Arctic Adventures at ICEHOTEL in Swedish Lapland

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I spent an incredible break at ICEHOTEL in the Swedish town of Jukkasjärvi, 200km inside the Arctic Circle.  The adventure included snowmobile racing, husky sledding, cross country skiing, learning about Sami culture, sleeping on ice, and an Hawaiian themed party (of course!)

ICEHOTEL reception, 2015-2016, designed by Erik Fankki & Erne Bergh

The story of ICEHOTEL began in 1989 with Swedish entrepreneur, Yngve Bergqvist. Inspired by the native Sami people’s use of their frosty local surroundings, and the skills and beauty of Japanese ice sculpting traditions, he held a workshop bringing together local and Japanese artists in the small town of Jukkasjärvi. After experiments the following winter with igloo structures and sculpting techniques, the ICEHOTEL concept was born.

Each subsequent year, a hotel has been constructed from blocks of ice harvested from the neighbouring Thorne River, and over 40 artists are invited (selected form over 200 applicants) to create unique “art suites“, a hotel reception, ice bar and chapel. The complex now also has ice rooms available 365 days a year, a complex of permanent “warm rooms“, two restaurants, a lounge bar, and offers a range of appropriately Arctic activities.

I was lucky enough to visit on a work trip, and had a brilliant time experiencing life in this harsh but beautiful landscape! Here are some of the adventures from the trip (plus lots of photos!)…

Snowmobile expedition

Our first activity was a thrilling wilderness snowmobile expedition, with a stop for dinner in a forest cabin. The journey took us along the frozen Thorne River, on winding tracks weaving around trees through a forest, and culminated in an adrenaline pumping race across a frozen lake. I clocked a speed of 65kmph, which felt pretty scary-fast in the pitch-black dark, on what is essentially a motorbike on skis!  

each reindeer are owned by a specific member of the Sami people…

Once we reached the cabin, we gathered around the fire in the centre and ate a delicious meal of reindeer stew, apple cake, and “kettle coffee“ prepared by our Sami guide. She told us that each reindeer are owned by a specific member of the Sami people, and purchased from the individual- talk about eating local! The hotel also use the pelts on beds in the ice rooms, on the sleds, and sell them as souvenirs in the gift shop. The special kettle coffee is brewed in a large pot with salt and pine needles added for flavour and nutrients- every opportunity is taken to intake salts and minerals in this environment.

Dinner in the cosy wilderness cabin

Husky sledding

This activity was one at the top of my bucket list, and it certainly didn’t disappoint! The experience was magical and very memorable- the sound of the wind whipping past, the smooth hiss of the sledge over the snow, and occasional howls of enthusiasm from the dogs (check out Instagram for a video!).

Husky sledging- at the top of my bucket list!

The journey was about 45 minutes across the frozen river and through a forest, leading to a wooden cabin where our guide prepared more kettle coffee and heated some delicious cinnamon buns. I took the opportunity to say hi to the dogs (i.e. excessively cuddle!), which were much more friendly than I thought, considering they are full time working dogs. They were very impatient to get going again- howling and straining at the reigns, and were very excited when we emerged from the cabin for the return journey.

Making friends with a gorgeous Husky- sadly, he didn’t fit in my suitcase!

Hawaiian party!

certainly not endorsed, but very politely tolerated, by the hotel…

As it was -28C outside, we obviously decided to hold an Hawaiian themed party. With a strictly enforced “beach wear“ dress code and a playlist of ukulele classics, this was certainly not endorsed, but very politely tolerated, by the hotel!  

Hawaiian party in the Arctic Circle- obviously…

I pulled on my ski suit over Hawaiian print vintage-style shorts and halter top (by Tara Starlet), and headed to the private room in the award-winning on site restaurant.  We were treated to a fantastic meal comprised of local ingredients including elk steak with a chocolate and stout sauce and a blueberry jelly, and a dessert of cloudberries prepared in several beautiful ways:

Amazing cloudberry dessert- how did they balance that tiny meringue on the corner!?

After dinner, we transferred to the ice bar for drinks, served in glasses constructed from ice blocks (gloves are compulsory!). Interestingly, we were told that the local tap water is so pure that you can actually get dehydrated from the lack of salts- we therefore decided to stick to vodka cocktails for “health reasons“…

Cocktails at the ICEBAR –
because staying hydrated is important!

Cross-country skiing

Keen to get some exercise after the generous meal the night before, I headed for a session of cross country skiing. After a demonstration from the guide (who made the motion look so fluid and easy!), we were taken to a specially created circular track, weaving around trees, and with little up and down hill sections to practice our skills and desperately try not to fall over. This was a really good workout and felt nice once you got into a rhythm, but it was surprisingly difficult going down hill on the narrow skis with blunt edges! I will admit to face-planting on several occasions as I was trying to get the long, stretching gait you see in the Winter Olympics…. definitely more practice needed!

We invented a new sport combining cross-country skiing and yoga!

Once again, we were well catered for, with hot lingonberry juice and sausages cooked over an open fire by our guide. A group of us opted to ski back to the hotel across the river, taking about 1.5 hours in total (with breaks for taking photos!)- it was definitely a good slog, and we were ready to hit the blissful sauna when we arrived back.

Sleeping on ice

I assumed the approach would be to wear all the clothing you owned, plus a hot water bottle, but apparently not…

This was the final night of the trip and I was a little nervous about the experience, as the ice hotel is around -5C (insulated by the snow) which doesn’t exactly scream “cosy“! I assumed the approach would be to wear all the clothing you owned, plus a hot water bottle, but apparently not: we were told to wear only a base layer, hat, socks, and gloves inside our sleeping bags. The logic is that a layer of air close to the body will heat up and retain a pleasant temperature through the night, and sweating must be avoided, as the evaporation will cause the body to cool.

This sounded pretty well thought out, so I took the plunge and stripped off. The only awkward part was then running through the hotel to your room wearing only thermal underwear and boots with sleeping bag over your shoulder!

The art suite, “Show me what you got”, by Tjåsa Gusfors & David Andrén 2015-16

The art suite, “Cesar’s Wake“, by Ellie Souti & Petros Dermatas 2015-16

Once tucked inside my sleeping bag on top of the reindeer pelts covering the mattress and ice below, it was surprisingly cosy and extremely peaceful- as the walls are over 1m thick in an already remote location. After a quick read, I turned off the light and fell asleep. I fully expected to wake up in the middle of the night shivering and freezing cold, but no- the next thing I knew was being woken up with a cup of hot lingonberry juice by one of the staff, feeling thoroughly refreshed. I did another little run with the sleeping bag back to the reception building, and hit the sauna for a relaxing morning shvitz before reluctantly, taking the flight back to civilisation from Kiruna airport.

This was definitely a luxury experience, with exceptional food, seamlessly organised activities, every thought given to comfort, and it felt very safe, important in such an extreme environment. That being said, I still felt immersed in rather than removed from the stunning landscape, and I learned fascinating details about Sami culture from talking with the really friendly guides (shout out to Stefan who is following my Hawaiian playlist on Spotify!). I fully intend a return visit sometime to see the Northern Lights and try more of the activities on offer- I fancy the wilderness skills workshop!

For more information about ICEHOTEL, visit their website here. (NB: This is a completely independent article, in no way sponsored or endorsed by ICEHOTEL)

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