When I decided to visit ICEHOTEL in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. That is to say, I understood the concept of ICEHOTEL in theory, but the practical implications of an overnight stay in a hotel constructed entirely of ice and snow, situated in a village with barely 1,000 inhabitants, were not completely within the realm of my comprehension if I am to be totally honest. And yet, there I sat on a plane, staring out the window at the snow-covered runway of Kiruna airport, 120 miles or so north of the Arctic Circle, blissfully ignorant and ready to experience whatever adventure awaited me when we touched down in this curious destination.
Not surprisingly, the first thing that greeted me when I stepped off that plane was a chilling gust of air that only served to remind me that I had indeed left the sunny warmth of Los Angeles behind. The temperature was a crisp -7° C (which is about 19° F for my fellow Celsius-challenged Americanos). I was soon informed repeatedly this was practically balmy weather in these parts, considering it had been around -40° C only weeks before. How positively reassuring, I thought to myself. Comforting (or not) as that news was, my chosen ensemble of a wool turtleneck, pants and matching hat and coat seemed woefully inadequate for the climate, of that I was sure.
Nonetheless, like a little frozen soldier, I made my way down the stairs from the plane, onto the icy runway (and no, the exit from the plane was not covered) and into the tiny Kiruna airport, where I collected my somewhat excessive luggage. With my bags in tow, I then made the short walk through the snow to a changing room where I could get properly attired for the first leg of my adventure—a two-hour dog sled ride to Jukkasjärvi and the ICEHOTEL. The suit I was given to change into was a bulky turquoise, green and black number with a big furry hood. It was not necessarily my personal fashion prescription, but it was damned warm, which was about all I cared about at the time. Once I was all suited up, I joined the rest of my group, hopped on a sled attached to an exceedingly anxious bunch of canines and off we went into what I might best characterize as the frozen tundra.
I can only describe the dog sled ride that ensued thereafter as being akin to the most exhilarating rollercoaster ride I’ve ever experienced. I was so warm and toasty in my facemask and suit that I hardly noticed the cold at all. Instead, I was completely entranced by the veritable winter wonderland that surrounded me as we bounced and bobbed over an icy path through the woods and across frozen lakes en route to ICEHOTEL. Wherever I looked, everything was covered in snow. And the air was so fresh and pure that my city-fortified lungs went into shock, while secretly relishing a respite from overuse.
Halfway through the ride we stopped for sandwiches and warm beverages in a teepee-like structure commonly used by the Sami, the indigenous people of Northern Sweden. In the middle of these structures there is typically a big fire that permeates the air with the smell of burning wood, along with a fair amount of smoke. For someone who is not particularly outdoorsy like myself, it felt trés rustic and über-authentic. I was strangely exhilarated in a Davy Crockett/contemporary Hollywood Western sort of way. Hell, for a brief moment I felt I had glimpsed life on the open range—or something like it.
After lunch, we continued our trek, and within an hour or so, the ICEHOTEL came into full view—a glaringly white series of structures that looked like a cross between a magnificent assortment of unflavored snow cone domes and a grown-up playground. As we drew closer to the structures and their size and scale became more apparent, I seriously felt a bit like Alex in Wonderland.
During the sleigh ride from the airport, our luggage had been transported by car to the (thankfully warm) reception area set aside for the cold accommodations at ICEHOTEL. (You see, there are actually also warm accommodations at ICEHOTEL, very much like what you’d find in a traditional hotel, but that was to be day two of my experience.) On day one, I was booked into a Snow Room, where I would sleep atop reindeer skins on a bed made of snow and ice.
The way it works is that you check in and you’re given a locker large enough for you to change clothes in and store your luggage. In the reception/hospitality area there are saunas and showers, and you can reconnect to the outside world via complimentary WiFi. There’s also a welcome abundance of hot Lingonberry juice, a local treat reminiscent of warm, spicy cranberry juice, always on tap. It’s actually here in this cozy little nook where you’ll do most of your hanging out rather than in your actual room, where the temperature is about 5° C / 23° F, which is actually too cold to even store your luggage because it would freeze. (Yep, I wondered that too. If it’s too cold for my luggage, how on earth will it be warm enough for me? More on that in a minute.)
Once checked in, we did a tour of ICEHOTEL, which is truly an architectural wonder. In person, it’s magical to see the work of the team of snow builders, architects, designers and artists from all over the world who come together each year to build the hotel from the ground up working with only ice, snow and their creative genius. Room themes range from New York, New York, to natural landscapes, with one after the other being more jaw-dropping than the one that preceded it. Just walking through the hallways, with their ice sculptures and chandeliers, is a sight to behold. And then there’s the stunning ice church, where locals and guests actually worship regularly. To these jaded eyes, it was all a bit surreal—like an alternative little world existing above the Arctic Circle just east of Santa’s workshop.
After the tour, it was off to the bar/lounge for a Scotch (one needs regular fortification in a climate like this, after all) and then to dinner in ICEHOTEL’s lodge-chic restaurant where I sampled some local favorites, including a rather impressive Deer Carpaccio. Following dinner, the fun really began when we hit the Absolut IceBar—where I’m almost certain I heard angels singing when I entered, though I can’t be altogether sure. Everything in IceBar, like everything else at ICEHOTEL, is made from ice. The bar, the chairs, the tables—even the glasses the drinks are served in—are all made of ice. The drinks at the IceBar are simple (generally Absolut vodka with some sort of fruit infusion or juice), delicious and potent, which goes a long way toward explaining why this joint is generally hopping until it closes at 1 a.m. during high season.
As I was completely aware there was no bathroom in the actual ICEHOTEL once I went to my room (because you can’t have a bathroom with running water in a place where temperatures are below freezing), I made it a point not to drink too much. The thought of having to walk outside, however briefly, to pop to the loo in reception in the middle of the night was not the least bit enticing to me. Just after midnight, the witching hour finally came. Time for bed.
As instructed, I went to my locker, stripped down to my thermals, strapped on my snow boots and went to reception to request my sleeping bag, which had been kept warm for me behind the desk. Once I had wrapped my sleeping bag around my shoulder, I popped an Ambien, took a swig of warm Lingonberry juice, prayed for the angel of warmth to protect me and made a mad dash for my room.
Now, I cannot tell a lie. I could not get my boots off fast enough so that I could climb into the sleeping bag that I had gingerly spread over the reindeer skins covering my bed of ice in what must have been record time. That said, once I zipped myself up in that miraculous sleeping apparatus I couldn’t have been warmer. In fact, I was so warm that I had to periodically poke my head out of the bag like a turtle to get a blast of cool air throughout the night. No one could have been more surprised than me. Moreover, I was actually pretty comfortable.
Unfortunately, I did have to go wee in the middle of the night, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had imagined. I actually went right back to sleep and I slept clear through until I was awakened by one of the hotel staff with a cup of that steaming Lingonberry juice that I was starting to get addicted to.
Having easily survived my night at ICEHOTEL and even received a certificate acknowledging that I had done so, I felt strangely proud of myself. It was one of those bucket list kind of experiences that sort of empower you to do new things, which is exactly what I did for the next day and a half at ICEHOTEL. I went snowmobiling, carved ice sculptures, visited a reindeer farm and even watched a reindeer race (though I didn‘t actually participate). Not exactly the kinds of activities you can do in your Louboutins or while sipping a smart Martini, but refreshingly enjoyable nonetheless. So much so, by the time I settled into my warm accommodation on the second day, I almost missed the thrill of the ice and reindeer skins in my room from the night before. Almost.
Find out more about the ICEHOTEL at icehotel.com.
Until next time, never stop Living Wells! Cheers!