by Skip Kaltenheuser
For those feeling winter-deprived, Sweden’s Ishotellet, or Ice Hotel, can get them winter wholesale. The hotel sits a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle in the Lapland town of Jukkasjarvi, which translates as "meeting place" and has served as a crossroads for nomads in the wilderness since the 1500s. Each year, the hotel resurrects a giant igloo compound adjacent to the hotel’s small village of permanent bungalows and restaurant.
Originally a whimsical add-on to lure winter visitors, the frozen structure – composed of 30,000 tons of snow and 1,200 tons of ice spread over 4,000 square meters – is now the main draw. Last year, over 3,000 visitors earned certificates proving they’d stayed overnight within frozen walls – most retreat to the bungalow cabins after one night – and 20,000 more toured during the day. “If you build it, they will come,” was the advice in “Field of Dreams.” Business grows with the speed of an Arctic wolf pack.
Intrepid travelers eventually arrive somewhere pondering if they’ve gone too far around the bend. Engulfed in late-night silence, the Ishotellet qualified for me. Atop reindeer skins on an ice block, surrounded by snow-white walls and a high, domed ceiling, I fumbled with a jammed sleeping bag zipper, a slight panic simmering at my hotel room temperature of minus five degrees Celsius.
That’s cozy, compared to outside temperatures that can plunge to minus 35 degrees Celsius. In a “heat wave,” it can be colder in the hotel than outside, adding irony to the end-of-the-world feel. With my eye on the coveted certificate, I was determined not to be among those who bail out early. My zipper finally unjammed, I warmed to the comforting candles, ubiquitous in Sweden as talismans against winter depression. Shadows danced into dreams tinted with the blue glow from the dense river ice artists carve into furniture, sculptures and high relief wall murals.
Dreams were fissured, but more pleasant than the nightmare vision of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, “Cat’s Cradle,” I feared would visit. In it, man’s ultimate “bad chemical” escapes into the world, turning all water solid at warm temperatures and all mankind into frozen statuary.
Like a fugitive snowman, the Ishotellet will disappear with a May meltdown under the midnight sun. Construction begins in October, and the 1998 incarnation, the ninth, opens in December. High season, all sculpting complete, runs from mid-January through April. A former mining engineer, Nils Yngve Bergqvist, cooked up this roadside attraction in the heated delirium frequented by the local, loosely-defined “Swedish Sauna Academy,” which despite
its official airs is basically a bunch of chummy townfolk sitting around quaffing beers amid hot, steaming rocks. Their motto: “In sauna veritas” – the truth lies in the sauna.
Hotel-provided eveningwear, also suitable for snowmobiling, creates a resemblance to astronauts with fur helmets, a fashion provided by sled dogs past their prime. The novelty is popular with Asians, including Japanese women seeking adventure far from corporate headquarters. However, companies provide a stream of guests for unique retreats and local conference halls, as the Ishotellet now makes the lists of company incentive trips that reward workers – or selectively punish them if their mummy bag zippers are sabotaged.
During my visit, employees and advertising clients of a Danish business magazine held court during opening night in the hotel’s Absolut Ice Bar, arguably the coolest pub in the world. No jacket required, for a few minutes, if one has just been superheated in a sauna. Theoretically, after a sauna one even has a brief window of opportunity to create a bar legend by wearing shorts or swimsuit, dancing to calypso music, quaffing a drink and leaving quickly before convulsive shivers hit, but I could get no takers.
Absolut's signature bottle silhouette is a carved entrance in a wall of ice blocks, through which the bartender glides with her stock on a little push sled. Room-temperature drinks are a different context. The favored libation is vodka in hot lingonberry juice. The cold version, served in glasses made of ice, is called “varglass,” or wolf’s paw. The wages of sin for too many shakes of the paw are late night sprints to the heated bathrooms outside the ice complex (you were expecting plumbing in rooms of ice?). It’s a sprint worthy of a certificate.
Bar patrons get a bit giddy sitting “on the rocks.” I overheard one lovely Swedish joke, in Greta Garbo voice, “Are you alone ...a re you lonely?” The Danes, cameras flashing, were in high spirits as they downed the same. The next morning, loading a 5 a.m. bus to beat a snowstorm to their plane, missing their sauna thaw and country breakfast, they appeared shocked, as if kissed by a herring.
In addition to the bar and 40 sleeping chambers with two to eight beds, the Ice Hotel offerings include a chapel for weddings and, for infants with “is” (ice) in their names, christenings; a slideshow cinema; 40 variously-sized sleeping chambers; a surrealistic courtyard of ice sculptures; and an art gallery. The gallery, with striking images mounted on translucent walls of ice, currently pays tribute to Japanese wildlife photographer Michio Hoshino, recently killed by a Russian grizzly.
The Ishotellet’s fine, non-iced restaurant offers standout moose, reindeer, salmon and fowl dishes and a fine wine selection, with adjacent sauna and steam rooms. A traditional, hot rock sauna is outside. Rooms, iced or in cabins, range from $75-90 per person.
Design options for a perfect day of travel escapes include snowmobile or dogsled expeditions across frozen lakes and eerie forests, moose barbecues, cross-country skiing, reindeer sleigh rides and visits to a Laplander outpost and reindeer herd. Steer clear of spring-fed lakes reindeer won’t trod on, or risk becoming part of the Ice Hotel.
One chef in a rustic cabin outpost refueled my snowbobile group after a brutal snowball fight, serving up grilled moose, reindeer sausage and salmon bisque that made the lips quiver. He recounted Seinfeld television episodes, their rerun humor finding surprising resonance in Lapland. How far does one have to go to escape?
The frozen walls concept is as novel to area Laplanders as to visitors. They never regarded igloos as a hot idea. Even the kata, their traditional wigwam-like structure of poles covered with turf, is reserved for outposts that tend reindeer herds. Or for smoking the tourists. Welcome as the Lapp’s cheese-flavored, campfire cooked coffee is, visitors’ heads invariably move toward the circular shelter’s outer perimeter floor in search of air. Real living has long been in modern houses designed with Swedish efficiency, reminding travelers that “native culture” is often what people do until they can afford not to.
But as our Lapp tour guide, in colorful traditional garb stitched by his girlfriend, lassoed recalcitrant reindeer, our imaginations quickly pegged us as rugged survivors of the deep North. Kneeling with reins in hand, we were startled by the strength and speed one reindeer could muster for a one-person sleigh. Reindeer don’t look particularly bright, but it was difficult not to suspect a hidden slyness beneath the long antlers after a sudden sprint and sharp turn during a deep dip threw one rider into a snow drift, ending any fantasies of being the Ben Hur of the North.
At night, I hopped a dogsled ride and sped across the lakes and into the woods for coffee at a sled way-station. The exhilaration of happy, yelping dogs is contagious. They live to run, the colder the better, but don’t keep them waiting once they are hooked up and revving their engines. The dogs don’t take offense at their riders’ suspicious fur hats. They are well cared for, their masters taking it very easy during the “heat wave” and putting booties on the dogs if the snow crystals are sharp.
My guide was champion dogsledder Taisto Thorneus, who once held a Europe mainland record with a 1,700-kilometer dogsled expedition across Scandinavian mountains. The dogs’ responsiveness to their musher’s numerous subtle vocalizations commanding their gait and direction bordered on the metaphysical. A ride across a lake under a moon-lit sky or aurora borealis, the continuing, subtle crush of snow framing the silence, is to be treasured.
Some like it cool.
As the climate warms, the Ishotellet’s wooden cabins house river rafters and folks exploring thousands of pristine lakes, glaciers and a mountain range. Also nearby is the world’s largest underground iron mine and a rocket station.
The Ishotellet in Jukkasjarvi (YOU’-kus-yair-vee): E-mail at email@example.com, or visit their website at www.jukkas.se. Most people come by jeep or dogsled from nearby Kiruna Airport, flying from Stockholm.
-Skip Kaltenheuser, a writer in Washington, D.C., has thawed.