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Sweden an ice place to visit

But you may not want to stay more than a night in your 23-degree room at Sweden's Icehotel, north of the Arctic Circle. Then again, you get breakfast.

February 09, 2003|By Susan Spano

Jukkasjarvi, Sweden -- There is a Swedish word for people who come to the Icehotel, 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle, to spend the night: tokig.

It means crazy.

The room temperature is 23 degrees. The walls, beds, chairs, light fixtures, even the glasses used in the bar are made of ice. You can't unpack your clothes because they'd freeze, and the thought of getting out of your sleeping bag to go down the hall to the toilet is enough to keep you awake all night.

Those inconveniences aside, every winter for the last decade thousands of people have come to this frozen hamlet in Swedish Lapland to sleep in a hotel of snow and ice. This year it has 60 rooms and 25 fantastically decorated suites that rent for a cool $291 to $653 a night in peak season, Dec. 31 to April 6. It's hard to say how many chambers the Icehotel will have next year, or what it will look like, because in the spring the building will melt back into the nearby Torne River. It will be reconstructed in the fall as the spirit moves the ice artists.

The Icehotel is the brainchild of Swedish entrepreneur Yngve Bergqvist, who wanted to find a way to attract winter visitors to a remote but singularly beautiful place. There's an ice hotel in Quebec, but the Jukkasjarvi incarnation was first. It began as a humble igloo housing a 1989 art exhibit where a handful of intrepid souls spent the night and woke up raving about the experience.

In 1994, Absolut vodka of Sweden first came here to shoot ads featuring such models as Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell posed in scanty haute couture on minimalist ice chairs and staircases. The campaign was so cool and so successful that Forbes magazine last year named Absolut the No. 1 luxury brand in the world, ahead of Tiffany and BMW. People from Tokyo to Berlin started wondering how they would sleep and what they would dream about on slabs of Swedish ice.

Entering the Big Chill

On a plane to Stockholm in early January, I told the buttoned-up business- man next to me that I was headed north of the Arctic Circle. He loosened his tie and said, "You're not going to one of those ice places, are you?"

From Stockholm I flew more than 800 miles north to Kiruna, an iron mining town beneath Sweden's highest peak, 6,965-foot Kebnekaise. There a bus waited to take my fellow travelers and me 10 miles east to Jukkasjarvi (pronounced, roughly, yookis-yairvy), set among snow-coated pine forests and lakes. With a population of 700, it has almost as many sled dogs as people. Along with boisterous thirtysomething Brits, who outnumber all other nationalities and age groups attracted to the Icehotel, there were Japanese, Germans and Danes, as well as a few honeymooning couples who planned to spend their nuptial night in an ice suite.

The sun was setting in delicate Easter egg shades of blue and pink when I arrived about 2 p.m. (In the middle of winter the sun rises about 10 a.m., I later discovered.) The temperature was minus 22. Where the snow had been left unplowed, it came up to my knees; the air was so dry that it scoured my lungs with every breath; my feet were cold, my cuticles were cracked and my hair was a static electric mess.

I checked in at the frame reception building. Parked at the door were kick sleds that look like chairs mounted on skis, used for moving luggage and sightseeing in the village. There were Absolut Icehotel ads on the walls, blooming amaryllis in the windows, Swedish minimalist egg chairs and a wood-burning stove around which people in snowsuits clustered. The receptionist told me to go immediately to the adventure center next door to check out winter gear like theirs.

I got stout lace-up boots, ski gloves, a funny fur hat with earflaps and a snowsuit under which I was advised to wear several additional layers, starting with thermal long johns. So attired, I looked something like a clown made out of balloons. I squeaked when I walked, but the outfit kept me toasty during my Icehotel stay.

At the adventure center, I booked a three-hour snowmobile expedition for the next day and a 90-minute dog sled ride for the morning after that. In all I planned to stay at the Icehotel for three nights: first in a heated cabin, then in an ice chamber and finally in the lodge, which has all the modern comforts, including a thermostat.

No one, it seems, stays in the Icehotel proper for more than a night. It's camping in the cold at five-star prices, much like an extreme sport you have to psych yourself for. Afterward you get a diploma to prove you've done it.

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