On top of the world
Taking the children on holiday can be stressful, so when people heard that my husband and I were planning to take our three sons aged 13, 11 and seven on a trip to the Arctic, more than a few eyebrows were raised.
Despite the red-eye flight, travelling from Dublin to Stockholm was likely to be relatively pain-free. Internal travel to Abisko, a national park situated 200km inside the Arctic Circle, could prove a little more problematic, however, particularly with three lively boys in tow. It would definitely be an adventure.
I set about packing thermals and plenty of travel games for the 19½-hour train ride which would make up the last leg of our journey. With luggage kept to the bare minimum, we set off on our dawn flight to Stockholm, the capital of Scandinavia. Staying in the Grand Central Scandic Hotel, we spent a couple of days meandering through the cobbled streets of the city, marvelling at the sights, sounds and the friendly efficiency in which Sweden seems to be run. Then we headed to Arlanda airport to catch a flight to Kiruna, home to the largest iron mine in the world which is situated inside the Arctic Circle.
The logistics for this trip were tricky to arrange as our only option to get to Abisko Mountain Lodge was to take a bus from Kiruna. As our flight was due to land at 1.55pm and the last bus of the season due to leave at 2.30pm, there was little margin for error.
But in true Swedish style, everything ran according to schedule. Our Arctic adventure had begun and the boys were excited about what lay ahead as we headed further into the mountains.
The trip took us through valleys and forests with snow-capped mountains in the distance. Apart from a few traditional red-panelled cabins, the sparsely-populated landscape was proof of how far north we had come and how close we were to experiencing the great outdoors at its best.
Disembarking on the side of a lonely road and breathing in the sharp, clean Arctic air, we bundled our bags and our boys together and headed up the short incline from the bus stop to the mountain lodge.
The lodge was bustling with backpackers and hikers of all ages preparing for and returning from outdoor adventures.
One of the reasons people visit Abisko is to view the elusive Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). They can be seen for miles around, however the best spot to view them is on top of Nuolja, a 450 million-year-old mountain which rises 900m above sea level. The only way of reaching the summit is by chair lift so after cooking dinner and settling into our cabin, we donned our thermals and waited for nightfall. Undaunted by the prospect of the 2km ride up the mountain, the five of us headed to the Sky Station office where we were given padded suits and boots to wear over our clothes as snow had begun to fall and the trip would be very cold.
I had never been on a chair lift before and was totally unprepared for the exhilaration of the experience ahead of me. Clutching my seven-year-old, I sat back and waited to be transported into the clouds above.
The air was freezing, the mountain was silent and the only light was the blinking torch on the next lift which was way ahead in the distance. Lasting 20 minutes, the trip was both breathtaking and terrifying, particularly when we stopped over a 200ft precipice and were left swaying in the wind for what felt like hours but in reality was just the length of time it took for another passenger to disembark at the top.
Once on the summit, we were greeted by the glow of candles and the smell of hot chocolate wafting out of the Sky Station and we hurried inside to remove our overalls, have a hot drink and wait for a guided tour of the area. Because it was snowing, the sky was cloudy and the Aurora wasn’t visible, but after a couple of hours alternating between sky-watching in the cold and warming up inside the cabin, we were rewarded with a glimmer of green beneath the clouds.
Exhausted from the days’ events, we crashed out in our warm cabin, not waking until the alarm went off the following morning, heralding a day of hiking ahead.
Accompanied by our guide, Frederik, we headed off into the wilderness for a seven-hour exploration. Hiking through the woods, crossing raging rivers and climbing up mountains certainly helped to build up the boys’ appetites and when Frederik decided it was time to build a fire, they were delighted to help, stripping bark off fallen logs and collecting rocks to build a perch for the frying pan.
We feasted on Arctic char, smoked reindeer with wild chanterelles and fried potatoes, finishing up with chocolate cake and cloud berries accompanied with a beaker of strong Swedish coffee. It was a culinary experience worth waiting for.
We spent the evening sky-watching by the lake behind our cabin, keeping warm with thermals, blankets and plenty of hot chocolate before heading back to bed where the children were asleep within minutes after the day’s exertions.
The following day we visited a reconstruction of a traditional Sami settlement before catching the late-afternoon sleeper train back to Stockholm.
The prospect of this 1500km train-ride was not something I had been looking forward to, but I was in for a pleasant surprise. We had booked two (small) sleeper cabins next door to each other which meant the kids had two places to hang out and we had some space to gaze out the window at the passing night sky. We were rewarded with the most incredible sunset I have ever witnessed and the Aurora even made another passing appearance as we trundled southward.
After a good-night’s sleep, we arrived back in the capital at midday with a few hours to kill before our return journey and landed in Dublin at 10pm – 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Visiting the Arctic Circle is a trip we will never forget – the scenery, the night sky, the traditional food and the wide expanse of wilderness were all truly memorable and it has made me realise that the sky is really the limit when it comes to travelling.
Dublin to Stockholm Skavsta with Ryanair costs from €60 per person return, ryanair.com.
Skavsta to Stockholm central costs from €26 per adult return, flygbussarna.se.
Stockholm to Kiruna with SAS costs from €65 per person one-way, flysas.com.
Abisko to Stockholm with SJ trains costs from €90 per adult one-way, sj.se.
Grand Central Scandic costs from €200 per room per night , scandichotels.com.
Abisko Mountain Station costs from €30 per bed per night, abisko.net.
WHAT TO BRING
Long-sleeved thermal vests and long johns; hiking boots ; layered clothing; warm waterproofs with hat and gloves; a good camera.