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Adventures in Arctic Sweden

From the northern lights to cross country skiing and the unique experience of the legendary Ice Hotel, Sweden above the Arctic Circle in mid-winter is unforgettable
By Peter Potterfield - February 8th, 2014

Blonde, blue-eyed and very Swedish Ida, one of the backcountry guides from the Ice Hotel, leads the way through the fresh snow. She picks her route carefully through the trees on her snowshoes, pointing out an Arctic hare hiding in the winter brush. The slightly uphill trek generates a little heat in my down suit, a welcome thing. We are 125 miles inside the Arctic Circle, and the temperature is a bone chilling minus 35 degrees. This is serious cold, and when you are outside for an extended period, conditions like this require careful attention to details in clothing and strategy. But this is, after all, a mid-January trip to one of the coldest regions in Europe, so who would want it any other way? 

In fact, it’s the Arctic environment that makes a winter trip like this so memorable. The sun emerged from below the horizon just a week ago for the very first time since before the Winter Solstice. The Swedes are ecstatic to have their sunlight back, if only for a few hours a day, so to them the cold is no bother. This newly emerged sun remains low on the horizon, its luminescence still pale, even at mid-day. But the result is magical. It’s like perpetual twilight, painting a soft pink light on the ice and the snow covered trees, on everything. Sunrises and sunsets put a lurid purple and pink light on the winter landscape, right out of a Bergman movie. The quality of the light here in mid-winter won’t let you forget: we’re not in Kansas anymore, we are in Arctic Scandinavia.
 
This is Lappland, the remote northern region of Sweden, a place that harbors the last true wilderness in Europe. Lapplanders, the native Saami people, still live a life of reindeer herding and hunting in this wild land. For visitors, the attractions here start with the legendary Ice Hotel, one of the most unique accommodations on the planet. Each winter, as the River Torne freezes, huge blocks of ice are quarried from the river, and the construction of the Ice Hotel begins.
 
The first and largest hotel built of snow and ice in the world, the Ice Hotel each winter draws more than 50,000 visitors from all over the planet to the tiny village of Jukkasjarvi. Tranquility, the Northern Lights, and an emphasis on an artful environment bring people here from Europe, but Asia and North America as well. The Ice Hotel opens in December, and closes in April, when the very building begins to slowly melt and return to the river as water.
 
The Ice Hotel is not only ephemeral and temporary, it is different every year. As the building takes shape in late autumn, artists are invited from around the world to create the public spaces and the guest rooms, including unique "art suites," carved out of the ice in a variety of themes. On this visit, the main hall was a veritable cathedral of ice with the stunning ice sculpture of a unicorn as the focal point. And my room, carved by the French artists Luc Voisin and Mathieu Brison, replicated the rooftops of Paris in an attempt to apply a Parisian theme without using the Eiffel Tower. But each of the art suites is different, and carved by different artists, usually at least two because the effort involved is physical as well as aesthetic.
 
And while the halls and rooms carved from the River Torne's ice is the focal point of any stay here, the term Ice Hotel is a bit of misnomer. Everything at the Ice Hotel is not made of ice, and so visitors spend some time in the ice building but most of their time in "warm accommodations," and the restaurants, etc. Most guests arrive via the small city of Kiruna, with one of the world's largest iron ore mines, which makes for frequent air connections. Kiruna itself is a unpretentious and likable Arctic village, and from here it's only a 15 minute cab ride to the Ice Hotel itself.
 
I had arranged for three nights, with my first to be my "cold night." In the warm, modern reception hall, I was issued cold-weather clothing and assigned a changing room. There I stored my luggage and dressed for a day in the cold: a winter wild-life safari via snow mobile, a brief cross-country ski foray on the frozen river Torne, followed by several hours of exploring the Ice Hotel itself. In the evening, the place to be is the famous Ice Bar, which this year features the four ton sculpture of a fish, replete with a mythical legend of how it got there. In the Ice Bar I met people from the  United Kingdom, North America, and Asia; this is truly an international watering hole. And you don't need to ask for rocks in your drink: the very "glasses" themselves are carved from blocks of solid ice.
 
At 5 p.m., when the day visitors leave, the hotel staff holds a seminar on how to sleep in the art suites and other rooms made of ice and snow. The interior temperature hovers around minus 7 degrees Centigrade, and many visitors are not accustomed to sleeping in such conditions. The staff advises guests to pick up their sleeping bags from reception just before going to bed, and to dress in just a single thin layer. The bed in each room is essentially a huge block of ice with an insulating pad and a reindeer skin. Having been to Mount Everest and Antarctica, I was quite comfortable in my bed among the ice-sculpted rooftops of Paris. It was a unique experience for me because of the art, but for many guests, its the only time they will ever sleep in a place where the temperature is below freezing.
 
One of the first questions people ask me about the Ice Hotel is: what about the bathrooms? The bathrooms are in the heated reception area, about a five minute walk from the art suites and other ice rooms. So it's a bit of a hike, and includes a short section of walking outside between the Ice Hotel proper and the heated reception area, where when I was there, the temperature was minus 35 degrees. That's chilly, but in short order you are back in the warmth of your sleeping bag. I actually lingered outside, enjoying the quiet and the solitude, as the Northern Lights rippled in the sky across the frozen river. When I climbed back into bed I saw my water bottle had frozen solid.
 
In the morning, I dropped off my sleeping bag at the equipment desk, and wandered over to the restaurant for the elaborate breakfast buffet and a couple of espressos. I had chosen to embark on a snowshoe outing that morning with Ida, so we piled in the snow machine and zoomed across the river in soft dawn light to the wooded slopes. And when I returned to the hotel at noon, it was time to gather my gear and move to my "warm accommodations," in my case one of the comfortable cabins on the property. Other guests will move into the rustic but comfortable hotel. Like me, most guests stay another couple of nights in conventional accommodations to further enjoy the Ice Hotel without actually being on ice.
 
There's much to do here: from exploring the 400-year-old village of Jukkasjarvi to traditional outdoor pursuits like skiing and snowshoeing and viewing the Northern Lights. The hotel offers a variety of outings, including an evening on snow machines which combines the Northern Lights with a three course dinner at a wilderness camp about a half hour from the main buildings. Predictably, the unique Ice Hotel offers activities beyond what one might expect.
 
One of those is Extreme Ice Driving, where a certified driving expert takes you out on the surface of a nearby frozen lake to offer lessons in understeer, oversteer, skid recovery, "moose avoidance," and having just plain fun. The hotel's fleet of Minis are perfect for zooming around at 100 KMH trying to hold the line. If you miss, no big deal, you just pile into a snow bank. And part of the fun is being on a wilderness lake in Arctic light surrounded by snow-covered trees painted a golden hue by the low angled sun.
 
Another activity you won't find anywhere else is ice sculpting classes. Here, guests get their own block of ice and chisel with which to create something unique under the expert tutelage of one of the resident artists. My class was taught by the artist who sculpted the stunning center piece of the hotel this year, AnnaSofia Maag, who soon put us all at ease and had us carving away. The class was a great way to appreciate the plastic quality of ice, and especially this ice. The founders of the hotel chose this site along the river Torne for the clarity and strength of the ice on this section of river. They are adamant that even Ice Bars in Stockholm and elsewhere must be made only of ice from the stretch of the river.
 
The winter visit to the Ice Hotel was not only a great way to do some cross country skiing and snowmobiling and gazing at the Northern Lights, it was an utterly unique experience. The heavy emphasis on art and beauty came as a surprise, and the cosmopolitan nature of the clientele underscores the universal appeal of the place. And while most guests seemed to be fulfilling a life-long dream, or celebrating an anniversary (not to mention a few honeymooners), the Ice Hotel caters to other groups as well. Corporate events, weddings and family reunions are all drawn to this one-of-a-kind destination.
 
Many guests are unaware that while the Ice Hotel is an irresistible draw in winter, it also operates in summer. The place switches gears and offers activities such as white water rafting, mountain biking, wilderness camping and possibly the world's northern-most zip line. The fly fishing here is a well kept secret, and stand up paddle boarding on the Torne River has a growing allure. There's big time fun to be had here year round. But for me the experience in winter, with the soft Arctic light, the sculpted ice, and the extreme cold all worked together to make for an unforgettable experience, combining real adventure and genuine luxury in a uinque way.
 
 Getting There
 
The town of Kiruna, about 20 kilometers away, makes getting to the Ice Hotel easy. Frequent flights from Stockholm, and even direct flights from the United Kingdom and other locations in Europe, make travel to the Ice Hotel easy. The hotel will pick you up at the airport, and take you back, but many visitors choose to also spend some time in Kiruna itself, or the nearby Abisko Mountain Station, one of the accommodations along the famed Kungsleden hiking and cross-country ski route. For more information on planning a tirp to Sweden, check out the country's national tourism site, Visit Sweden.
 
 
 
 

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