Christmas in Lapland: staying in the Icehotel

Published on MSN Travel.

‘‘Don’t sit on the front of the sled after the huskies have had lunch’’ advised my Discover the World rep Anna.  “Also, don’t wear white!” she said laughing, as I walked away to passport check in.  Not quite what I’d had in mind when I a)was wearing white and b) envisaged a few cute huskies pulling me along like on Frozen Planet, not showering me with turds.  Anyway, the stoic Brit that I am I persevered.

We arrived in the miniature airport Kiruna just three and a half hours from London Heathrow into a completely different landscape to the one I left behind. Huge layers of powder covered the tiny airport buildings and the runway resembled a blanket of snow.

When we got out of the plane and walked for the first time in the sparkly snowflakes, the cold, fresh air was an instant shock to the system. Within a moment I overheard someone at the back of the queue moaning: “Oooh, it’s a bit cold isn’t it?”  A fellow Brit, of course.

We all piled into the coach for the 20-minute drive to the hotel.  At this time of year, past midday, you drive in darkness save for the industrial lights of the coach, which light up the snowy forests surrounding the road.  The whole group went silent as everyone stared with excitement at the scene outside.

The hotel itself is situated in the quaint village of Jukkasjärvi.  Peppered with traditional Scandinavian houses in painted yellow or red and covered with thick snow it couldn’t look more Christmassy if it tried.

The Icehotel is made up of several Scandinavian style ‘warm’ chalets, a large wood panel and glass reception building (with cosy bar at the back) and the magnificent Icehotel itself, which looks like a large igloo with a furry door.  Whereas the chalets stay open all year round the ice part is rebuilt every year and has just opened for the winter season.  In fact, it’s still being completed.

Every year between December and April a temporary ice hotel is built.  The ice is sourced from the local Torne river, cut out in huge 2-tonne blocks, built into shape and covered with ‘snice’ – a dense mixture of snow and ice that acts like an insulating layer.  Then in April the structure melts back into the river.

The front doors of the Icehotel are covered in reindeer skin and have antlers for handles.  Walking inside, there is a bluish hue and on your left is the Icebar, which plays pop music and serves dangerously moreish vodka cocktails in ice cups.

Straight ahead is the main hallway.  This space is filled with huge ice sculptures and provides a walkway through to the suites where people can stay for the night.

Every year the Icehotel runs a competition for artists to submit their designs for an ice room.  Out of thousands of entries they whittle the selection down to between 10-15 people who then create the ‘art suites’ – awe-inspiring rooms filled with sculptures and structures and inspired by an array of different subjects.  Alongside local craftspeople, the artists visit the site and create the room themselves.

My favourite suite was called the ‘The Flower’, a beautiful room created by two Japanese artists featuring amazingly intricate flower carvings.  On my second night I was due to stay in ‘The Iceberg’, a pretty room with ‘padded’ ice walls and an ice table and chairs.  Each suite has an ice bed covered with a mattress and reindeer skins.  Luckily for me my room was the closest to the warm reception where the bathrooms and sauna were located.

My first night was spent in a warm room in one of the chalets, an ideal way to ease yourself into the harsh climate, which at this time of year ranges from -5 to -30C.  Practical and modern, the hotel suites are really cosy after a day in the cold.

The next morning I collected my snow gear, which is complimentary for guests.  This is made up of a huge all-in-one snowsuit, snow boots, leather mittens and a balaclava.  It might sound over the top but trust me it’s needed.

After a fun day of snowmobiling and eating fried reindeer (tasty but a bit chewy for my tastes), I returned to prepare for the night in my ‘cold room.’

At around midnight I nervously made my way from my warm room down to reception, where I collected my sleeping bag and extra pillows for the night.  The receptionist explained to me that it is essential to wear only one layer of thermals inside the sleeping bag so you don’t sweat which will make you cold.

You can’t leave anything out in the ice room because it will freeze overnight so the next step is to lose any layers and leave them in the warm changing area.  Then you have to make a run for it into the Icehotel in thermals and boots.

I ran into my suite The Iceberg and pulled the sleeping bag over my head and neck leaving only my mouth and nose exposed as I was told.  I have to admit this left me feeling quite claustrophobic and I preferred to be able to look out, especially at the ceiling of my room which featured loads of fascinating detail.  I managed to get warm and there was such a quiet calm in the room that I quickly fell asleep.

After a few light hours rest I was woken up by a cheery member of staff at 7.30am who offered me a warming cup of lingonberry juice.  By this point I was absolutely frozen and desperate to go back to my warm room but I was pleased that I’d made it through the night.  I would really recommend it as one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but it’s certainly not as glamorous as it might seem.

During the trip our group dined in two places, the first being the Icehotel restaurant which focuses on locally sourced meat and produce to produce rich and flavoursome dishes.  The second was called Homestead, a traditional restaurant about a 10-minute walk from the hotel which serves hearty dishes such as reindeer burger.

For the next two days I opted for every activity I could including: ice sculpting; a northern lights horseback safari, where we rode through an eerie snow-covered forest on tiny Icelandic ponies (there were no northern lights unfortunately, but it was a magical experience nonetheless) and husky sledding.   Luckily there were only two of us passengers on the sled so we sat at the back (as advised). Our pack was a mixed bunch of mongrel-looking working dogs and white huskies. They have a wild look about them and howl constantly with excitement.  As we set off the sled glided over the snow and we covered a large frozen lake in quick time. It’s a wonderful experience to be travelling so peacefully along the snow.But yes, if you were wondering, we did manage to duck a few flying turds. I also realised why every driver wears a scarf to cover their nose, it may be freezing but gosh, the dogs are stinky.

It might not be warm and you may have to wear a Michelin-man style suit the whole time, but the Icehotel is a magical place to stay at this time of year.  I came away feeling replenished and refreshed and also totally intoxicated by the Christmas spirit.