by Leslie Woit and travel writer, The Telegraph, February 6, 2018
Everyone is tall, blond and polite, and there’s biathlon on TV – I know I’ve landed in Sweden. Thanks to a direct flight from Gatwick to Åre Östersund, in under three hours I’m just beneath the Arctic Circle and heading for Åre, Sweden’s largest ski area.
A two-lane road weaves through snowy farmland and mist rises over the red wooden houses and white‑trimmed barns. Less than an hour’s drive later, I arrive in Åre in time for après at the hotel where I’m staying: the Hotel Fjällgården’s live band is hammering out rock anthems, handsome folk in bobble hats sing and sway, raising hot drinks topped with whipped cream and cold beers with frothy tops. It looks like someone’s idea of a romcom ski movie, with fur throws, reindeer horns, a crackling fire and candles everywhere.
Suddenly, a weird little word pops into my head. Hygge. Pronounced “hoo-guh”, it’s the cosy Scando-style aesthetic that’s all the rage – hygge was one of Oxford Dictionaries’ words of the year in 2016. A distant relation of the English hug, it’s Danish for “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” Turns out Åre is full of it.
“Most of us just want to relax at home,” says Helena Engelbrecht, Åre’s head of PR and press. “Here we talk about Fredagsmys, or Cosy Friday. It’s practically a holy night in Sweden.” But to properly enjoy being cosy inside, first you have to get outside.
Around 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Åre built a reputation for fresh-air tourism over a century ago. Its health-giving summer climate soon attracted snow-lovers to its winter wonderland. From dog sledders, cross‑country skiers and snowshoers to Northern Lights lookers and sauna soakers, this thriving small town at the foot of Mount Åreskutan appeals to all types. Boutiques selling chic homeware and clothing sit comfortably alongside flagship Peak Performance and Haglöfs shops.
A remarkably cosmopolitan restaurant scene buzzes with Instagram chic – bars, nightclubs and bistros reflect Åre’s status as the destination for the Stockholm and Oslo elite. Local gastro highlights include Fäviken, with two Michelin stars, where the multi-course meals cost around £220 (paid in advance) and are speckled with foraged moss, berries and smoked herring.
In the morning, northern Europe’s trendiest mountain village is quiet as we click into skis outside the Hotel Fjällgården. It’s perched mid-mountain, with a charming wooden cog-rail funicular built in 1910 for forays into town on foot.
Beginning a tour of Åre’s 100km of pistes across three interconnected ski areas, a brisk lashing of typical Scandinavian weather prevails – all the better to enjoy the après‑ski sauna later. An unusual warm front is coupled with not so unusual icy winds from the Atlantic. Either way you cut it, conditions make it impossible to reach the peak of Mount Åreskutan, a vertical kilometre above the village.
Instead we cruise uncrowded reds and the beginner terrain of Björnen, home to stylish Copper Hill Mountain Lodge (favoured by the Swedish royals) and large chalets owned by the likes of Manchester United footballer Zlatan Ibrahimović.
The longest slope is 6.5km and there’s a handful of black runs, including pistes that hosted the Alpine World Ski Championships in 1954 and 2007 – and will once more when the competition returns to Åre in 2019.
Day two is dedicated to what the Scandos are known for. Ski touring, walking up with skins and skiing down, was an original mode of transport in these parts. The world’s oldest preserved skis were found in Sweden – over 5,000 years old, and complete with pole.
It’s early morning when I meet Åre guide Jesper Johnsson on a wind-whipped mountain called Häll – it’s pronounced “hell”, and as we skin up amid piercing high winds, it feels a little like it too.
Then, like magic, a dozen giant reindeer lope past, speckled and mottled and wielding large horns. “If you want to get the feeling of skiing outside the box,” Jesper says, “ski touring is a great experience.” After a short hour of climbing, we ski down through soft snow, among brambles and bushes, and pop back out onto the piste like an Alice in Wonderland of the North.
The next authentic Scando experience is the elusive prospect of seeing the Northern Lights. Under a dark sky I trudge behind another local guide, Karl Trum, into a silent, snowy forest. Thanks to a passion for surf breaks in California, Karl speaks English like all Swedes – perfectly.
It turns out the awesome flickering lights of the aurora borealis are not to be trifled with, as Karl tells us the indigenous Sami believe that whispering under the Northern Lights irritates the spirits. “My grandmother is still not very happy I’m doing this,” he admits. “She tells me to always wear a hat.”
Disappointed to see no lights but apparently on the good side of the spirits, the next morning I fall deeply in love with Troy, a five‑month‑old Alaskan husky. Troy batted his puppy eyes at me – one blue, one black – and I was sunk. Pooped from galloping alongside his sled-hauling, fully-grown brethren, soon Troy was riding in my lap as we cantered across the sparkling Swedish snowscape.
At the helm, Richard Rees, the founder of Wild Spirit Bushcraft, sternly manages the eight dogs pulling the sled. Raising an arm in a reindeer‑skin sleeve, the Welshman points to a peak in the far distance where he and his mountain guide wife Claire have been living off grid in a tiny, electricity-free cabin.
“It’s not easy running a business sending emails with one arm sticking out the window to get a signal, but something about it makes you feel more alive,” he says. “I was able to make money teaching people survival skills and taking them dog sledding.” His passion for living off the land was documented in Channel 4’s 2015 series Escape To The Wild.
Stopping for a break, Richard starts a fire using flint and wood shavings and tells me about foraging for the Michelin-starred Fäviken restaurant . “If you are a bit of an extremist, you can actually survive on lichen.” But his favourite pastime, he says, is sitting in his cabin by candlelight with a glass of wine, sewing reindeer-skin coats by hand. Hygge, or what.
Need to know
A seven‑night stay at Hotel Fjällgården costs from £805 per person, B&B. A one‑day dog sledding tour is £160 with Wild Spirit Bushcraft including lunch and coffee. Snowshoe trekking to see the Northern Lights is £88 with Explore Åre. A half-day ski touring trip with Areguiderna starts at £50. EasyJet has flights from London Gatwick to Åre Östersund from £23.49 each way, including taxes.
This article was written by Leslie Woit and travel writer from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].