As a cultural area, 'Lapland' traverses the northern parts of Fennoscandia,
incorporating parts of Finland, Sweden, Norway, and even Russia. As an
administrative name, 'Lapland' can also refer to distinct provincial areas in
both Sweden (Lappland) and Finland (Lappi). In terms of tourism, 'Lapland' is
usually referring to Finnish or Swedish Lapland. Owing to its
location above the Arctic Circle, this region is best known for its magical
winter landscapes and northern lights as well as outdoor activities
like dog-sledding, snowmobiling, ice fishing and reindeer sleigh rides.
Kiruna, located 145 kilometers (90 mi) north of the Arctic circle, is the
northernmost town in Sweden. Founded in 1900, it is a major center of iron
ore extraction and other mining operations. Today Kiruna is a popular travel
destination for nature lovers, especially in wintertime. The long and
certain snow cover, which generally lasts from October to May, and frozen lakes
and rivers facilitate cross-country and alpine skiing, dog
sledding and snowmobiling.
[Sweden Part I: Stockholm] [Sweden Part II: Kiruna]
Getting there ...
We had a morning flight from Stockholm to Kiruna. Within the 1.5-hour
flight (from 8:30AM to 10:05AM), it was interesting to witness the sunrise when
we took off in Stockholm and the sunset when we were about crossing the Arctic
circle. At this latitude (90 miles north of Arctic circle), there
are 22 days each year in late December and early January (12/11 to 1/1) that the
sun does not rise. When we landed at Kiruna Airport, we immediately felt
the winter wonderland as the white snow swept and covered the runway.
12/31 (Day 5) ...
After arrived in Kiruna city center by bus and put away our
luggage in the visitor center, we walked around the town to the Kiruna
Church, one of Sweden's largest wooden buildings and most popular pre-1950s
structures. Built in 1912, the exterior has a gothic revival style while the
altar inside depicts an art nouveau style.
When we looked up in the sky,
we noticed some colorful
"rainbow" clouds. It turned out to be a very rare phenomenon
iridescence" or "Polar
stratospheric cloud (PSC)". At least all the local guides we met
in the next few days all claimed it is much rarer than the northern light as
they have not seen these clouds so colorful before.
- Husky Dog-Sledding Tour
After a quick lunch, we were picked up for
our dog-sledding tour at about 1PM. Since the sun did not rise today,
it remained as twilight for
hours during our sledding tour. I booked a single rider for Iris,
and a 2-person sled for Woanyu and me. Iris was so excited to meet
these energetic dogs and learn how to control her dogs and sled. I
decide to let Woanyu drive all the way so I could sit in the sled as a
comfortable passenger taking pictures. An interesting episode:
when we stopped to take a break on the trail, two of the three dogs for
Iris' sled broke the rope to their harnesses and ran away! Our guides
had to pick some other dogs from other sleds to give Iris 2 dogs.
After a lot of effort and we were finally back on track, those two run-away
dogs came back to re-join us on the trail to run back to the base camp
- Aurora Camp & Igloo
We were driven to Aurora Camp located on the peninsula of the Torne River at
about 7PM. The tour started with a camp fire in an open snow cave with
hot lingonberry juice (it is quite popular in Sweden that we had lingonberry
juice on every tour every day!), and then a traditional Swedish dinner (with
a lot of meatballs -- I finally figured out why IKEA sells meatballs...) in
the warm dining hall. After dinner, we walked out to the open space to
wait for the northern lights (aka Aurora borealis). Unfortunately, the
solar activities were not very strong in these days that the
was only rated at Kp 1 (a number from 0 to 9). With a long 20-sec
exposure, I could record some
faint northern lights
in my camera. One bonus to watch the northern lights on the New Year
Eve: we got both
northern lights and
The main attraction was to sleep one night in an
igloo to experience some traditional arctic life. The igloo (quinzee)
is a traditional hand-built small dome structure. Regardless of the
temperature outside, the inside temperature usually varies between -5 and 0
degrees Celsius. There was reindeer fur on the ground inside igloo,
and sleeping bags to keep us warm. It all sounded interesting and
adventurous, but it turned out it was too tough for us: you had to
crawl to get into the igloo as its opening is a small hole; the interior
ceiling was very low that you could barely sit up; the ground was very hard
even there was reindeer fur as a cushion; we still felt cold and could not
sleep at all.... We eventually all escaped to the nearby warm dining
hall to spend the night (well, Iris claimed she did not feel too bad but she
did not want to stay in the igloo alone).
1/1 (Day 6) ...
- Aurora Camp
After a "tough" night (we actually only stayed in the
igloo probably less than 1.5 hours), it was finally breakfast time and we
could walk around the camp with some civil twilight after 8:30AM. It
was cloudy and started to snow, and it made us feel even more wintery.
- Snowshoes Tour
After back to Kiruna before 10AM (left at the camp at
~ 9:20AM), we were preparing for our next winter activity: Snowshoeing in
the woods (11AM to 3PM).
We have done snowshoeing several times in the
past, and it was one of few winter sports that we feel relatively
comfortable as it does not require much special skill. The guide drove
us to a trailhead, and helped us put on our snowshoes. The initial
part of the trail was steady uphill so we all felt warm (and hot) after a
while. After about 30 minutes of hiking, we stopped at a gentle slope
to take a break. The guide made a fire and prepared a simple but
delicious lunch and warm lingonberry juice (he had to carry all
the fire woods, pots, food, and mattress and other supplies, etc.).
After return from
the snowshoes tour, the guide dropped us off at the famous Icehotel in
The story of Icehotel starts in 1989 when it became
the world’s first and largest hotel made of ice and snow. Each year
the winter hotel is reincarnated in a new guise, carefully designed and
handcrafted by around 40 artists from all around the world, with brand new
art to experience every year. Since 2016 Icehotel has expanded
with a permanent structure (Icehotel 365) as a complement to the
winter hotel; which has made it possible for guests to enjoy the splendid
art of ice year-round. Each spring, around March, Icehotel harvests
tons of ice from the frozen Torne River and stores it in a nearby production
hall with room for over 900 t (990 short tons) of ice and 27,000 t (30,000
short tons) of snow for building a new icehotel in the next coming winter
We will stay at the Icehotel for 3 nights: 1 night in an
ice room (deluxe suite) and 2 nights in a regular room (Arctic Chalet).
After settled down in our suite at about 4PM, we had some time to explore
the ice artworks in the Art Suites and Icebar in Icehotel 365. It was
amazing with some magical feeling to see such beautiful ice sculptures and
artworks, all made of ice and snow!
- Suite 317
I booked a deluxe suite in the Icehotel 365. The suite is furnished
with an exclusive bed, covered with reindeer hides and on top of this you
sleep in a thermal sleeping bag. The sleeping room (i.e. cold room) holds a
temperature of -5 to -8 degrees Celsius. The good thing about a deluxe suite
is it has a heated relaxation area with designed en-suite bathroom (e.g.,
warm room). There were also wine glasses made of ice for the
free champagne in the room.
Although it was much more comfortable than
the igloo last night, Woanyu still decided to escape to the
warm bathroom at
about 11:30PM after trying to sleep for about 2 hours. Iris and I had
a good sleep as we shared one sleeping bag and felt quite cozy there.
1/2 (Day 7) ...
- Ice Sculpture (9AM -- 11:30AM)
Woanyu and Iris love doing artworks so
I booked this ice sculpting class to try a new art form. We were given
a piece of the pristine natural ice (from the Torne River). You can
see both Woanyu and Iris made nice ice sculptures (fish-in-a-bowl and
V-hand), while I gave up my "abstract" work after an hour of aimless effort.
Both Woanyu and Iris claimed this ice sculpting class was their favorite
- Snowmobile (1PM -- 4PM)
After lunch, we embarked another winter
outdoor activity: Snowmobile Adventure. We followed the guide to drive
snowmobiles across the frozen Torne River, hilly landscapes, and ice-covered
lakes. The hot lingonberry juice and traditional Sweden coffee were
served in a warm hut before we drove back to the Icehotel.
- Northern Lights Photography Tour (7PM -- 11 PM)
We had very little
hope to see northern lights as the solar activity prediction was very low
tonight. The guide drove toward south to avoid some clouds moving from
the north as predicted in the weather forecast, but he was struggling to
find a good place as some roads were blocked by snow. We finally
parked at a roadside and walked our way through the woods in deep snow to
reach an open space. As expected, no northern lights showed up at all.
However, Iris and I were practicing "light
painting" with the help from the guide. I think we still had a
good time to make the best use of our tour.
1/3 (Day 8) ...
I had left this morning open so we had more time to explore
the Icehotel. We went to the Icehotel Winter (where they re-build in
each winter) to see other art rooms, and the great hall and ceremony hall.
It was quite surreal to see such beautiful while translucent objects and
settings: they were all cold but you felt warmness in them. Life
and time were standing still like they will last forever...
- IceHotel Outdoors
The sun was supposed to rise for ~50 minutes today.
However, the hill in the south actually blocked the sun so it did not really
appear above the horizon. It remained as twilight for hours and the
soft light outdoors was perfect for my picture time.
- Reindeer Tour (2PM -- 5PM)
After the lunch break, we headed to our
last scheduled tour: Meet the Reindeer. For thousands of
years, the Sámi people have lived in harmony with nature and their reindeer,
constantly moving in search of food for the herd. After a short
transfer from Icehotel, we were taken by snowmobile sleds through dense
woods to nearby Nutti Sámi Siida, a reindeer yard and Sámi camp, to meet and
feed reindeer, and learn more about the Sámi lifestyle and the indigenous
people of the region. We also got the chance to
drive a reindeer sled
around a fenced 200-meter track, on a wooden sled pulled by a reindeer.
Although we were told to shout at the reindeer to keep it moving and to be
prepared for a wild ride, it turned out most of the time the reindeer was
jogging slowly even stopped on the track before completing the loop.
After meeting the reindeer, we then gathered around the fire in a
traditional Sámi tent where we were served lingonberry juice and coffee, and
got to taste the Sámi signature dish 'suovas': lightly smoked and
salted reindeer meat grilled and wrapped in flat bread with lots of
1/4 (Day 9) ...
- Kiruna Airport
It's time to say goodbye to the Icehotel. We
were on the bus to the airport at 9:15AM and enjoyed another good twilight
day while waiting at the airport gate.
- Jumbo Stay, ARN
We were back
to Arlanda Airport at ~ 2PM. After a simple lunch at the airport, we
headed to a special hotel for tonight: Jumbo Stay, a hotel from a
modified retired 747. I booked the cockpit suite which has the entire
upper deck section (cockpit and first class section) for us. After the
excitement of taking some exterior pictures, we were ready to go up to check
in, but we were stuck
in the elevator for an hour (it's a long story due to some
misinterpretation of instruction manual...). Anyway, we finally
got to our cockpit and fulfilled my dream to sleep there!
1/5 (Day 10) Going Home ...
We had an early morning flight to Munich and then back to San Francisco.
It's a long journey home, but we were all still feeling excited of the unique
experiences from this trip: from beautiful
Stockholm old town Gamla stan; the mighty 17th century warship Vasa; creative
arts in the Stockholm subway, to winter wonderland in Kiruna with hours of
twilight without sunrise; exciting winter activities such as dog sledding and
snowmobiling; meet and learn about reindeer and Sámi people; artistic and
majestic ice artworks beyond your imagination at Icehotel, etc. All these
life time experiences made our winter holidays a memory treasure that we will
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