Summer in Åre

Åre in Sweden is mostly famous for being a ski resort. I have for some time wanted to visit it and finally got a chance to do so in the summer of 2018, but obviously not for skiing :-). Here is a report from the trip, which can also be viewed as a review of Åre as a summer destination. The trip was initiated and planned by my work-buddy Johannes, an experienced Åreist (is this a word?), both in summer and winter. The main point on the agenda was downhill mountain-biking. We were joined by two of my teammates – Misha and Sarunas.

Åre is some 650 kilometers away from Stockholm. We would all arrive on different days, so travelling alone I was flexible in my travel plans – I had considered taking the train, driving or flying. The choice fell to the first option, partly due to the fact that in summer there is no cheap way of transportation for the 90 kilometers between the airport and Åre, and partly due to the fact that I wanted to increase my scarce experience with trains. Having chosen the mode of transport, I needed to choose between the night and day trains. I chose both – the night train there and the day train back. For the night train you have the option of a six-bed compartment, a three-bed compartment and a one-bed compartment. As a late birthday present from my wife I got a ticket for the latter, thanks Aneta!

The train

If you do not care about how the train rides went and just want to read about Åre, feel free to skip this section.

SJ nattåg Stockholm - Åre
Swedish railroads (SJ) night train from Stockhom to Åre

The night train was available for boarding at the central station in Stockholm roughly an hour and a half before the scheduled departure. This in combination with a seven hour journey allows for a proper night’s sleep. Well at least in terms of sleep duration, if not in sleep quality, but more on this soon. The tickets were checked already on the platform, again so that you would not be bothered in your sleep. The personell was very polite and friendly. I left my luggage in my compartment, locked it and went for a short walk in the city and after that I took a stroll on the train. When I saw the six-bed and three-bed compartments I was even more glad I had a compartment for myself. Despite the ticket being called first class, the compartment was not very luxurious. It was dated, as was the whole train, but looked relatively clean, I guess. I always have a hard time of relaxing in train and ferry cabins when it comes to cleaniness, because I have a feeling it is not possible to properly clean them. The bathroom was very small and did not smell too good. It had a sink, a toilette and a shower. Well, to be completely fair the shower “cabin” was the space in front of the sink and above the toilette. I got a few towels and shampoo. There were also a few small cartons of drinking water available.

Shortly after the train departed the station, I pulled down my bed from the wall and went to sleep. I slept badly. I was constantly woken by the train turning, accelerating, decelerating and honking. It was also very warm in my compartment, despite the ventilation fan working and despite setting the desired temperature quite low. The only way I could get fresh air was by opening the window, which was very loud at the speeds of 150 kilometers and hour. In the morning I visited the bistro, where I got a breakfast box and a cup of tea. A much better value is the proper breakfast included in the first class ticket at selected hotels and bakeries in several cities in Sweden. In Åre this was Åre bageri, and their breakfast buffet was very good.

For the return trip I booked the day train, in order to see the scenery. And this time it was in second class. The first part of the journey was nice because it takes you next to several lakes. But after this it was relatively boring with not much to see along the way. My car was quite empty leaving Åre, but it got filled along the way. With the number of people growing, the temperature was also going up, and in the end it was uncomfortably warm. I spent most of the trip reading a book and had a couple of power naps.

All in all, I was not very impressed with the train. If I go to Åre again I will consider other means of traffic. But your mileage may vary, you might not have problems sleeping on the train. And you may not love airplanes as much as I do :-).

Hiking

On the day of my arrival we went hiking. For some reason I had thought that we were going to take a nice and relaxing walk, which in reality proved to be false. We did the so called Vertical K, a climb of one vertical kilometer and just over five kilometers in distance. It goes from the main square (Åre torg) to the top of the Åreskutan mountain. The first half is quite tough and steep. So steep in fact that in some places you need to use the provided steps and ropes. If you make it, you are rewarded with a great view of Åre and the lake. The second half is less steep and offers great views in all directions as you are above the tree line. We took our time and stopped many times to rest and to enjoy the nature. The complete climb took us about three hours, which can be considered slow, especially compared to the best times of this season which are around 55 minutes. Since we were getting pressed with time, we did not hike back down, we took the cable-car instead. The cable-car ride expectedly offers more great views.

When starting the hike I had no idea about the route we were going to take, but once we got down, I got a great view of the first half of the climb and saw also from afar how steep it is. The second half is not visible from the village, but on the next day I would get to see it both from the lifts and from the bike. All in all, the hike was a great introduction to the nature of Åre and a demanding but rewarding exercise.

Åre Kabinbanan
Åre from the cable-car (Kabinbanan)

Downhill mountain-biking

I have not tried downhill mountain-biking before and had only a vague idea of what it would be like. Having tried it it became a bit less vague, but during my two days of riding I only scratched the surface of this fascinating sport. My main impression is that it is a very fun way to get close to the mountain in the summer. It is extremely physically demanding and at times quite dangerous, especially when you become tired. A naive way of looking at it is that you can just sit down, relax and let gravity do all the work for you on your way down. Well, in reality you almost never sit down, you rather stand on the pedals with your knees bent, which takes a huge toll on the quadriceps. By the end of each day, my legs were so overworked that they trembled. Another part of the body that mountain-biking is demanding on are the fingers – I guess I was gripping the handlebars quite vigorously. Finally, we have the arms that take in the vibrations from the front wheel at times well beyond of the point of feeling pain.

Other than fatigue, another factor of danger is the terrain itself. The bike trails are often very narrow, with trees and/or steep slopes on the sides. The combination I disliked the most was a sharp drop (where you pick up a lot of speed) followed by a tight turn. But if you slow down on a sharp drop, you will lock the wheel, loose grip and fall. At one point I was on a steep part and I got scared of the speed I was picking up, and I braked up to the point of losing grip and balance so I reached for the ground with my foot and in the process hit one of my testicles on the bike frame. Painful! Another issue with riding slowly is that over uneven terrain you feel every bump. So speed is actually good. Or to quote Johannes: “Speed is your friend – until it isn’t.” For me riding was often a mental exercise where I needed to persuade myself to just let go of the brakes in order to pass a bumpy and/or steep part of the trail.

Once I managed to persuade myself to let go of the brake, I noticed that the bike is very forgiving. Its dampers do a great job in taking in the terrain. It also has impressive braking power. It felt quite strange to be back on my hybrid bike (that I use for commuting to work) after two days with this monster of a machine. Fun fact – this bike costs an excess of than 10 times more than my hybrid bike.

Another part of the equipment that did a great job was the protective gear. I had biking gloves, goggles, a full-face helmet, shin and knee protectors, and a jacket with plastic inserts to protect the chest, back, shoulders, elbows and arms. I fell once because of turning my front wheel too much and thus loosing grip. The fall was a great demonstration of how well designed the protective gear is – it was in all the right places where my body scraped the ground. Without it I would have injured my chest, shoulder and arm. Interestingly enough, this fall just gave me peace of mind that I am well protected (well ok, minus the testicle protection, as mentioned above).

All in all, downhill mountain-biking is definitely something I want to do again. Not that I really needed another expensive hobby with travelling, piloting and skiing, but still…

Kayaking

Having woken up on my last day in Åre I took a look out the window to find the lake being perfectly still, like a mirror. The sun was shining and it was going to be a warm day. Perfect conditions for spending some time on the lake. So we rented three kayaks (Misha had gone home the night before, so it was only Johannes, Sarunas and me left) for a couple of hours. Setting of on the lake opened up a new perspective with great views of Åre. Kayaking also provided a nice shift in physical strain – in contrast to the hiking and mountain-biking, the legs would now get a rest, but the upper body needed to work a lot instead. I have to confess that my kayaking technique is lacking – I both get tired fast and I cannot seem to keep the kayak moving in a straight line. But despite that, it was a great way of exploring the lake (which I considered too cold for swimming).

The weather

My first (hike) and last (kayak) days were great – sunny and with a temperature of around 25 degrees. I guess this is not extremely common in Åre, but we have had an unusually warm summer in Sweden this year. However, even after warm days the temperature drops below 10 degrees during the night. For the other two days, we had relatively cloudy weather and 15 degrees. These two days were accidentally also my two bike days, and this weather actually suits mountain-biking much better than 25 degrees since the protective gear makes you quite warm. Unfortunately, during my second day of biking, the wind was so strong that the upper lifts were closed and we could only climb half way up the mountain. I would like to point out that we had no rain during my four days there! So all in all, I was very satisfied with the weather.

Food in Åre

I was positively surprised by the food in Åre. We tried the aforementioned Åre bageri, the BomBom restaurant and Crêperie & Logi. All had tasty food at reasonable prices. I had expected exuberant prices, but did not see them, it could be that they are higher in winter, I am not sure. I also had takeaway from Grädda where the friendly seller admitted that the buns were baked the day before (it was a Sunday) and threw in a croissant for free. That is a nice way of treating your customers! We also had some snacks in several café bars on the mountain. There you never expect high quality but everything still tastes great because you are exhausted after biking.

I also have to compliment the carbonara Sarunas prepared and the entrecôte steaks by Misha. And last, but by no means least, Johannes made oatmeal porridge for the breakfasts we had at our accommodation. He even made me try it with kefir, which is a good combination. At home I usually eat oatmeal with peanut butter and jelly (thanks Marina for making me try this).

Miscellaneous

Since Åre is popular, I have an image of it being very crowded in winter. Most popular places in Sweden are crowded during their respective season. Of course I might be wrong, but it still shapes my expectations. This is why I was especially glad that my first visit would be during the summer. Åre is getting more and more popular in summer – Johannes said that the number of visitors grows by 30 procent every year – but despite this, the total number of summer visitors is lower than the amount of visitors during the last week of February when schools in Stockholm are closed for winter break.

The impression during my four days in Åre was great – there were no crowds anywhere, but the number of open restaurants was still solid. We were there during the annual Åre Bike festival. I also have to mention that Sarunas won the “Burning Logs” competition organized as part of the festival. After that, he became famous, people approached him both in Åre and on the train back to Stockholm!

Fun fact 2 – Åre and its surrounding villages have roughly 3000 permanent inhabitants (source Statistics Sweden), but offer more than 35 000 beds for the visitors. I can imagine that the accommodation prices during the winter are high, but our three-bedroom, six-bed, modern self-catering apartment was very affordable at 50 € per night.

Conclusion

I loved Åre. The picturesque village, the nature, the food, the available sport activities (there are more of those on offer than the ones I tried, btw). And the company was not bad either, thanks guys :-)! What I did not like on the other hand were the train rides. And I did not like the fact that my legs were a smörgåsbord for mosquitoes.

Having visited Kittelfjäll back in 2012 and now Åre, I realize how beautiful the Swedish mountains are and I would love to experience more of them. A summer road trip is a good way to do so, I believe.

If you plan a visit to Åre yourself, chances are you will be quite physically active regardless of the season. So in order to get the most of your visit, do make sure you are well trained before coming. I definitely pushed my body hard during those four days.

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