The road became ever more barren and bumpy, the tarmac scarred and pitted by the retreating ice and frost. Surely we'd missed the hotel now. My girlfriend remained calm – “Just keep going,” she said, “can't be far now.” We were deep in the mountains just a few miles from the Norwegian border. “This can't be right,” I said quietly, mostly to myself. “A luxury hotel, out here?”
Just then we saw the sign for Fjällnäs, guiding us off the road to the left and down towards some modest buildings on the edge of a vast lake. “Doesn't look that luxury to me,” I said, as I nudged the car towards an unprepossessing 'reception' sign.
My doubts were well-founded and based entirely on experience. Outside the major urban metropolises Sweden doesn't really do luxury hotels. I've spent many hours on the road in Sweden in search of great food and outstanding accommodation and found only the former.
Don't get me wrong – the hotels have all been spotlessly clean. But they've lacked any sort of pizzazz, any hint of indulgence or care. They've usually reminded me of hotels in rural Ireland or the mid-west of America – perfectly acceptable for slumber but not places in which you'd care to linger.
Why is this, in a country which prides itself on its design heritage? I think it's something to do with the principle of lagom, where Swedes are uncomfortable with themselves, or anyone else for that matter, having too much of anything, instead preferring to plump for 'just enough'. It's not necessarily a terrible tenet to use as a rudder to guide civic life but as a precept for the hospitality sector it stinks.
Fjällnäs, however, takes lagom, gives it a vigorous shake, unceremoniously ejects it into the pure, glacial air and tells it never to darken its doorway again. Fjällnäs is, in short, one of the great small hotels of the world. It may be tucked away in a fold of the map of Sweden and it may not boast extravagant architecture but Fjällnäs is everything a small enclave of comfort should be.
The rooms for a start, are simply but beautifully furnished and reek of understated quality. The bathrobes are Missoni, the bathroom products DharmaZone, the artworks bespoke. The rooms, with their vast vistas and expansive beds really do encourage one to dilly-dally These are rooms built for leisure.
Tucked away behind the plain doors of the reception building is another Fjällnäs treasure – its restaurant, a tenderly renovated, wooden cathedral devoted to the worship of food.
And what food. The reindeer steak I had on our second evening was beyond sensational. I have eaten steaks everywhere from Montana to Texas, from Buenos Aires to Brisbane – not one has come close to the reindeer steak at Fjällnäs, not one. Our starter, bleak roe with green peas, onion, fries and bechamel, really shouldn't have worked but did, wonderfully.
The Nordic cuisine here is not gimmicky. If they can source great local ingredients (such as the reindeer) they will; if not they will look further afield. What matters to them is that the ingredients are terrific.
It's not just about the food and lodging, however; Fjällnäs offers a holy trinity – it has an award-winning spa too. Mii Gullo, in which I enjoyed a massage unlike any I'd had for at least three years, is set 100 metres or so away from the main complex. Once you've been de-stressed at the hands of one of the masseurs, you can drift off to the heated external plunge pool which affords sumptuous views of the valley and lake. It's an implausibly fabulous way to spend an hour.
Fjällnäs is Sweden's oldest mountain hotel but, until the current owners, a former entrepreneur and his teacher wife, lavished time, money and care on it, it was in distress, run-down and dying, a mere shade of its former incarnation as a royal retreat. Now its glory is restored, and it's a bona-fide great Swedish country hotel.
It's also one of those very rare Swedish things – an unmissable destination hotel slap-bang in the middle of nowhere.