Savour Sweden for skiing
Being a seasoned skier, I normally head for the French or Swiss Alps in winter. Iconic peaks, world-class pistes and a lively apres ski atmosphere keep me coming back year after year.
But eager to try something different, I agreed to pack my salopettes and head to Scandinavia.
Though famous for flat-pack furniture, blonde-haired beauties, ABBA and Stieg Larsson crime novels, Sweden is not so well known as a ski destination.
There are, however, 13 major ski resorts in the northern region often referred to as the Swedish Alps, mostly clustered around its central-western border with Norway.
I flew into Sweden’s Ostersund airport from London Heathrow via Stockholm to spend three nights in Are (pronounced or-a).
Located in Jamtland, Sweden’s second largest province, Are is Scandinavia’s main mountain city.
The ski area stretches across six main resorts from Duved in the west to Are Bjornen in the east, and the Alpine World Championships were held here in 2007.
A cluster of colourful wooden buildings make the area look like a large village, while the vast lake Aresjon and the smooth-topped Areskutan mountain provide a scenic backdrop.
I checked into the large ski-in ski-out Tott Hotell, located at the bottom of the Tottliften lift, servicing several red and blue runs.
Clean lines, glossy surfaces and bright colours characterise the hotel lobby, while other communal areas are more traditional in style.
Vintage skis, beaten-up leather sofas and reindeer-skin throws made the place feel distinctly Scandinavian.
If my days were to be spent hurtling down mountains, my evenings would be enjoyed in the lounge bar, hot tubs, sauna and spa.
My spacious, en-suite room featured basic cooking facilities, mini bar and a view of the lake.
Keen to hit the slopes, I got kitted out at the on-site Skistarshop before meeting my Skistar instructor.
The most noticeable difference skiing here compared to France or Switzerland is the terrain.
Similar to the Scottish Cairngorms, the black, tree-covered, Neolithic-looking mounds are a sharp contrast to the jagged peaks which reach as far as the eye can see in the southern European Alps. The slopes are also much quieter and lift queues were nonexistent.
The pistes had certainly exceeded my expectations, but would the food and drink be equally as impressive?
Veering off the piste at lunchtime, I dined at Buustamons restaurant, halfway up Areskutan, followed by an aquavit tasting session in the cellar at the adjoining Buustamons Distillery.
The boutique production house is one of the smallest legal distilleries in Sweden. Gently warmed by the locally sourced, herb-seasoned spirits, I returned to the pistes until sundown.
That evening, keen to try some traditional Swedish food, I dined at former farmstead Hotell Karolinen at Taljstenskrogen. Karolinen offers a pick-up from your hotel by snowmobile or dog sled, but I made the short journey along the lake by car.
Inside the cosy, rustic chalet, we were served a dish similar to fondue.
As elk and beef steaks sizzled on hot stones, I sipped wine and chatted to new-found friends. Afterwards, we all took an after-supper soak in a wood-fired hot tub.
What really sets Are apart from other ski destinations is the variety of non-ski activities on offer.
The scenery here is magical and natural wonders provide ample entertainment.
I was lucky enough to witness the aurora borealis (northern lights), which appeared as a strange beam of light stemming from the horizon into the dusky sky.
I also took time to explore the Tannforsen woods, home to the largest lake waterfall in Sweden.
After a treacherous downhill trek - made dangerous by wearing the wrong footwear - I reached the base.
At only 38m high, it’s certainly not Niagara Falls, but the sight was no less dramatic. Frozen in action, the once gushing water looked like drops of hardened candle wax.
Every year a huge igloo is built next to the waterfall, along with ice sculptures, a bar and bedrooms to overnight in.
There’s also a cave with more ice formations - worth a visit once you’ve donned a hard hat to protect from falling icicles.
Even more adventurous is Are’s zip-lining attraction, which at 900m in total, split in four sections, is the largest in Europe.
Suspended up to 60m above ground, the wires pass over treetops, streams and skiers below.
Reaching speeds up to 70kmph, zooming along the wire was a real adrenalin rush. But the real highlight of my trip was dog-sledding.
When we arrived at Are Sleddog Adventures, Alaskan husky dogs were being harnessed to sleds. Howling and baring their teeth, the impatient pooches were making me nervous.
With one driver at the back and nine dogs per sled, we sat in pairs on warming reindeer skins. Suddenly the hounds sped off without warning.
The initial surge was frightening, as we bumped up and down through the forest. We clung on as we rounded tight bends and marvelled at the view as we crossed glistening plains. I declined the offer of driving as it sounded too hard; the dogs don’t respond to voice commands, only the pull on the break.
Afterwards, the dogs took a well-deserved breather while we drank hot chocolate. Some of us dried our boots by the fire in a traditional hut.
Much more than a ski trip, my visit to Are had been a real winter adventure.
Even the apres ski here has a unique Swedish twist, as I discovered on my final night. At Wallmans supper club multi-talented waiters and waitresses dressed in day-glo ski-wear take to the stage to perform U2 covers, Elvis hits and ABBA-esque Europop numbers.
So I did manage to get my ABBA fix after all!
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Weather for Biggleswade
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 4 C to 9 C
Wind Speed: 29 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 6 C to 15 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: North