If there is one place that stands out in my mind from the time that I spent in Sweden then it has to be Abisko, during a census taken in 2005 this tiny little town situated in the heart of the Abisko National Park was reported to have just 85 inhabitants.
The Park itself covers 77 Km² of north western Sweden, being 195 Km north of the Arctic circle means that during the summer hikers can experience the midnight sun and the seemingly endless sunsets which go on for hours. In the winter it is also one of the best places to see the northern lights – a natural phenomenon that occurs in the far north, caused by solar winds it results in ghostly, ethereal colours being seen in the sky which can range from a greenish glow to whipping, whirling ribbons of neon, scarlet and yellow that appear to dance off the horizon.
Although science may have explained away their origin, these visitations can still exert a powerful hold on our imaginations and a place of reverence across many cultures.
Access to Abisko is relatively easy with daily electric trains running from the capital Stockholm and the Norwegian city of Narvik (Norway is only 37 km away across the border). Abisko was also a historically significant trail, being at the northern tip of the Kungsleden – or King’s route, this 425 km highland trail connects several of the northern towns of Sweden and has been used for communication for hundreds of years. Today the Swedish Tourist Association (Svenska Turistföreningen, STF) maintains a chain of cabins along this high mountain route in which you can stay the night during a back-country skiing, snowscooter or dog-sledding expedition. These cabins range from smaller affairs in which each room has its own wood stove and you must cook your own food in the communal kitchens and melt snow for water – to grand affairs like the one at Abisko where there are modern hotel rooms a restraint, shops and a visitor centre. All of the STF places to stay are situated in areas of outstanding natural beauty, looking out across mountain ranges layered in snow, dramatic peaks descending into steep valleys or, like the one at Abisko across huge expanses of clear lakes which freeze in winter, covered in snow you can ski across them and the view from above looking down on one of these vast white expanses is spectacular.
If Norway is known the world over for its beautiful fjord scenery then Geirangerfjord has to be the jewel in its crown.
Norway’s unique topography has been both its curse and its blessing, retreating and advancing ice ages have scoured these fantastic mountains and canyons out of the landscape, producing peaks up to 2000m which plunge almost vertically down into the sea and can go below 1000m underwater. This has created a landscape with relatively little arable land and made it harder for early settlements to grow or communicate with each other – less than 70 years ago Norway was the poorest country in Europe, partly as a result of this. The reverse side to this coin is that this lends itself splendidly to hydroelectric power generation, meaning that electricity prices are extremely low – and of course the scenery is spectacular.
An off-shoot of the 15 km long Storfjord (Great Fjord). The small village of Geiranger is located at the end of the fjord where the Geirangelva river empties into it. Since 2005 this has been a UNESCO world heritage site and there are daily ferry trips to cross the waterway and sightseeing trips by boat. One of the most amazing features of the Geirangerfjord are the waterfalls and it is home to two spectacular examples; The Seven Sisters and the Suitor – both facing each other across the water.
This is a tiny cluster of islands in the high Arctic Ocean, the last stop before the North Pole, it is home to the most northerly town in the world – quite literally at the ends of the earth.
This island has more polar bears than people and although attacks are rare it is one of the few places on earth where it is illegal to go out without a gun. Blanketed by night for several months of the year, lashed by severe storms and covered in glaciers riven with crevices which can open up beneath your very feet to swallow you whole – to a casual visitor it would seem that this is one of the most inhospitable places on earth.
And while it is true that Svalbard contains its fair share of surprises it is also home to some of the most amazing and unusual places.
The Wijdefjorden is the longest in the world at over 100 km, this vast body of water slices straight into the north of the island straight as a dagger and from its southern tip offers one of the most incredible views on the planet, along its banks is a particularly good place to see polar bears and when I was there in 2010 we saw a mother and two cubs. Also here is one of the last seal-trappers cabins where the resident hunter still over winters collecting pelts and meat from foxes and seals to sell in the summer.
Further south can be seen the abandoned colony of the Pyramid Mines. A former soviet possession this once housed over 1,000 workers, boasting a swimming pool and a library containing 35,000 books. It was left in 1998 and has been rotting in the snow ever since then. This is a truly surreal place, it feels like a set from a sci-fi movie, with huge machinery left rusting in the snow and the brutal Stalinist architecture crumbling away while reindeer root for grass in front of a statues of Lenin and polar bears prowl between the empty apartment blocks.
The capital; Longyearbyen has its own airport and there are daily flights from Tromso in Norway, the town itself has a number of hotels to choose from and if you want to get away there are various cabins off in the wilderness that you can take dog-sled trips or snowscooter rides to, even a sailing ship frozen in the ice that visitors can spend a night sleeping on-board.
Situated in Øvre Dividal National Park not far from the city of Tromso (known as the Paris of the north) this is one of the highest and driest valleys in the country at over 750 ft above sea-level.
It holds the highest population of big predators in Norway. Every year hikers are lucky enough to see wolverine, bear, lynx and on rare occasions also wolves. In winter this is one of the ideal locations for training husky dogs for races in the spring and opportunities exist to spend time living up in the mountains and taking the dogs out on drives each day.
Huskies are among the best tempered of all breeds of dog and are enthusiastic companions for taking on sled journeys as they pull you across the high Arctic landscape. From a basecamp in the national park you can experience what it is like to train with these friendly animals and see what life is really like up in the far north. In the winter evenings it’s also possible to sit out with an open air fire and catch the northern lights amidst a blanket of some of the purest brightest stars you’ll ever see.
In 2008 I was privileged to stand at the junction of Norway, Sweden and Finland, the place where all of Scandinavia comes together. Known as the Treriksröset (I guess you have to be a Scando to be able to pronounce that one) it is marked by a great cairn, Sweden’s most northerly Point and Finland’s most westerly. A few kilometres to the south east is lake Kilpisjarvi and possibly the best view in all of Finland. Much of the rest of the country is flat but in this spit of land known as the Finnish wedge there are mountains a plenty and spectacular scenery to compete with the best that Norway & Sweden have to offer. The wide lake makes a beautiful expanse of frozen white in winter, as flat and clean as a sheet of paper. Once the ice is frozen hard enough you can go skiing on it and there are places where you can rent kites to try your hand at kite skiing for a few hours before relaxing in one of the cafes or hotels around the edge and enjoying the views. Easily accessible form Norway or Sweden then if you’re planning a Northern break this should be on your list of places to see.