18 January 2010
Sue McAlinden, Product Manager for Europe at Wexas, recently returned from a trip to experience the exciting activities on offer in Swedish Lapland.
I can’t imagine that the question ‘Have you ever wondered what 332 tonnes of Arctic vessel crashing through a frozen sea would sound like?’ (as Visit Sweden ask in their recent campaign) has kept many of you awake at night and that is hardly surprising.
Although the recent cold snap here in the UK has meant that at times we were competing with the Arctic for the lowest temperatures we are yet to see the seas between UK and France freeze over. However, that is precisely what happens every year in the Gulf of Bothnia - a stretch of water separating Sweden and Finland - and this year has been the toughest yet with the local government having to call in boats from around the region in an effort to release trapped vessels and keep the channels open.
I boarded the Pite Havsbad with some scepticism, wondering whether this would really keep me enthralled for the next four hours. As a working boat it is not ‘pretty’ and the Captain’s welcome speech was a mixture of practicalities and eagerness to get on with the job in hand, proud that he had been called in to rescue a much larger vessel stuck in the ice mountains that had formed as a result of a recent storm.
"Just don’t lean over too far, the deck is slippery..." He didn’t need to finish the sentence; the mini icebergs bobbing in the glinting black sea illustrated how cold it was.
And so we set off. The boat does not, as I thought, slice through the ice, instead the rounded hull of the Pite Havesbad crushes and then nudges the ice away, lacerating the pristine white frozen sea. It was mesmerising watching the ice - up to two metres thick - rise up, before slumping back in protest.
Halfway through we disembarked to walk on the frozen surface and then donned survival suits to slip into the black abyss the Baltic Sea, opened up by the boat.
And so as the cracked and groaned, the hours flew by. Halfway through we disembarked to walk on the frozen surface and then donned survival suits to slip into the black abyss of the Baltic Sea, opened up by the boat. I was pleased that we had a rope attached to us - just in case - and made sure that my minder held on to it tightly. Others leapt from the side of the boat and one brave soul (he was Swedish) did a perfect swallow dive. The suits were amazing, keeping us warm and snug in an otherwise life-threatening situation.
Back on the boat a warming fish and vegetable soup, coffee and cake rounded off a surprisingly exhilarating day. The whole time the Captain was delightful. The bridge was open and free for anyone to wander in and talk to him - and hear tales of exciting adventures in this frozen sea interspersed with the hundreds of icebound islands.
So what does the sound of 332 tonnes of Arctic Vessel crashing through a frozen sea sound like? You’ll just have to go and find out for yourself!
When the Gulf of Bothnia freezes over each winter it opens up whole new opportunities for winter playground activities that are almost unrivalled. Driving on Ice is one of these adrenaline-fuelled enterprises that have sprung up as a result. And, with a little trepidation I set off to discover what it was all about.
It had been snowing so heavily when I arrived that the lines between the edge of the racetrack and waist deep snow had become somewhat blurred, but it later proved an effective soft barrier to slide into when anyone got a little over confident. I was just pleased that we were driving battered old Volvo’s so any dents I made didn’t matter.
Settled into the car, I had a real Top Gear moment, accelerator to the floor, plenty of wheel spin and off I went.
A little instruction on exactly how fast we could go and at what point we should slow down for the corners would have been appreciated (apparently that does normally happen), but I still managed to whoop my way round in one piece. The competitive spirit kicked in as my companions and I tried to discover who could reach the highest speed along the back straight - only a few had to be pulled from the drifts.
This is an activity NOT just for boys - I was delighted so see that the local paper went on to feature an article, accompanied by photos and quotes from us girls, about the activity.
We heard the engine first; saw a plume of snow rising in the distance, then, with the flourish of a skier crossing the finishing line, out of the darkness appeared a Corvette.
This track, we soon found out, was also used by those that knew what they were doing. We heard the engine first; saw a plume of snow rising in the distance, then, with the flourish of a skier crossing the finishing line, out of the darkness appeared a Corvette. We were invited to see how the locals perform - from the passenger seat...
Where we had skidded and slid around at 40km/h, Max Throttle, as we called him, hit speeds of 100km/h, controlling the steering wheel with one hand and the protesting gears with the other. His previous car lasted a mere 18 months and it’s not surprising. Although we were only passengers, the lure of a day driving his set of Porches was tempting - even at the price (around EUR 13,500 whether it’s one of you or 20).
It was with equal panache that he then sped off into the black night in much the same manner as he arrived, just leaving a few envious guys and heartbroken girls in his wake.
Terhi Sivonen: The frozen lake is covered in tracks snaking around the shores. There is hardly a better place to test your manoeuvring skills than on its tight icy curves.
Pippa McCarthy: I would thoroughly recommend a test drive to anyone looking for an exhilarating activity. This is one that left me with a smile on my face well after the test drive was over.
The location was magical - a ‘camp’ just 35 minutes from Lulea on the edge of a lake. Candles led you along a path carved out of the snow to a traditional lavvu tent constructed on the frozen sea. Dressed in warm clothing and boots, we were soon toasty warm - grateful for the warm glug and roaring fire inside.
Candles led you along a path carved out of the snow
to a traditional lavvu tent constructed on the frozen sea.
We took to our tables; lit by candelabra and the benches with reindeer skins thrown over. The food arrived hot and steaming, but it was advised to eat as soon as possible as, unsurprisingly it would get cold quickly. Accompanied by copious amounts of well-chilled wine - it was minus 10 outside - it was a treat.
You should be aware however that it is not a ‘romantic’ experience as such. We were on tables of eight, which encouraged everyone to mix and actually added to the fun of the evening. Those that needed the ‘facilities’ were directed to a sledge pulled along at speed by a snowmobile - many feigned their need just to have a go, and if they didn’t need to go before, they soon did after!
The Northern Lights eluded us on this evening (if only they could show on demand), but that did nothing to dampen this fun event.
Much has been written about this hotel recently, I haven’t opened a Sunday travel supplement in the last few weeks without seeing it mentioned, but you can see why it is set to remain on the hot lists for many years to come.
Just one hour’s driving from Lulea transports you into a forest where, suspended in the trees, is everyone’s childhood tree-house fantasies come to life.
Just one hour’s driving from Lulea transports you into a forest where, suspended in the trees, is everyone’s childhood tree-house fantasies come to life. There are just five cabins at the moment, though the plan is to increase these to more than 20, and each is unique. The images you see are not digitally altered, and it’s not clever photography, what you see is what you get. And you can see why it has caused such a sensation and continues to attract journalists from around the world six months after it opened, still reporting on every aspect from the design and technology to it’s eco credentials.
I do have to say that it will not be for everyone. Access to some could be challenging, if you aren’t a fan of climbing ladders, then the blue cone is your only option. In practical terms you’ve only got room (and the ability) to take an overnight bag up with you, so storage for larger cases is at the main building. Each room has an eco WC and sink, but there is no TV or radio. The idea being that you are there to be at one with nature and absorb it. Even so, each cabin does have Wi-Fi. Meals and showers are taken in the family’s former residence, a traditional farmhouse - a million miles away from the high design of the cabins.
In exchange for these small hardships, you do get to take part in a unique experience and it will be something that you will talk about for a long, long time. I’ve already lost count of the amount of times I’ve dragged out my camera to show people the place.
Terhi Sivonen: If you fancy a sauna, you can warm up in the Tree Sauna, overlooking the river valley and stunning scenery - a must-do for anyone wanting to experience something new.
Pippa McCarthy: I loved the Mirror Cube, which is a masterpiece of architecture, literally a huge cubed mirror suspended high in the trees and reached only by a rope bridge. Inside it is warm and comfortable and the views over the forest are breathtaking.
Along with the icebreaker experience this was one of my favourite activities. I do appreciate that snowmobiling is not unique to the area, but incorporating a visit to the pack-ice mountains created as a result of stormy sea’s freezing is a rare treat and provides a focus to the day, other snowmobiling adventures may lack.
The memory of sitting in our snow pit looking up and
across this silent frozen landscape will stay forever.
It was only 3pm (in mid-January) when we set out, but our trip took place in total darkness with just the headlights of the snowmobiles to lead the way. The flat terrain and heavy snowfall meant that we were able to really put our foot down. I kept thinking we were riding a sea of snow on jetskis.
We were two to a snowmobile, but had ample opportunity to swap between being driver or passenger. We stopped at the edge of the frozen se, for hot chocolate and cakes beside a roaring fire. The memory of sitting in our snow pit looking up and across this silent frozen landscape will stay forever.
Audible long before they became visible, our pack of hounds was eager to be on its way. We were split into groups of four and, as we approached our sled, I hung back letting someone else nab the front seat. While its often best to be in the front row, being in the direct line of fire from the bottoms of 16 huskies isn’t one of those times...
The sudden silence when the howling dogs
start their run is truly astonishing.
The sudden silence when the howling dogs start their run is truly astonishing. We went from shouting in each other’s ears to speeding along holding a normal conversation with little difficulty, and you transcend into an eerie sense of calm.
Like snowmobiling this is a must-do activity wherever you go in Lapland and any short session with these resilient creatures will have you considering the thrill of a longer trip or even learning to take charge of your own team.
Pippa McCarthy: We were huddled together on the wooden sledge behind the husky dogs yelping and barking loudly in the silent air. When the signal was given to depart, we zipped off at top speed, carried along by the huskies for an thrilling ride across frozen lakes and past pristine conifer forests. Apart from the dogs panting as they pulled us along, the only sound was the sledge gliding along the ice.
Terhi Sivonen: It was fascinating to learn about husky breeding and the life at the husky farm.