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In the Lap of the gods; A new direct flight route to Swedish Lapland has opened up the region for long weekend breaks. SARAH MARSHALL reports.

Byline: SARAH MARSHALL

SITTING cross-legged at the end of a wooden jetty, I'm floating on a vast, watery mirror, marvelling at the reflection of motionless clouds hanging in a cornflower blue sky.

In a few months time, this lake will be frozen and the landscape wrapped with snow - the more recognisable face of Lapland. But right now, it's summer and baking hot, so I find myself wearing shorts and a T-shirt just 300km south of the Arctic Circle.

At night, the sun skims the horizon and never properly sets, stealing the dark stage where the Northern Lights will perform much later in the year, attracting thousands of tourists to the region. At a latitude of 64 degrees north, Skelleftea is a sleepy town in southern Swedish Lapland, not far from the Baltic Sea, characterised by clapboard houses in a palette of pastel hues.

And thanks to a new direct three-hour flight from the UK with Ryanair, it's set to become the gateway to an area popular with adventure seekers and outdoor enthusiasts.

"Whatever season you come here, it's beautiful," says sprightly Thorbjorn, who runs the Svansele Wilderness Center, an hour's drive from Skelleftea.

He owns nine overnight camps in Swedish Lapland, ranging from comfortable en-suite apartments to traditional lavvo tents lined with reindeer skins, and offers activities for both summer and winter months.

Heating a charred black kettle over a roasting fire, he prepares "the best coffee in the world" and melts cheese on Swedish flatbreads using grills suspended above the flames.

We eat with wooden forks and plates made by Thorbjorn, using wood from a local saw mill.

Between mouthfuls of food, I trial a few of the on-site amusements - I attempt to lasso reindeer antlers with a long piece of cable, then throw an axe at a tree stump embedded in the wall. Later we take a quad bike ride through the forest, thick with bristly birch and pine trees tickling the sky. Unfortunately, my zest for adventure turns sour when I hit a stump and career off-road into a tree.

I bravely get back in the saddle, but no less than five minutes later, while attempting to negotiate a ditch, mistakenly slam the accelerator, rearing my mechanical stallion up onto its haunches and skidding across the road. I end up vertical, wondering if I'm done for. But I won't be beaten, and fortunately I manage to make it back to base.

Before leaving, we visit a taxidermy exhibition featuring 680 stuffed creatures, lovingly displayed in their natural surroundings. Many of the creatures on display can still be seen in the wild, although the hulking but shy brown bears are much harder to spot. Matti and Stina, who run Lapland Canoe Central in Jokkmokk, just north of the Arctic Circle, tell me they've seen the ursus arctos fleetingly from the car.

But I'm quite relieved we don't encounter any angry mammals on the small island where we stop for a rest, tea and cinnamon buns before a canoe safari.

Gliding slowly through the water is one of the best ways to appreciate this pristine landscape.

Reindeer herder Lotta Svensson still visits a seite (sacred place) 2km from the Batsuoj Sami camp, which she set up with her husband Tom to educate people about the Sami way of life. She describes the seite as having a large stone shaped like a bear, a sacred animal respected for its strength and power, but she won't specify its exact location.

Short, with dark skin and high cheekbones, Lotta is a typical Sami and she's unequivocally proud of her culture.

Using a lasso, she rounds up her reindeer, with many currently sporting blood-filled, furry summer horns. Far fewer Sami now make money from reindeer herding, she explains, and this year alone, she and Tom lost 60% of their animals to predators, meaning they were unable to sell any for meat. She blames programmes to reintroduce wolves into the area, and demands the Swedish government should take action.

To get a better view of the camp, we sit on a simple raft, attached by rope to the riverbank, and haul ourselves across the water. The log-built lavvos are dwarfed by spindly, towering birch trees, many covered in thick black moss - a favourite food for reindeer and an indicator that there's very little pollution here.

Lotta tells me about the history of the Sami; how their belief system, shamanic drums and eventually even their own language were banned by the Swedish church. "But it's never too late to re-learn," she says with confidence. "It just takes a little longer."

And if the place of worship is this beautiful, it's certainly worth the effort.

NEED TO KNOW | SARAH MARSHALL was a guest of Visit Sweden (www.visitsweden.com), Destination Skelleftea (destinationskelleftea. se/en/Destination) and Swedish Lapland (swedishlapland.co.uk).

| An overnight stay at Batsuoj Sami Center (batsuoj.se/eng) costs PS96 per person, including breakfast, dinner, sleeping bag and use of boats. For flights see ryanair.com

CAPTION(S):

| Lotta and Tom milking a reindeer at Batsuoj Sami camp

| A traditional log lavvo at Batsuoj Sami camp, left

| Stina from Lapland Canoe Central in Jokkmokk, above
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Date:Sep 6, 2014
Words:862
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