It's almost February in Sweden, and the country's skiers are chomping at the bit to take to the slopes.
While many ski areas have been covered in snow since December, February is the month when Swedes really hit their stride on the country's myriad of ski hills as it coincides with Sportlovet ('winter sports holiday').
First instituted during World War II to save on heating costs by closing the country's schools, the Sportlovet break, which occurs between the week starting February 14th and the week ending March 18th depending on where you live, has evolved into the prime time for Swedish families to plan their winter getaways.
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And without wishing to drown under an avalanche of clichés, when it comes to skiing, Sweden has something to offer for everyone, from the day tripping beginner to the adrenalin seeking off-pister.
Almost without exception, every resort comes with a snow guarantee, and while the perennial favourites still tend to be Åre, Sälen, and Idre, if you have the time and imagination there are jewels to found and experiences to be had that few others can match.
As most of the population lives in or around Stockholm, there are several possibilities for a whole day on the piste, or a one-night stay offering two full days of skiing.
A number of resorts in Dalarna in central Sweden and Gävleborg in the east can be reached in less than three hours from the capital. The best of these are Kungsberget (17 runs, 10 lifts), Romme Alpin (23 runs, 11 lifts) or Bjursås (20 runs, 8 lifts) which was one of Sweden’s first resorts to focus on snowboarding. Meanwhile, Säfsen (16 runs, 6 lifts) offers a less busy alternative.
Sweden’s largest and best known resort is Åre. Renowned as the country’s ski Mecca and host to the 2007 World Championships, it is the perennial favourite for skiers of all abilities and the best place to head for if your holiday is about more than just the daytime activities.
After-ski generally is not as wild in Sweden as other countries, but Åre guarantees as much fun for the party animal as for the ski buff. With its 111 runs and 41 lifts, it is easily the largest and most established resort, and with good transport links by air and train it’s unlikely to lose its crown in the coming years.
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Ten-time Swedish skiing champion Olle Rolén has little doubt that Åre is the best place in Sweden to ski.
"Åre is my favourite, because it has all types of runs to suit everyone, from the beginner to the expert.The lift system is fantastic and being updated continually and when you are not skiing it is the best place for entertainment as well," he says.
Rolén, who has represented his country in three Winter Olympics adds that it is not all just about downhill.
"There are long runs for cross country, as well as great possibilities for non skiers like dog sledding, ice fishing and more," he adds.
Closer to Stockholm, Sälen (111 pistes, 83 lifts) can be reached from the capital by road in less than seven hours and has a wide range of conditions to test everyone from the most timid learner to the bravest risk taker.
It is split to a series of different resorts: Lindvallen, Högfjället, Tandådalen, and Hundfjället, which are operated by Skistar, as well as independently run Kläppen and Stöten.
Each has its own highlight, either on or off-piste, but if you are with a family, Stöten in particular is ideal.
With ski-in ski-out accommodation and for the younger ones, facilities such as an indoor swimming pool, a bowling alley and plenty of evening activities all in a small safe area, it gives both kids and parents a chance to enjoy themselves.
Even the most snow loving family sometimes reaches its tolerance limit, so if that sounds familiar, then another Dalarna destination, Orsa Grönklitt could be a good option. Besides the family friendly resort with 23 runs and 12 lifts, there is a safari park with bears, tigers and other wild cats close by.
If convenience is a major factor, then few resorts can better Hemavan-Tärnaby (45 pistes, 14 lifts). The skiing, like most other places in the region is excellent, Hemavan perhaps a little more gentle, but what sets this pair of resorts apart from the others is that they have their own tiny airport. You can literally walk off the plane and into your Hemavan hotel.
Further north, you can find Riksgränsen (16 runs 6 lifts), which is located above the Arctic Circle and claims to be Sweden's northernmost ski area. A longstanding favourite for the kind of skiers who don’t like to stick to the normal peak period, it is possible to ski here until May, where the days are so long you can be on the slopes from dawn till dusk. At Riksgränsen, off-piste and more independent skiing is especially popular, as is heli-skiing.
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Another popular spot in the vicinity is Björkliden (25 pistes, 5 lifts). With similarly good skiing conditions a trip here can be augmented with a stay in the world famous Ice Hotel near Kiruna, a dog sledding safari or a close-up look at the Northern Lights.
Skiing in Sweden also offers the chance to really get away from it all. If you are keen on avoiding busy pistes, lift queues and a rowdy after-ski, there are several choices available, not least the picturesque Abisko, not far from Riksgränsen.
It is a tiny resort, with just a single lift, but here you can take a break from skiing and get close to nature with a horse ride or even try your hand at ice fishing.
Another hidden wilderness-style gem is Svanstein Ski (5 lifts, 16 pistes), located on the Arctic Circle at the Finnish border. Again the attraction is more what isn’t there rather than what is, but if you want an experience to win bragging rights at the next dinner party, this could be the one.
For those seeking adventure, Kittelfjäll is almost unbeatable. The area is a snow paradise, known as much for its heli-ski as for its pistes. Trips take to the skies starting in late-January. Meanwhile you can also take the weight off your feet for a day and unleash your "inner cowboy" with a “western” horse riding trip, test your snow scooter driving skills, or even try mountaineering.
And finally, if you fancy yourself a true pro (or some kind of thrill-seeking masochist), there is the ski jump centre in Falun, which will host the World Nordic Ski Championships in 2015.
While ski jumping is not something for beginners, despite the performance of UK-native and near-novice Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards at the 1988 Winter Olympics, Sweden is apparently looking to train the next generation of jumpers there.
Of course, Sweden may not boast the conditions to match the Alps down on the continent, but this country does have a charm and another take on winter sports that few others can match – if not always on the snow, than certainly off it.
A selection of Swedish ski resorts
National Ski Centre in Falun
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