Some 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland, on the edge of the Torne river and against a dramatic mountain backdrop, you’ll find a hotel made entirely of ice. When it launched three decades ago it was the first in the world, and while the concept has been copied elsewhere Sweden’s Icehotel is still the most iconic.
Perhaps the reason behind its ongoing popularity is that it taps into several of the current big travel trends – wilderness culture, sustainable tourism and arctic adventures (lately there has been an increase in new hotel openings in and around the Arctic Circle). There is also a real hunger for experiences that offer something unique, which Icehotel certainly does. Time magazine recently featured it on its “World’s Greatest Places” list, and no wonder – with its huge ice sculptures the architecture is best described as otherworldly, and what’s most amazing about it is that part of it is open all year round. The Icehotel 365 structure, with individually designed luxury ice suites, relies on solar-power to keep it from melting in summer. The seasonal part, which this year opens on December 14, is rebuilt every winter by a different team of designers from all over the world. This year that includes the British father-daughter duo Jonathan and Marnie Green whose ‘Living Ocean Suite’ is inspired by the eerie underwater world.
I always love the feeling of stepping into a hotel for the first time and thinking ‘Wow, this is beautiful’, but the moment I entered into the Icehotel it really took my breath away. It’s like a frozen palace – high ceilings, chandeliers and everywhere you look is just glimmering ice carved into whimsical sculptures. Despite the teeth-chattering cold I couldn’t resist having a look around all the different rooms, marvelling at the creativity and skill that went into making them.
But what is it like to stay in an ice suite? I decided to give it a try, at least for a short nap. Having climbed into one of the special sleeping bags provided by the hotel, I made myself comfortable on top of the reindeer skins that adorn the ice beds in each room and tried to relax into the experience. It might be a bit chilly (-5 C to be precise), and as a relatively petite person I struggled to stay toasty inside the enormous sleeping bag, but I tried to focus instead on the beauty of the room and the absolute silence that enveloped me. On its website, the hotel describes spending a night here as a “surreal experience” and that’s exactly how it felt lying there in a sort of grand igloo. I resorted to silently repeating my meditation mantra to counter the rush of adrenalin no doubt triggered by the sub-zero temperature. I also reminded myself that sleeping in a cold room is meant to be really good for your health – anti-ageing even, according to scientists.
An hour or so later, the dreamlike surroundings had worked their magic and I felt wonderfully rested even if I hadn’t actually drifted off to sleep. I was, however, relieved when one of the lovely staff appeared offering me a cup of warm lingonberry juice before helping me out of my sleeping bag. I headed straight for the sauna, which was heavenly, and as my body warmed up I reflected on the experience. Would I do it again? No, once is definitely enough and I wouldn’t have wanted to spend the night in the ice suite, but I can see how it appeals to adventurous types who enjoy testing themselves in extreme conditions.
Personally I was very happy to retreat to a heated room in one of the hotel’s separate buildings (there are also cottages for families). While spacious and comfortable, the room was otherwise fairly unremarkable – it would seem the creative effort has gone into the ice part – but I was just grateful to be able to wrap myself in a warm fluffy duvet.
The restaurant is highly rated, and rightly so. Most guests sample local delicacies such as reindeer and moose “with a cosmopolitan twist”, but as I’m not a meat eater, for dinner I enjoyed delicious arctic char served with mustard cream, new potatoes and seasonal greens, followed by cloudberries with vanilla ice cream for dessert. Gourmands can also opt for special culinary experiences such as ice dining or a wilderness dinner.
The breakfast buffet is also excellent, offering everything from pancakes, scrambled eggs and cold cuts to Scandi delicacies such as smoked salmon and pickled herring.
Who goes there?
A very mixed bunch. The beauty of northern Sweden is that it offers such diverse experiences in the different seasons, which means there’s something for everyone. The northern lights season starts in September, and those keen on an arctic winter adventure should visit anytime in December through to February and make the most of the short daylight hours. The hotel is also popular with bridal couples as the hotel’s ice church and majestic main hall, rebuilt every winter, both make spectacular wedding venues. During spring the days are long and often sunny so perfect for outdoor enthusiasts, as is the arctic summer with near constant daylight hours thanks to the midnight sun.
Out and about:
Apart from a picturesque old church and a charming centre celebrating the indigenous Sami culture, the main attraction in Jukkasjärvi is the breathtakingly beautiful natural surroundings. There is a whole raft of outdoor activities to choose from – husky sledding, skiing or snowmobiling in winter and river rafting, hiking and cycling in summer, not to mention midnight sun and northern lights expeditions. The quirkiest, however, has to be the hotel’s ice sculpting class.
The worst thing:
It’s a bit chilly… be sure to bring your long johns.
The best thing:
It’s an out-of-the-ordinary experience that makes for fun memories.
Ice rooms from £200; heated rooms from £130; Ice Hotel; Marknadsvägen 63, 981 91 Jukkasjärvi, Sweden; +46 980 668 00; www.icehotel.com