Being a seasoned skier, I usually head for the French or Swiss alps in winter. Iconic peaks, world-class pistes and a lively apres-ski atmosphere keep me coming back.
But eager to try something different, I pack my salopettes and head to Scandinavia.
Though famous for flat-pack furniture, blonde 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 fly into Sweden’s Ostersund airport from London Heathrow via Stockholm to spend three nights in Are (pronounced or-a). Are is in Jamtland, Sweden’s second-largest province, and 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. 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 check into the large ski-in, ski-out Tott Hotell at the bottom of the Tottliften lift, which services 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 make the place feel distinctly Scandinavian.
If my days are to be spent hurtling down mountains, my evenings will be enjoyed in the lounge bar, hot tubs, sauna and spa. My spacious, en suite room featured basic cooking facilities, minibar and a view of the lake.
Keen to hit the slopes, I kit myself out at the on-site Skistarshop before meeting my Skistar instructor. The most noticeable difference skiing here compared with France or Switzerland is the terrain. Similar to the Scottish Cairngorms, the black, tree-covered, Neolithic-looking mounds are a sharp contrast with the jagged peaks that reach as far as the eye can see in the southern European Alps. The slopes are also much quieter and lift queues nonexistent.
The pistes certainly exceed my expectations, but will the food and drink be equally as impressive? Veering off the piste at lunchtime, I dine 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 return to the pistes until sundown.
That evening, keen to try traditional Swedish food, I dine at former farmstead Hotell Karolinen at Taljstenskrogen. Karolinen offers hotel pick-up by snowmobile or dog sled, but I make the short journey along the lake by car.
Inside the cosy, rustic chalet, we are served a dish similar to fondue. As elk and beef steaks sizzle on hot stones, I sip wine and chat to new-found friends. Afterwards, we all take 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 is magical and natural wonders provide ample entertainment. I am lucky enough to witness the aurora borealis (northern lights), which appear as a strange beam of light stemming from the horizon into the dusky sky.
I also take time to explore the Tannforsen woods, which is home to the largest lake waterfall in Sweden. After a treacherous downhill trek – made dangerous by wearing the wrong footwear – I reach the base. At only 38 metres high, it’s certainly not Niagara Falls, but the sight is no less dramatic. Frozen in action, the once-gushing water looks 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, which is 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 and split into 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 70km/h, zooming along the wire is a real adrenalin rush. But the real highlight of my trip is dog-sledding.
When we arrive at Are Sleddog Adventures, Alaskan husky dogs are being harnessed to sleds. Howling and baring their teeth, the impatient pooches make me nervous. With one driver at the back and nine dogs a sled, we sit in pairs on warming reindeer skins. Suddenly, the hounds speed off without warning.
The initial surge is frightening, as we bump up and down through the forest. We cling on as we round tight bends and marvel at the view as we cross glistening plains. I decline the offer of driving because it sounded too hard; the dogs don’t respond to voice commands, only the pull on the break.
Afterwards, the dogs take a well-deserved breather while we drink hot chocolate. Some of us dry our boots by the fire in a traditional hut.
Much more than a ski trip, my visit to Are is a real winter adventure. Even the apres-ski here has a unique Swedish twist, as I discover 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. So I do manage to get my ABBA fix after all!
Have you ever been to Sweden? Let us know your trip highlights in the comments below!