Check-in at Sweden’s Ice Hotel is like no other.
'At 3.30pm there will be a lesson on how to sleep in your room', said the beautiful husky-eyed blonde girl behind the desk. We giggled nervously, but she simply nodded earnestly, prompting apprehensive sideways glances as we slowly absorbed the gravity of sleeping in a room made of ice, at a constant temperature of minus 5 degrees Celsius.
There are now many incarnations of ice hotels in cold countries of the world, but we were at the original - founded in 1989 in the old town Jukkasjärvi, Swedish Lapland, some 200km inside the arctic circle.
Sounds tacky, like a Disney attraction? Well, quite simply no - the Scandinavian style running through the veins of the Swedes wouldn’t allow anything resembling tourist kitsch. Combining snow, ice and Swedish design is a breathtaking sight to behold. Add a splash of charming Sámi culture and reindeer, a sprinkle of traditional sauna, a portion of exceptional local cuisine next to roaring fires, and a strong chance of the northern lights after dessert, and it’s a place where magic happens.
Each year the hotel is painstakingly built from the pure, blue ice of the adjacent River Torne, one of Europe’s purest waterways, and with a snow and ice mixture called ‘snice’. It is patiently sculpted by around 100 people, including about 50 artists each year - each ice suite is different, a coveted task for artists fortunate enough to be invited. Inspiring room creations created by hundreds of artists since the hotel’s inception have included a giant elephant, wall-sized peacock, and a flock of sheep. There are also 1000 hand-cut ice crystals making up the chandeliers in the main entrance hall every year.
Following check-in, we spent the afternoon marvelling at the rooms, which are open for all guests to visit until 7pm. We also enjoyed the warm areas of the hotel, which include fireplaces, bars and lounges, saunas, and of course, lockers. As rooms are entirely made of ice, one does not simply dump one’s bag in one’s room, for the contents would surely freeze. There are also warm rooms available, for those who can’t quite come to terms with sleeping in the equivalent of a freezer.
Which brought us to our 3.30pm lesson, ‘How to sleep in your ice room’:
- Don’t wear more than one layer of clothing (thermal underwear is ideal) as the very warm sleeping bags work by trapping emitted body heat.
- Wear a beanie.
- Wear a pair of unlaced shoes so your feet don’t freeze on the way to the room.
- Take your phone for selfies - all rooms have Wi-Fi, but think about where you will put your phone to prevent it from freezing.
- Don’t put your phone in your shoes, which you will invariably step into to go for a midnight toilet dash.
- Don’t be tempted to lick the walls (Okay, I made this one up).
- Don’t be tempted to pee in the corner of the room - yellow snow is a giveaway!
After a drink or two in the original Ice Bar, and (given our remote location) a surprisingly sophisticated locally sourced meal of moose, arctic char, and a cloudberry dessert, we hit the hay. Or rather, the remarkably insulating reindeer skin which adorns each ice bed.
Snow also insulates sound incredibly, so after a quick phone selfie we drifted into a peaceful and mercifully warm sleep to the sound of perfect silence… only to be woken by a fire alarm at around midnight! Curiously, nobody stirred, and I supposed we were all wondering how a hotel made of ice could possibly catch on fire? I wondered if perhaps it was an aurora alarm, or maybe just the hotel expressing its displeasure of the minus 35 outdoor overnight temperature but thought better of emerging from my toasty cocoon to find out, and it soon stopped.
In the morning I was woken by the same husky-eyed girl as at check-in, only this time she stood at the foot of the bed with a backpack of hot lingonberry juice, a squirter gun and a stack of cups, looking less like a supermodel and altogether more like a Swedish Ghostbuster. It was so otherworldly, for a moment I thought it was a dream, but the steaming concoction was most deliciously real.
Did the sleeping lesson help? Without a doubt. Did I pee in the corner? No. Was I tempted? Yes - to get to the warm area and bathrooms, a 15 metre outside dash is required! Did I mention it was minus 35?! Far from being a discomfort however, it was strangely exciting to be hopping around at midnight in a cold winter wonderland. It also enabled an obligatory check of the sky to see if the aurora borealis was on display - unfortunately it wasn’t, although we were treated to magnificent displays whilst staying in the area over subsequent clear nights. And what of that alarm? Well, apparently someone nipped out a fire escape to try and pee.
Breakfast was a curious observation of who thrived and who merely survived, as although the majority looked rested, for some weary folk I sensed a literal meaning for the term, ‘once in a lifetime experience’. Regardless, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone had a contented smile on their face as they gazed outside at the achingly beautiful snowscape of Swedish Lapland.
David Evans is a professional photographer who leads small tour groups to Lapland in Sweden, Finland, and Norway. Activities include hunting the Aurora Borealis, dog sledding, reindeer sledding, snowmobiling and a visit to the ice hotel. Bookings are now open for early 2024 – davidevansphotographer.com/photo-tours.