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How to Sleep Like a Baby in the Icehotel

Lapland seems to be chock full of snow hotels, and there is none better known than Sweden’s Icehotel. This hotel, built out of some 30,000m2 of snice (a special blend of snow, ice, and water that helps to insulate the hotel) and 1,000 tons of ice, is the 25th iteration of an idea that Yngve Bergqvist had in 1989. The workshop he held that year for a small number of sculptors, who learned how to create works of art using the ice of the Torne River, soon expanded and created the ARTic Hall, an igloo-turned-art-gallery.

Pure Torne River Ice

A carved sign inside the Icehotel, in case you’d forgotten where the ice came from.

The main difference between this original carved igloo and a traditional art gallery was the fact that, come April and May, it melted back into the river that it had come from. Then, when winter came in 1991, the ice and snow that came with it offered a fresh canvas for creating a brand new masterpiece.

Originally, the idea was just to have a meeting place — after all, Jukkasjärvi (the small town southeast of Kiruna where the Icehotel now stands) means ‘meeting place by the lake.’ After a group from the Swedish Armed Forces spent the night in the hotel on a bed of reindeer skins, Bergqvist and the other operators of the gallery realised that they could have a winner of an idea on their hands. And thus, the phenomenon of creating hotels of ice and snow began.

The Icehotel from the Outside

Clouds perfectly framing the outer walls of the Icehotel.

There are many towns that followed the lead of Jukkasjärvi and its Icehotel, and many of them, like the SnowCastle in Kemi, have created masterpieces that are well worth visiting. Most of these hotels carry a price premium due to their unique nature, but none moreso than the Icehotel, whose standing as ‘the original’ means they can ask for an even higher price.

The 'Lobby'

The ‘lobby’ at the end of the main hallway in the Icehotel.

However, their marketing works. I knew that my month travelling around Lapland couldn’t be called complete if I didn’t try one night in the Icehotel. And that one night is usually the limit for anyone staying here — if visitors are planning more time in the area, they often move out of the cold rooms after one night and into the warm and considerably more comfortable cabins that are part of the complex.

The 'Warm Rooms'

The warm cabins located just outside the Icehotel.

On that one night, I decided to go in whole hog. Not only did I arrive early at the hotel so I could fully explore every nook and cranny (as well as taking part in one of their ice carving courses, which I will be writing about in my next post), but I decided that if I was going to spend the money, I might as well spend a little bit more and stay in one of the fancy ‘art suites,’ especially given that I had already stayed in a basic snow room at the SnowCastle a few weeks before.

The art suites are not the most expensive rooms in the hotel — that award goes to the 8500kr ($1,130) deluxe suite — but they’re not exactly cheap. In March 2013, mine cost 3100kr ($410) vs 2000kr ($265) for a basic snow room. Ice rooms and northern lights suites (which have basic carvings resembling the northern lights) fall in between these two prices.

The Whitewater Suite

The Whitewater Suite by Elin Julin and Ida Mangsbo, where I spent my night in the hotel.

So what sets an art suite apart? Unsurprisingly, it’s the art. Each of the 18 suites in the 2013-2013 Icehotel (also known as Icehotel #23) were designs hand-chosen from a huge range of ideas submitted to the Icehotel the year before. They ranged from the extremely fantastical (the Dragon Residence Suite) to extreme nature (the Whitewater Suite, where I spent my night). They were amazing to wander through during the day, and my suite was even more amazing to lie in and stare at in awe as I tried to work up the courage to get out of bed the following morning.

I know, as much as you guys may like seeing all of the creative artistry on display within the hotel, that you’re really just interested in finding out what it was like to spend the night in the hotel. Did I freeze to death? (Obviously not, since I’m writing this post). Would I do it again? Was it worth it?

In the Whitewater Suite

Hanging out in my suite…

Let me counter those questions with this statement. My night in the Icehotel was one of the best sleeps I had in Lapland.

I know you probably don’t believe me, but that’s actually true. There are a few reasons behind this:

  1. I was pretty exhausted by this point in my trip. I’d travelled thousands of kilometers and had done pretty much every activity that I could find.
  2. I’d spent many nights constantly peeking out the window to see if the northern lights had come out, and stayed up way too late in hopes that they would appear. The Icehotel, in contrast, required bundling up in a sleeping bag and conserving heat. There was no way I was getting out of bed to check the sky once I was in there. Plus, the forecast was for very little activity the night I was there.

    Beam Me Up Suite

    Ok, maybe if aliens arrived and tried to start beaming us up, I would have gotten up. Maybe. (Beam Me Up Suite by Karl-Johan Ekeroth and Christian Strömqvist.)

  3. The Icehotel runs a great briefing for first-time visitors around 5pm every evening and ensures you know exactly what to do to stay comfortable.

The guys running the newbie briefing took us into a suite in the hotel (in our case, the Blue Marine suite) and walked us through, step by step, what we’d be doing that evening. The most shocking revelation to most people was the fact that we needed to leave all of our outerwear in the changing rooms, with the exception of a loaner pair of boots that we wouldn’t mind leaving to freeze at the foot of the bed.

Blue Marine

The Blue Marine Suite by William Blomstrand & Andrew Winch.

That’s right. They wanted us to run from the main (warm) building of the hotel, through below-zero temperatures (which got down to -20ºC that night) into a hotel kept at below-zero temperatures (a constant -5ºC) wearing ONLY our thermals and an Arctic sleeping bag strategically wrapped around ourselves to keep in some warmth without tripping us as we ran to our assigned rooms.

The Dragon's Residence

The Dragon’s Residence Suite by Dorjsuren Lkhagvadorj & Bazarsad Bayarsaikhan.

Parting with my jacket was one of the hardest things I did that night. It looked so woeful and lonely hanging on its hook in my personal changing room (provided because I was staying in an art suite). I was happy that I could leave it out and hanging up — and that I could leave my phone and camera out on a bench and charging — because my changing room was lockable.

When the time finally came to head to bed, a group formed near the door leading from the warmth of the changing rooms into the cold Arctic air. It took a number of us trying to psych the group up before we could get up the nerve to bolt.

Warm and Snuggly

All snuggled up in my Arctic sleeping bag, trying not to get too cold as I snap selfies.

It really wasn’t that far — 20m at most — but it was still a shock to the system. The halls of the hotel didn’t feel much better, but I kept myself moving and soon found my room, where I removed my boots, hurled myself onto the reindeer skins covering my bed, and zipped up the Arctic sleeping bag as quickly as possible. Not even the pom pom on my beanie was left sticking out.

Mummified like this, with only my mouth exposed to the cold air, I fell asleep quickly and slept like a baby. I was shocked to wake up and look at my watch (make sure your watch is up to the cold before you wear it overnight!) to find that it was nearly 6.30am, which is when hot lingonberry juice starts to be delivered to all of the rooms. What better way to start the morning when you’re just a bit cold than a steaming, tasty drink?

The Icehotel Under the Full Moon

The front facade of the Icehotel underneath the full moon.

The lingonberry juice helped me feel just warm enough that I felt I could conquer the cold and make it back to the changing room, where a shower and reinvigorating sauna awaited.

So how would I answer the questions above? No, I didn’t freeze to death during my stay in the Icehotel…and I even have a certificate to prove it.

Would I do it again? Probably not. It was a fun experience, and one that was better than all the scenarios I imagined where I froze for much of the night (like I did in the Sami tent at Camp Tamok). I can think of many other things I haven’t tried that I’d rather put my money towards though.

The Flower Suite

The Flower Suite by Natsuki Saito & Shingo Saito.

Was it worth it? Yes, the experience was worth it, and I absolutely do not regret having to pay the heavy price tag that came with it. However, with that said, the experience I had in the SnowCastle was very similar, and rooms there are available for as little as €125 ($150) a night.

Even if you do choose to stay in a different snow hotel, or if you don’t stay in any at all, I highly recommend you at least visit the Icehotel. Each year’s version is a unique work of art that will never be seen again, and it’s impressive to see what can be done with just a few tools and the materials that nature provides.

Sunset over the Torne

Nature provides some pretty nice sunsets in Lapland too. This one was over the Torne River behind the hotel.

So tell me: would you stay in the Icehotel if you had the chance? Why or why not?

The Icehotel is open every year from mid-December to mid-April (this year’s dates are December 12-April 12). Cold rooms are available from 2300kr a night. The hotel is also open daily for visitors to explore. It is located in Jukkasjärvi, about 15km from Kiruna in Swedish Lapland. Kiruna can be accessed via air on many major carriers, by the Norrbotten Lanstrafiken bus line, and by the SJ train line that runs from Stockholm and Narvik.

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