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Northern Light: Stockholm

Stockholm, Sweden's alluring capital, charms its visitors with delightful attractions. by Robert La Bua

(above: The elegantly appointed suites at Berns exude the best of Stockholm Style).

Some cities enjoy splendid natural settings, others a rich architectural patrimony, still others a balmy climate. For Stockholm, two out of three is not bad at all. Often called the Venice Of The North, Stockholm is a visually impressive city built on fourteen islands linked by waterways and bridges. At the same time, it is a unique city not to be compared with any other; the Venetians residing in the Stockholm Of The South would probably agree that Stockholm is worthy of its own nickname.

(above: The Blasieholmstorg Horse Statue is just one of Stockholm's exquisite pieces of public art). The residents of Sweden's lively capital know they have it good and enjoy themselves and their city's abundant offerings. With an efficient public transport system and a compact city centre, it is easy to get around to explore the charms of Stockholm, of which there are many. One such charm, really, is the Swedes themselves, often dismissed along with their fellow Scandinavians as rather stoic and humourless. Stoic yes, but humourless, not at all. Swedes love a good laugh as much as anyone, but the same subtlety that has made Swedish design so popular across the world extends to the national humour; pay attention, or wry jokes may slip right by you and Swedes may wonder why you have no sense of humour.

Stockholm, a city endowed with so many museums it would take a lifetime supply of meatballs and grovlimpa bread to get through them all, revels in its cultural offerings. Among them is the remarkable Millesgården, the former studio (shown above) and residence of sculptor Carl Milles.

Milles is better known in the art world and the world in general than most other Scandinavian sculptors; he actually lived in the United States for twenty years as Head of the Department of Sculpture at the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan and left an impressive body of work in that country. Before his death in 1955, Milles returned to his villa on Lidingö (Liding Island) just outside Stockholm. Here, on the splendid stone-paved terrace now overlooking the less splendid industrial works across the water (what would Carl think today...maybe, "Keep looking UP!?"), Milles' sculptures are meant to be seen against the sky. Preferably blue, not grey.

(above: Carl Milles' sculptures are a must-see). Which brings up the weather. In Scandinavia, summer is a season to rejoice in Nature and the outdoors. Would you believe winter is regarded as the same? If thoughts of cross-country skiing or snow-trekking make you shiver, take solace in the Scandinavian tradition of indoor cosiness; candles glow bright during the dark winter days, giving an atmospheric warm glow to windows around Stockholm's picturesque Gamla Stan (Old Town) as shown below:

Winter is also time when the world's intellectual élite get cosy and turn their attention to Stockholm for the famous Nobel Prizes, awarded each December to recognise excellence in human achievement. Who was Alfred Nobel? Born into a privileged Swedish family in 1833, the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel accumulated no less than 355 patents during his lifetime. He became a fabulously wealthy man as a result of his scientific genius. Money, though, did not buy happiness. Horrified by the unintended applications of dynamite for malicious purposes (he invented it to blast through rock to facilitate engineering projects), Nobel died a disappointed man. He also died childless, leaving his vast fortune to The Nobel Foundation, the body that oversees the Nobel Prizes to this day. For a look at the history of Nobel the man and his work, The Nobel Museum in Gamla Stan is well worth a visit. This is a superb display of personal and professional history of both Nobel and the Nobel laureates. Among the most evocative experiences is the Listening Room, where you can hear the Nobel laureates' actual acceptance speeches. (below: The Nobel Medallion).

Another Nobel site worth a visit is Stadhuset, Stockholm's city hall. Austere on the outside, it is far less so on the inside. Stadhuset was built in the style of an Italian villa; the vast room used as the venue for the Nobel dinner was intended to be an open-air piazza, but the architect was obliged to recognise the fact that Stockholm does not enjoy the same climate as Portofino. The Gyllene Salen is the magnificent golden hall in which the actual ceremony takes place. (below: Here I am in Stockhom's Gyllene Salen).

Don't get the impression that Sweden is exclusively cerebral, however. Though the country is renowned for the beauty of its women, it has been the handsomeness of Swedish men that has garnered worldwide attention. Several Swedes are among the leading male models in the world, bringing in billions of euros in revenue for the clothing companies they represent, not to mention a few for themselves. While the term 'supermodel' has been thrown around for years in reference to the likes of legends such as Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, and Gisele Bundchen, there has been only one male supermodel and his name is Marcus Schenkenberg, a Swede of Dutch descent. Other Swedish faces and pectorals familiar to fashion aficionados are Alex Lundqvist, he of Guess? advertisements, and Julien Hedquist, famous for Dior's Higher fragrance advertising campaign.

(above: Swedish supermodel Julien Hedquist). Fashion is a topic of careful deliberation in Stockholm; any stroll down the very stylish Birger Jarlsgatan will tell you that. Stockholm is a city where urbane men pay as close attention to their appearances as do women―much to the entertainment of their rural brethren. The male fashion industry is big business in Sweden; when the nonchalance of Scandinavian summer clotheslessness is replaced by the very serious consideration of a new autumn/winter wardrobe, the guys spend big money on the latest goods to look as hip as the ladies they are trying to impress. Stockholm's beauty around town also extends to its hotels. In fact, the design hotel concept seems to thrive here as the number of chic establishments continues to grow each year. They all have their international charm, but Stockholm has some unique hotel options that shouldn't be missed. Berns Hotel continues to exert its power over both the city's hotel scene and its nightlife. It's no wonder; a combination of excellent position, friendly staff, welcoming rooms and historic ambience make it a very appealing choice for visitors to what has become one of Europe's most stylish cities.

(above: Super-trendy hotel Berns). Rooms at Berns are creatively designed and decorated; despite the artistic inspiration of the accommodation, though, the hotel's pièce de résistance is its spectacular restaurant, Berns Asiatiska, where Asian-influenced food is served in an enormous, classically European 19th-century dining hall illuminated by massive chandeliers. In contrast to the large scale of the dining hall is the very intimate Red Room, a parlour where famed Swedish author August Strindberg and his friends would gather for discussion and conversation. The public image of the hotel is its strongest attraction to the members of the art, fashion and music industries who favour Berns for its convenient location as much as for its nightclub and calendar of in-house events that have made it the premier destination hotel in the Swedish capital.

Found in the centre of the city facing the pocket-size Berzelii Park at the foot of Birger Jarlsgatan, Stockholm's most fashionable shopping street, Berns provides easy access to the sights as well as to the popular day-cruises and other boat excursions departing from the quays along the Nybroviken waterfront adjacent to the park. Several museums are within a short walking distance, including the impressive Hallwyl Museum across the street from the park.

Perhaps it is the country in the city location that makes Villa Källhagen (above) a favourite among locals wanting a special experience without leaving their beautiful city, though it could be the fine dining itself that attracts patrons to the hotel's restaurant on the waterfront of the Djurgårdsbrunn parkland just a short walk from Stockholm's Diplomatstaden embassy district. (below: Relax in cosy style at Villa Källhagen).

The hotel and function centre's position is a major reason why this low-key establishment is a preferred venue for corporate events in the Swedish capital, not to mention discreet conversations among diplomats from the nearby embassies. Villa Källhagen (pronounced SHELL-hahgen) manages to embody everything good about Stockholm and Sweden in a single location. The Villa provides the connection to Nature so highly prized in Swedish culture, yet it remains convenient to the sights of Stockholm. The 36 rooms which emphasise simplicity and functionality over size and ostentation; they are also good value for money. (below: Settle in by the open fire at Villa Källhagen).

Room 9, at the end of the corridor and closest to the water, is especially tranquil. An easy walk along the shore of Djurgårdsbrunnsviken takes strollers to Stockholm's exclusive Strandvägen boulevard and toward the bridge to the Vasa Museum, Skansen, the ABBA Museum and the many other attractions found in fascinating Djurgården.

Closer still is the complex of museums next door to Villa Källhagen which includes the Maritime Museum, the Technology Museum, the Museum of Ethnography, the National Museum of Sport, and the historical Police Museum. A young, dynamic general manager, Mr Victor Olin, has brought his international expertise home to Stockholm to ensure his clientele are happy when they arrive at Villa Källhagen and satisfied when they depart. (below: Exceptional cuisine and service await you at Villa Källhagen, famous for its seasonal offerings and special occasion spreads. Christmas is a specialty).

Having studied Mandarin in Beijing, Mr Olin's affinity for Chinese culture makes Villa Källhagen a particular favourite for Chinese-related events in the city. Devoid of the skyscraper hotels found in most urban locations around the world, Stockholm must rely on natural rather than man-made elevation for special views across this beautiful city. (below: Spectacular Strandvagen).

Meanwhile, guests staying at Hilton Stockholm Slussen, located on a high bluff across from the picturesque Gamla Stan (Old Town), enjoy one of the finest panoramas in the city. Hilton's property in the capital of Sweden, a country where smart interior design is highly appreciated, offers well-designed bedrooms with chic marble bathrooms. Guests staying on executive floors have access to the top floor executive lounge, though the expansive lobby on the ground floor also doubles as a sociable gathering place. Rooms facing north are the ones with the best views of the waterways and islands that characterise Stockholm; also visible are most of the city's principal landmarks, including the Stadhuset. As elsewhere in Scandinavia, Stockholm now has a thriving culinary scene. Restaurants strive to outdo each other, and the fine Eken Matsal restaurant within Hilton Slussen more than meets the challenge with an appealing menu of food and drink, some of it international, some of it uniquely and fabulously Swedish. (below: A Swedish moment...Sunset with Nordiska Museet).

Wherever you stay, whatever the season, make sure to take a ride in a very different kind of art gallery. The Blue Line of the Tunnelbana (Stockholm metro system) is a tourist attraction in itself, with exposed bedrock and unusually decorated stations that put the beauty of Stockholm at your disposal from the royal palace at Drottningholm to the funfair at Skansen.

First, though, is another kind of transport worth your time. Scandinavian Airlines offers nonstop flights from Hong Kong to Stockholm and connecting flights from Beijing to Stockholm via Copenhagen.

The new Scandinavian Airlines service from Hong Kong to Stockholm is one of the airline's most important developments in recent years. It is always nice to fly with the airline of the country to be visited as an introduction to what awaits at the destination and so it is with SAS, an apt harbinger of how things work in Sweden. For one, there is free WiFi on board; as one of the world's most connected nations, Sweden is a place where internet connectivity is not seen as a commodity but rather a vital aspect of modern life. Business Class seats are well designed and engineered for practicality as well as comfort, with enough space to work on a laptop without feeling crowded. Plus, what could be more Swedish than reindeer filet, one of the menu options for dinner?

If Business Class is not an option, the Premium Economy experience is very comfortable, especially if seated in the front row of the Premium Economy cabin where the legroom is more than ample. The meal and beverage service is surprisingly comprehensive; food and drink are served by a friendly, professional cabin crew. Another reflection of Swedish culture comes with advanced technology; online check-in and no checked baggage means it is possible to proceed directly to Security and then to the gate; a number of apps and mobile services further smooth the passenger experience.

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