Ski areas in summer have a certain listless, under-landscaped quality. And that was my initial impression of Fjällnäs, a hotel just northwest of the ski town of Tänndalen, on the Norwegian border. The wooden buildings—housing some 45 rooms, plus a hostel, spa, chapel, and main lodge—were unsheltered by vegetation, a bit exposed without their softening blanket of snow. This was my first trip to Härjedalen province—referred to by some as Southern Lapland, even though it’s well below the Arctic Circle—and I was still adapting. The brightness of the red and yellow buildings was familiar from the seven-hour drive through the countryside north from Stockholm; the topography was not. Sitting on glacial Lake Malmagen, Fjällnäs is surrounded by raw, rocky, windswept terrain shaped by ice 9,000 years ago. It made me feel both small and at the top of the world.
That a place so rugged, no matter how striking, would be the retreat of choice for well-heeled Stockholmers speaks volumes about Sweden’s commitment to nature and appreciation for the fundamental. Guests have come to Fjällnäs since 1882, and the historic lodge is still the centerpiece of the resort, where one sits by the fire, maps out a cross-country-skiing route, and stokes up for the day on salmon, eggs, muesli, and strong coffee. It’s also where hikers, cyclists, and families—often three generations’ worth—unwind at day’s end on the banquettes that line the dining room. Even in the cool daylight that accompanied dinner, everything glowed: the healthy faces and uniformly blond heads, the warm pine walls, the bright brass light fixtures designed by Alvar Aalto in 1939.
Fjällnäs completed a smart renovation and redecoration in 2008. So along with the vintage postcard left on my pillow at night (from a long tucked-away stash found on the property) and the thick wool socks laid atop the blanket at the foot of the bed, there were Missoni towels and bathrobes in rich, narrow stripes. More stripes turned up in upholstered window seats and rag rugs lining a bench in the hall where one can sit down to change out of dirty boots. When it comes to highly refined practicality, Fjällnäs is pitch-perfect. Most bedroom floors are heated, as are towel bars. Each floor comes equipped with a drying closet for wet gear; each building has a vestibule generous enough to accommodate boots, skis, and all-terrain strollers.
Fjällnäs knows its audience: there is very little sitting around. In fact, the place empties out during the day, with guests taking off in all directions, not to be seen for hours. I joined them, accompanied by my friend Susanne, who had come prepared with caps and rucksacks. We added bottles of water to our picnic lunch, though the manager assured us we could drink straight from any stream. We hiked up a trail through mountain birch; despite its gentle climb, we emerged above the tree line onto a high plain of undulating rock tempered by scruffy vegetation. The scene was so vast, the vista so far and broad, as to be immeasurable. Only a wooden signpost gave any guidance or sense of scale.
Much as I loved my room at Fjällnäs, I could have lived at its Mii Gullo Spa. A scent that was a cross between balsam forest and wood smoke—pine tar, it turned out, used as a natural sealant for the building’s wood cladding—set the scene. A fire burned in the lounge area. Funny elfin hats, to keep one’s head warm outside post-sauna, and rough linen washcloths were stacked next to more of those colorful Missoni towels. A horizontal band of window in the sauna framed a panorama of lakeshore meeting mountain. Hardy Swedes moved nonchalantly from sauna to hot pool to a plunge in the frigid waters of the lake. I opted for a foot and lower-leg treatment. Sitting in a chair while the therapist gently bathed my legs, I felt like a supplicant to a Norse god of well-being; I never wanted to leave. My mind wandered only so far as the magical setting I found myself in.