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 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 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' 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 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............................