‘Come on, let’s get into the warm,’ the porter says, our feet crunching through the snow as he leads me into the hotel where I will be staying the night. When I step inside the lobby, I can feel the blood re-entering my cheeks and the miniature icicles in my nostrils begin to thaw. The hotel may be kept at a constant temperature of -5C, but compared with the -20C outside, it feels balmy.
I am at the Icehotel in the Swedish village of Jukkasjarvi, 200km north of the Arctic Circle. The resort may be firmly etched on to the tourist map, but geographically you are in the wildest reaches of Europe here. The nearby mining town of Kiruna — with a population of just 20,000 — is Sweden’s most northerly. I have arrived during the darkest depths of winter, a period known as the Polar Night. An hour before I landed in Kiruna’s garden-shed airport, the sun slipped behind the horizon for the last time for three weeks. Poetically, it would rise again on Jan 1. This doesn’t mean day-round darkness, but rather the world is cloaked in a pastel half-light, all hot pinks and deep blues, for just a few hours each day before night descends again at 2pm.
‘We suggest you wear just one layer: a thermal top and bottoms, plus a hat and gloves,’ the porter tells me, eyeing up my Michelin Man get-up as he hands me a Polar-grade sleeping bag. My survival instincts urge me to secretly leave all my layers on — maybe even add a few more for good measure — but the porter, serious now, tells me that the sweat would have a negative effect and cool me down. So after he leaves the room, I dutifully strip down to my base layers and climb into the sleeping bag, with a reindeer hide and waterproof mattress protecting me from the ice-bed frame.
Lying perfectly still, I watch the ice sculptures around me glisten in the soft blue light and I give my toes a precautionary wiggle to check that they still have feeling. I flick the bedside switch and the room is immersed in total darkness but, to my surprise, it’s neither the chill nor the darkness that takes my breath away, but rather the silence. These walls are made of 3ft-thick ‘snice’ (a mix of snow and ice), meaning not a whisper can creep in or out. It is just me and my breath, crystallising in the air.
I’m staying in one of the 20 suites in the Icehotel 365. It has 11 Art Suites and nine Deluxe Suites with adjoining bathrooms; thankfully, not made of ice. When I shiver out of bed the following morning, I thank my stars for the hot tub, sauna and heated floors waiting to lift my body temperature.
Staying the night in the Icehotel 365 — which allows guests to sleep in sub-freezing temperatures year-round; solar power is harnessed to cool it in summer — is a great experience, although this isn’t the real reason I’m here. I’ve come to Jukkasjarvi for an exclusive look as an international team of artists and architects puts the finishing touches on the star attraction of the complex: the seasonal Icehotel, which is built entirely of ice blocks harvested from the Torne river.
The Icehotel’s story began in 1989, when local entrepreneur Yngve Bergqvist invited a handful of guests to attend an ice-sculpting workshop on the banks of the river. The following winter, he built an igloo art gallery called ARTic Hall. Before long, they introduced the world’s first ice bar, serving beverages ‘on the rocks’ in glasses carved from ice.
Every now and then, Bergqvist and his team would sleep overnight in sub-zero temperatures, which gave him and his friend, Par Granlund, an idea. The world’s first ice hotel put the village on the international map.
‘It was right here,’ says Arne Bergh, the creative director, as he leads me around this year’s collection of oversized igloos, ‘that Naomi Campbell posed in a block of ice for a Versace photo shoot. When someone accidentally knocked the side, it shattered into a thousand pieces.’ After 29 years of glamorous shoots and TV shows, the Icehotel has become an iconic destination, attracting thousands of annual visitors, but it’s Arne’s job to oversee the artistic vision of the hotel. Last year, he invited 34 amateur and professional sculptors to carve out 15 rooms over a period of two weeks.
For the Icehotel, the construction is entirely dependent on the climate behaving as it is expected to and Mother Nature didn’t play ball.
Over the summer, Sweden witnessed its worst forest fires for decades and even up here, in a land on the same latitude as Alaska and Greenland, barbecues were banned as the mercury crept above 30C. It looked like winter would never come, but in early December, Jukkasjarvi received its first significant snow dump of the year. With just a few days to spare, the Icehotel team could finally get down to business.
I suspect it’s due to the unusual weather conditions that, when I take a tour of the Icehotel, it is abuzz with activity. Wearing hard hats and hi-vis jackets, we peek into each of the rooms to find staff driving chainsaws into the walls, artists carefully chipping away at sculptures, and electricians rigging up lights. In one suite, called Icewoman, Swedish artist Linda Vagnelind has already completed her sculpture of a striking woman’s face emerging from the wall. I ask her if it’s supposed to be Angelina Jolie and she laughs: ‘No, but I’ve been asked this before. For some reason, all of my work ends up looking like her.’
Another room, called Spruce Woods, is designed as a campsite fitted with a VW camper van and a fire made of ice, while The Living Oceans suite — designed by British father-daughter duo Jonathan and Marnie Green — is a fantastical underwater world with a whale spanning the length of the ceiling.
There’s a certain poignancy, watching so many hands working on this singular creation, to think that by late spring the entire thing will have melted back into the Torne.
Guests can spend one night ‘on ice’, and for the other nights there are functional warm rooms and chalets. With a host of winter activities on offer, from husky sledding to ice sculpting, I’m compelled to get out and explore, so I book for a wilderness survival session.
My guide, Jakob, is 22 but has the grizzle and experience of someone twice his age. He drives us into the nearby woods, where we park on an empty road and walk for five minutes through thick powder snow. When we reach a clearing with a few wooden benches and a small shelter, he hands me a knife and flint rod and says: ‘It’s getting cold — let’s get down to work.’
As Jakob gathers firewood, I chip away at pieces of bark to create kindling and pile it on to a couple of halved logs. Jakob shows me the technique to create sparks from the flint and, within seconds (alright, minutes), we have the beginnings of a fire. Moose, lynx and brown bear roam these woods, although Jakob assures me encounters are rare, so we wander into the thicket and collect spruce needles to brew in a blackened teapot on the fire.
It’s not only rustic outdoorsy experiences on offer at the Icehotel. Alexander Meier, the Michelin-trained chef, has opened Chef’s Table on the Veranda, a 12-course dining experience around a semi-circular table. True to Swedish tradition, I’m asked to take my shoes off on arrival and get into some slippers before the open kitchen show begins — all flaming pans and meticulous food design. The menu is international in flavour but provenance plays a central role. Dishes include the likes of reindeer heart, ptarmigan, Kalix Lojrom roe and Arctic char mousse. Even the shiitake mushrooms are grown in the dark of Kiruna’s iron ore mine.
For many visitors, a winter visit to the Icehotel is an elaborate means to a very speculative end: to witness the northern lights. During my first two nights in Jukkasjarvi, the aurora borealis hadn’t materialised, so on my final evening I set out with a local adventure guide named Pontus to see if we could track them down.
We drive for 20 minutes, away from the modest light pollution of Jukkasjarvi, to a secret spot that Pontus knows — a vast, frozen lake with a shallow northern horizon. Here we sit on the lake’s thick ice under a star-filled sky and, to my disbelief, within minutes a subtle white arch emerges. The display teases us, softly pulsating and retracting, before a giant celestial doorway opens, dragging the emerald aurora apart like iron filings to a pair of magnetic curtains.
Having grown up in northern Sweden, Pontus has seen the northern lights thousands of times before, but suddenly he pipes up, excited by something he has seen.
‘You see that dark patch?’ he says, pointing at pockets of dark space within the hazy green sky. ‘I’ve heard people speak of the ‘black aurora’ before. It’s super rare, but I think that could be it.’
The revelation that we might be witnessing a mysterious quirk in the northern lights puts my Philip Pullman fantasies into overdrive. We are, I decide, almost certainly gazing into a parallel universe.
Over the next hour, the aurora slowly sinks into the abyss until we are left with nothing but numb toes and memories. In a way, I’m thankful that the show came to an end. Like the Icehotel, meticulously crafted before melting away, it is perhaps the ephemeral nature of the northern lights that makes it so magical.
Travel deets: Fly Emirates from Dubai to Stockholm for about Dh3,600 return. Then fly SAS from Stockholm to Kiruna, about Dh700 return. For more details on a stay, check out Discover the World (discover-the-world.com).
Excursions: husky sledding (about Dh570), snowmobiling (about Dh795), ice sculpting (about Dh300), northern lights safari (about Dh795) and winter survival skills (about Dh500). Chef’s Table starts at Dh880.
The Daily Telegraph