2009 TNT travel writing awards finalist
Author: Kate Fitzpatrick
Kate Fitzpatrick tackles a snowmobile safari in search
of the Northern Lights at Sweden’s amazing IceHotel.
It’s 12 below
zero with a wind-chill factor of minus 21 and my breath has frozen my balaclava
to my face. Our voices muffled by layers of thermal clothing, my companion and
I speculate whether we’re meant to add wind-chill to the actual temperature to
work out how cold it ‘really’ is.
skirting the edge of an enormous frozen lake on a snowmobile at 70 kilometres
an hour and haven’t been able to feel my fingers for at least 15 minutes; which
would really bother me were this not the coolest thing I have ever done. 200
kilometres inside the Arctic Circle with the Northern Lights dancing eerily overhead,
my surroundings are so breathtakingly alien that
the frigid temperature is little more than an afterthought.
I’m spending a weekend at the IceHotel in Jukkasjärvi,
Sweden. In essence, I’m paying a lot of money to sleep on a bed made of ice in
a glorified igloo at negative temperatures… but it’s absolutely worth every penny.
The IceHotel is created from scratch every winter,
using snow and ice carved from the nearby Torne River. ‘Ice artists’ from
around the globe make a pilgrimage to Jukkasjärvi each December, where they use
chainsaws and chisels to mould giant blocks of ice into whimsical designs
evoking images of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. The guidelines to aspiring
designers state only that suites must include one double bed, meaning the
artists are essentially free to create their own frosty visions, limited only
by their imagination. As a result, the IceHotel is uniquely different each year
– from the themed suites to the IceChapel and IceBar.
Yes, it is cold. But not unpleasantly so, and once I’m
dressed in a fetching warm-suit and booties, there’s so much to do and see that
I honestly don’t notice. I spend the afternoon wandering through frozen
passageways, marveling at the imagination and talent of the ice artists who
created the suites. There’s a room with a pair of ice stiletto heels as tall as
me, one designed to look like an engine room complete with ice ladder and
dials, and another with all walls covered by giant ice mushrooms. It’s
impossible to choose a favourite, but close to the top of my list is the ‘tree house suite’,
which has a frozen spiral staircase leading to a double bed perched high in the
branches of an ice tree.
My room, a ‘snow room’ is modest (and much cheaper) in
comparison with the art suites, but I still get to enjoy the novelty of
sleeping on a bed made of snow and ice and covered with reindeer skins. I join
a tour to hear the must-knows about sleeping in minus 5 degrees – apparently
more guests complain of being hot than cold during the night, mainly because
they don’t heed advice to wear only thermals to bed. Our guide, who is wearing
a futuristic-looking thermal cloak with a fur-lined hood, glosses over the part
of the stay when we will need to dash through the biting night air wearing just
our thermals later tonight, explaining that extra clothes will freeze if we
take them into the rooms. (Warm accommodation is also available for those who
don’t fancy sleeping in sub-zero temperatures).
My companion and I have booked onto the Northern
Lights snowmobile safari for this evening. I’m surprised to discover that I’m
actually a bit of a lead foot – the experience of speeding through the night in
a convoy, eyes peeled for wild moose and ears full of the roar of the engines
is a massive adrenaline rush. As I plead for custody of the snowmobile keys while
we warm up on moose goulash during a short break, our guide points out the Northern
Lights hovering in the distance. Fleeting wisps of muted emerald and aqua swirl
against a sky punctuated with thousands of dazzling stars. We zoom back to the
IceHotel, which glows an otherworldly aqua against the dark night, like a giant
ice cube lit from within.
Buzzing, we hit the IceBar for a nightcap. The
extensive drinks list features a collection of the brightest coloured cocktails I’ve
ever seen, no doubt because the intense blues, greens and reds look uber-cool
in the translucent ‘ice glasses’ they’re
served in. Eventually, the glasses begin to melt from the warmth of our lips
and we agree it must be time to retire to our igloo for the evening.
Cackling like maniacs and dressed like cat
burglars in thermals and beanies, we sprint through the
glacial air between the change rooms and our bedroom with our sleeping bags
held over our heads, the snow squeaking as it crunches beneath our boots. Teeth
chattering, we realise there’s nothing like an outside temperature of minus 12
to make a bedroom at minus five seem warm!
We scamper into
our sleeping bags and pull the drawstrings tight, leaving only a head-sized
hole exposed to the elements. The fleece I’ve tucked into the bottom of my
sleeping bag ‘just in case’ goes unused as we both sleep soundly through to
7am, when we are woken by a jovial Swede offering glasses of warm lingonberry
juice. The ordinariness of my slumber seems at odds with my surroundings – neither
of us can really believe that we’ve made it through the night without noticing
the extreme cold.
Gutted to be leaving after such a short stay, I hand
back my IceHotel outfit and curse myself for not booking a longer trip. My time
here is the most unique travel experience I’ve had, and I can’t imagine
anything to rival the fleeting Arctic grandeur of the IceHotel. I know that as
spring arrives and the temperature creeps above zero, this ephemeral wonderland
will slowly melt back into the Torne River, a fading frozen fantasy until the
winter, when it is reborn anew and the cycle starts again.