I pull the arctic temperature sleeping bag up around my head and pull the drawstring tight, sealing myself in a warm cocoon with just my face poking out, like a human larva just before bursting into a butterfly. Lying on my back, my breath rises as clouds into the air above, swirling in the icy space overhead. I reach down past the reindeer skinlined block of ice, my makeshift bed for the night, and turn the lights out, casting the room into -5°C blackness.
The above is not your average introduction to a hotel review, but this place is no ordinary hotel.
For one thing, it’s made of frozen water. Each year, thousands of two-tonne blocks of fresh blue ice are hacked out of the nearby Torne River and moved, stacked and sculpted into the one of the most captivating properties in the whole travel industry – only for spring to arrive and the whole thing to melt into nothingness and be washed away downstream.
It’s especially impressive, then, that each yearly imagination of the Ice Hotel is styled separately, with each ‘Art Room’ (the equivalent of a suite in a normal non-water-based hotel) being created by a separate team of designers, who fly in from all over the world. Intricate and staggering room designs – carved into the very structure of the property – include a Kraken with tentacles flailing around the room, penguins with light-up eyes, and a sort of ice fortress, with the bed raised up from the ground.
The hotel stay is intended less as a relaxing weekend away and more a once in a lifetime experience (as overused as the cliché is, this may be one of the few times where the phrase is justified). Fortunately, the very ‘rush’ of the weekend does more than enough to recharge the batteries, because the focus for the Ice Hotel definitely isn’t to get your eight hours of sleep. Indeed, visitors receive a diploma congratulating them on surviving the night!
However, there are a few provisions on hand to help keep visitors warm – provided you like vodka. Be sure to visit the Ice Bar for a few cocktails, which are served in their own souvenir glasses. Although seeing as the glasses are, of course, made of ice, taking them back in a suitcase seems a little foolish…
The day starts early in Kiruna: at 7am sharp each morning, a member of staff comes into your room to wake you up. Although the cup of hot lingonberry juice is a delicious way to start the day (it’s similar to warm Ribena), I’m sure many visitors would appreciate instead a few extra hours of sleep! To help you thaw out once you’ve returned to the warm area (which is where all the traditional hotel features like reception, lobby and internet are found), the communal bathroom area has a huge sauna where guests can warm up, sweat out any excess from the night before, and regale each other with stories from their nights of varying comfort levels.
Make sure you are not one of the cold ones and ask a guide how to how best prepare yourself for the night; at first it seems silly being ‘taught’ how to sleep, but the recommendations will come in handy. For those seriously worried by a night in minus temperatures, there are well-equipped holiday lodges for a more conventional night’s rest, but it’s traditional to spend one night in the Ice Hotel and then one night in a cabin as a reward!
Also found in the warm area are ingenious specialist ‘charging lockers’ where guests can plug in their ever-so-necessary electronic goods. The lockers come complete with holes in the doors so that the cable can pass through and be plugged into the socket, all the while leaving the valuable gadgets safely stowed away.
Breakfast is served in the on-site restaurant (again in a warm lodge, so don’t panic!). The buffet spread offers everything from sausage and egg for the Full English fans to pickled herring for those happy to try the local stuff . A cup of coffee, another glass of lingonberry juice, and few slices of toast and it’s time to go and sample the unique activities on offer…
Putting a completely new slant on the phrase ‘airport transfer’, guests can go straight from Kiruna airport to the snowmobile HQ, where they are kitted up snow suits and taught how to drive their very own snowmobile. The three-hour excursion, passing through some of the most stunning scenery, lasts three hours, including a stop for lunch – our group had moose casserole!
It really is all in the technique, as trying to desperately hack out huge chunks of ice will leave you tired and frustrated, but calmly smoothing away shards of the stuff will quickly have your block of ice looking like a masterpiece. Perhaps. Once the sculptures are finished, they are left out in the sunshine (they don’t completely melt fortunately), creating a stunning transparent effect and almost looking like the professional thing.
Reindeer racing with a Sami tribe
Still a source of livelihood for approximately 3000 locals, nomadic reindeer herding is a crucial part of the indigenous Sami way of life. Your hosts will whisk you away on a sled pulled by snowmobile to a reindeer ‘farm’ where you’ll be able to harness up the reindeer to a sledge and race them against friend. But you may have lasso one first!
Dog sled riding
One of the most serene experiences you will ever have while travelling at 15 miles an hour, take a trip across frozen lakes and in between snow-dusted pine trees thanks to twelve of man’s best friend. The dogs turn left and right in response to the guide’s orders and even quizzically look back at their owner when they aren’t convinced he’s going the right direction!
Northern Lights tours
Being so far north also means that guests have the opportunity to witness one of the most ethereal phenomena on this planet. Take a guided tour out of the town and away from the lights and watch as the sky comes to life, with its own spectacular natural lights show.
Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) offer direct flights to Stockholm from London Heathrow / Manchester / Edinburgh and now Birmingham starting from £78 one-way incl. taxes and charges. SAS also flies from London Heathrow to Kiruna via Stockholm from £123 one-way incl. taxes and charges. For more information or to book, visit www.flysas.co.uk or call SAS on 0871 2267760.