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Lars Eriksson had just lit a bonfire when I visited his home in northern Sweden, a white farmhouse next to a few barns and sheds spilling downhill from a dirt road toward the forest. It was quiet except for the wind in the pine trees and the clanging of cattle bells.
Though Eriksson, a sturdy man with a white silken beard, had retired as a reindeer herder, he still kept some of the animals as a reminder of his heritage: Eriksson belongs to the Sami, an indigenous group in northern Sweden, and the only people in Sweden allowed to herd reindeer.
“If the Sami have no reindeer, then the Sami culture dies,” said Eriksson, who once kept a herd of several hundred. Some reindeer calves frolicked on the lawn as he stoked the flames; the animals retreated cautiously when I approached. A large white male wandered by, his head stooped under the weight of his antlers. They had grown so large that Eriksson could have strung a clothesline between them and hung a load of laundry to dry.
I had only seen reindeer as part of Christmas celebrations, but the animals are ubiquitous in the Sami homeland, which is known as Sápmi, or Lapland. This area spreads over 150,000 square miles and includes parts of Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Russia. Reindeer meat appears on restaurant menus here, while their hides warm the floors of every cabin.
Finnish Lapland has long been famous as a winter wonderland that draws hordes of tourists, but in recent years, more intimate travel experiences in Swedish Lapland have allowed visitors to get up close to the region’s culture without sacrificing the quiet majesty of its nature. A growing number of boutique hotels and private lodges let their guests soak in the northern lights in winter and the midnight sun come summer.
I booked my tour of Swedish Lapland through Jacada Travel, which tailors personal holidays in remote destinations. My trip would include three distinctive hotels: Arctic Retreat, a riverside cluster of log cabins; Logger’s Lodge, a romantic getaway in the forest that accommodates only two people; and Jopikgården, a rustic farmhouse on an island in the Gulf of Bothnia, part of the Baltic Sea.
But right after landing at Luleå Airport, Jacada’s guides took me to meet Eriksson, who has become something of a local ambassador for the Sami. Visitors often stop by his home to listen to stories, snack on his wife’s cloudberry cake, and, of course, meet the reindeer.
From Eriksson’s, I drove an hour to Arctic Retreat, which a young Swedish couple from Luleå opened last year beneath some pine trees along a bend in the Råne River. The three guest cabins can be booked individually, but I had the whole place to myself. Shortly after I arrived, I met the chef, Richard Karlsson, who worked in some of Stockholm’s top restaurants before moving north to breed Siberian huskies. (He makes his huskies available to wintertime guests for dog sledding.)
He prepared a delicacy known as Kalix caviar: the roe of a local fish, which he served on toast with crème fraîche and diced red onion. We sat on reindeer hides and ate around a campfire before moving into the dining room for the main course of codfish, broccoli, and potatoes. After dinner, I climbed into my cabin’s loft and quickly fell asleep.
The next day I drove another hour through unpopulated forest to Logger’s Lodge. The single-room cabin once slept 16 timber workers in bunk beds around a central hearth. A couple of years ago, a local man, Eric Borg, converted it into a luxury lodge, preserving the central fireplace so that it warms the foot of the king-sized bed. He decorated the space with Sami and Swedish artwork, including several reindeer skins, and installed a hot tub and classic Swedish sauna. I lit the fireplace and was tempted to hole up in the cabin, but instead went outside to explore the wilderness. The pine trees were tall and fragrant, their branches intertwining overhead and tessellating the cloudless sky. In the summertime, guests can hike, fish, swim, and pick berries beneath the midnight sun, while in winter, they can dogsled, snowshoe, cross-country ski, and snowmobile beneath the northern lights’ eerie green glow.
On my final day, I headed to the Baltic coast. In the winter the Sami move their reindeer herds across the ice onto islands, where the animals can more easily forage lichen and other foods. I landed on the sparsely populated Hindersön, where a local man, Daniel Sundström, runs Jopik-gården, a short walk from the dock. The hotel, created from an old farmhouse, sat opposite a barn, which Sundström had converted into additional guest rooms. The yard between the two was filled with picnic tables that could seat more people than lived on the island.
The Jopikgården restaurant is popular with Hindersön natives and day-trippers, while its hotel accommodates visitors in simple and comfortable rooms. After the total privacy of Arctic Retreat and Logger’s Lodge, Jopikgården was refreshingly abuzz, with island residents digging into plates of pickled herring and drinking beer. The hotel closes briefly in early winter after the Baltic first freezes, only to reopen in January when the ice becomes solid and a road can be built on it. The flat and empty expanses of the frozen Baltic make Jopikgården an ideal location for watching the northern lights.
The next morning I jogged along dirt roads and the shoreline in total solitude. The fishermen had yet to return to port with their hauls of salmon. Later that day, I would take a boat back to the mainland, drive to the airport, and fly home to Berlin and city life. But for a final few hours, I had the ultimate luxury: an island to myself. Three-night itineraries from $3,600 per person.