Swedish Lapland covers a quarter of Sweden, stretching from Sorsele and Skellefteå in the Västerbotten region to the country’s northernmost tip. Mountains, forests, lakes, rivers, and wild archipelagos shape this northern territory. Luleå is the largest city in Swedish Lapland and a port city on the Gulf of Bothnia. Luleå has the fifth largest freight harbor in Sweden. The port operates all year round, thanks to its fleet of icebreakers! To guarantee regular traffic in winter when the ice covers the Gulf of Bothnia and part of the Bothnian Sea, these ships, with their ultra-reinforced hulls, create shipping routes through the frozen sea for about five months. And guess what ? One of the most popular activities in Luleå is to embark on an icebreaker converted into a tourist boat…


Board an icebreaker for a frosty cruise

In winter, ice usually begins to form in the Gulf of Bothnia during November and reaches its greatest thickness between the end of February and mid-March. If the ice is between 11 and 20 inches thick at the beginning of the winter, it can sometimes become up to 6 feet thick by the end of March. About 28 miles from Luleå, off the coast of Piteå, the Arctic Explorer, a red and white icebreaker that keeps a channel open and guides ships through the frozen Bothnian Sea, is waiting for us to be part of the daily icebreaking duties. Let’s board for an unusual cruise and a frosty swim among giant ice cubes…

The Arctic Explorer icebreaker docks, awaiting passengers for a frosty cruise. This red-and-white icebreaker was built in 1962.

Luleå, the icebreaker Arctic Explorer


What is an icebreaker ?

The main functions of an icebreaking ship include clearing ports and maintaining sea routes in the icy waters so that freight and fishing vessels can easily navigate. It also offers help when boats are stuck by accident in the ice

To be qualified as an icebreaker, a boat must have three major characteristics:

  • A strengthened hull to navigate icy waters
  • A bow (the forward part of the hull) with a rounded and convex shape. The convex shape of the hull is a significant element since the vessel needs to ride over the ice sheet and break it using its weight and power.
  • Enough power to glide smoothly over the ice and crush it to open a path for other ships. Penetration of the ice is easier when the angle of approach is close to 90°. The ship must avoid being pushed by the ice so that it deviates from its course and finds itself in an awkward and unable to penetrate the ice pack.


The Arctic Explorer icebreaker

The icebreaker Arctic Explorer welcomes you on board for an unusual cruise! All aboard, ladies and gentlemen…

« Ladies and gentlemen, in a moment, we will start
Of course, we ask you to be indulgent
The show is not yet fully developed; give us a few more years
It can only get better ».
(​​​​Attention, mesdames et messieurs by Michel Fugain, french singer)

The Arctic Explorer starts its duties. Well wrapped up with gloves and a hat, we go outside to brave the icy wind and admire the landscape. My first impression of the scene is from the bow, where we see the ice breaking: it vibrates, and the noise of the ice around the hull is impressive! We then lean to port or starboard to see the enormous blocks of ice floating around the ship… At the back of the boat, we can see the route created by our ship as it crushed and breaks the ice under its hull.

When leaning to port or starboard you see the enormous blocks of ice floating around the ship.

Icebreaker: the enormous blocks of ice

When the icebreaker enters the ice, it must do it slowly to not damage the ship’s structure. Once on the ice, the vessel adapts its speed according to the thickness of the ice. It is necessary to find a compromise between a speed fast enough to break the ice and to avoid getting stuck and a speed low enough to not to damage the hull.

At the back of the icebreaker, we can see the route created by our ship as it crushed and breaks the ice under its hull.

Route created by our icebreaker

The Arctic Explorer was built in 1962, as recoreded on the ship’s bronze bell and cord (a braided rope used to operate the clapper). With a length of 125 feet and a width of 33 feet, this icebreaker can accommodate up to 80 passengers. The ship was renovated in 2004 and has opened navigation channels through the frozen sea for many years. It is now starting a second life as a tourist attraction. The Arctic Explorer, with its 332 tons and 6-cylinder diesel engine, has a 1A ice certification, meaning it can navigate difficult ice conditions (ice thickness up to 2.6 feet). On the vessel, we can wander around as we please: a cozy lounge, the engine room, and even on the captain’s bridge with the ship’s wheel, « O Captain, my Captain »…

The Arctic Explorer was built in 1962, as recoreded on the ship's bronze bell and cord.

Icebreaker: the ship’s bronze bell


A dive and a big icy swim

The Arctic Explorer stops. Time for the passengers to jump into the water… and to swim in a pool free of ice formed by the ship. I think I forgot my bathing suit when I left the hotel this morning ! Do not worry; for this swim in the frozen sea, you have on an insulating neoprene survival suit with a hood and gloves. Thus, disguised as an orange dinosaur well known to children you will head towards the ice island…

« Here comes the time
Of cold and wind
In the Ice island
This is the day we swim
This is the happy land
Of seals in love
Of friendly fish
Yes, it’s a paradise »
(Children’s Island, freely revised and adapted to the circumstances)

It is not easy to plunge in… You amble on the slightly abrasive ice. You look in the direction of the ice floe or the boat with the confidence of someone wrapped up in his « Casimir » wetsuit and not afraid of anything. Before jumping into the water, you sit on the edge of the large tub, cut into the ice, and count on your three fingers (because of the mittens) those who dare to go in. Now it’s time to jump in. « It’s a beautiful day / Nice weather to jump into the water », sings French singer Jean-Louis Aubert ! Wetsuit, hood, three-fingered mittens: you are protected from head to toe, ready to face the bite of the icy water. And finally, you slide into the water, where you float thanks to the wetsuit: what a strange feeling ! The best way to enjoy the swim in the icy waters of the Gulf of Bothnia is to float on your back while enjoying the blue sky and the white ice. You smile, but you don’t feel your face anymore… After this experience, I promise to treat myself to a mega Swedish Gloubi-bulge !

The best way to enjoy the swim in the icy waters of the Gulf of Bothnia is to float on your back wrapped up in an immersion suit.

Swimming in the icy water of the Gulf of Bothnia

If you are not keen on « Swimming», you can get off the boat and walk on the Arctic ice pack around the « pool ». There is something biblical about walking on water !


Snowmobiling in the Luleå Archipelago

The Gulf of Bothnia’s waters are iced over during winter, making them an ideal playground for winter activities. In winter, you don’t need to take a ferry to go around the Luleå archipelago: opt for a snowmobile !


The Luleå Archipelago

The Luleå archipelago has 1,312 islands and offers miles of vast white landscapes just a few steps from the city center ! It is part of the Bothnia Archipelago, which stretches from Skellefteå in the south to Haparanda on the Finnish border in the northeast. The water around The Luleå archipelago is relatively shallow, with an average depth of only 33 feet. It is the northernmost brackish water archipelago in the world: the water is neither salty nor fresh! Some islands have saunas, restaurants, and cottages. Today, the fishing villages are populated with summer vacationers. If you prefer solitude, other islands lack facilities and offer beautiful deserted beaches.

The Luleå archipelago has 1,312 islands and offers miles of vast white landscapes just a few steps from the city center !

The Luleå archipelago

If you are interested in geology, there is a typical type of rock in the Uddskäret and Brändöskäret area: Haparanda monzonite with large white and black crystals. The burgeoning botanist, however, can find the small flower, Euphrasia bottnica in Hindersön. It exists nowhere else in the world. Euphrasia is a small plant well known for its soothing, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties for the eyes.


What is a snowmobile ?

Snowmobile, skidoo, snow scooter… There are many names for this motorcycle mounted on skies, and the image it evokes is often that of wild rides in great snowy spaces! A snowmobile as a means of transportation does not require roads or prepared tracks; it can go almost anywhere, giving an immense feeling of freedom. Did you know that the first snowmobiles were manufactured in 1936 by the Canadian company Bombardier ? They were marketed under « ski-doo » because of a typo in the advertisements! Initially, the name was supposed to be « ski-dog » in reference to sled dogs. So much for the anecdote… Today the snowmobile is comparable to a large motorcycle (500 to 1000 cc) designed to carry a passenger and the pilot. If it is a means of transport extensively used in the Canadian North or Scandinavia, the snowmobile has also become a recreational and sporting machine: operating a freestyle snowmobile is now a sport in its own right !

On the snowmobile, a passenger, and the pilot whose shadows reflect on the snow.

Snowmobile, passenger and the pilot


A snowmobile trip on the frozen Bothnian Sea

Our snowmobile adventure starts from Brändön Lodge, located about 35 minutes drive north of Luleå… and 1,360 miles from Paris ! After a briefing on how to drive a snowmobile and the safety instructions, sit on one of the snowmobiles as a driver or passenger. What about driving ? It seems pretty straightforward. To accelerate, you press a trigger with your thumb, and to brake, you have handles like on a bike. So much for the essentials ! So, are you ready to discover new sensations on a snow scooter in big white spaces ? (Oh) mamma mia ! I’m not sure anymore…

The snowmobile tour starts over a frozen sea, an enormous white expanse as far as the eye can see.

Snowmobile- Bothnian frozen sea

At first, we move over a frozen sea, an enormous white expanse as far as the eye can see. Only some fisherman’s huts break the monotony. We have the impression that this big white expanse is flat, but not at all… it is a field of hollows and bumps! Slow down before the bumps and do not brake suddenly. And also, think about your passenger, who will be cold and have a sore back before you, especially on this uneven terrain! We move at a speed of between 12 and 40 mph, enough to have sliding sensations while still enjoying the panorama. Under the sun’s rays, the snow is sometimes as bright as a diamond. In other places, the powder is so thick that the landscape seems to be covered with a thick layer of whipped cream. After enjoying the snowy landscape, it is time to take a break or « fika » in this excursion, sharing a coffee and a little something sweet…

A snowmobile tour through snow-covered forests and frozen lakes.

Snowmobile tour in the forest

After this traditional and welcome coffee break, we get back on our machines, changing position with the  driver (at least for those who want to) and retake the road. We move into the forest, away from the houses, where we meet no one… The snow still covers most surfaces, but you can already feel nature peeking out from under the deep shell of snow. Here and there, nature expresses its desire for a return to life and light. We quickly have the feeling of being alone on Earth.

The fishing nets are patiently waiting for the summer season to get used again.

Fishing nets

However, we see traces of civilization here and there: some beach houses, a picnic area, and fishing nets. Driving the snowmobile is easy, as you do not have to change gears. Keep in mind, however, that the handlebars of a snowmobile are not as maneuverable as those of a motorcycle or bicycle. Forget the power steering and avoid dry turns; otherwise, you will pull straight ahead or turn the machine over. Speed, wind, vibrations, and after a few hours, the adventure ends. After the exertion, the comfort: the moment has come to enjoy a good « Palt » to regain strength and prolong this good moment of discovery. « Palt » is a traditional Swedish potato dumpling filled with meat, traditionally served with butter and cranberry jam. It’s tasty and keeps you going !

Smaklig måltid.


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