Ms Rotterdam in the Norwegian fjords.
So you think this is cold?
Riding with huskies at Svedjekojan
As if sensing that it is halfway through the season, and already jealous at the thought of spring's arrival, winter has tightened its icy grip on Luleå. This part of Swedish Lapland, which nearly grazes the edge of the Arctic Circle, is used to being bound in snow, but even these temperatures (-30 to -35) are extreme - usually it's a balmy -15.
Outside, the snow falls softly on an immense forest of firs, creating a scene that is both eerie and magical. Riding snowmobiles, we pass through this incredibly stark, mesmerising landscape, under trees that look as if icing sugar has been piped where their branches meet the sky.
Here, moose clomp through with sombre eyes framed in massive curls of antlers, reindeer quickly trot on by looking for lichen to lick, and the bears - well, they've done the smart thing by curling up for a long nap in the warm.
Evidence that it was seriously cold...
Although we are wearing sturdy snowsuits and snow boots (I've even opted for multiple hats and gloves, having long stopped caring that I now resemble a Teletubby), the cold is unlike anything I've experienced before.
It creeps into your nostrils making icicles of your unsuspecting nose hair, and if you are so foolhardy as to breathe through your mouth, it will quite literally make you gasp.
Why, may you ask, would you visit a place so extreme in its weather? The short answer is because it is like no other place on Earth. Because although at times you may wonder if your feet will fall off from the cold, it is exhilarating, it allows you to experience the effect the weather has on you in ways you didn't know possible, and it will make you feel alive.
Those stretching, poetical landscapes of snow and ice, lakes so firmly frozen that you can actually drive across it - well, that is like looking at Mother Nature right in the eyes.
The constant juxtaposition of light and dark along with hot and cold keeps your senses on the edge, and at present we are huddled around a smoky fire, the warmth of the flames pressing our eyes closed and calling our feet back from a frozen slumber. We are in a tipi belonging to the Sami - the indigenous nomadic people of Lapland who herd reindeer - and Bengt, one of our hosts, is putting wood on the fire.
Bengt the Sami
As we clutch hot cups of fish broth in one hand and dark strips of reindeer jerky in the other, we are listening to his sister Irena telling us about their way of life.
They are perhaps less nomadic than they used to be - they have a permanent house as well as travelling around with the reindeer along the Luleå river and up to the Norwegian border.
During the trip, despite the fact that there are virtually no bear attacks (they tend to run away), we've been fiercely debating what we should do if confronted with one. Some advocate slowly backing away while others suggested talking in soothing noises.
Irena hunches over the fire, smoke streaming around her shock of blond hair. She says: "If a woman sees a bear, well, then the only thing to do is..." she ponders thoughtfully, as we all crane forward to soak up her ancient Sami wisdom, "to drop your pants."
The tipi erupts in laughter. "That's an old joke," she says, breaking into a smile.
Luleå (pronounced Loo-lee-oh) may seem as if it is far away from the rest of the world, but it's incredibly accessible with regular flights from Stockholm. Essentially it is an archipelago of around 700 islands: in the summer, dark blue waters frame a green, lush landscape; in winter the lakes and river freeze over, and the tall trees and traditional red-and-white houses are dusted in snow.
It lends itself very well to winter activities, and our first taste is a husky ride at Svedjekojan husky farm, a small, family-run business. It's evident where the kennels are located - the dogs are yapping loudly, each in a hurry to have a good run.
Considering the din before take-off, it's impossible to imagine the silence that follows as we fly through the snow - the dogs mush on, and we are snuggled on the sled, enveloped in a sea of white.
When we totter off the sled - our toes and hands no longer appearing to be attached to our bodies (if sense is anything to go by) - we are saved by Graeme Richardson, our eternally cheerful guide and companion. During our trip he is the purveyor of socks, foot warmers, a toasty car and warm gloves - in Luleå, to us, these things are more valuable than gold.
In the dark, we move on to Ebbenjarka Wilderness Camp, a collection of pretty traditional-looking Swedish houses beside the edge of a vast, frozen lake. Anders, the owner, tells us: "In Luleå, you can do two things you can't do anywhere else in the world - go driving on the ice, and the ice-breaker tour."
Despite the temperature, an unseasonably warm December means the ice isn't thick enough to drive on - but we can do go-karting. The only word to describe driving around like a maniac, in a buggy with headlights, as you veer through an icy track is 'fun'.
The ice-breaker trip is a different experience altogether. We're still wrapped up in layers of clothing (I've forgotten what I look like underneath), but there's a cosy cabin furnished with hot coffee and a radiator, so we can duck back into the warmth when we feel like it.
The ice breaker boat
As we step on board, we are sheepishly told that the ice-breaker boat is stuck, er, in ice. The temperature is so cold, that even two days of standing still can create such a thick crust that it renders the boat immobile.
Sometime later, after a helpful man with a chainsaw has hacked the ice away from around the boat, we are on our way and the experience is breathtaking. The front of the boat is fairly flat, so that it works by almost mounting the ice and pushing down, thereby crushing it. Watching huge crusts of ice crack and break away from the boat is incredible - they look like giant pieces of Kendal Mint Cake tumbling into the water.
The main point of doing the ice-breaker tour is to see the boat in action, but another is to indulge in a spot of ice swimming. It seems like absolute madness in this weather, but our orange survival suits - which make us look like Oompa Loompas trooping off to our doom - completely shut out the cold.
Poorna takes a dip in the ice, prays gloves stay on
Although I need a bit of a shove to actually enter the water, I can see why they call this a special experience - you float as if weightless in the dark water, aware of the snow lining the banks, and it connects you to a place that is utterly peaceful.
Apart from the activities, Luleå is special for another reason - the Treehotel, which is the darling of the architectural world.
In a quiet forest in Harads, six unique rooms are dotted in and around the trees - one is a spectacular mirror cube, another looks like a bird's nest and a third resembles a fiery flame shooting from the ground. Each has been designed by a different architect - having your design chosen brings much kudos among fellow architects - and the next will be opening in autumn 2012.
Despite being very futuristic and chic, it is wonderful that it is owned by the extremely down-to-earth Britta and Kent Lindvall, who started off with the homely and eccentric 1950s-themed Brittas Pensionat.
The amazing Mirrorcube room
But then again, this type of friendly, family-run style of accommodation - where you feel as if you are staying at someone's (very nice) home, instead of a hotel - is what Luleå excels at.
Jopikgården, a small family-run hotel on Hinders Island, is a great example. On our way, we stop at an exquisitely designed home belonging to Anders and Anna, who run the hovercraft tours across the frozen lake. They are a ridiculously beautiful couple, who offer lunch at their house as part of the homely experience.
I inhale two of the rum shots offered by Anna to warm me up, and we devour the table of treats - reindeer salami, jerky, wraps and biscuits.
At the hotel, snuggled against a warm chimney, we try löjrom, the local caviar. Tiny red beads slip effortlessly on the tongue, and a version mixed with red onion and cheese is spectacularly moreish.
The morning brings an extraordinary sunrise - the deep red fiery orb hangs low in the sky, the corona bursting into flame as it meets the stark, white landscape. This ever-present meeting of opposites is what makes every view worthy of a photograph.
Admittedly, when we first arrived, I wondered how our saviour Graeme, an Australian from the Whitsundays (which is as tropical as it gets), coped in such an extreme environment.
But as we flicked through his pictures of Luleå, and with that incredible sunrise firmly imprinted in my mind, it is clear that this is a place that isn't just beautiful - it has the kind of immense beauty that changes the way you look at the world. And, while it may not be a relaxing beach holiday in Spain, because of that, perhaps, the experience is priceless.
Simply Sweden is offering a three-night trip to Luleå - including one night at the Elite Hotel in Luleå, one night at Jopikgården and one night at the Treehotel - from £1,195 per person. This price includes three nights' bed and breakfast accommodation, evening meals at Jopikgården and the Treehotel, return transfers from the airport and between hotels, and return flights to Luleå from London Heathrow. Tailormade activities can be added on and start from £51 per person. Visit the website or call 0845 8900 300.
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