Ice Hotel Totems
The Ice Hotel in Jukkasjarvi defies explanation and is impossible to capture on film. These are my blatant excuses for taking so long to write about it. However, I will do my best, as it seems to be the single most requested topic for a posting from friends and family.
First, there is absolutely no way to describe the pristine environment. Yes, it is a tourist destination but even at its peak, the number of individuals is limited simply due to the difficulties of arrival and the potentially harsh conditions—the weeks leading up to my visit were -40 degrees Fahrenheit. The hotel kindly offers a no-penalty cancellation policy for weeks that drop below -30 though, with the complexities of travel in getting there, it is rarely used.
My flights in took me through stops in Copenhagen and Stockholm. In my flight over Denmark, I viewed two remarkable things that will stay with me forever, though my camera was not at hand.
The first was a view from above of the modern engineering miracle, the Oresund bridge tunnel connecting Denmark and Sweden. You may well have seen this as part of a photo blog that went viral years back—I had. I just had no recollection of it til I saw it again. Here’s a site with lots of cool pictures
The second thing I saw was one of nature’s miracles and I will never get it out of my head which is good, considering my lack of shutter speed. I took the sighting as a grand omen of the days to come. While peering out my window on our descent into Copenhagen, but still above the clouds, I saw a circular rainbow. It was faint, and I doubted myself even as the colors became clearer. I thought that perhaps it was a figment of my imagination but upon further research I found they were rare though not unheard of and are mainly viewed, as I did, in a plane above the clouds. Some folks are not as slow with the camera as I am so, if you google “Circular Rainbow from an Airplane,” you will get a pretty good view of what I saw.
With a 5-hour layover in Sweden’s capital before my connecting flight to Jukkasjarvi in the northernmost settlement of Sweden, I had plenty of time to meet Andreas for lunch. I was traveling solo on this trip but, considering my proficiency at befriending new people, I wasn’t too concerned—Andreas and I met last August on my second trip to Stockholm and have been fast friends ever since. So I figured I’d be fine for a 4-day trip.
By the time I made it to Kiruna airport, it was cold and dark—but not as cold and dark as I anticipated. There was still low-level light at 5pm and the sheer brilliance of the moon on the snow meant it never got truly dark. This counteracted the limited daylight effect (5 hours a day during late February) significantly, as it wasn’t oppressive darkness. And during the daylight hours, the snow reflected back in radiance like fine crystal—which it is, albeit the melty kind. It was blindingly beautiful at every turn.
Arrival in Kiruna Airport
Now, I had done my homework. I had looked up the Ice Hotel on trip advisor before booking. There were a number of dings on service—that the staff in the “cold” portion of the hotel (the rooms made of ice) had no idea what the folks in the “warm” (the traditional cabins with heat and other amenities) were doing. Same for the activities coordinator. I hate to admit that this was true. In some senses it was chaos. I had quite a number of conversations, every day I was there, about where I was supposed to be staying or what I was supposed to be doing. They lost my reservation; they found my reservation; they changed my reservation to the wrong date, etc. etc. etc. The weirdest part was when they called on Sunday, desperately searching for me, as the bus to the airport was waiting for me it and it was holding up all the other passengers. My flight, however, was Monday. I was so thoroughly confused I had to pull up my calendar and my itinerary, just to make sure it wasn’t ME that was crazy, at least not in this circumstance.
However, that said, the Ice Hotel more than redeemed itself, and not just via its scenery. On a side note, I’ve worked for many years in customer service training and I can tell you that, for the most part, it doesn’t work. Either someone is customer oriented or they are not. You can ameliorate the issue by imposing a good structure around service parameters but the second the structure falters, it will all go to hell if someone is not naturally inclined towards helpfulness.
This staff was one of the most pleasant, helpful and caring staffs I’ve ever encountered, hands down. Not only did they apologize for anything that went wrong, they took personal responsibility and clung to it like a pitbull until it was resolved. While the mishaps could have damaged my view of the organization, the staff response skyrocketed them to superstardom in my estimation–though the infrastructure holding them together could still use a bit of Six Sigma/LEAN to get them on track (oh dear, did I really just say that???).
I arrived, checked in (with some difficulty, but we got there) and collected my weekend gear. This consisted of a bulky jumpsuit suitable for subzero temperatures, a set of heavy-duty “flipper” style mittens, moon boots with 2”+ soles and a fleece balaclava. Fortunately, it only got down to around -8F during my trip, so I remained rather toasty warm.
Dinner that evening was an event—6 courses (plus an amuse bouche) and almost all of them served on blocks of ice. And, yes, I did my best to work my way through the specialty cocktail menu as well. Who could say no to such delights as “Sea Buckthorn” or “Cloudberry” drinks? Or martini glasses that arrive with enormous blocks of ice, hand-hewn to resemble diamonds? I certainly cannot.
Regarding the unique and beautifully modern dinnerware, I asked my waitress if any of it was reused. “Oh yes,” she said. “We just take it back into the kitchen, run it under really hot water to sterilize it and then use it again.” “Really?” I said. “No, not really,” she said. “We just throw it in the sink and let it melt.”
I will not leave dinner to your imagination. I suggest you view it here
The staff took special care of me. It seems I was the ONLY person staying at the hotel alone—I found myself adopted by staff and travelers alike who were worried that my singular experience would diminish the effects of the hotel’s charms. Au contraire—I believe that, absent distractions, I experienced it to its fullest effects, and then some.
My waitress was a beautiful, charming and funny young Swedish woman who had, ironically, just spent the previous year living in Wilton, CT as a nanny. Not only was she genuinely solicitous of me that evening, she went out of her way to locate me throughout the course of my stay and ask how I was doing. She was a fantastic asset to the Ice Hotel experience and all she was doing was being herself. At one point, as I was showing her the photos I was taking of the food and atmosphere, she said, “You should be in marketing!” to which I replied that I actually was. “You’re doing the right thing then,” she said, somberly.
Another gentleman was assisting in serving and drinks and we had a long conversation about his impending trip to the U.S. I found out much later that he was the bar manager and was personally responsible for that year’s drink menu in the Ice Bar, all of which are served in glasses made of ice (they’re good for about 5 drinks before they start to degrade). By the end of the weekend, he quietly slipped me one of the acrylic menus they used in the bar in lieu of paper menus, which wouldn’t withstand the extreme conditions (fyi, they clean the bar with a blowtorch when it gets messy—A BLOWTORCH). It is my most treasured item from that trip, as the menu is not for sale and changes yearly, based on the names of the art room designs that year.
Ice glasses and drink menu
A word about the art rooms: there is nothing like them and pictures are not enough, though I’ve done my best to include them here. Even the standard room, which I stayed in, is glorious. But the art rooms are a genre unto their own. Each room is designed by a different artist, their visions submitted by June each year for judging and award. The artist then must construct their rooms to their proposed design by hand within a two week time period, with no other assistance allowed other than a single helper designated in their original prospectus.
There are no detailed parameters for design other than the size and shape of the room, the required space for a bed and the fact that everything—absolutely everything—must be constructed of ice and snow. Talk about engineering miracles…
I was the first arrival at the world famous bar that first evening and it started out as difficult. The bartender, 22 and surly, was opinionated and bossy. I tend to like difficult people but he was getting on my nerves. I finally said, “Why you gotta be such a punk-ass kid?!” Which made him laugh and sealed both our friendship and his nickname, which he proceeded to share with everyone else. Throughout the rest of the weekend, he insisted all the other staff treat me well because I was “special.” We bonded over talks running the gamut of his psycho girlfriend who called or texted every half hour to his homesickness to his next gig in Greece, “where it’s warm.”
When I arrived at the hotel for my first night “in the cold”, I was strongly advised by the girl at the desk to use the rest room prior to bedtime, as it would be unlikely I’d want to get up, walk through the hotel, cross the courtyard and use the facilities in the lodge in the middle of the night. Best not to drink much pre-bedtime either. I retired to my room around 10:30pm, completely neglecting her advice and full of fine food and cocktails. While I made it through, it’s not a challenge that I recommend taking on lightly.
The experience, however, of sleeping in what is essentially a fancy igloo is one I highly recommend, if only for one evening. It was slightly uncomfortable—I could have used one more layer. I was in a heavy sleeping bag and each time I rolled over, some part of my neck seemed to get exposed to a blast of frigid air. And, considering that I was sleeping on a bed of smelly elk skins covering a wooden platform on top of a solid block of ice, I rolled over a lot. But they woke me in the morning at 7am with a steaming mug of lingonberry juice and gave me a certificate authenticating my stay (It was 23F inside that night; -8F outside).
The next day, after a breakfast including the best scrambled eggs I’ve ever had in my life, (seriously, different blog topic but it has become a quest of mine as I travel to try to recreate the eggs from that Ice Hotel breakfast. What is their secret? How do they do it? Why are they so rich and yellow and light and fluffy? WHY AM I CRAVING THEM RIGHT NOW???) I wandered around aimlessly without a hat. It didn’t seem like much of an issue. I walked the 15 minutes down the road to the old church, removing my gloves to clumsily snap pictures along the way as best I could. FYI, don’t even try using the “touch” feature on an iPhone in sub-zero temps. It’s an exercise in futility, as doesn’t register your body heat.
By the time I got to the end of the road I remembered that old adage that “90% of your body heat is lost through your head.” Okay, that is a LIE—the actual amount is more like 7% but at some point it just becomes semantics. Freezing is freezing. And I had a 15-minute walk back ahead of me (no pun intended). Needless to say, I did not forget my hat the rest of the weekend.
And a hat was not enough (nor were the 2 balaclavas, the heavy sweaters and the rest of the aforementioned arctic gear) to keep me warm on the dogsled ride later that day, though I was thrilled enough not to care. I wasn’t so cold as to be terribly uncomfortable but it certainly kept me alert. The dogs were gloriously friendly, hyperactive mutts whose greatest love in life was to run. They needed to be monitored closely, as they are known to either overheat and/or run themselves to death if they are not kept in check. Our mushers told us that it was a bit warm for them that day—it was around 14F—as their ideal running temperature was between -4 and -40.
We stopped to give the dogs a moment to eat snow (they don’t drink water) and I stepped off the trail to get around to the front of the sled. Bit of a mistake in judgement. The trails are packed snow. Within a moment, I was up to my hip in snow. I clawed my way out, laughing and crawled back onto the track, face to face with our lead dog. Thank goodness he was friendly!
The next day was a bit less frenetic, as reindeer run a bit slower than sled dogs (and are quite a bit surlier). I went on a tour of a Sami camp, the indigenous, nomadic reindeer herders of northern Sweden, Norway and Finland. I will not attempt to detail their plight, only to say that it is much like most indigenous tribes; the Aborigines, the Maori, the Native Americans, the Inuit. It is the same story of persecution, forced assimilation, purposeful destruction of language, family and religion that has occurred throughout history whenever another culture comes with the intent of “civilizing” the native people, often through forced Christianity. It is always tragic and, considering the beauty of the Sami traditions, textiles and rituals, especially poignant. Traditional Sami dress consists of brilliant blues, yellows, greens and reds and evokes the beautiful colors of the summer hillsides as well as the winter auroras.
And speaking of the northern lights…
I lived in LA for too long.
I saw them. My second night I walked alone out onto the frozen Torne River and gazed up into the sky. In the direction of the city of Kiruna, two giant pillars of light reached at opposing angles up into the darkness. I was unfazed. Why?
BECAUSE I THOUGHT THEY WERE CLUB LIGHTS.
Really. The only thought in my head was, “Oh. I didn’t realize there were enough people here to support club culture.” It wasn’t until I was informed the next day what I had been looking at that I understood it. So the NEXT night when they were out, I was much more observant!
While I didn’t get to see the brilliant sorts of multi-colored lights that one sees in the best of aurora borealis photos, I was lucky enough, two nights in a row, to see the more common green lights, once in the aforementioned columns and the next night in a bit more of a shimmery dust format spreading across a significant swath of the darkened sky and lighting the trees from behind in silhouette. For those of you looking for pictures, I’m afraid they don’t photograph well without special, time-lapse equipment (I tried).
While I may have been slow on the uptake regarding the aurora sighting, the overall experience of the weekend was one of slow magic, the kind that creeps up through your toes gradually, seizes your heart and then floats away in happiness above your head. I immediately followed the Ice Hotel trip with several other combined work/play trips, including Cannes, Monte Carlo and Brussels but for as thrilling as they were, they all suffered by comparison.
For anyone who is considering the visit, I highly recommend it. And let me know—maybe I’ll come along again with you…
The rest of the pictures:
Ice Bar & Hotel
” target=”_blank”>Dogsled video
” target=”_blank”>Reindeer video