Niehku Mountain Villas Heli Skiing Sweden

With Niehku Mountain Villas, two Swedish ski bums realize a dream.

Photography by Mattias Fredriksson

You’ve doubtless heard of Fäviken, Magnus Nilsson’s mystical Michelin three-starred eatery in the Swedish hinterlands. But other Swedish gastronomes are also making magic in the middle of Scandinavian nowhere. Like Patrik “the Sock” Strömsten, entering his thirty-seventh season in the wonderfully isolated Lappland ski resort of Riksgränsen, high above the Arctic Circle. “I serve wine at night, ski during the day, and get paid for it,” says the congenial ex-mogul skier, describing his vocation in more prosaic terms.

Strömsten set a hospitality benchmark in 2005 when he opened Meteorlogen Ski Lodge and Restaurant in Riksgränsen’s oldest building—a restored 1903 customs station where he’d once dwelt in squalor as a young ski bum. The boutique lodge filled from the outset with well-heeled ski-tourers and heli-skiers, plus their guides. The celebrated restaurant, showcasing food of the land, was a sensation–its wine cellar equally so, with Strömsten awarded Sweden’s Sommelier of the Year for a second time in 2014. Meteorlogen’s runaway success convinced Strömsten of an unfulfilled market. “It showed me how many adventurers like to sleep in a good bed and drink a nice glass of wine,” he sums.

Niehku Mountain Villas
Niehku Mountain Villas

With the conversion of historic buildings into world-class lodging and dining establishments suddenly his jam, Strömsten took aim at a disintegrating roundabout that once served the iron-ore railway that has run daily through Riksgränsen for over a century. Teaming up with mountain guide pal Johan “Jossi” Lindblom and retired builder Clas Darvik, the trio opened Niehku Mountain Villa in spring 2018. With only fourteen rooms, a Michelin-aimed kitchen, and Strömsten’s wine-cellar savvy, it was instantly the planet’s most exclusive and luxurious heli-ski lodge, yet still reflected the grassroots vibe of Riksgränsen’s early days as a far-flung spring ski destination. The old roundhouse’s semicircular stone wall now passes through the lodge’s deck, lobby and kitchen as a fascinating architectural anchor. Interior design draws inspiration from the stone in combination with other natural materials, colors, and the cultural traditions of Lappland’s Sami people. Throughout its restaurant, bar, lounges and other facilities, Niehku retains a personal, relaxed ambience.

Comfort be damned, of course, Niehku wouldn’t exist but for skiing. Out the front door you fly into a five thousand square kilometer wilderness of over sixty skiable peaks. “I’ve guided all over the world, but kept being drawn back to these incredible mountains,” reflects Lindblom, who oversees the ski product. “I knew we could deliver some of the best heli-skiing and ski-touring imaginable.”

We’d bolted out for a couple of hours of midnight-sun heliskiing the evening we’d arrived, enjoying chalky snow in warm light. Next day we’d flown deeper into the range, our seemingly endless first run demonstrating how deceptively big the vertical was. Our next drop was close to Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest peak, where we skied a north-facing cirque of cold, knee-deep snow onto a long, sloping glacier. Grouping up in the sunny valley, a soft zephyr kept temperatures just above freezing as we enjoyed a superb lunch of pork and potato soup, eaten with a compostable wooden “spork”, and sandwiches featuring homemade bread and butter; dessert was the n’est plus ultra of Lappland cuisine—a cloudberry muffin. Another half-dozen runs and we’d headed back over the enchanting, chocolate-chip sweep of Arctic Lappland.

At dinner that night—always a set menu, unless you have dietary concerns—we enjoyed mussels, reindeer, chanterelles and other delights, learning more of Niehku’s backstory as Strömsten poured wine between courses. He’d met Lindblom in 1993 and the two hit it off, forming a raucous local rock band known for spontaneous nudity. Other hi-jinks ensued. “Thirty years ago, Jossi and I used to boulder on this rock,” Strömsten recalls wistfully, pointing to the old wall. “We left a few liters of blood on it.”

The catalyst for the lodge was Clas, a long-time client of Jossi’s. One day in 2012, with heli-skiing canceled due to weather, Clas skied down the backside of Riksgränsen and first saw the old roundhouse. He immediately suggested to Patrik and Jossi that they do something with it, perhaps build a hotel. They said “Sure,” not realizing that six years on that wild, in-the-moment idea would come to fruition.

Niehku Mountain Villas Heli Skiing
Niehku Mountain Villas Heli Skiing

Niehku’s award-winning architecture and many masterful elements celebrate the past by adding value to historical structures in a modern design context—a plexiglass-covered, converted coal-pit wine cellar in the restaurant’s center, massive timber amalgams supporting a log-beam roof, and an iron woodstove in the style of a locomotive boiler in the lobby. The design also plays to the strengths of the land—you can watch late light pool on snowy hillsides without having it pour in through the massive arched windows to violate the dining area’s intimacy. In March, while the sun still sets, you can sit in a glass sauna nursing a branded Niehku beer as Northern Lights streak the sky. Niehku means “dream” in the Sami language, and no more perfect word describes a place where such improbable Arctic luxury and ski adventure come together.