Welcome to the IceHotel. Need a lift?
It’s no wonder that Sweden’s IceHotel, tucked up in the glorious frosty hills and plains of Lappland in Northern Sweden just above the Arctic Circle, is included in the adventurous traveler’s tome, 1,000 Places to Visit Before You Die. Pretty soon after you arrive here you realize that the Ice Hotel Jukkasjarvi is a unique, gratifying, magical, super-cool storybook-ready experience.
Visually, think of a gleaming white and blue icy post-modern igloo, which is serving you a bit of Narnia (as in the White Queen’s headquarters), a bit of Krypton (as seen in the classic Christopher Reeve Superman), a bit of quaint Christmas-card worthy rustic Sweden with snowy pines and warm fires, and a bit of the ice palace from Doctor Zhivago. Cross all of that with a swank boutique hotel custom-made for polar bears who are really into a fierce après-ski scene, and… Okay, maybe I’m getting a bit carried away, but I visited the IceHotel at this past winter’s end, it truly made in impression.
To answer your first question—yes, it is cold there. And yes, you really can spend the night in a structure made entirely of ice and snow, sleeping on a big bed-sized slab of ice – but trust, you won’t freeze. For the majority of your visit, you’ll be clad in a sporty snowsuit provided by your hosts, and when it’s slumber-time, there are reindeer skins between you and the frozen slab. And, you’re in a very warm sleeping bag. Better yet, take a date and you can snuggle in said bag together, congratulating yourselves on being just mad enough to try such a wacky, eccentric endeavor.
A view over a bit of the IceHotel grounds. Rustic, yet chic.
But all that said, while snoozing in the world’s poshest igloo is pretty darn memorable, and the most you-gotta-do-it-once part of the IceHotel experience, it isn’t all the IceHotel has to offer.
Let’s backtrack: Along with a handful of journalists, I first received my invitation to Sweden to sample the IceHotel’s charms back in December 2009. Not quite three months later, I landed at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport bright and early on a March morning. After a bit of breakfast and a little layover (spent having breakfast, a shower and a quick nap in room at the airport’s smart Radisson Blu SkyCity Hotel) our little group hopped on a quick SAS flight up to Kiruna, a town in northernmost Sweden.
And on the right of the plane, vast frozen expanses…
After a hour’s flight with views over stern tundra, we deplaned on Kiruna’s snowy runway. All around us was white: the runway, the drifts around the airport, the snow-coated pines beyond. Entering the small terminal, a nice lady at the IceHotel kiosk got things in motion, and before our little group could say “Brrrr!” we were pulling on our IceHotel-provided full-body snowsuits (every guest gets one) right over our street clothes (under which you should be already sporting good long underwear and reliably heavy wool socks). We were also issued big warm boots, snug headgear (called a balaclava, think a fleece ski-mask with a big face opening you pull over your head) and good gloves. Why all the serious garb? Because our dogsled awaits!
Sure, if you’re less adventurous you can take a IceHotel-provided shuttle van from the Kiruna airport to the IceHotel (it’s about a 15 minute ride) in Jukkasjarvi, but when given the option, I recommend going for the full sled-dog chauffeur experience. Awaiting our group outside our little snowsuit-changing hut were three dogsleds (each holding four riders and a driver who stands on the back), and about 40 yelping, eager, gorgeous and feisty sled-happy canines. They’re Alaskan Huskies, and they’re a bit smaller and leaner than you expect, but no worries; these pooches are raring to go. They live to run. So as not disappoint them, we board the sleds (our bags will get to the IceHotel via the shuttle van) and before you can say “Mush!” we’re off, dashing and sliding stealthily away from the airport, zipping along woodsy trails through the snowy, winter-wonderland landscape.
Once they start pulling the sleds, the dogs cease their excited barking. It’s all about the work and they dash like champions, hauling us along at a steady clip, only dipping their heads occasionally to lap up a bit of snow (for water) as they run. And yes, it must be said: They poop while running too. Every so often a big whiff of dog crap will waft back as you cruise forward. Thusly, I recommend NOT sitting in the front of the sled; there’s no guarantee a husky mini-turd won’t get kicked your way. But projectile poo aside, the ride is fantastic.
I may look docile, but I’m a speedy sledding machine!
The entire ride to Jukkasjarvi takes just over an hour, but at the halfway point, we stopped in the middle of the forest to pause in a rustically gorgeous little wooden octagon-shaped hut to be served cups of piping hot lingonberry juice and a little sandwich, which is comprised of sliced reindeer meat (kind of like a light roast beef) and butter wrapped in a thin earthy, pita-like bread. It’s good. A wood fire was burning in the middle of the hut, and it’s all so postcard-worthy you could die. We’ve only been up north for about an hour, and I’m already delirious over how beautiful and magical this is.
Whilst dogsledding, you may develop a craving for hot lingonberry juice. This fine lady can help.
Back on the sleds, we’re gliding over frozen lakes and trails, and soon we’re cruising down the homestretch (Mush, bitches!) atop the frozen Torne River which takes us right up to the IceHotel, perched on the river’s banks in Jukkasjarvi. (Factoid: All the ice used in building the hotel is harvested each winter from the frozen Torne River. Talk about using all-natural, local products!)
Off the sleds, we’re led to the IceHotel via a series of buildings and ice-structures that immediately start to enchant you. Walking through fenced pathways of ice (with little ice sculptures perched on top) and through tall walls of the frozen stuff, we arrive at main IceHotel campus; it’s a series of long, connected rounded-arched buildings. Think big long igloos, or a series of connected Quonset huts all made of ice. It’s late afternoon and we’re far up north, so the soft light and snow and ice all around us creates a white/blue glow, and upon entering the IceHotel’s reception via doors covered with handsomely hairy reindeer pelts, with antlers as door handles (don’t worry; the reindeer shed them naturally) we’re suddenly inside a superhero’s lair or some cinematic James-Bond-worthy set piece.
You are now entering the IceHotel.
The front desk (as everything around us) is fashioned from glistening blue-white ice, the staff are smiling and bundled in shiny ponchos. Looking just past the arched blue ice corridor, you see a couple posing for a wedding photo, serving complete and utter Arctic glam realness.
We peek in the Absolut IceBar, just off the lobby, which is—surprise!—also made entirely of ice, too; this includes the bar, the banquettes, the walls around the dance floor – and the glasses you drink from (think stocky little shot glasses full of delicious fruity concoctions of various flavors of Sweden’s Absolut vodka). We’ll hit that up later, after dinner.
This would be your Absolut IceBar dance floor.
The IceHotel offers a variety of rooms for your glamorously frosty slumbering. In the all-ice section, there are standard bedrooms (yes, with furnishings still all made of ice; or you can have one that’s more snow-based in its décor, they’re a bit cheaper) and this past winter there were 21 art suites, each designed by different artists from all over the world, each one uniquely different, with all features (bed, tables, chairs and some big sculpted elements) crafted from ice. This past year, two New Yorkers, Dennis Rolland and Andre Landeros Michel created “Gotham on Ice,” a suite with an stunning homage to the Chrysler building, all in swank Art Deco theme.
One of the gorgeous art suites from this past year. Like snowflakes, no two rooms are alike.
Want to get hitched, Jukkasjarvi-style? There’s also a fabulous ice chapel on the IceHotel premises. As you can imagine, they do a brisk business of weddings here, for folks striving for a truly super-unique Arctic “I do” shindig. And yes, they’ll do same-sex ceremonies. This is Scandinavia and gays are uber-welcome.
A couple pauses between photos during a late-afternoon wedding shoot in one nook of the IceHotel’s public spaces.
But in addition to the ice-based structure of the IceHotel, there are full-on heated accommodations and chalets, all done in a gorgeously charming, rustic-chic, ski-lodge meets classic handsome Swedish style. Think light woods, fireplaces, warm colors. And even if you’re bunking in the ice wing, your luggage stays in the heated areas. Guests staying in the ice suites receive a corresponding indoor cabin space where you can change clothes and house your bags. And of course there are full-on shower and bath facilities inside, too.
Some of the IceHotel’s chalets look just like this.
As far as staying in the heated, non-ice IceHotel buildings, you can bunk in little chalets with one or two bedrooms and little living room areas, or there are wings of more classic hotel rooms, all decorated in a gorgeously warm yet unfussy Scandinavian modern style.
The IceHotel houses two full-on restaurants, and both are fantastic. First is the simply named IceHotel Restaurant, in a handsome wooden lodge-like modern structure just across the street from the main hotel buildings. It’s here you’ll have a big buffet breakfast, and dinner can veer from simple to swank, with local cuisine done with an upscale gourmet flair.
Your super-delicious buffet breakfast will be served here. And dinner here is pretty stellar, too.
Our first evening, dinner in the IceHotel Restaurant brought multiple courses of Swedish delicacies, with some cold starters (an exquisite salmon mousse with caviar, for example) on little sturdy crystal-clear plates of ice, as well as hearty fare and fabulous wines.
After dinner, our crew hit the IceBar for a few fruity, icy vodka drinks. Yep, at the Absolut IceBar it’s vodka or nothing (which works fine for me). There are about 20 drink options, all with festive names and flavors (Fire & Ice mixes sweet fruit juice and Absolut Peppar vodka for a spicy effect, for example). The music cranked (yes, they play Lady Gaga in Sweden, as well as songs from Grease and other silly pop standards, new and old) and we slid around the dance floor, posing for photo ops amid the otherworldly ice disco fabulousness.
Some fruity Absolut drinks will help keep the chill at bay, of course.
Then it was time for bed. In our ice rooms. And frankly, we were all a bit worried. We’d spent substantial time already in the cold environs of the IceHotel (though dinner and drinks were in the lovely heated IceHotel restaurant), and our snowsuits and layers and activities were keeping us warm, but could we really cope with sleeping in an icy room? On a bed of ice. The temperature would be about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Hmmmmm…
I slept here. You can too!
Turns out, yes we could. The sleeping bags keep you perfectly warm. They’re issued to you in the warm reception area of the hotel, and from there you go to your warm cabin/changing room to peel down to your bottom layer, and then with your warm boots on, your sleeping bag in hand, and that’s it, out to your ice room you go.
Earlier in the day the staff gave us a quick how-to/orientation, with the most useful piece of instructions being to make sure you use the bathroom before heading to bed in your ice room. Because, to go to the bathroom in the middle of night you must get up, emerge into the cold from your warm sleeping bag and dash through the icy hallways and frigid night air back into the heated section of the hotel to reach the inside bathroom. If you’re gone too long your sleeping bag, left empty on your ice bed in your ice room, will get cold.
Changing rooms and hotel check-in? Right this way, please.
In my heated indoor changing cabin I stripped down to my bottom two layers of long underwear, kept on a knit hat, and toting my sleeping bag I headed out to my ice room. It was cold, so I speedily spread out my sleeping bag atop the reindeer skins on my ice bed, and jumped inside. Within a minute, I was toasty warm.
In fact, after about 10 minutes I realized I was too warm and peeled off my outer layer of longjohns. (You don’t want to get sweaty inside your sleeping bag; then you’d be damp and then you’d really get cold.) Before long I was asleep, wrapped up papoose-style in my sleeping bag, basking in the icy indigo darkness of my ice room (And yes, there are lights, you just push a button to shut them off as you hop in your sleeping bag).
Of course, I did wake up about 2 hours later. I had to go the bathroom. After dreading the inevitable for about 10 minutes, I decided to make a dash for it. I quickly peeled myself out of my sleeping bag, shoved my sock-clad feet back into my bedside boots (without touching the icy ground), quickly zipped back up my sleeping bag to keep the warmth inside, and wearing just my longjohns, I dashed through the dim icy hallways of the IceHotel, out a side door, and back into the nearby heated dressing room area in the warm part of the hotel. After a quick pee, I dashed back into the night, through the cold ice corridors again and zipped myself stealthily back into my sleeping bag. Success! It was still warm. Feeling satisfied, I was soon snoozing warmly again.
At about 7:30am I was awakened as a perky IceHotel staffer (a sporty twentysomething woman) tiptoed in my room, gingerly asking me if I wanted a mug of hot lingonberry juice. This is your wake-up call, Ice Hotel style. “Yes, please!” I didn’t want to miss out on any element of this frosty, unique experience. Sitting up on my ice bed, sipping the warm juice, I was proud I made it through the icy night on my icy bed in my icy room. After savoring that moment for about 2 seconds, I grabbed my sleeping bag and hustled into the cold morning light back in to the heated section of the hotel. A big hearty breakfast awaited.
“ALL ABOARD!!!” And no, that’s not Daft Punk loitering in the background. Those are your fellow IceHotel guests, rocking their snowsuits, much like you will be.
Day two at the IceHotel was pretty fantastic. Under a brilliant sunny blue sky, our group headed out that morning on a snowmobile tour through the cold countryside. Yes, we got to drive our own snowmobiles. (They’re easy to drive! A tip: The faster you go, the more fun it is!)
We cruised jauntily over the gorgeous winter countryside, stopping for a delicious rustic lunch of a meaty stew cooked on a wood fire in another of those charming wintry little wooden cabins that are characterisitic of the native Sami people of northern Sweden and Norway. Our handsome snowmobile guide Erik was funny, charming and a damn good cook. Total Swedish husband material for some lucky local ice maiden.
After lunch, and more snowmobiling and some reindeer-spotting in the woods, we headed back to the IceHotel for a crash course in ice sculpting. We were each given a chisel and a block of ice about as big as a cinderblock. Carving was easy; making it look good was tougher. Mine was meant to be a person’s head and shoulders, but my “bust” turned out to look like some weird “busted” replica of Peggy Lee (That jawline!), but with no hair, after a hard night on the town. Perfect!
By then it was nearly late afternoon, so we were granted a rest period of a couple of hours. Following this downtime, we gathered to be guided through the village of Jukkasjarvi (love those handsome frame homes, painted in rich mustard yellows, dark reds and forest greens) to visit a little Sami enclave, the Satosjohka Sami camp, which included a gorgeous red-frame church dating from 1607, and a visit next door to a little reindeer farm. Factoid: Reindeer are smaller than you think. They’re more on the scale of ponies, than big strapping horses. As such, they’re ridiculously cute.
At the reindeer farm, we then signed on for reindeer races (Because how often are you offered the chance to compete in reindeers races, after all?). For this purpose, a reindeer is harnessed to a flat wooden sleigh (which is really just a large flatbed sled), and with the reins in hand you sit on your knees as the deer pulls you around a snowy track. It’s cute, until the reindeer gets fired up and starts bolting. Then, it really gets fun! Truly, it’s a wacky breakneck experience of the this-would-never-be-allowed-in-the-States variety as you struggle to maintain your balance as a lunging, spastic Prancer wannabe yanks you madly, careening around a hilly little track. Yes, I fell off my sled. I. Loved. It.
After all that reindeer racing it was time for a meal, and this night dinner was served at the truly marvelous Olde Homestead restaurant, also operated by the IceHotel, but located about a ten-minute walk away through the picturesque village.
Your smorgasbord awaits at the Old Homestead. Truly, it’s one of the loveliest restaurants anywhere.
The Old Homestead’s setting is a beautiful and historic log building dating from 1728, near the Torne Rivers’s edge just along Jukkasjarvi’s main road, and we nestled into its cozy warmly lit cabin-like atmosphere and dug into a hearty smorgasbord (literally) of Swedish delicacies including cheeses, meats, seasoned herring and then a few more courses of outstanding game, salad, desserts, wine and more cheese and meats. The atmosphere was very fairy-tale/rustic-glam and stylish beyond belief.
Which really, can be said of the entire IceHotel experience. At times you’re struck by how outlandish and once-in-a-lifetime it all is. We’re at a hotel made of ice! Sleeping atop reindeer pelts on a bed of ice! After a day of dog-sledding and ice-sculpting! In the Arctic Circle! It’s like a movie, or a photo spread in some deliriously over-the-top travel magazine, except you’re atually there living it.
The winter sun setting over the hills beyond the frozen Torne River.
Would I recommend the IceHotel? Absolutely. It’s not a cheap vacation, but if you have an adventurous significant other, you’ll both have a ball. Or if you have a fun group of friends who loves nothing more than madcap, off-the-beaten path trips that make for truly memorable experiences and legendary Facebook updates and photo ops, then go. And be sure to tack on a few days in Stockholm, which is an entirely different Scandinavian experience, full of great food, attractive Swedes, amazing shopping, stylish hotels, fun nights out and stunning museums. And you won’t even have to run outside in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. Unless you’re just really into that.
Okay, you don’t have to splurge on a Christian Dior union suit while rocking the IceHotel, but keep in mind that if you’re sleeping even just one night in one of the ice suites you’ll like end up spending a bit of time in wearing your long underwear in public. So, just make sure there are no embarrassing holes (unless that’s the rugged exhibitionist vibe you’re going for), and make sure they fit you well. But then again, maybe droopy drawers is your look.
When choosing your long undies, veer towards those mod high-tech sporty fabrics or wools. You won’t sweat as much, and if you do, they won’t retain moisture.
One night only
I’m not going to tell you to only spend one night in the ice suites, but er… One night is plenty to give you the full-on frosty igloo-chic experience. But do spend at least another night or two on premises (the heated lodgings are really nice) to take advantage of all of the other cool activities (snowmobiling, ice sculpting, etc.) and excursions available. After all, how often are you up in an outdoorsy Swedish winter wonderland, anyway?
Did I mention it gets a bit chilly? This is an outdoor thermometer, giving you the temp in Celsius in the morning sun. Bundle up!
If you can, fly SAS to Stockholm and then on to Kiruna. You’ll get hooked on the stylish Swedish spirit the moment you board. And there’s just something about the understated cool vibe that the flight staff exudes. Really, it’s one of the pleasant airline experiences out there.
Of course, your legendary IceHotel jaunt isn’t a cheap experience… Flying to Stockholm and Kiruna, booking the hotel, booking activities, meals and other excursions while at the IceHotel will cost about $2000-$3000 at least. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. If you must, you must.
That said, here’s a peek at what room/suite rates will be for the 2010-2011 winter season:
Rooms in the icy cold part of the IceHotel run from about 2300-2900SEK ($290-$370) per night for the simplest Snow Room; the more exquisite Ice Room will cost about 2600-3800SEK ($330-$480) per night; and the more unique Art Suite (designed by one of the 20 or so selected artists) run from 3000-4500SEK ($380-$570) per night. And the grander Deluxe Suites begin at 7000SEK ($890).
To bunk in the warm, more traditional accommodations, prices run from 3500-4200SEK ($445-$530) for the basic—and very nice—double room in the modern and tasteful hotel wings. And to book a small, charming chalet (sleeping 3 or 4 persons), the prices run from 4100-4800SEK ($520-$610) per night.
One of the best parts about visiting the IceHotel are the unforgettable and unique activities you can experience. Dog-sledding, snowmobiling and ice-sculpting are just the beginning. You’ll want to peruse the IceHotel’s site and plan ahead. You can partake in overnight snowmobiling or sledding trips, or just 90 minute rides. Don’t skimp!
One of the highlights of my trip (as I mentioned above) was the transfer from Kiruna aiport to the IceHotel via dogsled. It’s simply the best way to arrive. But, it’ll cost you to the tune of 5900SEK ($215) for the 75-minute ride. Yup, 12 dogs don’t come cheap! Another extra-special way to arrive is via snowmobile, which goes for the comparatively cheap price of 1700SEK ($215), which includes coffee and cake! Or you can just take the basic minibus shuttle.
To book a dogsledding day trip (90 minutes) will cost you 1390SEK ($175); a fun snowmobile trip (and you get to drive!) around the forest and frozen rivers, where you’ll spot wildlife (reindeer!) and have a fantastic hot traditional lunch in a fabulous rustic cabin will set you back 1550SEK ($197). And the visit to the Sami camp, with a tour of the reindeer farm, lunch and a madcap turn driving a reindeer sled will run 1495SEK ($190) per person. But trust me, you’ve not lived until you’ve held the reins while a mad, grandly antlered beast pulls you around a snowy course atop a wooden sled. It’s major!
You won’t starve at the IceHotel. The two main restaurants are both pretty fantastic, in fact. But be sure to book ahead before you arrive.
A great buffet breakfast comes included in your stay, and meals at the fabulously light and modern IceHotel restaurant are delightful and thoughtful. You may want to opt for their “exclusive menu” served on plates and bowls made of crystal-clear ice from the Torne River.
And a grand dinner at the nearby and sublimely rustic-chic Old Homestead (dating from 1768) is unmissable. Dig in to their fantastic smorgasbord to get started, then order from the sumptuous menu. Both restaurants source from local farms, forests and suppliers so it’s all delicious and responsibly prepared.
You can’t stay at the IceHotel without tossing a fruity beverage in the all-ice/all-nice Absolut IceBar. The entire structure (like the rest of the hotel) is made entirely of ice, including the banquettes, tables and chairs, the dance floor and even the glasses you drink out of. And the bar serves up a lengthy list of fruity and spice vodka-fueled beverages. But be warned: It’s only vodka on the menu at the Absolut IceBar.
Warm Weather Visits
Finally… Yes, the Ice Hotel is open in the summer months. The actual ice structure won’t be there, but the traditional lodgings and chalets are, and there are many wilderness packages you can choose from to create a trip full of adventure (Rafting! Fishing! Hiking! Crafts!). Check out the IceHotel’s site for a full roster of their sublime summertime offerings.
A glimpse of the glowing blue exterior of a portion of the IceHotel late at night. Truly unforgettable.
For more information about fabulous travels in Sweden, please check out our TripOut Gay Travel Destination Guide to Stockholm.
All photographs by John Polly.