Open the map! Find the middle country north of the Baltic sea and you will discover Sweden. This past Christmas I went on a particularly unusual and unique adventure. After a traditional Victorian Christmas at Cliveden House west of London, my family and I packed up our formal wear and donned arctic gear. We flew on a chartered plane from Heathrow to Kiruna, Sweden, to stay at the Ice Hotel, 200km north of the Arctic Circle.
The Ice Hotel opened in 1990 in the Swedish village of Jukkasjarvi. It is constructed entirely of packed snow and ice blocks quarried from the Torne River. There is no sub-structure or framing holding the snow and ice in place. Ice artists from around the world create fantastical rooms, each with a different theme. A bed of ice is carved in each room for guests to sleep on. The Ice Hotel melts every spring and is rebuilt each winter. In 2016, a permanent structure named Ice Hotel 365 opened. It takes advantage of the summer’s Midnight Sun and uses solar panels to provide the electricity for the refrigeration to sustain the freezing temperatures inside. My family stayed in the seasonal ice structure. There are other ice hotels in the world but the one in Sweden is the original.
Our plane touched down in total darkness even though it was only 3pm due to the Polar Winter. The temperature on the outdoor thermometer read -14. There was snow blanketing everything. After a fifteen minute bus ride, we turned into a driveway at a complex of buildings. In the distance I saw a blue glow and that was my first glimpse of the Ice Hotel. What a marvel of human ingenuity and Mother Nature! It looked like a series of interconnected snowy igloos with illuminated glass blocks flanking a reindeer skin covered door. It looked like something out of a sci-fi movie.
Unlike ordinary hotels where guests check in and get a room key, at the Ice Hotel all guests must attend an orientation and be issued life-saving arctic gear and sleeping bags. After all, -14 is deadly unless you are properly outfitted. After learning what to wear and how to handle spending the night in sub-freezing conditions, we got to see our rooms. My parents stayed in a room titled “kaleidoscope” and the wall panels carved of ice resembled the twisting shapes you would see if looking through a kaleidoscope. My sister and I stayed in a room titled “Subterranean” which was carved to resemble the inside of an ant mound, complete with giant ants. After a delicious dinner of Reindeer steak, we stowed our suitcases and changed into Smart Wool long-johns. We wrapped our arctic grade sleeping bags around our shoulders and dashed from the warm changing rooms through the bitter cold to our ice rooms. We zipped our sleeping bags around us and went to sleep. Believe it or not, it was quite warm in the sleeping bags. As my eyelids got heavy I looked around at my surroundings. Glowing blue ice in total quiet on top of the world. What an adventure for a 16 year old girl!
I awoke to a voice saying “hello, hello?” A staff member had come with hot lingonberry juice to wake us up the next morning. We slept so hard he had to rouse us several times before we heard him. We did it! We survived the night in a freezing room and were issued diplomas for the success. After a hot breakfast, our family reunited in a 2 bedroom warm chalet. It was rustic, but it was heated, had an en-suite bathroom and cable tv. We explored more of the frozen hotel later that day. We visited the other Art Suites and marveled at the skill and creativity of the artists. There is a serene ice chapel and that day a German couple held their wedding ceremony there. There is a lobby complete with chandeliers from polished ice crystals and an Ice Bar where the cocktails are served in ice glasses. It is the custom to finish the cocktail and then go outside and toss the “glass” against the nearby stone wall.
We embarked on several arctic adventures. We went on two snow mobile tours on the frozen Torne River and through the dense forests. On one snow mobile trip we stopped for dinner in a yurt where we were served moose stew and lingonberry cake. During dinner it started snowing and the drive back was visually difficult but the fresh snow made for smooth driving. We also went dogsledding. As an animal lover, I was concerned about the dogs’ welfare but quickly realized these dogs love to run. They leap, tug and yowl in anticipation of their run. The dogs are very impatient and are happiest when pulling the sled. Our musher was a lovely French woman named Bea. She explained these dog breeds are happiest in sub-zero temperatures and run 20 miles a day. The dogs earn their place on the team by their strength, eagerness and focus. Those dogs still easily distracted by movement off the trail are put at the back. The dog who is most focused on the trail ahead earns the first place. The dogs are at their prime at age four. The dogs pulled our family and Bea on a reindeer skin covered sled along a frozen river and lake. It was very quiet. Only the pitter patter of the dogs’ feet could be heard. The sky was iridescent and several round “pearl clouds” dotted the sky. We stopped at a Sami tribe teepee for hot tea and coffee before heading back to the Ice Hotel. The pearl clouds gave way to a Mother of Pearl aurora borealis, the rarest of the northern lights. The sky was iridescent and wavy due to the ice crystals in the clouds reflecting the borealis on the other side of the globe. The guides told us how lucky we were since there are locals who have never seen the Mother of Pearl borealis. Another check off on my bucket list!
Had we stayed longer we could have partaken of ice sculpting classes, the Reindeer experience, arctic survival classes, cross country skiing and the traditional saunas followed by the polar bear plunge into an opening in the frozen Torne River. There are many activities to experience between the delicious meals at the two restaurants, The Veranda and the Old Homestead. The Veranda is a Michelin starred restaurant on site. The Homestead is a series of structures built in Swedish log cabin style from the 1600’s, a fifteen minute walk away. The first European settlers here in these harsh conditions came for work in the iron ore mines in Kiruna. The mine is the largest in Europe and the second largest company in Sweden.
After three days in a winter wonderland, it was time to head home. On the drive back to the airport, we spotted reindeer eating from some bushes on the side of the road. It was the perfect ending to our North Pole adventure and one I will never forget. There is nothing comparable to the Ice Hotel for a unique and thrilling adventure. So open the map! Plan your own frozen adventure at the amazing and original ice hotel in Sweden.