Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Northern Lights in Swedish Lapland. Multi Aurora Weekend with Explore the North, Sweden. February 2014.

The only objective today was to drop off the car at Kiruna Airport at13.00. This was also the time and location that had been arranged to meet a representative from a company called Explore the North.
'Sn Ice' sculptures in Kiruna 2014
When researching this trip I had seen good reviews of a place called Pine Tree Lodge in Kangos, a small village 150Km North of the Artic Circle in Sweden. The owners of the lodge run a company Called Explore The North. They offer many packages but Dog Sledding is their major attraction.  The packages range from a half day with the Huskys to a full 7 days in Lapland, driving your team of Dogs through forests and wilderness. The accommodation on the long tours is in timber cabins and a great deal of guest participation is required. Having read all the information on the web page I opted for the 'Multi Aurora Weekend'.
We were met at Kiruna Airport, there were also pick ups at the station in Kiruna, a hotel in Kiruna and at The Ice hotel. we then drove to Kangos, it took about 1 hur 45 mins.
Explore The North Adventures in Lapland.
The arrival at Pine Tree Lodge was warm and welcoming, a large log fire dominated the lounge / bar/ dining area and warmed the whole lodge. Snacks were served and we were issued with our clothing. Artic boots, trousers, artic style parker anorak, mittens, hat and balaclava.
 Dinner was served in the dining room, it was a salad starter, a main course of lasagne and a Lingonberry dessert. Tea and coffee were freely available all day. One unusual thing is that the water in this area is Orange due to the high Iron content of the water and had an Iron taste. this means that all the sheets, cups and porcelains have an orange tinge to them.
The bed room was warm and clean with an en-suite bathroom and the beds were comfy. I would recommend a stay at this Lodge.
Pine Tree Lodge, Kangos, Sweden.
The next day, the guests at the lodge were split into two groups. Our group of 10 go to go on the Snowmobile today. At 10.00 we boarded our Snowmobiles and headed out into the woods.  
Crash helmets on for Snowmobiling
We stopped for lunch, where our guide made a fire and warmed some delicious soup up for us. We sat on frozen Reindeer skins to enjoy the break, then swapped driving position on the snowmobile and continued to enjoy the majestic Swedish countryside.
It was a full day out as we got back to the lodge at about 15.30. by that time I was starting to get cold so enjoyed the sauna in the lodge to warm up.
The next day was the Husky's, I was really looking forward to this as Explore the North was the only company I could find where you 'mushed' the Husky's yourself.
Again it was 2 adults to each Husky team. we made our way to the kennels in the grounds of the lodge to be greeted by 5 teams of Huskys. the noise was immense as the dogs were exited to get going. After a quick lesson from the guide we were off.
View of Husky Team from the passenger seat in the sleigh.

I loved mushing the dogs, they were outstanding in there performance. Again it was a full day in the wilderness, however as you had to move with the dogs and help to push the sleigh up hill, unlike the snowmobiles I was not cold. On returning to the lodge I did enjoy the sauna though!

The Sitting / Dining / Bar area at Pine Tree Lodge.
It was our last evening and we had yet another delicious meal and was enjoying a drink by the fire, when one of the girls who worked at the bar advised us to go outside as the Northern lights were out. And YES!!!! they really were. It was a fantastic display and it went on for hours
So it was the perfect end to a perfect 3 night stay with the Team at Pine Tree Lodge. Kangos. Sweden. Thank you Explore the North, it was great! 

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The Northern Lights in Swedish Lapland. The Ice Hotel and Abisko. The Aurora Sky Station.

Today we drove from Kiruna to Jukkasjarvi, the Home of the World Famous Ice Hotel. There were visitors here from all parts of the globe.
The drive from Kiruna took about 15 mins and The Ice Hotel was easy to find. The Ice Hotel does tours for day visitors at 11.00, 12.00, 14.00 and 16.00. We did the midday one that was in English.
The entrance to The ICEHOTEL, Jukkasjarvi, Sweden.
The Icehotel is located on the banks of the River Torne, it is open all year. In the summer when the Icehotel melts the accommodation is in the 'warm rooms' or chalets that are on the same plot of land as the Icehotel.
A new Hotel is created each winter from the ice cut from the River Torne, so it is never the same, in fact each year a new hotel is created. This year the Icehotel has 64 rooms.
This year, 2013/14, there are 7 Snow rooms, they are plain rooms with a block of ice for a bed.
28 Ice rooms, these have furnishings made from ice and decorated walls.
10 Northern lights suites, the same as the Ice rooms but with lights mimicking the Aurora.
17 Art Suites, each one of these is an individual, beautifully carved room with imaginative lighting and incredible ice sculptures, furniture and a large ice bed setting a unique theme for each  room. And 2 deluxe suites ( you don't get to see these on the tour), they includes a private en-suite relaxation area with sauna, toilet and wash basin, as well as the use of a real Mini!
I liked the Art Suits best, but the temperature in the Icehotel was below-5 and it felt cold, I was glad I did not sleep in the hotel but just had a look around.

The Grand Hall, 'Secret garden', at  The ICEHOTEL, Jukkasjarvi, Sweden
Art Suite number 322, 'Mind the gap', The ICEHOTEL, Jukkasjarvi, Sweden

The bed in Art Suite number 322, 'Mind the gap', The ICEHOTEL, Jukkasjarvi, Sweden

Art suite number 321, 'Frozy flower',  The ICEHOTEL, Jukkasjarvi, Sweden

Art Suite number 320, 'Before the big bang', The ICEHOTEL, Jukkasjarvi, Sweden

Art Suite number 315, 'face in the crowd', The ICEHOTEL, Jukkasjarvi, Sweden

The Grand Hall, The ICEHOTEL, Jukkasjarvi, Sweden

The Grand Hall, The ICEHOTEL, Jukkasjarvi, Sweden

Art Suite number 346, 'UP There', The ICEHOTEL, Jukkasjarvi, Sweden

The warm rooms, The ICEHOTEL, Jukkasjarvi, Sweden

The long walk from the Hotel to the toilets!!!!, The ICEHOTEL, Jukkasjarvi, Sweden
This year the hotel is open from 6th Dec2013 to 22 April 2014, If you do stay the night in the hotel, very well done, a dink in the bar was just about my limit.
From the Icehotel we drove to Abisko. Abisko is about 90 KM from Kiruna, it is an easy drive on good roads......look out for Reindeers!
Reindeer crossing, Kiruna,  Sweden
Abisko National Park is billed as one of Europe's last wilderness, and it is very scenic. You can do this as a day visit from Kiruna as it is only 93KM, but we choose to stay 2 nights at the STF Turistation and this turned out to be a good choice.
I had booked direct through the web site and  we were allocated a double room in the main building with shower/ wc. The room was large with 2 windows giving a spectacular view over the lake, it was warm, clean and comfortable. We ate in the restaurant for the 2 nights we were there, both nights the 3 course meal was of a very high standard and delicious.

The wood fired sauna on the lake at Abisko.

Grounds of STF Mountain station, Abisko.

Hire car, Skoda.

Road from Abisko to Norway.

Abisko has a high per cent of clear nights and is therefore a good place to see the Northern Lights. A ski lift has been converted into the 'Aurora Sky Station', the combination of low light pollution and Abiskos location are said to give you the best possible conditions to witness the Aurora.
To get to the sky station you have to take the open chair lift. The ride is about 20 mins, depending on how many people get on and off, as it has to stop for them. You wear your normal ski wear, then are given Aurora Watcher overalls and boots to put on. The overalls are thick, like astronaut suites but do keep you warm.
Abisko Sky Station Overalls

layered up in Aurora Watcher Overalls at Abisko Sky Station, Sweden. 
The cable car ride to the top was slow, and it was busy on the top of the mountain, many people had tripods and were getting good photos of the lights. The Northern Lights were out for the whole time we were at the top of the mountain and the next night we saw them from the lake at the hotel.
Abisko. Sweden.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Northern Lights in Swedish Lapland, A Self Drive Tour. January / February 2014.

I have wanted to go to see the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis for a very long time, and as the forecast for seeing the lights was good for 2014 It was time to do some research. 
Northern Lights activity is governed by a solar cycle that lasts 11 years. The current period of activity did peak in 2011/12, with outstanding aurora sightings reported. However, 2014 is having a second peak and strong activity has been forecast by NASA for this winter and into the winter of 2014/15.
So…no time like the present. It was time to plan a trip to the Arctic Circle.
I did contact three travel agents specialising in these tours, two did not get back to me, one company did get back to me after 10 days....by then I had booked it all myself.
Question Number One, When to go?  
Question number two, Where to go?
The Aurora season in the northern polar latitudes; that’s Alaska, Northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Siberia. Runs from August to April, however you can only see them when its dark. According to the statistics the best months are, September and March. But the winter months of October to February are also known for good sightings. It is also better to see the Aurora when there is NOT a full moon.
So putting all that together and looking at time restraints, this was to be a short break so I didn’t want to contend with Jet lag. So Canada and Alaska were out. I wasn’t convinced about Iceland. So I was focusing in on Arctic Lapland. Lapland lies largely north of the Arctic Circle. It comprises of Noway, Sweden and Finland.
I looked up the cruises, but as much as I am tempted by cruising, I get Sooooooo sea sick, and I just don’t fancy the cruise thing. However there were some really good deals on cruises to see the Northern Lights and this would have been a really cost effective way to see this part of the world. 

Blue1 flight SK 2548 Manchester to Stockholm, a Boeing 717...only one aisle, I am used to Emirates all wide bodied!
We arrived at Stockholm's Arlanda airport at 13:30, not 13:45 as scheduled and it was good that we were early as it was a quick transfer from Terminal 5 to Terminal 4 to get SK 1044 at 14.55 to Kiruna. this was a Boeing 737-700.
Landing at Kiruna was an experience.  It was a winter wonderland and the aircraft taxied onto the snow covered area where the crew opened the front and back doors to allow the passengers to disembark quickly using the steps, onto the snow covered tarmac and into the warm arrivals hall.
The customs check was fast and efficient but It took ages for the bags to come.
Eventually we made it through to the Eurocar counter and were issued with a brand new Skoda Yeti 4x4.
Out side Kiruna Airport, Swedish Lapland.

The car was parked in the snow covered outside parking lot, but despite this the car was very warm and we did not have to defrost or de-ice the windows despite the -22 temperatures. This was thanks to an ingenious car heater system. At all the parking spots they had an electrical plug, you plugged the car in and this keeps the engine heated and operates a small fan heater in the passenger foot well of the car, this kept the car warm and frost free. I loved this system and wish we had it in the UK.
I forgot to take a photo, but the car heater works like this (taken from the defa.com web site)
I had booked a night at Mattarahkka Northern Lights Lodge as I knew it would be dark when we arrived and was unsure about the condition of the roads. As it turned out I did not need to do this, we could have easily got to Abisko (our next stop) as the roads were good and the car had snow tyres.
I was in two minds about self driving in Swedish Lapland, mainly due to the name 'Lapland'...it really conjures up images of sleighs rather than cars on roads! Also I couldn't find may tourists who had done it. However thanks to the wonders of the Internet, when researching 'Kiruna', it became apparent that Kiruna was a mining town. It has the worlds largest underground Iron Ore mine, so I figured that the roads must be good with a mine in town, I was correct. there are good Road, Rail and Air links to the busy City of Kiruna.
We drove to the Mattarahkka Northern Lights Lodge and I have put my review on Tripadvisor.
Very small Ikea decorated room at Mattarahkka Northern Lights Lodge
I have never struggled to write a review as much as I struggled to write one about this Hotel. This is due to the fact that I have very mixed feelings about my experience at this hotel, and I think it has a lot to do with the price that is charged for a night at this hotel, I booked through Booking.com and paid £ 230.00 for one night. 
We arrived at Mattarahkka Northern Lights Lodge at around 18.00. It was difficult to find the reception desk as there wasn't one, but the lounge / dining area was welcoming with a large log fire and a few guests dining in the dining area. When I asked about the timings for dinner it transpired that I had failed to read the small print on the booking that states ‘Dinner must be booked at least 1 day in advance’. The host politely gave me directions as to how to locate the restaurants in Kiruna. We were hungry so drove out again and got a meal from the Artic Thai Grill. ? Eating Thai food in Sweden, who'd have thought! Anyway it was good and the service was swift. its the first time I have had Swedish crispbread with Thai Green Curry.  
When we got back to the lodge, another hotel guest was eating a takeaway from the same Thai place. The Four people who had eaten at the Lodge and were sat next to the roaring log fire, actually they were 'hogging' the fire, it transpired that they were not hotel guests, they were using the Hotel as a restaurant. This was my issue with this establishment, external visitors were getting priority over Hotel guests. I asked about the Hot Tub and was told that the hot tub also had to be booked 24 hours in advance, and it was an additional charge. The charge was over £120.00.  But anyway I couldn’t use it tonight as a ‘private party’ from outside the hotel was using it. I asked the location of the Sauna, to be informed that that was also being used by the private party tonight, so once again it was not available to me. this was becoming a theme!
The room I was given; and all the rooms are the same,  was very small, with a seating area on the mezzanine floor. The room was very clean and warm. You were also given slippers, that was a nice touch.
The TV area in the room at  Mattarahkka Northern Lights Lodge

The Hot Tub at  Mattarahkka Northern Lights Lodge

Winter Wonderland

The Sauna at  Mattarahkka Northern Lights Lodge

Wet Room at  Mattarahkka Northern Lights Lodge

 Mattarahkka Northern Lights Lodge Slippers, very nice.

 Mattarahkka Northern Lights Lodge

In the morning the continental breakfast that was served was very well presented and tasty.
The staff at the Lodge were very polite and pleasant. But I don't think they understand that it is not a Hostel, its charging a lot of money to stay there and that the Guests should come first, not external visitors to the hotel. I just really feel that this hotel is not value for money and if you are only staying for one night would recommend staying in a cheaper hotel in Kiruna itself.
Any way for us, at 11.00 we were on the road and on the way to see the Ice Hotel............................