The Ice Hotel
I have a good friend, Hendrik Fjällström, living in a town called Vilhelmina, situated in the region of Sweden that he fondly calls Norrlande, commonly known as Lapland, the most northernly part of the country. Since my wife and I previously only visited the southern region of Sweden, from Stockholm to Karlstad and Göteborg (Guthenburg), Hendrik promised during a visit to us, that on our return-visit he would take us to places and show us sights “that few South Africans ever had the privilege to experience” - like the Ice Hotel, near the age-old village called Jukkasjärvi.
Lapland stretches from about 64 º N up to about 69 º N, a distance of more or less 600 km. as the crow flies. This arctic area of Scandinavia (including the northern part of Norway, as well as the Kola Peninsula of Russia), the so-called Land of the Midnight Sun, is the region where the indigenous people of Scandinavia, the Sami, lived since prehistoric times. Here an estimated number of 50 000 - 70 000 Sami today still proudly maintains a strong ethnic identity, with quite a large number of them still making a living by fishing, hunting and by domesticated reindeer herding.
To reach the Ice Hotel by road from Vilhelmina (approximately 64½ º N) you have to drive 550 km up to the town Kiruna, through what is regarded as the last remaining expanse of wilderness in northern Europe, with forests, mountains and unspoiled rivers. (By the way, there is an airport at Kiruna, connected to the international airports in Stockholm, Göteborg and Malmö, should you wish to fly up there). From Kiruna another 27 km brings you to Jukkasjärvi, about 200 km north of the Arctic Circle, on the banks of the Torne River with its pure and crystal clear water!
The Ice Hotel is built from scratch every year, with new designs, new suites and a new reception area. Since everything is built from ice and snow, it annually gradually melts down during April and May, returning the water to the Torne, thereby completing a magical cycle. As soon as it gets cold enough again, 10 000 tons of blocks of ice are cut out of the meter thick ice layer covering the Torne during winter, and stored away until the construction of the hotel starts during October of each year. This is supplemented by 30 000 tons of pure snow sprayed into hand-made molds, which are removed once the snow has set.
Covering more than 30 000 square feet, the hotel sleeps over 100 people in bedrooms which are each uniquely decorated with ice art and sculptures. Apart from the reception area, there are also an ice art exhibition hall, a cinema, an Ice Chapel and the world famous Absolute Ice Bar. On arrival full jumpsuits made of beaver nylon are issued to guests.
The beds are sculpted out of ice and snow, covered with thick reindeer skins. (I’m the proud owner of one, as well as that of a European lynx which hunts on the reindeer, which Hendrik once - I think, illegally! - sent me as a Christmas present). The thick, dense wool of the skin insulates one from the ice, but to keep warm, you have to sleep in a thermal sleeping bag, made of material first developed for astronauts walking on the moon. In the morning you are awakened with a cup of hot lingonberry juice at your bedside. But should you want to be part of the action, but not of the cold, you can be accommodated in the nearby Aurora House Cabins or Chalet Cabins (not built out of ice), both with two bedrooms and a sitting room with kitchenette and other amenities. The rooms have a ceiling skylight for a view of the midnight sun or aurora borealis (northern lights).
The world famous Absolute Ice Bar, skillfully created by artists and craftsmen, ensures a unique experience. You drink your Vodka cocktails specially created for this bar, and distilled and mixed from pure raw materials derived from local sources, like winter wheat from surrounding farms and pure water from a private well, out of glasses sculpted from the crystal clear ice of the Torne River. With each sip your lips leave their impression! And since the glasses eventually break, you will surely make new friends from the cosmopolitan crowd intermingling there.
The Ice Chapel is frequently used for marriages, as well as for other religious purposes. This serene white chapel with a life span of only a few months contrasts starkly with the old Jukkasjärvi church dating from 1607. Another special experience in the village is to enjoy a genuine traditional sauna in the sauna building, where a sauna expert will introduce you to what the Swedes regard as a “noble art”. After a deep cleansing session in the sauna, you can go outside to relax in a large outdoor warm bath sunk into the snow-covered ground, while gazing at the spectacular Arctic sky above.
Should a traveller wish to experience some of the things that have become scarce in large parts of our world, you will find it in the winter wonderland of Swedish Lapland - space, time, silence, tranquility, clean air, clean water, snow, the Midnight Sun and the Northern Lights!
- Manie WOLVAARDT
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