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Fear of flying and a Japanese spa

Wanderlust and climate anxiety is a frustrating combo. I want to see the world, and show it to my children - but how to justify jetting around the planet when I'm destroying it for them in the process? We've recently come back from a month-long trip that involved flying across the Atlantic, thereby using up our carbon allowances for pretty much the rest of our lives, so no more foreign travel for us any time soon.

(Have you ever used an online calculation tool to measure your carbon footprint? Even if you consider yourself fairly green I guarantee you'll be shocked by the result - check out the WWF's one here, if you dare.)

Anyway, instead of getting too morose about all this, I've decided to focus on making the most of the Swedish winter (and not just by getting "mysig" by an open fire, but really getting out there and embracing it), as well as finding ways to experience the world without leaving the country.

First stop, Yasuragi Hasseludden, the Japanese spa just outside Stockholm. I'd visited once before about fifteen years ago, but it's had such an extensive revamp since then that I barely recognised it. The Japanese theme and aesthetic runs strong throughout, from the walkway up to the building and surrounding Japanese gardens to the food (there are three different Japanese restaurants and a sake bar), the yukatas (cotton robes) that all guests wear and, of course, the spa.

I must admit I'm not a massive fan of spas per se. Too much hush-hush, dodgy music, unripe fruit and icky things floating in hot tubs, but Yasuragi's new spa area is on a whole new level. It's the shogun of spas, the emperor. There are indoor saunas and hot tubs and cold plunge pools and salt scrub steam rooms and three outdoor hot pools and an outdoor sauna and a sparkling water pool and it just goes on and on. You could sauna and bathe here for hours and barely park or dip your bits in the same section twice.

If, like me, you get a bit claustrophic in saunas and hot baths, the outdoor pools are the highlight, especially in the winter. Sitting emerged in atmospherically steaming hot water with your face exposed to the cold, fresh air and a view out over the icy water and snow-covered Scots pines and villas of Hasseludden is a pretty hard experience to beat.

The whole place is gorgeously designed in a modern Japanese/Nordic aesthetic with masses of concrete and panoramic windows and everything felt sparklingly fresh and clean - partly achieved, I would imagine, by giving all spa guests brand new, complementary (and rather flattering) black swimming costumes to wear and instructing us all on the proper pre-spa washing ritual. I expect state-of-the-art filtration technology plays its part, but either way I'm happy to report I didn't spot a single unidentified floating object or rogue body hair.

Since I've never visited a Japanese onsen (hot spring baths) I don't know how Yasuragi compares but there's no getting away from the fact that it's huge, with some 600 rooms, and a lot of conference guests. But the size and design of the spa, together with the the fact that everyone is dressed in anonymous swimmers or the yukata you're given to wear at all other times, including meal times, means it never feels too crowded or corporate. There's also a ban on using mobiles in all public areas, which is a revelation in phone-obsessed Sweden (and explains why these pics are all high-quality press images and not my own iPhone snaps).

I'm planning on an annual winter visit, at least until someone invents a zero-emissions way to fly to Japan. Keep an eye out for their special deals and an overnight spa package can be surprisingly good value. Definitely cheaper than a return ticket to Tokyo in any case, plus better for your skin and easier on the conscience.

(No) movie Sunday at Hobo

A distinct drawback of living in a different country from most of your family is that babysitting opportunities are few and far between. Having as many children as we do also rather reduces the pool of people prepared to take on the job, so when my mother was visiting last week we grabbed the chance and snuck off for a rare grown-up night in the big city.

I'd stayed one night at Hobo Stockholm on Brunkebergstorg on a press trip last year and their outstanding breakfast has remained a happy memory ever since. I regard pretty much any hotel breakfast as one of life's great pleasures, but Swedish ones can be a bit samey and limited if you're not into pickled herring and raw peppers first thing. Hobo's mini cheesy egg muffin/soufflé things were calling to me so I snapped up their "Movie Sunday" deal, which includes a night in a superior room, the aforementioned breakfast, plus popcorn and movie tickets - all for 1090 SEK.

What is this hipster hell? I could see Joe thinking as he took in the hydroponic plants and photo booth in the lobby, the pop music on ear-bleed volume and various niche products for sale in their mini-shop. Hobo's uber trendy but it's also fun, unpretentious, centrally located and I'm not sure there's any other city centre hotel in Stockholm where you can get a huge room with panoramic views of the skyline for under a hundred British pounds.

I'm such a sucker for a deal that I forget to ask myself whether or not I (or Joe) actually wanted to go to the movies but the SF tickets laid on our beds were valid for a year, so the pressure was off and we decided to wander the Stockholm streets in a haze of giddy child-free bliss instead.

Popcorn that is in no way Indian

Lazy/knackered parents that we are, we decided to eat in the hotel restaurant (hey, it was Sunday) and were glad we did as the slow-cooked lamb with creamy, dill-y beans, grilled salad (who knew hot cucumbers were a thing?) and chargrilled hunk of bread (also a thing) were all delish. It also turned out that our deal included 20% off the food and drinks bill which Joe, being Scottish, was especially pleased about.

The breakfast buffet the next morning was every bit as classy and creative as I remembered. Chia pudding with vanilla, cold-pressed beetroot juice and, praise the Lord, those little eggy muffins, topped with smoked salmon. A cracking way to start the week.

Breakfast bliss

Re-open: The National Museum's new lease of light

It's been a long time since I last visited the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm. The fact that it's been closed for refurbishment for the past five years is one good reason, but my memory of it as a somewhat gloomy old building stuffed with Old Masters wasn't pushing it to the top of my To Do list.

I was tempted back, however, when it re-opened last month as I was curious to see the results of the £100 million refurb but also to visit the huge, specially-commissioned glass chandelier I had seen being made at The Glass Factory in Boda last year in situ.


Ten glass designers, including Åsa Jungnelius and Carina Seth Andersson, collaborated on the project and each element was hand-blown at The Glass Factory. Photo credit: Tina Stafren/VisitSweden

Admiring the assembled chandelier before it makes the journey from Småland to Stockholm Photo credit: Tina Stafren/VisitSweden


Modern Swedish glass design and craftsmanship at its best: the eye-catching chandelier in its new home in the museum restaurant

The Old Masters are all there, of course, re-displayed against walls painted in surprisingly un-Scandi rich jewel colours. Artworks are also now collected by period rather than genre - so paintings and other decorative arts from, for example, the 17th century are now exhibited together which provides a nice simple cohesive timeline for lowbrow visitors like me.

Oddly, Sweden doesn't actually have a dedicated museum of design (there is a virtual one, though: Swedish Design Museum). But the National Museum has its own impressive collection and the furniture, glassware and other objects specially commissioned for the re-opening serve as a living, interactive lesson in contemporary Swedish design - the cutlery used in the restaurant was designed by Note, hand-blown glass vases by Carina Seth Andersson and chairs by Matti Klenell and Peter Andersson.

The totem-like "Venus in glass" by artist Frida Fjellman, specially commissioned by the Bengt Julin fund for the museum re-opening

Whatever bizarre thought process led to the rooms at the front of the building being used for offices and storage in the "old" museum has thankfully been reversed and the glorious, light-filled space with views over the water and the Royal Palace is now occupied by the restaurant. More than 300 windows have been opened up and the rooves over the two atria have also been replaced by glass-panelled ceilings, filling the sculpture park in the southern atrium with light and triangular-shaped shadows.

Photo credit: Nationalmuseum/Bruno Ehrs

Photo credit: Nationalmuseum/Bruno Ehrs

The new museum has blown away all its cobwebs and brought a new lease of life to two of the museum's (and Stockholm's) most important resources - its design credentials and stunning natural light.

Night train to the far north

Two dreams I’ve had for the longest time - to take a night train, and to travel as far north as it’s possible to go in Sweden by train - came together and were realised this weekend when I took my two youngest children on a 72 hr trip to Abisko in Lapland.

I grabbed the chance and booked the trip as I thought they had two study days off school and I wanted to get up to fjällen before the snow did. Turns out I got the dates wrong as well as the weather forecast, and so I found myself on Platform 18b of Stockholm’s Central station with two truant children in full ski gear on Wednesday night at 10.45pm, waiting to climb aboard the night train to Boden in Norrbotten, from whence to Abisko.

Tripp, trapp, trull (mamma gets top bunk)

The night train was every bit as thrilling and romantic as I’d imagined. Ok, it's not the Orient Express (although the restaurant car decor could be described as charmingly faded Art Deco chic in a good light) and the catering was pretty basic (the organic Kalf & Hansen-collaboration menu as promised in the SJ magazine was apparently available on some other train, speeding southwards).

But if, like me, you get a thrill from organising your belongings in a tiny space, being rocked to sleep by the noise of the train chugging through the night and, best of all, being sealed in a moving capsule in which no cooking, cleaning, driving or work are necessary or even possible and the only activities are sleeping, eating, reading and admiring the scenery for 18 hours you’ll be in heaven.

"Are we nearly there?" - somewhere in Västerbotten

We woke the next morning somewhere in the middle of Sweden and spent several hours alternating reading, playing Uno and bickering over the iPad with watching the landscape outside the window change from wide, wild rivers and deep forests in glorious peak autumn colours to more barren, wintery landscape once we crossed the Arctic Circle north of Boden.

195km north of the Arctic Circle, 1,393km from home

At Abisko autumn was almost over, with just a few glowing golden leaves left on the birch trees as testament to what must have been a stunning display a couple of weeks earlier. Thankfully the threatened snow hadn't yet made it down from the mountaintops so, feeling slightly overdressed in our snowboots and salopettes, we were able to set straight out from the mountain station hostel and explore.

As well as being the starting off (or finishing) point for the 450km Kungsleden (Kings Trail), there are plenty of well-marked walking paths around the station and into the national park, of varying lengths and difficulties, and the landscape is so epic that even Freya, a notorious heel-dragger, managed to spend full days walking, with frequent Ballerina biscuit refuelling stops.

Finn gazing northwards towards Norway across Lake Torneträsk

Close by, Abisko canyon carved out of Cubist-style schist and dolomite limestone, gushing with the icy, clear green water of the Abiskojokk river. Down to the lakeshore of Torneträsk lake, fringed with snow-covered mountains, and facing the iconic Lapporten valley. And over to the Sami camp reconstruction to see how the area's indigenous people lived nomadically in the 19th century.

Lapporten - gateway to Lapland

Back in our hostel dorm the first evening, vast and palatial but disappointingly static after our train digs, the mountain air and hiking knocked us out immediately. A few hours later, excitable voices outside our window woke me and I peered out to see the mystical green swirls of the Northern Lights. Finn and Freya could not be woken for love or money (or even the promise of a Ballerina) so I pulled on some clothes and went outside to enjoy my own private display of this truly awe-inspiring phenomenon.

I couldn't do the lights justice with my phone camera but this beauty was taken when the aurora made a rare appearance in Sörmland Photo credit: Joe Maclay

For me, the lure of the north is magnetically strong. The cold, exotic beauty and the endless intricacies of snow and ice pull me ever northwards. Happily, Finn shares this passion, so we're busy studying maps for our next adventure. Next stop Riksgränsen and Norway beyond...