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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Sweden.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Sweden.
It lies 400 miles north of Stockholm, in forested wilds where only three people live per square mile, yet Faviken has become one of Scandinavia’s most prized restaurants. In a candlelit barn, chef Magnus Nilsson serves a 32-course tasting menu that represents the apogee of New Nordic cuisine.
Foraging, fishing, hunting and preserving, he transforms ingredients from the surrounding land and lakes into works of beauty: dishes such as spruce ice cream and scallops served atop a smoking bed of juniper. You can also sleep here in rooms named after animals and made cosy with fur throws.
Our plane nosed down through a layer of ice fog and shuddered hard, as if at the sudden view: a mist-shredded scrap of forest, all but buried in snow. “Welcome to the Arctic,” the pilot said, as we bumped down on a runway of ice and packed powder.
It was the end of January, and we had arrived in Kiruna, the northernmost town in Sweden. It lies three degrees of latitude north of Fairbanks, Alaska, and 100 miles above the Arctic Circle. Around us, snow-clad forest spread away for 100,000 square miles. Squalls shook the cabin as we taxied. The storm was out of the north-northeast, and I tried to picture where that wind had recently been: a strip of Finland, a ribbon of Norway, the Barents Sea, and before that, probably the polar ice cap. Brrr.
We had been traveling from Denver for 18 hours straight. “Tell me again,” I said to my wife, Kim. “Why are we coming to the Arctic in the middle of winter? I mean, when there are places in the world like, say, Barbados?”
“To see the aurora borealis,” she answered cheerfully. She loves the cold, she says—it wakes her up.
Minutes later we were escorted out of the squat airport building toward a pack of dogs that stood, yelping, just yards from the runway. An apple-cheeked guide named Espen Hamnvik, who wore a fur-trimmed parka, handed us each a coat, heavy snow pants, a hat, and boots. “There is your sled, Kim. Pete, this is yours,” he said. “There are your dogs.” After showing us how to use the brakes on our sleds, he gave a mittened thumbs-up and mushed off into the snowy woods. Our Alaskan huskies were ready to run, and they barked and yowled and strained against their ropes. Another guide yanked the lines loose, the sleds jerked, and we were off, running free over the fresh snow. Into the heart of Swedish Lapland.
What we had come for, aside from the northern lights, was a taste of authentic Sami culture, and an understanding of why the northern Swedes are so crazy about winter. We’d stay first at a remote lodge accessible in winter only by dog team or snowmobile; then we’d take a train two hundred miles south to the coastal town of Luleå, where we’d sleep in Sami-style canvas tents—yes, tents—and from there we’d move to the vertiginous Treehotel. Along the way, we’d be outside most of the time, and we’d try not to lose any digits to the cold.
My dogs were littler than I’d expected, the size of border collies—two piebald sisters up front, two brown brothers behind. Just four. They were running so fast that I had to grip the handlebar as hard as I could. The trail was narrow and twisting, through trees with limbs that were shagged and bent with snow. There were sudden swoops and dips, branches to duck under. The dogs careened around the corners and we almost capsized; they charged down hills. My eyelashes were sticking together. “What are these beasts?” I wondered. Every time I stepped on the claw brake to slow down, one of the lead dogs, tongue out, threw a look back over her shoulder, and I could read her thought like a cartoon balloon: Dude! WTF? Let me run!
I grew up on Jack London’s tales of the Arctic, on Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf. From those books I took an image of a sled driving behind a team of 12 or 14 dogs, lined up in polar twilight. Big, fluffy dogs that looked like wolves. Our Alaskan huskies, which look nothing like the Hollywood Siberians, were bred for racing over long distances at great speed. They are the marathon runners of the dog world, and like marathon runners, they are slight and slender and swift, and can’t think of anything more fun than running for hours. Their enthusiasm was infectious. We swished out of the trees and onto a wide frozen lake. It was 10:05 a.m. and the light was muted, like the onset of dusk. The wind was driving the snow sideways, and I lost the lead sled in the squall. Then there was only white—above, below. Only the smooth slip and jostle of the wood runners underfoot, the biting frost on cheeks, the panting of the dogs. As if we had taken flight and were suspended in a storm.
The Sami people are an indigenous, historically nomadic community, and have been herding reindeer in the Arctic for several thousand years. To them, the aurora borealis has always been a solemn display. Traditionally, they’ve believed that the lights are the spirits of their ancestors, and that if anyone sinful shows his face or acts disrespectfully when the lights appear, it could anger the spirits and bring bad luck on the people. Some parents still keep their bad children indoors during the light shows.
But the aurora has gotten a lot of good press lately—perhaps because the displays get stronger in 11-year cycles, and the last two years have been prodigious. But I think it’s more to do with our visually obsessed culture. Anything spectacularly photogenic, anything that can dazzle in a single image, rises to the top. The aurora is the Giselle of natural wonders. The Grand Canyon, Iguazú Falls, Everest from Base Camp—none can hold a candle to the aurora when she’s in her full glory. She’s become a kind of trophy on social media, and more travelers are willing to brave the northern winter to capture the prize.
We followed Espen as he turned his team into the woods; a few minutes later, he raised his mitten and called a halt. In the trees there was a small conical hut with a snowmobile parked in front. Pale smoke wreathed from the stovepipe and trailed off downwind. We tied up the sleds and went inside, to find near-smothering warmth, a popping open fire, and a veteran dogsled racer and master chef named Stefan Lundgren, who served us reindeer stew and hot lingonberry cider in birch-wood cups. I glanced at Kim. Her cheeks were chafed red with cold and her smile was bright. “Magical,” she said.
At dusk, which fell at 2:50 p.m., we ran the sleds up to a cluster of low, pine-clad buildings at the edge of another lake. This was Fjellborg Arctic Lodge, our accomodation for the night. The storm had spent itself, and candles flickered in carved ice-block sconces outside the half dozen cabins arranged around the lodge. Under two feet of fresh snow, the world looked like a scene from a Christmas card. A blazing campfire burned, and there was Stefan, ladling lingonberry cider into birch-wood cups again.
What could be better than sitting on a reindeer skin around an outdoor fire in winter with the last traces of light fading behind the treetops, and the temperature plummeting? The only sounds were the crack of flames, the creak of snow-laden trees, the murmur of quiet conversation.
Stefan showed us our digs. Our cabin had a sauna, and we baked in it. Then we sat outside in a hot tub and peered into the lidded sky, hoping it would clear for the northern lights. It didn’t. I admit I wasn’t too bothered: for dinner Stefan had made us cured-reindeer brioche, arctic char, and a dessert with three kinds of chocolate, served with rich black coffee.
Swedes do not coddle neophytes or hand out liability waiver forms—at least not up the 68th parallel north. Every day is an adventure, and they invite you to bring the best of yourself and come along. When we woke the next morning, the sky had cleared and the sun had risen to the tops of the pines, where it would skirt the southern horizon before sinking back down in a few hours’ time. Kenth Fjellborg, the proprietor of Fjellborg Arctic Lodge, showed up on a skimobile, and as Espen had done with the sleds, he kept it simple. “This is your machine. Here is the ignition. The throttle, the brake. Keep your feet tucked in here in case you tip over.” Big smile. “Okay? Let’s go!”
Kenth is a master dog-sledder and a consummate storyteller. At age 19, he apprenticed under the legendary dog-sledder Joe Runyan, in Alaska. Keith ran the Iditarod in 1994—1,100 miles through Arctic Alaska—and finished in the top 20. In 2006, he guided Prince Albert II of Monaco to the North Pole by dogsled. Kenth grew up in a tiny village 10 miles from the lodge; his family has lived in the area for nine generations. I blinked. An American cannot even conceive of staying in one spot for three hundred years; for us, a one-year lease is pushing it. Kenth, of course, can navigate this country in pitch darkness, which he often has to do in the winter months. It’s second nature for him to fish for char through the ice by headlamp, or make camp at 20 below. I asked him about his favorite thing to do in his free time and he said, “Moose hunting. It’s my Arctic-male version of yoga.”
WHAT: Jeris Family Winter Cottage Experience
WHY: Classic Finnish fun during this six-day trip includes husky safaris and a meal in an ice restaurant.
WHAT: Winter family holiday
WHY: Skiing and snowboarding, dog-sleighing and snowshoeing are all on the agenda on this eight-day Tatra Mountains trip.
WHAT: Northern Lights Adventure Break at Brandon Lodge
WHY: Expect an off-grid experience during this four-night t rip to the frozen Lulea archipelago with its 1,300 tiny islands: you’ll snowmobile on sea ice, snow-shoe and husky-sleigh in search of signs of Arctic wildlife. Staying in cabins, you can spend evenings watching for the Aurora Borealis.
WHAT: Holiday Club Hotel, Saariselka
WHY: Your base is a compact village, ideally located for taking part in wintry activities, hotel takes all the hard work out of entertaining tots with its Angry Birds activity park.
WHAT: Sport Hotel Hermitage & Spa, Soldeu
WHY: Staying in this luxury hotel means all the family have fun, whet her they hit the slopes or choose to chill out in the spa, the sun terrace, or in the restaurant tucking into the Michelin-star food. Younger guests can be amused in the kids’ club (ages four years to teens) at the neighbouring Sport Hotel.
It’s Stockholm’s hipster hangout – called Söder by locals and favored by the creative elite. A walk around this vibrant hood will throw up one-of-a-kind vintage emporiums, second-hand shops, independent boutiques, even an Indian restaurant called Gossip that promises to serve “crazy good Bengali street food”.
Stop by Herr Judit, a handsome menswear store stocked with vintage apparel and antique wooden cabinets. The distinctive smell of fine leather and burnt amber elevates your shopping experience as you sift through Pendleton plaids and Maison Margiela raincoats.
For the classic gent, Haberdash is the jam, with old-school labels like Dr. Martens, Filson and Stutterheim neatly stacked in front of granite and cacti-accented walls.
Grandpa has everything for the urban male: jeans to hoodies from labels like Velour and Neuw. After you’re done, head over to Cultur Bar & Restaurant, which exudes a speakeasy vibe and is filled with Stockholm’s most beautiful people. Order a Valmont the Second, made from a blend of Stolichnaya vodka and zingiber liqueur, and you’ll fit right in.
THE CHALLENGE – The 270-miLe Kungsleden trail is well defined and easy to follow. With the exception of the Tjaktja Pass (the highest point at 1,140m), you will only be faced with modest height gains and tosses. Hindrances include rocks, roots and boggy ground, so pay attention to your feet. There are frequent wooden boardwalks, helping hikers over boggy terrain and minimising erosion, although some of these sections are in dire need of maintenance. Local charter boats (about £18), or rowing boats (free), get you across the several large takes along the trait. Having experienced rain for at least a third of our trip, be prepared for cold, wet weather as the norm.
HOW TO GET THERE – There are direct flights to Stockholm from many UK airports. If you’re starting in Abikso and hiking south, an overnight train runs from central Stockholm through to Abisko (19 hours). It is also possible to fly to Kiruna from the UK, either direct or via Stockholm, which is much closer to Abisko.
A train or bus the rest of the journey takes just over an hour. Alternatively, if you plan to start from He-mavan in the south, internal flights from Stockholm to Hemavan and Tarnaby take approximately three hours, with low-cost Swedish airline Next Jet. Due to timings and connections, allow for a travel day at either end of your trip.
WHEN TO GO – The summer hiking season starts towards the end of June and lasts until the middle/end of September. If you want to witness the midnight sun, where you will have infinite daylight, then go before mid-July. However, if you want to avoid the worst of the mosquitoes, then go August to mid-September. The northern section is considered the most scenic, but that means it is also the most popular, so huts can be crowded during the height of summer. Beware of snowfall late in the season as this creates a muddier trait and makes river crossings more difficult. Rowing boats are usually in place by the end of June/early July, but lake crossings can be hampered by severe weather.
TIMESCALE – Because of work commitments, we completed the whole trail in three weeks, but only try that if you don’t mind hiking long days (about 16 miles). A more realistic target is 28 days, and the trail can be easily separated into four segments, each representing about a week of hiking. You may also want to allow for some spare days should the weather, fatigue or minor injury hamper progress. We were advised that for every week on the trail you should add an extra day for the unpredictable weather.
WHERE TO STAY – Sweden’s Allemansratten, or freedom to roam, means you can wild camp anywhere you like, as long as you leave the surroundings undisturbed and follow the leave no trace ethic. A good rule of thumb is to pitch your tent out of sight of houses and do not stay more than two nights in the same spot. However, if you prefer a proper bed at the end of a long day, there’s a network of mountain huts along most of the Kungsleden, primarily operated by the STF (Swedish Tourist Association). The distance between the huts is typically between 12km and 15km. The huts are simple, without electricity and running water, but comfortable, and are intended for self-catering.
They sell basic food and medical supplies. You can camp outside a hut and use the facilities if you pay a fee. Larger mountain huts, known as mountain stations, at Abisko, Saltoluokta, Kvikkjokk and Hemavan, have electricity, WiFi and hot showers as these are the main entry/exit points to the trail for section hikers. Some unmanned emergency shelters can also be found along the route, which are invaluable in extreme weather. If you are tackling the entire trail, there are no STF huts between Kvikkjokk and Ammarnas, about an 80-mile stretch, so you will need to carry a tent. Alternatively, private accommodation is available in Baverholmen, Adolfstrom and Jakkvik.
WHAT TO TAKE – If you’re staying in the huts, you don’t need to carry much more than a daypack, as you can buy food along the way and just need a sleeping bag. For the changeable weather, take a waterproof jacket and trousers. If you are intending to wild camp, make sure your tent will stand up to strong winds and wet weather. Lots of layers are key to keeping warm, both when hiking and at night. Even in August, we awoke to frost on the tent. Walking poles are not essential, but they do help you manage a full backpack. They also give you support in boggy sections where there aren’t any boardwalks.
I yelled at Wayne as he plunged the wooden oar into choppy water. Spray hit our faces as the boat cut through growing waves. I hadn’t quite got used to the fact that this journey was not all on two feet, with boat crossings forming an integral part of the trail. Thanks to his sterling rowing efforts, coupled with my attempt at navigation, we were now about halfway across Lake Teusajaure, heading for the jetty in the distance. It was late, but the wood bred sauna at Teusajaure Mountain Hut was all the motivation we needed to get us across the last 500m. Well, that and a tin of Swedish meatballs. Never underestimate the powers of a hot meal at the end of a day of hiking.
Having already crossed into the Arctic Circle, we were beginning our third week on the Kungsleden (The King’s Trail), Sweden’s premier long distance trail that winds its way between the country’s highest peaks and through its most dramatic landscapes in the far north.
Our aim was to complete the entire 270 mile trail in 21 days, which hikers we met coming in the opposite direction seemed to think was quite ambitious. No wonder we had developed a penchant for taking time out and relaxing our muscles in a hot sauna at the end of a long day’s walk (or row). The cornerstone of Swedish culture, and a completely new experience for us on the trail, we were soon well versed with sauna etiquette, adding them into our itinerary whenever possible. One of the harshest environments on our planet, the Arc tic has always struck us as a place for serious adventurers and experts.
But the King’s Trail is do able for a wide range of walkers, due to the relatively low altitudes, somewhat easy going terrain, and an extensive network of mountain huts and emergency shelters along most of the route. Sleeping in the huts, making use of their cooking facilities and topping up food supplies on the go from the boutique shops, as opposed to carrying a full backpack of camping equipment and rations, means that the trip is accessible to the everyday trail seeker. Despite its wild reputation and remote location, often described as one of the last true wildernesses in Europe, this hike is not about technical skill, but is more a test of stamina and longevity. Even if you plan to wild camp, as we did, an average hiker in moderate shape, with a taste for ad venture and a good set of walking legs, can take on the challenge and go the distance.
Characterised by craggy snow capped peaks towering above perfect u shaped valleys carpeted in light shades of green, the tremendous landscapes of the Kungsleden are reminiscent of western fells back home in the UK, except these glacial valleys are much bigger and on a far grander scale like the Lake District on steroids. Except that in the Lake District you are not woken up by a herd of reindeer foraging around your tent. The tinkling of bells from these timid, camera shy creatures was one of the best wake up calls we have experienced thus far on our hiking endeavours. We quickly discovered that reindeer are the commonest sighting on the trail (but the most difficult to photograph), closely followed by wild blueberries that at the time of our trip were ripe for picking. This meant we could supplement our 21 day diet of dried and tinned food with one nutritious superfood. On days when hiker hunger knew no bounds, those plump balls of juiciness really did keep us going.
Another plant we became familiar with was the dreaded bog cotton. Spotting these fluffy white heads alongside the trail is a sure sign of boggy ground, to be avoided when looking for a camping spot. But boggy ground is also the best place for cloud berries, which we thought tasted a bit like tomatoes. To our dismay this year was a bad harvest for Sweden’s national symbol and prized treasure so, in a forested canopy, we turned our attention to something else growing in abundance. “Shall I pick it?” I asked Wayne, our inherent hunter gatherer skills quite inept at helping us decide whether the giant mushrooms were poisonous or edible. It was a topic of great debate between passing hikers apparently the wild mushrooms that grow along the Kungsleden are delicious added to soup.
But even with some shared local knowledge and a few tips on what to look out for, we were dubious about picking and cooking them. So we gave up on mushrooms, avidly looking for signs of animal tracks from the big three of Swedish fauna instead. We’d had a distinct lack of brown bear sightings during our time in the backcountry in the US, so we were sincerely hoping to catch sight of a bear, lynx or wolverine. But people rarely get to see these elusive creatures. A more likely sighting, although still very difficult, is the iconic, majestic forest dweller the moose (or elk as we call it in the UK). Sweden has the densest population of moose in the world, and it is the country’s largest mammal. Despite having keen eyes and ears, we didn’t glimpse any of the big three. But we did see what we concluded to be a pile of bear scat along the trail, plus a large moose with its calf, albeit from a distance when we stopped for a tea break at the Kaitumjaure Mountain Hut.
November – March
Sweden is a magical place in winter, as it transforms into a scene not too dissimilar from Disney’s now infamous film, Frozen. While it may be a particularly cold holiday, the widespread snowfall opens up a world of opportunities, from dog sledding and snowmobiling to cross country skiing and Northern Lights chasing. Intriguingly, bushcraft is another activity on offer to travellers, and it’s probably one of the most rewarding. Davaj Northern Bushcraft & Trekking offers a range of options for those eager to learn the skills and techniques of the Sami, Inuit, Tlingit and other people inhabiting the Borealarea.
♦ Learn how to create fire, make shelter and source food and water on a bushcraft course in the country’s pristine wilderness.
♦ Explore the clear lakes, vast woodland and untouched mountains on foot.
♦ Alternatively, go on a snowmobiling tour and travel through some of Scandinavia’s most beautiful scenery.
1. The Walk
Stockholm is a city of islands, cliffs and lofty overlooks – a compact place, but not always a flat one. Luckily, walkers have plenty of spots to break for a coffee. At the core of the capital, Gamla Stan (‘The Old Town’) has an island all to itself, its humped shape hidden by tall, close-set houses three or more centuries old. Crossing the Vasabron bridge to its northwest corner, the first sight is the graceful 17th-century design of Riddarhuset, Sweden’s former House of Lords. Deeper into Gamla Stan, Västerlånggatan is a narrow but well-trodden shopping street, the closest thing Stockholm has to a tourist trap. Smaller alleys lead up to the left, towards the centre of the island, where you can find the best of the quarter’s small art galleries and craft shops. It’s quieter during the day than it would have been in medieval times, when this was the extent of the city and home to all its trades, recalled in names like Järntorget (Iron Square). But when the lanterns twinkle on at dusk, and people leave the cobblestones for the warmth of a tiny bistro, the old town looks truly ageless.
2. The Coffee
The aroma that best represents Stockholm is a waft of roasted coffee beans escaping from a doorway, chased by warm notes of cinnamon and cardamom from some new-baked buns. No day here is truly fulfilled without a ‘fikapaus’ or two, the time when people pause from their duties for fika – a good cup of coffee and, ideally, a sweet pastry to go with it. Fika is not a hasty shot of espresso at a stand-up counter, or a cup grabbed ‘to go’; it’s time marked off for slow appreciation. This is especially true at Johan & Nystrom; the business began 12 years ago as Sweden’s first speciality coffee roasters, selling to cafés around the city. It has since also opened a store of its own on a street corner in the Södermalm district. Windowside benches and attached wooden tray tables are designed for easy perching (a blessing for customers in bulky winter clothes) and tins of coffee and tea provide colour in the modern space. The aim here is to show an already keen nation the diversity of world coffees, not just in the chalked up menu, but in Friday tastings and home barista courses too.
Sweden’s most popular museum enshrines the royal warship Vasa, which capsized on its maiden voyage of just 4,265 ft (1,300m) in a calm weather on August 10, 1628, in Stockholm’s harbor. About 50 people went down with what designed to be the pride of the Swedish Navy. Guns were all that was salvaged from the vessel during the 17th century, and it was not until 1956 that a marine archeologist’s persistent search led to the rediscovery of Vasa. After a complex salvage operation, followed by a 17-year conservation program, the Vasa Museum was opened in June 1990, less than a nautical mile from the scene of the disaster.
Vasa was built as a symbol of Swedish might by King Gustav II Adolf, who was steadily increasing Swedish influence over the Baltic region during the 1620s, through war with Poland. Vasa was the largest vessel in the history of the Swedish fleet and was capable of carrying 64 cannons and more than 445 crew. From its 170-ft (52-m) high stern it would have been possible to fire down upon smaller ships. Vasa was equipped for both traditional close combat and artillery battles. The musketeers had shooting galleries from training, and on the upper deck were so-called “storm pieces”, erected as protection against musketry fire.
Vasa’s intended destination on its maiden voyage was the Älvsnabben naval base in the southern Stockholm archipelago, where more soldiers were to embark. Each man’s life on the ship would have been determined by his ranks. The officers also ate better food than the crew, whose meals were very basic, and consisted of beans, porridge, salted fish and beer. The decks would have been very crowded – the small space between every two guns was the living and sleeping quarters for seven men (gun deck). There was no fresh food, so many of the crew would have had scurvy and died from deficiency diseases before they reached battle.
The marine archeologist Anders Franzén had been looking for Vasa for so many years. On August 25, 1956, his patience was rewarded when he brought up a piece of blackened oak on his plumb line from Vasa, located 100 ft (30 m) beneath surface. From the autumn of 1957, it took divers two years to clear tunnels under the hull for the lifting cables. The first lift with six cables was a success, after which Vasa was lifted in 16 stages into shallower water. Thousands of plugs were then inserted into holes left by rusted iron bolts. The final lift started on the morning of April 24, 1961, and on May 4, Vasa was finally towed into dry dock after 333 years under water.
King Gustav II Adolf, who commissioned Vasa, was known as the Lion of the North, so a springing lion was the obvious choice for the 13-ft (4-m) figurehead.
Visitors cannot enter the warship itself, but a full-size replica of the upper gun deck, with carved wooden dummies of sailors, is on view, giving a good idea of conditions on board.
More than 50 of Vasa’s 64 original cannons were salvaged during the 17th century. Three 24-lb(11-kg) bronze cannons are now on a display in the museum.
Carvings of 20 Roman emperors stand on parade on Vasa.
Some 200 carved ornaments and 500 sculpted figures decorate Visa.
Vasa’s stern was badly damaged but it has been painstakingly restored to reveal this ship’s magnificent ornamentation.
The entrance to the cabins was towards the stern. This area was the grandest part of the ship, reserved for senior officers.
Vasa carried more heavy cannons on its two gun decks than earlier vessels of the same size. This probably contributed to its capsizing.
The woodcarvers who made the sculptures and ornaments on Vasa came from Germany to Holland. Motifs taken from Greek mythology, the Bible, and Roman and Swedish history were carved in oak, pine and lime in late-Renaissance and early-Baroque styles.
1625: King Gustav II Adolf orders new warships, including Vasa.
1628: Vasa is ready for its maiden voyage, but it capsizes in Stockholm’s harbor.
1956: Archeologist Anders Frazen locates Vasa and participates in its salvage.
1961: Vasa is raised to the surface after 33 years on the seabed.
1990: The Vasa Museum opens as a permanent museum, showing the restored Vasa and its treasures.
Ett Hem means ‘a home’. That’s important, because this wonderfully intimate hotel is the Swedish home you’ve always dreamed of creating. The homely familiarity is forged on the feet that this was once a private residence, resting in the exclusive, ambassadorial enclave of Ostermalm – a half-hour stroll through tree-lined streets to the central Old Town.
Not that you ever need leave this luxury mansion – grab a book from the library and escape to the tree-filled garden courtyard or take up residence in the drawing room, replete with grand piano and honesty bar. Or embrace the exquisite kitchen ‘menu’ – an ever-evolving slate of dishes, decided on each morning using locally sourced ingredients – when and where you like.