No children, no partner, no work. But you still have to call and check in, of course, to confirm proof of life, your partner tells you with a certain sardonic tone. You obviously have to read emails too, just in case your office forecasts the apocalypse and you aren’t there to say ‘I knew it, I saw it coming’. The modern holiday has become a Living TV documentary, where you board a low-cost flight and head somewhere ‘warm’ to try and get business-grade drunk. There are only a few differences between business drunk and normal drunk: business drunk means it’s still acceptable to drive. Of course, even if you aren’t aiming for a tourist hotspot destination, chances are you will have to encounter the proletariat ‘on tour’ at the airport. Cue the whiskey and narcotics to dull the ache.
So, how does one escape the confines of modern life when you are effectively off-grid, but still maintain some semblance of luxury. The team at Off the Map Travel have it all covered. Off the Map organise tailor-made adventure holidays to Canada, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Malta, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. They cater for families, couples, groups, honeymooners and, of course, three men in need of an escape into the Arctic Circle.
The first decision was who to take on this adventure. And don’t be fooled: travelling into the Arctic Circle is an adventure. The first thing to consider is accommodation. In many cases, this would be tent-based, so you have to think long and hard about who you can bear to share a tent with. Dr Paul Farrow is my oldest friend, which means there is equal measure of laughter and arguments. When two people have known each other for 25-plus years, you really begin to develop a well-honed arsenal of put downs and snide remarks.
Think of it this way: a friend will calm you down when you’ve been in a fight or you’re angry; a true friend will skip alongside you with a baseball bat singing ‘someone’s gonna get it’. Paul is that kind of friend. I imagined myself backed into a corner in a bitterly cold forest with a pack of feral wolves baying for blood, armed with nothing more than my camera and perhaps a well-scrimshawed knife. Who would you want there to back you up? Luckily, there weren’t many wolves around, our guide Fredrik told me. Only a few bears. Great.
I expect most people like to travel with a group of friends, family, well-known individuals who you know you will have a great time with, and won’t grate on each other. I like to mix this tried-and-tested formula up. James Clarke is The Review’s design writer, arguably wetter behind the ears than a recently-graduated art student when it comes to travel writing. He is our official wood-botherer. A fine drinks’ cabinet, walk-in wardrobe, or perhaps that walnut desk, James is your man. He is also a thrill-seeker and all round weekend warrior. Someone who I know, when presented with a last minute exhilarating opportunity, will drop any and all to attend. Going aurora spotting in the forests of Northern Sweden seemed like it would be right in his grain. Nothing but wood as far as the eye can see, and a fully-charged iPhone with Instagram at the ready.
So, with my two trusted compatriots in tow, we began our journey. It started with a deceptively early flight from LHR to Stockholm. As we were bringing a few crates of camera gear to document our trip, we had the usual airport security checks to deal with. Having realised that, as per usual, I would have excess baggage to contend with, I queued dutifully at the SAS check-in desk. Now, my morning demeanour is perfectly fine; I am a morning person, in that I can get dressed and drink tea without falling to the floor. I was queuing behind two people. The slightly morose SAS attendant dispatched the first pretty swiftly, but the second, well, the second was in for the long haul argument. He has missed his flight – not the actual plane, but the predetermined time the airline sets for you to board. With his best puppy dog eyes and trying to mask his sullen demeanour, he stood and made his plea for almost ten minutes before I totally fucking lost it. I don’t really know why. Perhaps it was the fact that my cut-off time was approaching and there was no end in sight. I bent down and stood up whilst I clapped loudly three times, as if to cheer on England at Twickenham.
“Okay, plenty of time, no drama, here we go. Left foot, right foot, they call it walking”. The somewhat timid individual turned around to glare at me, picked up his phone and side-stepped left. As a constant traveller, I should probably consider making less of a scene in security-conscious environments. I stepped forward with the smile of a mental health patient and politely passed the stunned attendant my passport, company debit card and booking form.
“Good morning, how are you miss?” Now, you can look at my iconoclastic actions of breaking down the very British tradition of queuing patiently with a dim view – but the boy got on the plane, didn’t he.
With the first check-in out of the way, all that was left was to board our flight to Stockholm, loiter at the airport and board another flight to Lulea. I could bore you about the UK leg of the journey, the fast food shops in the airport, James keeping his phone in his pocket whilst going through security, but you get the point – we were a group of 30-year-old boys.
It surprised me how three well-educated and outgoing men could become so debase within thirty minutes. There is a connection between the progress of a society and the progress of the arts. The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias; the age of Lorenzo de’ Medici was also the age of Leonardo da Vinci. Beer and girls. That’s what it boiled down to. Four hours at an Irish bar in Stockholm airport, showing that the mental evolution of man is a myth. Alas, we had regressed to simple pack animals.
Having drank our body weight in beer, we departed for Lulea airport, which is on Sweden’s North Eastern coast. With all our kit in tow, we were greeted by Fredrik Broman, who runs the Aurora Safari Camp in Norrbottens Län. Fredrik was chipper beyond the realms of what you expect possible for someone living in conditions this cold. To be honest, everyone in Sweden that we met was positively glowing. Genuine, heart-warming, honest people. You hear that a lot from travel writers: “they were so wonderful, I named my first born after them”. The reality is that they were discerningly friendly. I assume that there are many people in the country that aren’t, of course, but my astute cultural compass tells me that the majority of Swedish people are really rather nice.
The lovely Frederik, having seen our camera gear, immediately offered to take us over to the port in Lulea to see the icebreakers. If you haven’t see one of these leviathans before, it is quite a sight to behold. There is nothing I can compare it to. At this point, it probably makes sense to point out that you can watch the film of the trip by going to the website, or if you’re reading the magazine online, by clicking this page.
After some more travelling, this time through the snow-laden forests en route to the camp, we encountered deer and snow drifts. As a keen skier, I really felt I should have bought my gear. Worst case scenario, we could have built a kicker on the ice and towed me on the snowmobile. The reality being that, whilst I’m sure everyone would have been up for a little action sports, I have never tried a kicker in my life, and the camp was rather far from a hospital.
Our final method of motorised transport was more my type of ride. A snowmobile with an alpine sled, with pelts being pulled behind. We stopped on the lake at one point as the sun was setting and low fog was moving in just to let the total solitary environment envelope us. It usually takes me a good few days to leave the real world behind, but this conspicuous escapism made any thoughts of the commercial world vanish.
The camp itself is settled on an island across the frozen Råne River. The scenery was breath-taking, not to mention the lack of signal, meaning we were off grid. Alternatively, you can just bury your laptop in the snow; I highly recommend it. This could have been the making for a low-budget survivalist thriller, if it were not for the abundance of creature comforts that the camp cleverly conceals. Despite my expectations of frozen sleeping bags and slumber under the stars, the camp has a selection of beautifully-appointed, traditional bedouin tents. Each comes with very comfortable beds, a coat stand, electricity and a wood burning stove. The yurt was hotter than an otter’s pocket. Frederik told us we would need to ensure the fire was kept stoked every three hours, otherwise we would wake up in a world of pain. He wasn’t wrong. With thoughts of sleeping next to an open fire firmly in my mind, it was time for supper.
What do you think the Swedish people eat in this neck of the lakeside woods? Exactly what you think: reindeer. It’s not sauna-smoked to complete the stereotype though, but it is delicious – truly delicious. The camp is pitched around a central communal yurt where all meals are served, which meant we got to meet the other Arctic campers that were staying with us. As you would expect in true escapist fashion, the guests were creatives who had escaped London for the week in search for some barefoot luxury. Open fires crackled outside with never-ending views of the frozen lake, champagne flowed, the stars shone, and after a hearty meal, we all embarked on a short stroll out onto the ice for some Aurora-spotting.
Pär, Frederik’s brother in arms and general all round king of Swedes, walked the troop out onto the frozen wonderland with an array of lenses and tripods. Note to self: your jacket will only work as a blanket to kneel on when erecting camera gear for so long. If you fancy bagging yourself the next cover of National Geo, Frederik organises bespoke photography trips in the region – and take it from me, he knows his glass. The total stillness of the moment was one for the books: just starlight and the closest moon known to this man. The conditions were not exactly perfect for Aurora sightings, Par said. The fog was moving in, and within a few minutes, we were enveloped in a thick soup of marshmallow-like mist. Pleased to have taken some time-lapse footage, I packed up our gear and headed back to camp for dessert and a digestif. Okay, so we weren’t roughing it, but if Clarkson can get away with driving to the North Pole, then we can surely camp in the Arctic Circle surrounded by champagne and reindeer meat without fear of being axed.
As the season was coming to a close, Frederik and Par were committed to clearing out the drinks cabinet – or, to be more specific, telling us that we should. It was keeping the cold out, I think. With full stomachs, shrivelled livers and new bonds made, we tipped our caps to our new Swedish kin and schlepped the 20 foot across the camp to our tent.
This is where our survival skills should have kicked in. How would we plan effectively to keep the life-giving fire lit?
“I can go first,” said Paul with rum-fuelled enthusiasm. “Do you have an alarm – or more specifically, do you have a phone with said capability?” I asked in typical cutting fashion. “I have my watch”. Paul held up the Shoreditch favourite that is the Casio F-91W digital watch. A timepiece launched in 1991 that remains totally unchanged some 24 years later. It serves as a nod to 80s revivalism and a badge of honour that hipsters wear to prove that their cheapness is a mark of sartorial confidence. It is also a timepiece warn by no less than 28 inmates of Guantanamo. Not to mention Al-Qaida’s timer of choice for improvised exploding devices. This is all irrelevant, of course, as the person wearing it still needs to be able to be awoken by its dull alarm.
So, with a total lack of faith in Paul’s ability to keep our body temperatures above freezing, by simply ‘putting wood on a fire’, we all promptly passed out, warm in our beds.
Fast forward some three hours, and I was woken by a nagging feeling that I would soon become a Daily Mail news story. Probably with homophobic and anti-immigration undertones. ‘Three British explorers die in remote Arctic camp’.
“Has the fire gone out?”
“No, I’m in my underwear on the floor blowing furiously into the fire because I’m bi-polar. YES. the fire has gone out”.
With that, all I heard was the sound of the Casio F-91W hitting the deck with the mutterings of “bloody watch”. Needless to say, it was cold. Really cold. Bonded-warehouse-full-of-dead-bodies-in-a-freezer-truck cold. The sort of cold that makes you realise you’re born. Luckily, I grew up in Wiltshire and was taught how to make an open fire by the one and only Blair Shenstone, a man of great character. I had the fire going within about 15 minutes and was back shivering in my bed awaiting the warm cosseted embrace of our little wood-burning stove.
After a chaotic but restful night’s sleep, myself and the team were tranquil and looking forward to a breakfast of strong coffee, scrambled eggs and reindeer meat. We had got to the point now where reindeer and deer was the norm.
“Reindeer for dinner darling?”
“Smashing, less antler for me this time”.
When you go from your log-fired tent to your heated dining room tent, you realise that the Arctic Circle is a lot less unforgiving than it perhaps was in Captain Scot’s time. The main concern back then, of course, was how much snuff was left and which part of your anatomy didn’t need immediate triage to avoid total expedition failure. Our concerns were more centric to whether there was any coffee left and was it too early to add a little winter warmer. Thoughts of another night’s frivolity would have to wait, though. Richard had arrived from Isdimma husky adventures. Now, I am a dog person, and I think my record is pretty clear on this one. It isn’t that I have anything against cats, I just wasn’t raised with them, and I’m not a spinster in my 60s. I also find adults playing with something the size of a small loaf of bread to be slightly disturbing. It’s almost like they have regressed back to childhood. Playing with a dog is different, as its size and strength makes it a formidable partner. Not to mention that dogs are so bloody happy to see you no matter how long you’ve been gone.
As I did the final checks on our aerial drone, Richard arrived on the ice with ten Siberian huskies. I was just about to ask how they were around people, when James rolled to the floor for a grade-A lick. The whole team literally swooned over the pack and, my god, were they well-trained. Richard has trained huskies at his base in Sorbyn-Norrbotten in Lapland for many years, and you can instantly see the strong bond he has with his dogs. Crossing the ice by sled has a somewhat mystical appeal to me. The idea of travelling into the wilderness with your camping gear and pack has a certain allure. The dogs were calm and collected and needed nothing more than a high-pitched order from Richard to send them off into the distance.
As we crossed the frozen lake, Richard asked me if I would like to mush the dogs. There are few experiences in life I will say no to. This one warranted some careful consideration, though. We stopped on the ice for a moment for me to get a feeling for the ‘controls’.
“You have the slow and the hard break. The slow break will reduce speed, the hard break will completely stop the sled”. Richard’s years of experience were clear, but my lack of knowledge was overwhelming. “How do you get the dogs to steer?” I asked, feeling like it was my first day at school. “You talk to the lead dogs”. Well, even in my own language, I think I might struggle, but so far we had barely managed to work out how to say hello and thank you, let alone control a team of pack animals travelling at full pelt across a frozen lake. The lead dogs effectively steer the rest of the pack and set the pace. I learnt that you have Swing, Team and Wheel dogs to make up a strong pack, and all of them have different skills and characteristics.
I stood firmly on the sled, hoping I wouldn’t double over and shouted yip in my best high-pitch yelp. Bang, the dogs took off as if released from Valhalla. This trip was turning out to be seriously good fun. I would go so far to say it had cult status. We finished our tour-by-dog with a visit to Richard’s ‘compound’. I say compound, it was obviously idyllic, but the kennels around the property gave it that fortress feel. Pity the fool who decides to visit Richard’s home unannounced. It has to be said again, though: the Swedes were turning out to be genuinely beautiful people. I expect, if I called Frederik, Par or Richard tomorrow and needed shelter and a hot meal, they would welcome the whole team in with open arms and some roasted reindeer meat.
With the afternoon fast approaching, it was time to leave our new friends behind after less than 24 hours. This really was a whistle-stop tour of everything that the Swedish Arctic Circle had to offer. An hour or so from the Aurora Safari camp, you will find Brando Lodge, a village of cabins located on an island off the coast of Swedish Lapland. We had arrived at the end of the season, so there was a certain stillness to the place. Almost as if the previous inhabitants had either vanished overnight, or were all out on a hunting trip. This did mean, however, that we had the run of the place. Our own sauna, hot tub, cabin, snow mobile and, of course, hunting liaison officer were all readily available.
The list of things to do at Brando is endless. Yes, you have the majestic Aurora to look for out on the pack ice, but why not go cross-country skiing, igloo-building, ice-fishing, reindeer-sledding, fishing, snowmobiling or show-shoe walking, to name but a very few. Sweden was turning out to be a group holiday gem. It briefly crossed my mind that Sweden would make a tremendous location for some form of stag-based trip. Perish the thought of shot guns and vile shots in Eastern Europe, Sweden would separate the men from the boys with a quick round of Snus. They love their Snus. This would be a far more refined stag, you understand, complete with helicopter trips and ice-fishing in the middle of nowhere. Then, I quickly realised that it would only be a matter of time before the proletariat would cotton on to the region’s delights, and it would be inundated with the worst of people from god-knows-where. So let’s try and keep the delights of Swedish Lapland between us, okay?
Our guide would be Tommy Holmberg, a man’s-man’s man. One of the local workers said “We call him Tommy the Bear Hunter’, he will tell you all about it”. It turns out that Tommy rose to notoriety in Sweden some years ago, as one of the few licensed bear hunters during a period of increased bear attacks. The story goes that a local man had gone missing in the woods on his way home. Local police were sent out into the woods to search for him, eventually finding the man’s remains in a cave. A police helicopter was dispatched to the scene, but after spending some time trying to find the exact location of the officers, they had to turn back for fuel. Not before radioing over that they had spotted a large brown bear in the forest, not far from the officers’ coordinates. Tommy tells us that, as the officers were only armed with pistols, they didn’t have a chance. Luckily, the chopper refuelled and collected them a few hours later. Tommy was dispatched into the woods with his arsenal and his faithful hunting dog, Mikko. After tracking the bear back to its cave, Tommy and Mikko lured the bear out and dispatched it as quickly as possible.
This resulted in me endlessly singing “Tommy was a bear hunter, but he never hurt nobody”. I guess you had to be there.
We hadn’t been at Brando for more than an hour before we had put on our survival gear and hopped onto some seriously powerful snowmobiles for a little jaunt into the forest. Sweden is action packed. With the crash helmets and onesie-style, black-and-blue outfits, we did look a lot like Arctic storm troopers out looking for radicals.
After a short distance, Tommy realised he had forgot his teapot. I kid you not. I looked at him blankly.
“For the tea,” he stated.
“Yes, Tommy. I understand the concept of a teapot, my friend”.
“I will be back in five, okay?”
At this point, James, Paul and I should have noted we were out in the wilderness with very little knowledge of how to survive or snowmobiling experience. No. We regressed to children left alone in a classroom. Except our classroom was a snow-laden forest and we were on snowmobiles. Cue some Travis Pestrano-style antics.
‘Can you jump that?’ ‘Do you think that part is frozen?’ ‘What speed did you hit?’
With our motoring fix out of the way, it was time to get down to business and build a fire. Tommy took us to a peak where you could see the coast laid out as far as the eye could see. We hitched on our snowshoes and made our way down the trail to a clearing. Tommy felt this location was right, so we got to grips with building a fire and brewing some pine-needle tea. It was refreshing to say the least, and we were all in our element. I shan’t regale you with the exact topics discussed, but we were four men in a forest. You can work it out.
As we were starting to lose light, Tommy decided it was time to head back to the lodge for dinner. We would have genuinely been happy with anything at this point. Perhaps some more reindeer. But no, the kitchen team at Brando did a stand-up job that included fillet steak and possibly the best baked potato I have ever had. With the low temperature, you need a decent carb intake covered in sour cream. Well, that’s what I told myself anyway.
After dinner and a few glasses of wine, we headed to our cabin to freshen up and sit down for what seemed like the first time all day. But the day wasn’t over. Tommy had hitched a sled to one of the snowmobiles. Tonight we would drink and talk as men do across the lake on the banks of a nearby island. Obviously the entire body of water was frozen, so after a short hop across the ice, we had started our fire and settled in for an evening of conversation, whilst we watched the night’s sky transform in front of us. Sweden really is very beautiful, whether it’s the alpine forests, the clean crisp air, or just the people. It ticks a lot of boxes for me.
The following morning, after a hearty breakfast, we headed out onto the ice once more, this time to experience Brando Lodge’s ‘Flying Condor’. The lodge has its very own hover craft – and it’s amazing. What a way to travel. It was everything we had wanted and more. Obviously you couldn’t hear a thing, but the experience of flying across the ice and power-sliding around islands was one that will stay with us for a long time. At this point, I am going to mention the fact that you can share the trip with us by watching the film that we painstakingly shot between drinking and acting like 30-year-old boys.
We were reaching the end of our trip, with just one more night to be spent at the Treehotel. We couldn’t visit this part of Sweden without stopping at this architectural gem. The Treehotel does exactly what it says on the tin. Founded by Britta and Kent Lindvall, the Treehotel is a series of treetop escapes above the forest, interconnected by well-cut paths.
Kent told us that occupancy was low, so if we wanted to, we could opt to stay in a different treehouse. Each had its own distinct look. There was the Mirrorcube, a large block camouflaged by reflective glass, complete with its own roof terrace; The Cabin, which is like a time capsule high in the treetops; The Bird’s Nest, which has been designed to look just like a giant nest and blend into the forest: The Blue Cone, which is actually painted red; The Dragon Fly, which needs to be seen to be explained and, of course, our choice, The UFO.
Picture an alien craft coming down to land in a forest clearing, lights blazing down onto the leafy canopy. A metal ladder extend down like something out of Flight of the Navigator. But instead of stranded aliens inside, you find a series of comfy beds, a bar area, and an Xbox. Kent tells me that guests like to have their children stay in the UFO.
I can’t tell if he is making a specific point here, but to be honest, it has been a trip revolved around three men being boys and indulging in an action-packed escape. So why not spend the last night in a giant flying saucer. We quickly realise that there is a switch attached to a nearby tree which lowers the saucers stair case and we’re in. There are three single beds and a good-sized double, so obviously we need a ridiculous way to work out who gets the adults bed. Watch the video to see the inaugural game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.
Meals are served at the main guest house, which is a lot like the land that time forgot, but with Wi-Fi. The home has been kept to 1930-1950s style. The attention to detail is astounding. Of course, Kent and Britta live for detail. How else would they have been able to grow their eco-friendly Treehotel idea into its current form without knowing that the devil is in the detail. From the incinerator toilets to the zero-carbon footprint, the whole focus for the resort is that of environmentally-friendly consumption.
This sends James into an Instagram frenzy: “So. Much. Wood”. After a lovely dinner, we decided that we had to visit one of the two forest saunas. Complete with obligatory moose antlers and a well-stocked wine fridge, we were very much in our element. After a short steam, we all piled, respectfully, into the outdoor hot tub. The place was bliss, sheer unadulterated bliss. We sat and soaked whilst talking about the trip. We agreed that we would happily visit each and every one of the locations next week if given the chance.
The team at Off The Map Travel had outdone themselves. Each location was hand-picked, the excursions and activities captivated us, and the trip in general was like nothing I have experienced. This is coming from someone that clocks up more air miles than most. If you’re looking for an escape but still want a fur pelt and a top-shelf tipple to return to, I cannot recommend Off the Map Travel and Swedish Lapland highly enough. They are ushering in a new era in modern luxury travel.