Far away with the Northern Lights

A girl snow shoeing over frozen Baltic Sea in Lulea, Sweden with Northern Lights in the background
A girl snow shoeing over frozen Baltic Sea in Lulea, Sweden with Northern Lights in the background

Once home to reindeer herders, the Swedish town of Lulea is now the nerve centre of social network Facebook, making it one of the world’s most connected spots. Sarah Marshall finds much to ‘like’ in this winter wonderland

IT doesn’t take much persuasion for Lars Erikkson to burst into song. Lowering his chin, until it almost reaches the curled-up tips of his reindeer-skin boots, he bellows out a gruff melody with full gusto. The closest neighbours in the village of Flakaberg may be 17km away, but he’s making a good attempt to reach them.

Given that it wasn’t until the Sixties that Sweden’s indigenous Sami people were even allowed to speak their own language, let alone sing traditional songs, it’s not surprising he’s relishing the opportunity to share his culture.

I, his audience of one, am huddled next to a coal-burning heater, surrounded by an eclectic display of porcelain dolls, miniature tea sets, and garlands of dry flowers draped over a Welsh dresser.

“Sami people had loud voices before they had mobile phones,” he says from beneath a thick, wiry beard. “They could shout for five to six kilometres.”

Lars makes no attempt to hide the fact he dislikes technology and the inevitable change that comes with it.

“I used to make a living from 200 reindeer, but now I need a thousand,” he laments. “My herd would roam two mountains, but now they’re spread across three.”

Lars has been looking after reindeer for 50 years, working and living on a simple estate owned by his family since the mid-19th century. But to keep up with demanding times he’s had to abandon a traditional way of life and switch to using a snowmobile to round up his animals. “I preferred it the old way,” he frowns.

In reality, Swedish Lapland has been embracing innovation for some time.

Earlier this year, when Facebook set up a 27,000sqm server farm in the region’s largest town, Lulea, the irony was noted the world over: a relatively remote coastal destination, 60km south of the Arctic Circle, would become one of the world’s most important communication hubs.

Cool temperatures, which prevent computers from overheating, and a cheap hydroelectricity supply are now incentivising other software companies to move into the area.

Although there are currently no direct flights from the UK, Lulea has been touted as an up-and-coming destination for some time. And while Lars doesn’t have any plans to set up a Facebook page just yet, he too is happy to welcome tourists into his home.

The most obvious attraction in Lulea is the Unesco World Heritage Site of Gammelstad, where 400 wooden houses surround a 15th century stone church. But it’s the natural surroundings that really impress me when I first arrive.

The Baltic Sea, which normally laps the town harbour, has frozen, creating an icy parkland on which locals can ski, skate and enjoy a leisurely stroll. A wide snow road has been carved through the middle, carrying cars and trucks with loads of up to four tonnes.

Inspired by Lars, I prefer to take a more natural mode of transport: a dog sled.

Caisa Ohlsson keeps 60 Alaskan huskies at her Svedjekojan husky farm, just outside the town, near the village Tranutrask.

Harnessed to a sled, the dogs are barking wildly. Like eight loaded springs, they’re almost ready to explode. I make myself comfortable on a cushion of reindeer skin, while Caisa prepares to steer from the back.

Once they start to run, the dogs fall silent, their wailing replaced by a steady panting and the rhythmic sound of nimble paws digging furrows in the snow.

As we turn a corner, grinding over ice, the low-hanging winter sun dazzles like a torch light, beaming through the toothpick trunks of birch and fir trees, and making the snow shimmer as if laced with diamonds.

The dogs can run up to 90km in a day, but I suspect that unless someone stopped them they’d probably just keep going.

Back in a warm wooden teepee, where homemade lingonberry cake is served, Caisa says I should come back to try one of her moonlight dog rides. “With a bit of luck you might see the Northern Lights,” she says.

Fortune is obviously shining on me that night when I head out on a snowmobile ride to the Brandon peninsula. As I zoom across the frozen sea, the light show has already started.

Sarah Marshall was a guest of Taber Holidays (01274 875 199; www.taberhols.co.uk), which offers the four-night Lulea and the Treehotel package from £1,186pp (based on two sharing). Price includes flights, transfers, accommodation at the Elite Stadshotellet in Lulea and a night at the Treehotel, with breakfast. Daily departures from January 6 to April 7, 2014.

Optional activities include Northern Lights Snowshoe tour (from £153pp), hovercraft tour (from £237pp) and dog sledding (from £260pp).