the night. 

Most rooms have been designed by artists from around the world, each taking their own unique vision to the ice.

We visit each creation, kept at a constant -5C, and wonder how anyone could survive comfortably for a whole night.

Before we leave, we stop at Ice Hotel 365’s Ice Bar. Our bartender, Aiden, mixes us the drink of the week, a cocktail of ginger, lingonberry and lime, served in an ice glass.

That night, back in Kiruna, we join a combined tour of dog sledding and snowmobiling. 

We’re driven 10 minutes out of the city to the site of professional husky kennels and dog-sledding teams. After putting on extra jackets, pants, boots and gloves, we meet our 12-dog team and driver. 

He’s an Italian who toured Sweden seven years ago and fell in love with the country.

I’m seated at the front of the sled and as soon as a rope tying our sled to the fence is loosened, we’re off.

It’s night and we disappear into a dark open field, with nothing but a head torch to light the dogs’ way. Snow is blowing hard across the open tundra and all we can see is white.

It’s magnificent.

After thundering along for 20 minutes, we take a break to drink coffee and sit inside a large Sami tent with a fire before swapping to snowmobiles. I take the back seat for the first half, then take the wheel for our drive home. 

Our speed limit is 25km/h and it’s definitely fast enough.

We spend our second-last day driving to Norway, with a stop in Narvik to visit the local Sami people. A friendly Sami elder offers us reindeer stock to keep us warm and introduces us to some of the herd.

I’m given a handful of lichen to feed the more friendly of the group, an albino reindeer, who greedily eats from my hand.

We continue to the Scandinavian mountain range and spectacular views of forests, lakes, peaks and fjords are always in sight.

We make a quick stop to see a beautiful fjord before driving to our last destination, Abisko. We stay in log cabins, each with its own sauna.

We spend our last day exploring this small winter wonderland before an overnight drive back to Stockholm.

Lapland has all the winter magic you can imagine and although it was colder than I expected, the people and the experience always kept us warm.

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