First things first: There was a wave of disappointment to be dealt with when I arrived at the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden. One hundred and twenty-five miles north of the Arctic Circle, it was a location that held otherworldly promise, the kind of place where the Northern Lights are commonplace and you can get to the airport via dogsled.
I’d assumed that staying at the much-fabled Ice Hotel meant staying at the Ice Hotel. I was expecting a Star Wars-esque situation — alien beings slinking through the lobby in white mink hats and red lipstick, the Mos Eisley Cantina transplanted to the ice planet of Hoth.
When our van pulled onto the grounds, though, the first thing I saw was a brick-and-mortar hotel that wouldn’t have been out of place outside of Cleveland. As it turns out, while most guests stay on the Ice Hotel’s grounds for a few days, they typically spend just one night in a room actually made of ice. Even then, they have an assigned changing room with showers and toilets in the “warm” building.
My disappointment was mostly in principle, since my visit was a whirlwind one-nighter during which I flew up from Stockholm in the morning, iced myself for the night and flew back the following afternoon. In this sense, my Ice Hotel experience was pure in a way that most are not: No warm quarters for me.
During the day, the Ice Hotel functions as an art gallery, with each room designed by a different artist. All are open for viewing, along with the cathedral-like main hall, bar and chapel. (In the destination-wedding race, this comes out near the top.) There are very few doors in the Ice Hotel — hinges being a real challenge — so guests are encouraged to wander freely, oohing and ahhing, taking photos.
Check-in time begins at 6 p.m., but I was too busy at the Ice Bar. Here, wearing snowsuits and enormous mittens on loan from the hotel, I sipped variations on Absolut vodka, using my two bear paws to grip a glass made of the hotel’s signature material. I sat on an ice banquette, and set my drink down on an ice table. The drinking made sense — if I were going to sleep in the unmitigated temperatures of northern Sweden in March,I wasn’t sure I wanted to do so sober.
Still, I stopped well ahead of my limits, and retired to my room at 10. The aversion to being woken by a need to pee — toilets are in the warm building — was stronger than my wish to blunt the cold with vodka.
Inside my room, shielded for privacy with just a hanging curtain, my bed’s base (made of, you know, ice) was topped by a straw mattress and a local reindeer hide, known to be one of the most insulating materials on earth. On top of that was a sleeping bag built to preserve warmth in temperatures as cold as -4 degrees Fahrenheit. Tucked inside my cocoon, only my face exposed to the air, I lay on my back, waiting to see how it felt. To my surprise, I’ve never felt cozier, perfectly warm down to my pinky toe and gazing out at the curious blue refractions of light all around me.
I slept in those monstrous gloves, thermal underwear, thick wool socks and a hat. I wouldn’t call it my soundest night of sleep ever, but it was actually one of the most enjoyable. When I woke periodically throughout the night, it was with curiosity and I was glad I’d done so. I wanted some waking moments in here, too.
At 7:30 a.m., hotel staff woke me with a steaming cup of hot lingonberry juice — a Swedish specialty familiar with Ikea regulars. After raising my core temperature a few degrees, I awkwardly extracted myself from the sleeping bag, returned my feet to their boots and pottered out of the Ice Hotel. I’m sure I took a shower in the warm building that morning, but I don’t remember it.