Drink in hand, Steve Langley surveys the gleaming span of the ice bar in the Icehotel, with its reindeer-skin-clad benches and abstract and animal ice sculptures. Bundled in a ski overall and fur-lined hat--an Icehotel standard issue for $11.50 a day--he claims not to be cold, even though it's 23F inside. Nonetheless, he notes, his breath coming in puffs, "you're really standing inside a refrigerator."
The permafrost pleasures of the Icehotel may not be everyone's cup of tea--or shot of vodka. But last season, from December through April, some 11,000 guests ventured 99 miles north of the Arctic Circle to the tiny Lapland town of Jukkasj?rvi, Sweden, paying at least $180 a night for the unusual privilege of sleeping in a freezer of a room.
A brainchild of entrepreneur Yngve Bergqvist, the Icehotel started 10 years ago as a 540-square-foot igloo. These days, it's a design fantasy in silver. Last season, it had 15 suites, 52 rooms, the ice bar, a sculpture gallery, and a chapel, all made from 30,000 cubic meters of ice (email@example.com; 46 980 66 800).
In the great hall, over a massive ice dining table and chairs, an ice chandelier twinkles. Each prism-like pendant, a dead ringer for crystal, is set with fiber-optic wire so it could be lit and not melt. During the winter, some 40,000 people trooped through the hotel, which is open to the public by day. As further testament to its success, the hotel this year has acquired imitators: one in Quebec, with which it is affiliated, and another in Finland.
Like an Arctic Brigadoon, the Icehotel appears each year in mid-December and vanishes at the end of April. It takes 15 people six weeks to build at a cost of $500,000, some of which is offset by corporate sponsors. Most of the hotel is actually made of what co-owner Arne Bergh calls snice, snow and ice hosed down with water and then hardened. Snice is more resistant to melting than ordinary snow. That becomes crucial in mid-March, when the sun begins to rise above the horizon. Next December, Bergqvist, Bergh & Co. plan to make the hotel 25% larger. But if you can't wait, the owners this summer have built a mini-Icehotel--just some igloos, ice sculptures, and an ice bar--in a refrigerated building in Jukkasj?rvi.
It's simple to get to Jukkasj?rvi, a town of 1,000 by the Torne River with a grocery store, post office, two restaurants, and a 17th-century wooden church that boasts an organ with keys made of reindeer horn. Visitors can take a ninety-minute flight ($180-$500 round trip, depending on the season) from Stockholm to Kiruna, 12 miles from Jukkasj?rvi. Or an overnight train ($150 one way, in a sleeper). (If you drive up from the capital, the winding route covers 744 miles--even though it's only some 558 miles as the crow flies.) From Kiruna, you can hop on the hotel bus to Jukkasj?rvi ($9 per person). On the packed-ice road, it's not uncommon to see an indigenous Sami herding reindeer.
ONE NIGHT IS ENOUGH. The Icehotel sits on a plain by the river, with snow stretching white all around. The property also has 30 wooden chalets--comfortable but not luxurious. Each has a kitchenette, bedroom, and--unlike Icehotel rooms--its own bathroom and shower. Guests actually spend most of their stay in the heated chalets, reserving just a night in the Icehotel itself. After all, one night in a frigid den may be an adventure, but two looks like masochism.
To get to the Icehotel's bedrooms, you tramp through warrenlike snow corridors. Most of the windowless rooms have just enough space for a bed (actually, wooden platforms mounted on ice blocks and covered with reindeer skin). Underbed electric fixtures and flickering votive candles provide soft lighting. The suites (about $280 a night), meanwhile, are spacious, and each is done by a different designer: The Viking Suite, for instance, has an ice bed shaped like a long boat, with a curved bow.
Before bedding down, guests must fetch thermal sleeping bags from the heated supply building, three minutes' walk from the rooms. No, housekeeping isn't short-staffed. It's just that laying out the bags in advance would mean that they would be frosty, not toasty, by the time you turn in. The romantically inclined can request double sleeping bags. The bags should be closed over the head, leaving only a small breathing hole. The drill is to quickly strip down to long johns, jump into the bag, then pray you won't need to visit the bathroom. Nicely heated facilities, by the way, are in the supply building.
"The only time I felt cold was when I was fighting with the zipper on the sleeping bag," says Rotterdam resident Monique Appeldoorn, who came with Langley, his wife, and some work colleagues. She slept in the Dream Suite, replete with black lights and sculpted stars on the ceiling. Appeldoorn claims it was one of the best night's sleeps she has ever had--despite the gamy smell of reindeer skin, which can be overpowering. In the morning, she was awakened by a staff member with a cup of warm lingonberry juice, Sweden's answer to cranberry. Then came the icy struggle to get her clothes back on and the sprint for the communal showers and sauna--which for women are at the restaurant across the street and for men in another building on the hotel grounds.
The hotel offers a range of outdoor activities--from dogsledding ($87.50 per person for two hours) to snowmobiling ($64.95 for two hours). Clothing and gear can be rented, and the hotel equips guests, gratis, with sparks, contraptions akin to skates that locals use to get around. There are also trips to the nearby Sami villages--and a chance to lasso some reindeer. But you may want to check on similar activities in Kiruna, where prices can be up to 30% cheaper.
If you build up an appetite, bear in mind that the hotel has no restaurant, and only two are in walking distance. Reindeer is big on the menu: At Jukkasj?rvi W?rdshus, try the reindeer carpaccio sprinkled with tangy V?sterbotten cheese ($11.50) as an appetizer--then chow down a reindeer filet served with cooked lingonberries, wild mushrooms, and vegetables ($24.50).
What the hotel does have a lot of is drinks. At $8.50 a pop, they're not cheap, and all are based on Absolut vodka, the first sponsor of the Icehotel, where even the bar is named Absolut. You may enjoy sipping from glasses made of ice, the bar's only drinking vessels. Whatever you imbibe at the Icehotel, it's certain to be a cool experience. By Ariane Sains