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Sweden: From cool city to ice kingdom

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The Swedish capital of Stockholm is built on an archipelago of islands, connected by bridges.

The Swedish capital of Stockholm is built on an archipelago of islands, connected by bridges.

The Swedish capital of Stockholm is built on an archipelago of islands, connected by bridges.

I am one of those people for whom a change is as good as a rest and I definitely prefer a holiday with some interest and challenges to it.

Sweden is a destination I've just added to my list for the perfect adventure and Scandinavian Airlines fly to the Arctic Circle -- or Lapland to Santa devotees -- for as little as €257 and that included a stop-over in the uber-cool city of Stockholm.

The Swedes are the Italians of the North; design and visual interest is of paramount importance to them. Every street you walk down in Stockholm, every house you see, has some visual attraction -- be it art, horticulture, or whimsy. It is a gorgeous city, very walkable. It's full of colour, amazing museums, public areas, stunning shopping, and has a vibrant cuisine.

We arrived in Stockholm, after a pleasant two-hour flight. Within an hour, taking the direct train service from the airport to the city centre and after a four-minute walk, we were at our hotel, the luxury, hip, all-new Scandic Grand Central Hotel (from €150 per night including breakfast). Talk about ease.

Stockholm, like Venice, is built on an archipelago of islands, connected by bridges, which is a big part of its walking appeal, though there is a great metro service, as the city is well preserved and abounds with stunning waterfront vistas and buildings that span nearly a thousand years. Wherever you go, there is a beautiful aspect to be enjoyed.

A quick bite to eat, a scan of various guides, maps and websites and the next two days were planned. Stockholm is full of fabulous art galleries, museums, palaces and such, but I think one of the best tourist offerings is the Vasa museum. The Vasa was a huge, ornate, stunningly beautiful flagship designed to impress the world with Sweden's might but she sadly sank in Stockholm's harbour on her maiden voyage in 1628.

The absence of sea worms in the Baltic meant the ship eroded little over the centuries. In 1961, an impressive feat of determination and engineering raised the Vasa from the harbour bed. After conservation work it was housed in a massive dry dock which is now the museum. Even if you think you wouldn't be interested in such a thing, you will be. I went there intending to spend an hour and emerged four hours later -- it was that engrossing.

Another jewel is the Tivoli Grona Lund vintage theme park which is 200 years old.

For dinner, we went to B.A.R family restaurant (which had a vastly trendy looking clientele) at which you pick the fish and meat for your meal from the chiller and they cook it according to your preference.

There were Stieg Larsson (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) fans in our group so the next morning we did the Millennium tour which is a walk around the area where the author lived and set his stories. It also happens to be the centre of an emerging hip, indie scene and thus has oodles of great vintage and designer stores, interiors shops and cafes.

That night we ate traditional Swedish fare in Den Gyldene Freden, which has existed as a restaurant since the 17th Century. The nosh here was one of my favourite meals of the weekend. The slow-cooked lamb on the bone was incredible.

The next morning we flew to Kiruna in the Arctic Circle, a snow-covered land of gorgeous, ice-cut, jagged mountain peaks and frozen lakes, to go Northern Lights-chasing, reindeer sleigh-riding, snow mobiling, snowshoe-walking, capping it off with the ultimate endurance test -- a night at the infamous Ice Hotel. Kiruna has two tourist seasons -- a winter season and, once the thaw comes, the mountains reveal all their botanical glory, including rare plants. So skiers come in winter, trekkers in summer. It felt Burren-like special to me.

From Kiruna we travelled on to Bjorkliden ski and mountain resort for a traditional evening of open fires, snow-mobile excursions in search of the perfect waffles and hot chocolate, followed by Northern Lights-gazing. We were blessed and got to see them, for they are at their best from January to March and rare after that.

The following day we went for a snowshoe walk before leaving for the Ice Hotel, a very impressive construction. Every year, huge blocks of ice are taken from nearby frozen lakes and crafted into a whole new venue of suites, bar, reception room and even a church (for weddings). Designers from all over the world are invited to come up with unique visual decor carved from snow.

Before settling in for the night we went reindeer-sleighing. Northern Sweden/Norway/Finland/Russia has an indigenous, reindeer herding people called the Sami, though as Mattias, our Sami guide told us, as he cooked us a delicious meal of reindeer in a teepee after we'd a fun few hours of reindeer-sleighing madness, Samis are more likely to use 4x4s than sleighs these days.

After dinner with Mattias, we returned to the Ice Hotel where temperatures inside can plummet to -20C. You don't have to sleep in an ice room if you don't want. I did.

That night the temperature inside was -5C, while outside it was -15C. I've slept in colder in a tent on a mountain. But ice cold is a very different experience.

I now know why they give people a certificate if they endure the night; though the Ice Hotel gives you all you need to stay warm and snug, it is an endurance.

I am glad I did it, but I hope never to do it again.

Sadly, that was the end of our trip. We all were reluctant to say goodbye to Lapland -- even to the cold of the Ice Hotel.

But I'll be back. For sure.

Sunday Indo Living