Rhiannon Batten checks into a destination hotel aloft in an Arctic forest saved from logging.
Towards the end of his 2008 documentary, The Tree Lover, which explores the link between trees and people in Sweden, Jonas Selberg Augustsen says: ''Imagine being here on the verandah on a summer evening, or listening to the rain on the roof with the stove purring quietly.'' As he says this, he's sitting in a tree house he has built during the summer, looking over a wide tract of pine forest with a river flowing in the distance, reflecting a sinking sun.
You don't have to imagine it any more. The Treehotel opened this northern summer in Swedish Lapland, allowing guests to survey the landscape from Augustsen's viewpoint.
Just outside the small village of Harads, an hour's drive north-west of Lulea and near where The Tree Lover was filmed, the Treehotel is the creation of Britta and Kent Lindvall. Britta, a guest house owner, and Kent, a fishing guide, were inspired to action by the film when an area of forest behind Britta's guest house was sold for logging. Instead of waiting for the inevitable to happen in a country where forestry is such an important industry, they contacted the forest's owner and offered to buy the land from him. Calling in favours from various architect friends Kent had taken on fishing trips, they started building the Treehotel, determined to demonstrate that the natural environment around them had value beyond supplying timber.
With their daughter, Sofia, who also moonlights as a stuntwoman, they have created a high-design, back-to-nature retreat where travellers can slow down, switch off and breathe more deeply.
Arriving at the guest house late on a bright summer's evening, I'm ushered in by Britta with motherly warmth. She sits me down in the 1950s-style surroundings and serves a home-made fish pie on vintage china. She says the guest house operates as a kind of base camp for the tree-house rooms. ''Guests leave their luggage here and just take a small overnight bag to the tree houses,'' she says. ''We want you to get the feeling that you're leaving one world behind and entering another.''
It certainly feels that way when, after dinner, Sofia leads me along a narrow gravel path through a glade of birch trees and then higher, through sturdy pines, to the Mirrorcube. The most striking of the tree houses, it's a glass box perched high in the forest - like an architectural magic trick, it almost disappears into the foliage, so sharply are the surrounding trees reflected in it.
The only giveaway that things are not quite what they seem is a wood-and-rope bridge leading to an almost invisible door.
Inside, the Mirrorcube's chic plywood interior smells of warm wood. The dimensions are neat (four metres wide, four metres long and four metres high) and it is light and airy inside. Like the hotel's other tree houses, the facilities here are fairly basic, not stretching much beyond a basin and an environmentally friendly toilet (some tree houses have set-ups that freeze the waste; others burn it into ash). Meals and showers are taken at the guest house, 10 minutes' walk away.
Still, this is a tree house for grown-ups. Underfloor heating will keep it cosy through winter and posh tea and coffee are provided, along with a designer kettle, and a huge bed is dressed in thick white cotton and stylish woollen rugs. There is a sense of playfulness here, too. A ladder is provided for those who are game to clamber up through a tiny Alice in Wonderland-style door to a roof terrace. The reflective cladding means no one can see in, so the windows have been left without curtains, giving almost 360-degree views of the surrounding trees. And there's a window in the ceiling; look up and feathery branches trail into the sky.
Waking the next morning, it's a shock to roll over and find a bird peering at me through the glass. Underneath the quilt it's tempting to stay in my nest for the day but I'm keen to explore the forest.
Stepping out into giddying fresh air (Harads is only 60 kilometres south of the Arctic circle), I find the forest so still that the tiniest underfoot snap seems to crackle like a gunshot. I take a peek at the Cabin, a sleek, organically shaped space pod that touches down in the trees about 50 metres from the Mirrorcube. Also sleeping two, this has a huge viewing deck and a floor-to-ceiling window looking out, beyond the forest, on to the Lule River, the northern lights in winter and the midnight sun in summer. Just behind it is the four-person Bird's Nest, inspired by a giant sea eagle's nest spotted on one of Kent's fishing trips to the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. Looking just as you might imagine, its twiggy heights are reached by an electronic stepladder that descends and retracts via a keypad strapped to one of the neighbouring trees. Inside, the sense of snugness is exaggerated by small porthole windows.
Between the Bird's Nest and the Mirrorcube is a sauna and relaxation room and another tree house, the four-person Blue Cone, which is scheduled for completion this month. Its name belies its Lego-like structure, which is covered with bright-orange tiles. A fifth tree house, the UFO, will open at the end of next month. Britta and Kent hope to build 24 tree houses on the site. ''Building a tree house is every boy's dream,'' Kent says. ''Now other architects want to get involved as they see it as a great showcase for their skills.''
It is 3½ hours' drive, or a train ride, from the Icehotel in Jukkasjarvi, so it's likely these two quirky establishments will be sold together as a winter package. The two sites give access to some of northern Sweden's most spectacular wild landscapes, though it's easy to imagine the Treehotel will become a destination in itself for holidaying architecture buffs or the first stop on a Nordic honeymoon.
There's plenty to do here for those with more time. Britta and Kent are enthusiastic about village walking tours where guests can stop for coffee, cake and conversation with a local family. ''Guests want to meet real people,'' Kent says. After my tour of the tree houses I'm collected by Cicci Nilsson, a stable owner, for a short ride on Rominy, a petulant Irish cob. We pass storybook-red summer houses and fields to a plateau where there are spectacular views along the Lule River - and of the 1500 hectares of former forest that was destroyed in Sweden's biggest forest fire four years ago.
''A lot of local people owned a piece of forest here, so it had a big impact on the community,'' Nilsson says. ''Until this happened, people saw having a piece of forest as a kind of pension pot.''
Over a lunch of reindeer meatballs at the guest house, Britta and Kent explain their commitment to the forest. The hotel has been designed with fun in mind but it has a serious side, too. The Treehotel has been built as sustainably as possible - the Mirrorcube has even been fitted with a film, visible to birds only, that stops them flying into it - and environmentally unsound activities such as snowmobile safaris are out. ''The forest, for us, is a relaxing place, a source of mental peace,'' Kent says.
After lunch, I explore the forest from another angle - the seat of a kayak.
''The weather has turned this week. The leaves are changing, there's a chill in the air. Autumn is here,'' says guide Love Rynback as we push our kayaks onto the Lule.
Rynback is subcontracted through his company, CreActive Adventure, to run outdoor activities for hotel guests; winter, he says, is busier than summer, with a menu of husky safaris, skiing, skijoring (a bit like water-skiing on snow but being pulled by a horse), ice fishing, Sami cultural trips and sleigh rides.
On calm water in the afternoon sun, there is just enough warmth in the air to pretend that summer hasn't ended. Paddling along the edge of a huge island, we watch the trees reflected on the still water and the water casting ripples of sunlight on the trees in return. ''When you're in a kayak, the wildlife doesn't really notice you. It's like you're just a huge bird,'' Rynback says.
There is no better place for a human bird to hole up afterwards than a bedroom in the trees.
Air China has a fare to Stockholm for about $1460, from Sydney to Beijing (11hr), then Stockholm (9hr 40min). Melbourne flights and some Sydney flights go via Shanghai. Thai Airways flies for about $1870, to Bangkok (9hr) and then to Stockholm (11hr 20min). Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. Scandinavian Airlines flies from Stockholm to Lulea (80 min) from $130 return, including tax.
Rooms at the Treehotel cost 3800 krona ($575) a night in the Cabin and the Bird's Nest, 4200 krona in the Mirrorcube, twin share including breakfast. See www.treehotel.se; www.visitlulea.se and www.visitsweden.com.
- Guardian News & Media