Happy August! Now that summer is winding down, we’re thinking about back-to-school—and specifically, to college. This month, we’re talking about a new trend we’ve been seeing lately: Families taking special trips with their college-bound kids. And speaking of bonding travel, we’re also highlighting our recent retreat in Puerto Rico—including our top hosting tips. And finally, rounding out this edition is a great Q&A with Qatar Airways, which was recently honored with the distinction of “World’s Best Airline.” We hope the rest of your summer is fun and relaxing!
Erika Reategui and Fernando Gonzalez
For many people, seeing the Northern Lights is a sought after wish. Every sighting is different and unique, and it’s said that those who do see them will enjoy a streak of good luck. This past November, we set out on a quest to both spot this amazing natural light display, as well as explore the wonderful opportunities the Scandinavian Arctic offers during the winter, which is the most popular time to visit the area.
And even if you don’t get to see the Northern Lights, the many activities and experiences you can have in the Arctic are reason enough to travel to this remarkable region. On this trip, we visited the Finnish and Swedish Arctic, staying at two iconic properties in each place: the famous Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden and in a glass igloo at the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Saariselkä, Finland.
Helsinki and Stockholm, the capitals of both Finland and Sweden, respectively, are the gateways to each area. Both cities are filled with culture, shopping, nightlife and stylish accommodations. When shopping, keep an eye out for interesting pieces from Marimekko, a fashion design house in Finland; in Stockholm, check out local Swedish designers like Isabella Idberg and Ida Klamborg, among others. If interior design is more your style, you can find interesting shops that showcase the simple and minimalistic lines of Scandinavian design. Foodies will love the scene in Helsinki. Our favorite restaurants, which are frequented by trendy locals, were Bronda, a contemporary brasserie with modern Mediterranean cuisine and Yes, Yes, which offered elevated vegetarian cuisine that even non-vegetarians will rave about. As far as city accommodations, despite competition from new properties, Hotel Kamp in Helsinki and Grand Hotel Stockholm still shine for the high level of service and hospitality.
From the city, we moved on to the Arctic—and our visit was filled with wonder and excitement. We started in Finnish Lapland, with a unique stay at the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort. Just a short one hour, 45-minute flight from Helsinki, plus a 45 minute drive, will put you right at the center of this Winter Wonderland. The resort offers glass dome igloos—which are warm and cozy offer amazing views of the night sky from the comfort of an adjustable reclining bed. Our favorite, though, were the log cabins with attached glass igloos, since they offered a taste of both worlds: the comfort of having a spacious log cabin, with the fun of still being able to see the sky from a glass-domed igloo.
The main lodge at the resort is made up of logs, and included interesting carved logs portraying Finnish art folklore that combines indigenous heritage and mythology. A gallery with local art on display, and a viewing tower with a sitting lounge where you could take in the surrounding forest were fun additions to the array of entertaining options offered by the resort.
Another great option—especially at this time of year? A Santa Claus Village. Though there’s one in Lapland, Santa has a second home at Kakslauttanen. A visit to his home can be arranged where you are picked up by one of Santa’s elves and taken to a beautiful log cabin in the woods, complete with a Christmas tree, toys, and gorgeous fireplace. Once you’re at the cabin, Santa comes out, greets visitors and invites them in to spend time with him. It’s a great treat for children of all ages!
As far as evening experiences, chasing for Northern lights deep into the woods is a highlight. One of our favorite evenings was spent driving through the forests on a 4-wheel ATV and stopping at a Sami Tipi to share stories and hot drinks around a fire.
Then, it was onto the Swedish Arctic, where the Ice Hotel is a wonder on its own. The hotel now has two section: Ice Hotel 365, which is open every day of the year, and the original Ice Hotel, which is open seasonally since it has to be re-built every year from blocks of ice taken from the adjacent river.
The entrance to the property is impressive, with several ice sculptures and ice-and-glass chandeliers, leading to a central bar with lounge areas offering all kinds of drinks and spirits. (Interested in ice sculpting as a new hobby? The hotel has an area next to the bar for lessons.) At the hotel, each suite is individually designed and created. Artists send in their bids and are selected to create the suites, which are different each year. The suites are thematic, well- designed and sculpted and, this year, themes ranged from angels to mermaids to birds—and designs were as intricate as stairs leading to a bed, with everything made out of ice.
The beds, of course, are also made out of ice, but the mattresses are quite comfortable and the bedspreads are reindeer pelts. Some suites even have bathrooms with built-in saunas and bathtubs large enough for two. To prepare for a good night sleep, the hotel provides a warm and comfortable sleeping bag in addition to hat and gloves if needed. Thanks to the right sleeping gear, our crew slept, very happily, straight through the night and the next morning, were greeted by a cheerful hotel team host with a customary glass of warm juice made from local berries.
We had many memorable experiences—from meeting local Sami residents and learning about their culture to having the “ice dining experience”, a unique dinner with a specially-created menu of local delicacies served on ice dishes. One of our favorite experiences was dinner in a cabin in the forest, where we wined and dined, enjoying an arctic char ceviche, reindeer creamy stew and a desert made of local berries and ice cream that our local guide/chef cooked for us. For cocktails, we toasted with Glögg, a Swedish holiday drink made with mulled wine, spices and local berries.
The night would not be complete without going outdoors to watch the sky. It was our last day and the sky was clear, so from the cabin we walked to a nearby lake and laid down on reindeer pelts to look up at the starry sky. After seeing several shooting stars, the leading star made an entrance in a subtle, alluring and almost hypnotic movement—it was the Northern Lights looking down upon us. We couldn’t believe it. They were not the usual green lights, but rather a white light surrounded by a clearly defined black frame, which are known as the black northern lights. There were two black dots in the center of the white lights, which almost seemed to be saying to us, “I’m here.” Seeing those lights—and the entire trip to the Arctic—was a truly unrivaled experience.