When you think of the Arctic, the North Pole likely comes to mind, especially this time of year. But it actually encompasses the northern tips of several countries, including Sweden and Finland. This Scandinavian tundra is historically called Lapland and today Sápmi, referring to the land of the Sámi, Europe’s only indigenous people. Perhaps it should have been named Sápmideer as it has more reindeer than people: 200,000 versus 185,000. In fact, an estimated 1,000 Sámi words are devoted to reindeer appearance, behavior and habits.
These regal creatures with their massive horns are upstaged only by the Northern Lights in Lapland. Alaskan huskies pulling sleds are a close second. But when it comes to man-made wonders, the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden undoubtedly tops them all.
Since 1989, the Ice Hotel has been the darling of its village, gleaming after the midnight sun in blue lights. It is surrounded by snow-covered forests, reindeer, snowmobiles, about 900 people and 1,100 dogs.
Located 200 kilometers above the Arctic Circle from December to April every year, the Ice Hotel is just a 90-minute dogsled ride (or 20 minutes by car, ho hum) from the Kiruna airport. It’s constructed each November from the frozen Torne River – Jukkasjärvi means “meeting place by the water” – as the world’s first and largest hotel made entirely of snow and ice. It features an art exhibition in 12 unique suites designed by international ice sculptors and 15-20 standard rooms in which tourists can sleep in -5 to -7 C. In the spring, the hotel melts down and returns its “loan” from the river. (Funny the Ice Hotel website says, “all the artwork is original and protected under the Copyright Act.” How is this possible? A lawsuit could be sabotaged by a literal meltdown …)
In early 2014, I had the brilliant idea of staying in the Ice Hotel, recruiting my Canadian friend Robert, who was used to snow and ice, to join me. At the last minute, my New Yorker friend Felicia also signed up but opted to stay in a warm hotel room nearby instead.
“That’s cheating,” I teased her. “But good to know Robert and I have an escape room in case we need it.”
The Ice Hotel provided Robert and I with expedition-style sleeping bags and keys to lockers in a heated service building where we stored all of our belongings. (Anything not in a sleeping bag would freeze in our “igloo.”) That’s also where bathrooms, showers and saunas were located – about a kilometer from our room. (You can imagine how unpleasant it was to wake up in the middle of the night to use the facilities.)
The hotel also provided the three of us with stay-puffed marshmallow man-esque suits, Arctic gloves and boots to keep us warm in the frigid outdoors, which averages -10 C in winter. Shortly after arrival, we got suited up like 5-year-old children, barely able to walk with the massive insulation of our bodies.
Photos courtesy of Asaf Kliger on behalf of the Ice Hotel.
We toured the property complete with an ice chapel and ice bar where we drank cocktails out of ice glasses. In the warm restaurant made of traditional construction materials (phew!), we ate off ice plates and enjoyed local delicacies like cloudberries and smoked salmon.
That evening, we went in search of the Northern Lights by snowmobile, heading into the vast, dark tundra because we were not remote enough already. By the time we saw a few weak flashes of neon green lights, my hands were about to fall off with frostbite in spite of the so-called Arctic gloves that enveloped them. Thankfully, we stopped off at a large yurt where we warmed up with reindeer stew and hot chocolate.
The next morning, we were woken up with hot lingonberry juice to go on a “snow safari” in search of anything hearty enough to survive the tundra. That limited our sightings to reindeer, moose, sled dogs and annoyingly, pine trees with exposed roots on our snowmobile path. One caused the snowmobile I was driving, with Robert in tow, to flip over! Thankfully, he safely landed but the snowmobile fell on top of me, burying me in four feet of snow. In ordinary terrain, I surely would have been crushed, but here I survived and jumped back on the snowmobile for the rest of the tour … with Robert driving.
In the afternoon, we took it easy and let sled dogs transport us around. Our team of 12 energetic huskies took us on an hour-long tour through pine, spruce and birch trees. I plotted how I could take some dogs to sleep next to me that night for added warmth.
“I’m going to stay in Felicia’s room tonight,” I announced instead.
“Oh no you don’t, mama,” Robert said. “You’re not ditching me in that igloo to freeze by myself. You signed me up for this madness.”
I had an image of him stuck frozen on an ice bed and chiseling him out to go to the escape room to dethaw. (Actually, this was impossible as the ice beds were covered in reindeer rugs. There were even lights, ice chairs and an ice table in our room!)
To drink some “anti-freeze” before going to sleep, the three of us went to the ice bar and mounted its rooftop to observe spontaneous Northern Lights. Ironically, without going anywhere, we saw the most spectacular show of flickering green lights like the whisper of God. One of the reasons I planned this trip in 2014 is because it was hailed as a banner year for the Northern Lights. We could see why.
The next morning, Robert and I thanked God for surviving not just one, but two nights in the Ice Hotel. At check-out, we each received two certificates documenting our survival.
“Most people only stay in the Ice Hotel one night,” the receptionist laughed.
“He’s Canadian and I’m an idiot,” I joked.
In both terms of the word, it was one of the “coolest” experiences we ever had.