Gal With a Suitcase
Our intrepid business traveler spends the night at Sweden's mystical Ice Hotel, 125 miles above the Arctic Circle, in a sleeping bag for two.
This week I’m trying something a little different. Normally I pick a city and break it down into four parts: what to experience, where to stay, what to eat, and what was a big fat time waster. Focusing on just a few things is how I’ve always approached traveling. I don’t need 40 restaurants—I need two and I need them to be amazing. I’m trying something different this Saturday—the hotel, instead of the city, as the experience—and an entire trip planned inside out.
Your only ambition is to keep yourself warm in temperatures lower than you’ve ever imagined. My eyelashes actually froze.
The Ice Hotel has long been on my wish list of things to experience. No, not because of James Bond, thank you, but rather because I fancied the idea of being that far north—200 kilometers above the Arctic Circle. Out of the womb, my dad affectionately called me Nanook (too much hair, apparently), an apt nickname because I feel more at home in snowy destinations than pretty much anywhere else. This year the Ice Hotel turns 20 years old. It is both primal and plush, whimsical enough to tempt even the frostiest critic: a night in a room built of packed snow and ice, sleeping on a bed of animal hide in sub-freezing temps, a chance to see the aurora borealis by horseback or snowmobile, an airport dog-sled pickup, and the sensation that your only ambition is to keep yourself warm in temperatures lower than you’ve ever imagined. My eyelashes actually froze.
The first challenge is getting to the small village of Jukkasjarvi, smack dab in the heart of Swedish Lapland, which boasts a population just shy of 100,000 spread out over an area of roughly 42,000 square miles. But the haul is less difficult than you would expect, even though nothing is direct unless you’re starting from within Sweden. I was beginning in London and the route is the same if you’re coming from the U.S.—you get yourself to Stockholm, then take a 90-minute flight straight north to Kiruna, home to a quarter of the Lapland population. Arrive by day and you are met by a sea of white; it is unspoiled in a way that you can't quite believe exists. Every bristle of every branch is frozen solid, and when the sun hits them everything sparkles as if made from thousands of miniature diamonds. And the air, my goodness. I never thought I could be so taken with air, but I was. It is so crisp and clean that your whole body reacts to this new energy source as if to say, now this is more like it. You meet your host—either by taxi or dog sled—and 10 minutes later you're at the hotel. I had visions of some far-removed plot of land in the middle of nowhere, but the fact remains that the hotel is right off a little street in the middle of a village. So it goes.
On your first night, you should take a snowmobile out to see the northern lights. For years I’ve yearned to glimpse them. I tried in vain in Iceland, and I’d be lying if I didn't say part of the inspiration for this trip was to get another chance. The tour involves a four-hour snowmobile ride in 20-below-zero weather. After about 30 minutes, your mind begins to concoct tricks to fight the most harrowing cold you’ve ever known. We started our journey at 7 p.m. and rode for 90 minutes before being met by one of the most exquisite natural spectacles on earth. Ah, finally. You hear about this moment, but nothing quite prepares you for it. Greens and reds dart through the sky; Orion and the Seven Sisters seemed to greet their cosmic visitor by pulling it back and forth beneath the moonlight. My darling guide Andreas told us that the green is from the mix of oxygen and the red comes from nitrogen—or that the green represents heaven and the red represents hell. I’ll let you decide.
From here you go into a Sami hut for a dinner of reindeer and moose. I skipped the exotic meats but the thick coconut cake for dessert was dreamy. Everyone warms up in front of the fire by drinking hot lingonberry juice, and before you know it you’re bundling back up for the trip home.
The cost is 1,750 SEK (approximately $240) per person with two per sled, or 2,550 SEK ($350) for one person on the sled. This includes dinner, perplexing Swedish jokes, and if you’re lucky, one of the most breathtaking natural sights you’ll ever witness.
The hotel advises only one night sleeping in the actual Ice Hotel, while the rest are spent in a sweet little Scandinavian cottage or hotel room that they’ve dubbed the "warm accommodation"—spend your first night here. You’ll sleep like a log and with luck wake up early for the day’s next adventure: a moose tour by horseback.
Kerstin Nilsson and Mats Berg run a quaint horse farm about 40 minutes from the hotel called Ofelas. Upon arrival you’re introduced to their pet reindeer, Mozart. You are assigned one of their beautiful, massive Icelandic horses and off you go. All in all, it’s a fairly low-stress activity—just stay on the slow-moving horse and take in the sights. We spied a great many reindeer and a big moose or two. Once you’re suitably frozen, head back for a home-cooked lunch of reindeer stew with Kerstin and Mats. (Now I understood why Mozart looked so skittish.) Tour and lunch cost about $180.
I didn’t opt for the airport dog-sled pickup because it seemed far too expensive (nearly $800), but there is a short 90-minute tour that leaves from the hotel daily at 9:30 or one, depending on demand, for roughly $200. It’s incredible to see a dozen gorgeous-looking Alaskan huskies yapping away, happily strapped to an old-fashioned sled. You ride over the lake and ice—the same route the snowmobiles take by night—and absorb all the beauty you’re able to capture by day. I loved this.
Lastly, I recommend the ice-sculpting class taught on-site at 11 a.m. daily. Once you learn just how challenging it is to make ice look presentable, you'll never look at a frozen swan centerpiece the same way again. For 20 years they’ve been perfecting the Ice Hotel, and the artistry that goes into each part is fascinating. You get two to three hours in a little studio to chisel away. $80 per person.
By night have a meal at The Old Homestead restaurant. Run by the Ice Hotel, it is a charming cabin on the lake that serves a delicious homemade buffet. They offer fresh fish, a vegetarian risotto, and all sorts of salads, cured meats, and cheeses. With wine or spirits your tab will run about $75 per head. There is another restaurant directly across the street called The Ice Hotel Restaurant and I’d give this a miss for dinner, it’s far too fancy and the food isn’t interesting. (It’s fine for breakfast.) The Ice Bar is standard to those in Copenhagen or London, and you’ll certainly make your way there for a cocktail at some point during the trip.
The crowning experience is your night in the Ice Hotel. You check out of the warm accommodation and put your belongings into a locker. There are spa-like facilities that include men’s and women’s locker rooms equipped with showers, saunas, and hair dryers. I skipped the session on "how to survive in negative 5" and decided to wing it. You’re told to wear minimal layers so your body can breathe, and to bring nothing except what you’ll sleep in. They provide you with either a single or double sleeping bag (boyfriend originally suggested singles "because they’re warmer" until I informed him that he was being totally un-romantic), and off you go, dashing from warm to cold and jumping into your bag like a driver leaping through a stock car's window. I thought it was a wild experience, almost like you’re at camp—you know there is shelter mere feet away, but you’re determined to stick it out without parental guidance. You warm up quickly in the bag and the cushioned hide underneath provides a pleasant enough base for the eve. The challenge is your mind. It begins to think about strange things and your dreams take on survival themes. Me being me, I knew it would happen. At about 2 a.m. my bladder took over. “No, no, no,” I thought. “I can’t go out there.” After waking up my bag-mate, I lethargically found my boots and went running through the halls (in the wrong direction at first because everything is white) and then out to the facilities.
At 7:30 a.m. the hotel sends someone in with—you guessed it—hot lingonberry juice to wake you. I wanted the juice, but had no plans to get up. I was snug. They returned at 9 and I forced myself awake. You head in, shower, return your bag and locker, and off you go to start the day or, in my case, make the trip home. What a phenomenal thing they’ve created—my inner Nanook was in heaven.
Rooms range from $200 to $400, depending on the package.
Jolie Hunt travels on her own dime for more than half the year. Her recommendations are aimed at business travelers who are short on time but not on taste. She is the global head of public relations for Thomson Reuters, appointed April 2008. She lives between New York and London.