Inspired by Nordic crime novels, chefs - and more flight options - Australians are flocking to Europe's deep north, writes Ute Junker.
For many years, it was a long-distance love affair. Australians sang along to ABBA and shopped at Ikea, but the countries of Scandinavia, lands of the midnight sun and frozen winters, seemed a forbidding destination - far away, expensive, difficult to reach.
That's all changed. As we find more things to adore about Scandinavia - groundbreaking chefs, dark Nordic crime dramas, chart-toppers such as Robyn and Icona Pop, screen stars Mads Mikkelsen and Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau - we're also embracing it as a travel destination.
Australians are visiting Scandinavia in increasing numbers. Visitor numbers to Sweden are up 27 per cent from 2008, while Finland has seen a 25 per cent increase since 2010. The number of Australians heading to Denmark has more than doubled since 2005, while twice as many Australians visited Norway in 2013 than in 2012.
Visit Denmark's director, Flemming Bruhn, says a number of factors are driving Australian interest. High on the list is the Princess Mary effect, but Bruhn also cites the Opera House's 40th anniversary and TV shows such as The Killing. He says the two countries also share a natural affinity. "We are alike with much of the same humour and approach," he says.
At Bentours, which has been organising Scandinavian vacations for more than 30 years, they have also noticed a significant growth in interest in Scandinavia. Chief executive Caroline Kennedy says her clients tend to be mature travellers with a high disposable income, "looking for a unique destination that offers a strong mix of natural scenery and cultural experiences". Popular destinations include the Norwegian fjords in summer and the northern lights in winter.
One of the key reasons why more Australians are adding Scandinavia to their itineraries is that it's now easier to get there. FinnAir has long offered one-stop flights to the region; since 2011, Emirates has also got into the game, and as of September this year, Oslo will join Emirates' existing regional hubs, Copenhagen and Stockholm.
"Australians have become much more adventurous about exploring other parts of Europe," says Bryan Banston, Emirates' vice-president Australasia. He says Australians have been quick to adopt the new routes, often flying into one gateway and out of another.
"We've seen double-digit growth in the destinations we have opened to date, and expect the level of growth to continue."
Banston says that despite its extreme climate - or, more accurately, because of it - Scandinavia is proving itself to be a year-round destination. "In the European summer, the cruise market is big, but many people love going for the winter activities."
For first-time visitors, the trickiest part is often assembling an itinerary. With so much to choose from - from Norwegian fjords to mediaeval towns, world-renowned restaurants and the indigenous Sami culture - narrowing options can be difficult.
We've put together a number of hit-lists based on different themes - design, families, food and the great outdoors. Each itinerary includes highlights from the three Scandinavian countries - Denmark, Norway and Sweden - as well as neighbouring Finland, which makes a natural add-on to any Scandinavian itinerary.
Use our hit-lists as the basis for a trip, or mix and match to create your own itinerary.
One important tip - when you're putting together your itinerary, keep a map open in front of you. Given the way the countries nestle around each other, the shortest route to a destination may be from a neighbouring country. For instance, the Swedish city of Malmo is much closer to Copenhagen than it is to Stockholm.
Architecture and design
A talent for design seems to be part of the Scandinavian DNA. Those distinctive clean lines can be seen in everything from buildings to fashion boutiques, while fans of masters such as Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobson and Joern Utzon will find plenty to explore.
Oslo: Contemporary cool
As Europe's fastest-growing capital, Oslo is also experiencing something of a building boom. Striking recent additions to the city's skyline range from Snohetta's striking Opera House to Korsgata 5, a contemporary apartment building that adds a new dimension to its 19th-century surroundings.
Also worth a visit: the converted power station that houses DogA, the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture; and the superb Vigelandsparken sculpture park.
Alesund: Art nouveau
In 1904, the small Norwegian town of Alesund burnt down - which may be the best thing that happened to it. The town was rebuilt in the then cutting-edge art nouveau style, making it something of an open-air museum that architecture fans will certain adore.
Copenhagen: Great Danes
Fans of Danish design will find plenty to love in Copenhagen, from the Danish Design Centre to striking contemporary buildings such as the Black Diamond, housing the Royal Library; the Tivoli Concert Hall; and the National Aquarium, inspired by the form of a whirlpool. Fans of Danish designer Arne Jacobson will want to stay at the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel - Jacobson designed the building and all the furnishings.
Aalborg: It's Utzon
For admirers of Joern Utzon, a side trip to Utzon's home town, the Danish city of Aalborg, is a must. The attraction is the Utzon Centre, a series of striking pavilions designed by the man himself.
The southern city is home to one of Scandinavia's most talked-about buildings. Santiago Calatrava's remarkable Turning Torso, a skyscraper rotates 90 degrees, will delight contemporary architecture fans.
Helsinki: Grand designs
Helsinki's architectural highlights range from a good collection of art nouveau buildings to contemporary masterpieces such as Alvar Aalto's Finlandia Hall, Steven Holl's light-filled Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum, and the underground Church in the Rock. The Arabia housing development is a magnificent showcase for incorporating art into daily life (a self-guided walking tour is available on the Visit Helsinki website.) Take a half-day excursion to Hvittrask, studio home of Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen and his colleagues. Every aspect of the log and stone building, from the exteriors to the furniture, was done by Saarinen and co.
Jyvaskyla: All Aalto
Even more famous than Saarinen, Alvar Aalto was the consummate Finnish designer, turning his hand from glassware to furniture to architecture. His home town, Jyvaskyla, has 30 of his buildings, including the Experimental House, the Aalto family's summer home, and the Alvar Aalto Museum.
The great outdoors
Summer in Scandinavia can seem like one long Norska ad, with strapping Nordic types hiking, biking and climbing anything they can find. This selection of adventures helps you make the most of Scandinavia's scenic landscapes.
The Aland archipelago: Freewheelin'
Halfway between Finland and Sweden, this group of 6700 islands, mostly uninhabited and covered with pine forest and moors, is a favourite destination for cyclists, who occasionally spot moose on their rides. Bridges and ferries connect the islands, and green and white bicycle signs mark popular bicycle routes.
Lysefjord: Fab Fjords
The great outdoors doesn't get much more glorious than Norway's fjordlands, and the Lysefjord, near Stavanger, is beautiful and accessible. There are excellent full-day hikes, such as the trek to the top of the Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, and the Kjerag mountain. Other options include kayaking, or exploring the area on horseback.
In the northern reaches of Swedish Lapland, the 450-kilometre King's Trail is the country's most famous walk, wending its way past deep mountain precipices and gushing mountain streams. The 100-kilometre stretch between Abisko and Nikkaluokta is a week-long hike that takes you through birch forests and lush alpine meadows, finishing at the Sami camp at Nikkaluokta, where you can explore the culture of the indigenous Laplanders.
Jutland: Going underground
This Danish province has turned a number of abandoned mines into unlikely tourist attractions, with kilometres of underground passages open for exploration. Monsted Limestone Quarries, Daugbjerg Limestone Mines and Thingbæk Limestone Mines are open to visitors, but you won't be alone down there - large colonies of bats live in some of them.
Gjesværstappan: Bird safari
While many people get a thrill out of standing on the Nordkapp, or North Cape, the northernmost point of Norway, the truth is there's not a whole lot to see in this bleak, windswept landscape. However, to the west, the islands of Gjesværstappan are home to Norway's largest puffin colony. Take a bird safari to see the 1 million- strong puffin population, along with other birds such as cormorants, kittiwakes and guillemots.
From kayaking Stockholm's archipelago to hair-raising train rides that plummet deep into fjords, Scandinavia is filled with child-friendly activities the whole family will enjoy. And the little ones will be thrilled by the chance to visit Santa at home.
Roskilde: Vikings ahoy!
The most famous attraction in Denmark's mediaeval capital is the Viking Ship Museum, which features vessels as diverse as a deep-sea trader, a warship and a longship. The highlight of any visit is climbing aboard a Viking ship to sail along the fjord. Children will also love Roskilde Cathedral's animated clock, where St George charges a dragon on the hour, and PIXL PARK, a digitally enhanced playground where movement triggers sound and light effects.
Billund: Lego love
There's no way to visit Denmark without treating the kids to a trip to Legoland Park, located in the village of Billund. As well as the rides, children will love the elaborate models of palaces, planes and animals.
Stockholm: Outdoor playground
The pretty Old Town and the enchanting archipelago, with about 30,000 islands, make Stockholm a favourite with families. A visit to Djurgarden island will easily eat up a day as you explore the museums, the forest and meadows, and the amusement park. A kayaking tour is also a lot of fun - choose an overnight option to enjoy a barbecue dinner and a wood-fired sauna.
Flam railway: Making tracks
The journey from Oslo to Bergen takes in some of loveliest scenery, but it's once you reach the town of Myrdal and hop on the Flam Railway that things get really exciting.
In under an hour, the track spirals down 900 metres past gushing waterfalls - it's reassuring to know that the train has five separate sets of brakes.
The fun doesn't stop with the train ride. From here, you cruise along the beautiful Sognefjord until you reach Bergen.
Rovaniemi: Dear Santa
Perhaps the only thing guaranteed to get the kids more excited than a trip to Legoland is the chance visit Santa at home. This northern Finnish town, right on the Arctic Circle, has created a tourist boom for itself with the creation of Santa Claus Village and Santa Park, where you can see reindeer, sign up to get a Christmas letter from Santa, and meet the man himself.
While you're in town, visit the Arktikum, a museum dedicated to the native Sami culture - kids will be fascinated by trousers made from polar bear hides.
Scandinavia's dining boom has changed the way locals eat. Even smaller cities such as Aalborg and Helsinki offer plenty of options to keep food fans happy.
Copenhagen: Take it to the streets
Yes, Noma has again been named best restaurant in the world, but unless you booked months ago, there is very little chance of getting a table. There are plenty of other high-end restaurants worth trying, such as Geranium and Le Sommelier, but Copenhagen's simpler foodstuffs are also worth exploring. Drop in to the Gammel Kongevej branch of Meyer's Deli, where you can browse on tapas-style Danish treats, or grab a hot dog from Dop, the organic hot dog stand that has a passionate following.
Aalborg: Local flavours
The North Jutland region of Denmark is known for its superb produce, from Limfjord oysters and pink lobsters to air-cured ham from Albæk, all of which are showcased in the restaurants of its largest city, Aalborg. Standouts include the acclaimed Mortens Kro and Provence. Aalborg's restaurant boats, such as the converted houseboat Den Fede Aelling, also offer a memorable dining experience. North Jutland is known for its microbreweries; the Aalborg Beerwalk lets you take taste tests at six breweries.
Gothenburg: Fish feast
Gothenburg is Sweden's second-largest city, and a favourite destination for foodies. As you would expect of a port, seafood is a specialty. Drop in to the historic Feskekorka, or fish church market (yes, it's a converted church), to admire the amazing array of fresh seafood. If that's whetted your appetite, head to Sjomagasinet restaurant for a lunch that might include lobster claw with bacon bits, pine nuts and raisins. Other local restaurants worth checking out are Thornstroms Kok and Norda Bar and Grill.
Oslo: Starry nights
Oslo's dining scene is known for its cluster of Michelin-starred restaurants and its steep prices. Fauna is known as being the most reasonably priced, offering five courses for about $135. Other standouts include Ylajali and the eye-wateringly expensive Maaemo.
Helsinki: Safe harbour
For a small city, Helsinki packs a big gourmet punch. Restaurants such as Luomo and Chef & Sommelier excel at showcasing local ingredients, while the Alvar Aalto interior at Restaurant Savoy and the stylish Havis seafood restaurant combine the Nordic passions of food and design. During the warmer weather, summer restaurants spring up on many of Helsinki's islands; NJK is the place to munch on seasonal treats such as crayfish. For lighter bites, grab a fish sandwich from one of the boats moored at the harbour, or graze your way through the beautiful Old Market Hall and the Eat & Joy Farmers' Market.
FIVE MORE DESTINATIONS WORTH A DETOUR
The mediaeval streets of Denmark's cultural capital make this one of Scandinavia's prettiest towns.
Built around a tree-lined river, Finland's oldest town has a striking cathedral and castle and a friendly buzz.
To get the real impact of Visby, an ancient walled city on the Swedish island of Gotland, arrive by boat.
Soaring mountains, simple fishing villages and a laidback ambience make these northern Norwegian islands a great place to chill.
Perched on its own island in south-eastern Sweden, the moat and drawbridge, turrets and dungeons make this 12th century castle a delight to explore.