Britta Lindvall recalls her first childhood memory – she is crossing a small river, walking through the forest, along with her siblings and their friends. They stumble upon a tree house, high up among the branches, and it seems even higher from the little girl’s point of view. ‘I remember everything from that particular moment: the sound of rustling leaves under my feet, the smell of the forest, the colors – everything,’ Britta tells me. ‘And I once asked my friend who was with us that day, if she remembered what year was it, and it turned out I was just 3 years old. It is truly amazing that I remember that tree house so clearly!’ Britta grew up across the river from where the Harads Tree Hotel stands nowadays.
Sweden is a country where most children learn to ski at the age of 3 and spend a lot of free time climbing trees, eating whatever they find growing in the wilderness, subsequently having mild stomach troubles and learning lessons from the nature. From early childhood here, you know how to navigate through the woods and build forest shelters. It is no wonder that somebody in this country came up with the glorious idea of a Tree Hotel. After all, every hunting season in the autumn, people in Sweden construct makeshift tree platforms to spy and shoot the moose.
But indeed, tree chalets and jungle houses are no rarity to modern travel industry: you can find them in African savannah, on the Southeast Asian coast, in the Caribbean – most of them around the world are intended for warm vacations or jungle survival courses, inspired by traditional architecture and hippie lifestyle. What makes Tree Hotel in Harads special and unique, is its northern location just 30 kilometers from the Polar circle. This is where the magic begins: in the summer, you get the cold midnight sun, and in winter that takes up the longer part of the year, Aurora Borealis shines above your head like some extraterrestrial light. The summer here offers swimming and hiking through the forest, whereas in winter the Tree Hotel organises dog sledding, skiing and snowmobile drives – also, you can have snowball fights as much as you wish.
‘Don’t you get tired of the prolonged winter here?’ I asked Maya, a girl who came to work here from the Baltics.
’It bothered me a little in the beginning. But then, there is so much to do, and it’s not that we have the slushy and wet winter like down in the south of Sweden. Here, in Harads, the snow is always white and thick, and it is beautiful,’ she says. Maya has been working at the Tree Hotel from the very start, and saw the first tree houses being constructed and elevated above the ground.
The Tree Hotel was inspired by a 2007 documentary film Tradalskaren (film in Swedish available on YouTube) by Jonas Selberg Augustsén, that presents the new generation of Scandinavian free thinkers who build a tree house and explore the historical and mythological significance of trees in our life. After all, it is Scandinavian mythology that features Yggdrasil, the center of cosmology and the tree of life. The roots or Yggdrasil are gnawed upon by the dragon Níðhöggr, at the top sits the magical eagle and four stags that munch on Yggdrasil’s leaves from above, and Ratatoskr the squirrel carries messages between the roots and the treetop.
‘It all really began when my wife, along with her work as a nurse, started running a small wooden guesthouse in Harads, back in 2004,’ Kent, Britta’s husband, recounts the story of how the Tree Hotel came to be, as we are drinking tea in the spacious dining hall, the wood crackling in the fireplace. It feels like home here, not like in somebody else’s home, but just as if it was your own home. ‘And after our friend built his tree house and made a film about it, we asked him to let us use it for a while. But that house was unsuitable for cold weather, so we reckoned we could think of something more suitable for the Nordic winter.’
Kent and Britta travelled a lot: she worked in Russia, in the Kola peninsula in the mid-nineties, helping to build the first hospice in the small town of Apatity. There is a Russian certificate of merit in her name, on the wall behind me, thanking Britta Lindvall for her dedicated work in Apatity. Kent travelled to many places around the world following his passion for fly fishing: from Patagonia to Cuba, he organised groups of other enthusiasts to join him. It was on one of those trips when he shared the idea of the Tree Hotel with his designer friends, and so it began.
A lot of thought and designer talent has been put into the construction of Harads Tree Hotel, in order to make it winterproof, summerproof, rainproof, sustainable – and even invisible. The proximity to the river and abundance of natural resources makes it easier to run the Tree Hotel in the most green way possible, maintaining the natural circulation of elements. Instead of running tap water, the houses are equipped with a ‘rukomoinik’ – Kent still remembers this word from his multiple trips to Russia – a water container with a large pin that allows you to release small quantities of water with one light push. In Russia, you will not only see these on long-distance trains, but people also improvise ‘rukomoinik’ out of plastic bottles on camping trips.
‘It fits around one litre of water, and we are trying to show to our guests that this is really all they need,’ Kent tells me and two other guests as we walk around the tree houses the following morning. ‘We do believe that a lot of our guests choose to stay at the Tree Hotel not just because it is a house on top of a tree, but because of the ecological aspect. Trees is something that reminds you of childhood, treehouse is the ultimate freedom.’
They both tried living in a city. Britta once worked as a nurse in Boden, a bigger town to the east of Harads, but she never understood how people could stay in apartment blocks, without having their own door to the backyard garden. For a very long time, she worked with several NGOs that were developing the area around Harads. This region was first inhabited by settlers in medieval times, but was never a popular travel destination until the development of the Tree Hotel.
‘We belong here, you know,’ Britta tells me. ‘Kent grew up here, he knows every root in the forest, every path, every hill. And the guests can feel it, and this is what they love about this place. 5% of our guests come back again, even from such remote countries as Australia or US, and in Christmas time and until late February we are almost fully booked. Once, one of the foreign visitors ran into the dining hall for breakfast, excited and baffled: ‘I saw some very very big sheep under my tree house!’ Britta laughs as she remembers one of the wildlife encounters at the Tree Hotel. ‘Of course, those were reindeer. Sometimes they walk around here’.
Among the most remarkable guests of the Tree Hotel are the Swedish crown princess Victoria and British model Kate Moss. American Vogue did a fashion shoot here, along with many other brands and magazines that come to the Harads Tree Hotel for photography and filming.
‘We get a lot of emails from famous brands, but we are rather selective about who we let in. We refuse to host the companies that do not fit into our ideology and philosophy of responsible and sustainable development,’ Kent explains to me.
The Tree Hotel consists of six tree houses, a sauna, and one big wooden guesthouse where Kent and Britta’s business started and where the guests have their meals and sit in front of the fireplace. I wonder if the family is planning to expand their business and build more tree houses in the future.
‘I do not think so,’ Kent says. ‘We prefer to keep it small and cosy, as much as we can manage with our team.’
‘I am this kind of person,’ Britta admits, ’that strives to do something new every several years, to make changes around me. We started running the Tree Hotel 5 five years ago, and it requires our attention seven days a week. It was not only a big money investment, but it continues to be a colossal emotional investment’.
It is at this point I realise that Tree Hotel is an idea rather than just a place or a business enterprise. An idea that sparked into someone’s mind and luckily grew to become a material manifestation of a childhood memory, a fantasy of living closer to nature. Through bank loans, government approvals, construction contracts, designer plans – the Tree Hotel came to be the Nordic dream that it is now.
And, as any dream, it is not going to last forever. Like the mythological Yggdrasil tree, slowly gnawed upon from below and from above, the Tree Hotel is a finite idea.
‘We never planned it as something that would last forever,’ Britta looks at my disappointed face and smiles. ‘It is all about the age, too. The Tree Hotel became possible for us because our children grew up and we had enough time to dedicate it to our dream. But our children will not take over it, because no young person wants to manage a guesthouse 7 days a week’.
Kent and Britta’s daughter, Sofia, had studied drama and acting, but eventually returned to Harads to help her parents at the Tree Hotel. She still travels to the nearby city of Luleå and does not abandon her acting talent, but her heart lies in this little town a stone throw away from the Arctic circle. She says, however, that she would not take over her parents’ business.
‘My parents also had their business,’ Britta continues to explain, ‘and none of us, children, took over it, simply because we wanted to do other things in life. Same with our kids – we discussed it all together’.
‘Isn’t it a bit pessimistic?’ I ask.
’Not at all,’ Britta laughs. ‘If I were a pessimist I would never have started this in the first place. It is just the realistic view of things. You think it is strange?’
‘I don’t know. It is a tree. It is supposed to grow and spread its branches through centuries.’
‘I know. But we planted this idea just 5 years ago. Our children did not grow up with it. For them, it is as new as it is for us.’
‘Maybe your grandchildren will have a chance to grow up with the tree houses around them,’ I suggest.
‘But by then we are 75,’ Britta smiles. ‘We have three grandchildren, and although we do love our work, our goal is to spend more time with our family than with our guests. You are young, and life looks different when you are 60. Tree hotel is more than just work for us, we are living it, but as you grow older you learn what is most important in your life, and for us it is family’.
Maybe that’s what it’s all about. Not just the sustainable tree constructions shaped like a UFO, a Mirror Cube, a Bird’s Nest. Tree Hotel is about living in the moment, contemplating the fleeting natural beauty, and never forgetting that nothing is forever.
I want to address special thanks to Kent and Britta Lindvall for welcoming me in their house and telling so many inspiring stories. Also Sofia and Maya for chatting with me and sharing what the Tree Hotel means for them.
Everyone, follow this link to read more about the Harads Tree Hotel and Sweden.