Northern Lapland    

To begin with, Norrbotten accounts for almost a quarter of Sweden's surface – yet it is one of the most sparsely inhabited regions in Europe. The county is plunged in deep, dark winter for much of the year – but its short summers still enable crops to ripen in just a couple of months thanks to the long hours of daylight under the midnight sun.

With the other counties of northern Sweden, Norrbotten is undoubtedly a contender for the "last wilderness in Europe" title; but it is also a cultural landscape, inhabited by the indigenous people of Lapland for thousands of years. The mountainous areas of the county, the highest in Sweden, include no fewer than seven national parks and reindeer grazing lands for fifteen Sami villages. Sweden's northernmost county is as complex as it is spectacularly beautiful.

Add to this a rich cultural mix despite the small number of inhabitants (Sami, Finnish, Swedish and some intriguing combinations of ancestral tribes, customs and dialects), and you have an utterly captivating travel destination.

Naturally enough, Norrbotten is also a world-class recreational area, attracting thousands of visitors each year to its austere mountains, pine and birch forests, heaths and marsh areas, lakes and streams and rivers.

Lush meadows with their tall herbaceous plants and grasses can make one think of the tropics, whereas the barren mountains are more reminiscent of Greenland's Arctic tundra.

When you look for a dry hill on which to pitch your tent, you are following in the footsteps of generations: this might well be the place where Stone Age hunters (or at least 18th century reindeer herders) had their settlements. To the expert eye, the half-hidden hearthstones reveal those who have been here before.

Laponia is a World Heritage area covering 9400 sq km, a cultural landscape with traces of human activities which go back to the Ice Age. From time immemorial the Sami have lived in this area, first as hunters and fishers and later as reindeer herders and settlers. This region is also an important natural landscape with mountains, deltas, virgin forests and hundreds of glaciers and Western Europe's largest marshlands. It is also an area rich in animal and plant life, including several species on the verge of extinction.

Unesco's citation describes Laponia as "the largest area in the world (and one of the last) with an ancestral way of life based on the seasonal movement of livestock as every summer, the Sami lead their huge herds of reindeer towards the mountains... a practice that was widespread at one time and which dates back to an early stage in human economic and social development".

In the town of Kiruna, the Sami culture is a living presence – as is the surrounding countryside, which includes boglands filled with berries, six rivers and over 6000 lakes. Kiruna is also home to the world's largest underground mine and the well-known Esrange civil space station.

Change of pace
For a complete change of pace, the charming coastal town of Luleå features yet another World Heritage Site, a beautifully preserved Gammelstad Church Town, and a refreshing maritime environment.

But no visit to the county – or, in the view of many seasoned travellers, to Sweden – is complete without a stay at the astonishing "ICEHOTEL", the first and still arguably the best ice hotel in the world, now celebrating its 21st season.

Situated in the village of Jukkasjärvi, 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle and 17 kilometres from Kiruna, the entire complex is made completely out of ice blocks taken from the Torne river. The hotel has scores of rooms and suites, a bar (where even the glasses are made of ice), reception area and church. The hotel only exists between December and April; every room is unique and the architecture of the hotel varies each year, as it is rebuilt from scratch.

Visitors are encouraged to spend at least two nights: one, snug in their reindeer skins, in the ice hotel proper, and the other in high-quality conventional hotel accommodation, complete with central heating.

Sarek National Park

Photo: Peter Rosén/Norrlandia Photo: Anneli Jaako, Kiruna Lappland Turistbyrå Photo: ICEHOTEL
Aurora borealis, Abisko National Park Kiruna Lappland ICEHOTEL