Bring on the snow!
Getting off my easyJet flight to Åre Östersund airport, an icy blast of cold hits me – a welcome wake-up call after the early departure from London’s Gatwick. The temperature is showing a cool -7C as I disembark on a glorious January day; blazing sunshine with a fluffy blanket of thick snow and deep frost covering the landscape.
My destination is Fjällgården, my hotel in Åre, (www.fjallgarden.se), Sweden’s key ski resort with some 1500 souls to its name. Dumping my bags at Fjällgården, I get ready to head off on my first adventure of the day; a so-called gastronomy walk.
Out in the wilderness, 7 kilometres outside of Åre proper, I meet my guide Emil, a soft-spoken Dane who seems truly at home in this mountainous, snowy environment despite hailing from much further south. I’m wondering where on earth all the restaurants for the gastronomy walk are hiding, but I’m of an adventurous bent, and figure things will soon become clear. Instead I focus on the gorgeous views of Lake Åresjön and Åreskutan mountain (1420 m) in the sunshine, perfect for a snap-happy journalist on assignment. As it turns out, our gastronomy walk involves strapping on some snowshoes and walking through the snowy scenery, enjoying nibbles along the way (https://www.exploreare.se/are-gastronomy-walk-winter-2/) – how groovy is that? I feel rather silly in my long coat and handbag, having assumed we’d be in posh restaurants, but at least I’ve had the foresight to wear enough clothes. The temperature has been steadily dropping since my arrival in Sweden and dipped down to -24C at one stage (luckily while I was still in the car from the airport). Now it’s hovering between -17C and -22C and I’m grateful to be moving about with snowshoes on – good exercise and a great way to keep warm. We follow a snowmobile track to our first nibble-stop, which has excellent views of the lake and snowy forest-scape. I enjoy a fresh, slightly sharp and tangy-tasting blueberry juice, containing nothing but pure blueberries. This is the only cold drink of the walk, for which I am exceedingly grateful. It’s accompanied by saffron biscotti – all local products – which are tasty too, although I find it hard to envisage this being a great place for saffron harvests… Then it’s time to walk a good, long way down the hill, making me wonder if we’ll have to walk back uphill as well. Sure enough, Emil is already preparing us for things to come, explaining we’ll be feeling much warmer going back up.
Emil makes us a nice “snow seat”, with some rubber mats to sit on and we continue grazing. Some hot meadow sweet juice (älgörtsdricka), two different types of local crisp bread and thin slivers of chewy, smoky reindeer meat are swiftly consumed. It’s thirsty and hungry work, this snowshoeing. After a goodly pause, we start trundling up the slope again, giving me ample time to ponder just how unfit I’ve become in London. I huff, puff and pant my way up the slopes with my snowshoes unstrapped at the back, to make moving uphill easier, but they’re starting to feel a bit cumbersome by now. The sun is setting behind the mountains, as we reach the top and make our way to a nice viewpoint. I enjoy the sunset while Emil makes a fire for hot drinks al fresco. This time we start with a warming reindeer broth, full of salty goodness and much appreciated in the increasing cold. Then there’s extra chewy, gamey and herby-garlicky sausage from nearby Michelin-starred restaurant Fäviken (www.favikenmagasinet.se), more reindeer cold cuts and freshly brewed coffee from a local coffee roasting place. It’s so palatable that for once I don’t miss milk and sugar. We round off this feast with cloudberry truffles. An unusual and extremely tasty gastronomy adventure.
Back at Fjällgården, the hotel is by now positively vibrating with the après-ski crowd, so I make a swift dash for my room. No point joining in before I’ve even skied, I figure. Åre is enjoying a fabulous amount of snow during my visit and when I try to admire the view from the balcony, it’s so full of snow, I can’t get the door open – window-views only for the time being.
In the early evening, I walk down the road to Hotel Granen (The Spruce, http://aregranen.se/en/). It’s been awhile since I was anywhere this rural and it soon dawns on me that walking down the road towards the village, there are no streetlights. Also, I forgot to wear those reflector thingies you’re supposed to pin to your coat. Oh well, it’s a nice, snowy walk and traffic is minimal. This isn’t like the Alps, where people wear their finery to dinner, it’s a lot more casual – at least on a January Sunday – and I feel somewhat overdressed for the occasion. The hotel is one of the older ones in Åre, dating back to 1916, and it’s suitably cosy. I settle in for a light Sunday dinner of mushroom risotto washed down with Barolo wine – a nice combo. The risotto is cooked to perfection with a slight crunchiness to the rice, a mix of Portobello, oyster and chanterelle mushrooms, baby spinach, truffle oil and parmesan. And what better time to try two different Barolo wines, all in the line of journalistic duty? As my hotel is much further up the slopes, I then opt for the cable car on the way back. It’s been a good, but long, first day in Jämtland.
The beds are extra comfy and I only struggle out of mine after some 11 hours. While I’ve been snoozing, the weather has turned and it’s snowing cats and dogs. Well, dogs mostly, as it turns out.
This morning I’m off on a dogsledding adventure with Åre Sleddog (http://aresleddog.se/en/). Determined to at least be dressed appropriately this time, I wear all my layers, but even that isn’t enough. Despite a much warmer day – only 6 or 7 degrees below zero – the wind has got up and the wind chill factor alone is enough to freeze you solid. I’m spending the morning sitting on the sled, not doing any mushing myself, so staying warm is even harder. It’s quite a rustic experience, without much in the way of creature comforts, but that’s all part of the charm. Tommy, who runs Åre Sleddog, suggests I borrow a snowmobile overall, which proves to be sound advice. We set off into the deep forest with me on a reindeer pelt on the sled, and Tommy mushing the 9 Alaskans huskies. We’re out for about an hour and the piercing wind is bitter. The sled is also somewhat on the wide side and I’m mostly used to sitting on an office chair, legs together. It’s a bit of a bumpy ride at first, along a forested track, but I soon get into the spirit of things and the dogs are clearly loving it, running at full pelt and frolicking in the snow. We slide through the forest and out onto the frozen Lake Helgesjön for a good stretch and it is an exhilarating feeling, discomforts notwithstanding. Dogs being dogs though, several of them take the opportunity to “do their business” while running and multiple wafts of doggie poo keep hitting my nostrils. Best to turn one’s head and focus on the scenery instead… The dogs are, on the whole, quite cute and I get the chance to meet and greet them pre- and post-dogsledding. The oldest out for a run with us is Zeus who’s 12 ½ years old (most retire at 11) and the oldest in the kennel, Baloo, is 14. There are 55 dogs altogether – all Alaskan huskies – and Tommy’s been working with dogsledding for well over 20 years. He’s competed quite widely in long-distance races, going for days on end. Sounds like remarkable feats to me! Dogsledding and dog cuddles over, we retire indoors for a much-needed, warming cup of tea.
In terms of winter adventures, so far, so good.
To be continued…
General information (and for booking activities):
Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) flies direct from London Gatwick twice a week in winter.
Where to stay:
Hotel Fjällgården (www.fjallgarden.se), Åre’s prime ski-in, ski-out hotel. Perfect location, cosy open fires, outdoor hot-tubs and the après-ski with live bands has to be heard to be believed.
Hotel Granen (www.aregranen.se/en), halfway up the slopes, less of a party place, good restaurant with great wines.