Sweden an ice place to visit

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.

I learned all this by taking the tour for people staying in the Icehotel. This sprawling, single-story, igloo-like edifice has an arched entry and double doors covered in reindeer skins, illuminated by a chilly blue light. Beyond the hotel entrance is the grand hall, supported by round ice columns about a foot in diameter, decorated with a fiber-optically illuminated ice chandelier that shimmers like diamonds in the dimness. Packed snow corridors burrow off the grand hall, leading to the domed ice bar, heated luggage room and toilets -- and the ice chambers.

Like Room 316 where I stayed the next night, most are small and plain. Standard doubles have curtained doorways and 2-foot-high ice-block platform beds cushioned by thin mattresses and reindeer pelts. There are no private baths.

The suites are grander, individually decorated by 35 artists, with sitting areas, sculptures, bizarre fiber-optic lighting fixtures and furniture, all in ice, of course. One has a Japanese theme, another African. The Shakespeare suite surrounds guests with ice-sculpted scenes from “Macbeth.”

I wandered into the unheated art center next to the hotel. There, Swedish graphic designer Mats Indseth, who created the Shakespeare suite, was chiseling away on a bust of the Bard, intended for a full-scale ice replica of London’s Globe Theatre, a new feature of the complex this year where dance, drama and musical productions are staged. Indseth finds Torne River ice an exceptionally malleable, beautifully clear medium for sculpture.

The Torne supplies the 8.8 million pounds of ice used in the construction of the hotel, which is also composed of a highly insulating combination of water and snow blasted onto metal frames that are later removed to make the meter-thick walls and ceilings. The result, once smoothed down and decorated by artists, amazes and enchants most visitors, who can tour the facility during the day. The ice bar is open to everyone until the wee hours of the morning. But after 7 p.m. only hotel guests are allowed to wander the halls, dazed, perhaps, by the prospect of their impending hibernation.

The tour guide told my group the routine: Once you check in for a night, you drag or kick-sled your bags to the luggage room (there are no porters), where you’re given a locker. For the rest of the day, you’re basically homeless, because the ice rooms are too cold and forbidding for anything other than sleep (and even that’s questionable). When it’s finally time to retire, you strip to your long johns and grab a sleeping bag, designed for temperatures as low as minus 13; take it to your chamber; settle in and wait to nod off.

If you’re lucky, the next thing you know it’s 7:30 a.m. and an Icehotel staff member is at your bedside with a cup of warm lingonberry juice. Most guests follow it with a stint in the sauna.

That’s the ideal Icehotel overnight, at least. Actually, I did meet one young Englishman who told me he enjoyed 10 uninterrupted hours of slumber in an ice chamber, but his girlfriend said he could sleep like a puppy anywhere. A front desk clerk told me she frequently finds Icehotel refugees sprawled on couches in the reception building. Most people who make it through the night arise with the hollow-eyed look of life-sentence prisoners and practiced responses like, “It was an experience. I’m glad I did it,” leaving unsaid the obvious, that they’d never do it again.

Looking at Lapland

But, happily, there’s more to the Icehotel than a bad night’s sleep. If you’re lucky enough to be there under the right conditions, there’s the aurora borealis, or the northern lights, a phenomenon caused by electrically charged solar particles drawn into the Earth’s magnetic field. For the brave, there’s a sauna that is run by a German nudist on the premises of the Icehotel where you can sit in a hot tub outdoors, then take a numbing dip in a hole cut through the ice of the Torne River.

Above all, there’s Arctic Sweden, a vast, low-lying winter wonderland of pine trees and birches, so sparsely populated that thousands of square miles are used for rocket and aircraft testing, and research on global warming and the ozone layer.

Together with parts of Norway, Finland and Russia, the region is home to the vigorous Sami people, gatherers of cloudberries and herders of reindeer, whose history in the frozen north of Europe dates at least to the 1st century. About 17,000 Samis live in Sweden, where, as an ethnic minority, they have struggled to retain their language, culture and land as homesteaders from the south pushed into Lapland and the Samis’ nomadic lifestyle became increasingly untenable.

Now, however, there has been a revival of interest in the Samis. The ice Globe Theater is presenting an abridged version of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in the Sami language. The village of Jukkasjarvi has a Sami cultural center with displays devoted to the woodcarving, shamanistic religion and hunting practices of the indigenous people. Several tours offered by the Icehotel’s adventure center introduce visitors to the Sami way of life.

On my snowmobiling adventure I met Kjell Nutti, the full-blooded Sami who led the tour. Nutti spends his free time hunting and says he’s been able to stay in the land he loves because of the Icehotel.

He took me and two couples on snowmobiles through the forest and over frozen swamps to a Sami campsite by a lake, where he prepared a lunch of smoked reindeer meat and vegetables, accompanied by piping hot coffee and tea. Afterward, as we stood in the middle of the iced-over lake, rimmed like a fine china teacup with those shades of blue and pink, it was clear why he loves Swedish Lapland.

Later, my dog sled trip introduced me to the canines of the region. It was led by a young Norwegian who hitched 12 surprisingly small, spry dogs, all part husky, in front of a wooden sleigh, which carried five people sitting astraddle in a row, including the driver. The dogs howled in disharmonious concert, strained at their halters to get going, and occasionally lapped up snow as they pulled the sleigh over the frozen Torne River. My favorite was Puss, a black female. I’d never seen a dog with such ghostly pale blue eyes.

Flying past the village, I found it hard to imagine what Jukkasjarvi would look like in the green of summer. Later, when I walked there, bundled up and chugging along like a little engine, I thought that winter becomes the place best. With smoke rising from chimneys and windowpanes frosted over, the small frame houses seemed quintessentially cozy. In the yard of one home, kids had built an ice palace of their own. And at the far end of town, the 18th century wooden church, surrounded by a graveyard and a picket fence, slumbered blissfully in a cloak of snow.

Entering the chamber

Blissful sleep was much on my mind the day of my stay in the ice room. To kill time before turning in, I had a long dinner in the restaurant, handsomely decorated with Swedish antique cabinets, paintings and sconces.

The $50 fixed-price dinner started with smoked salmon stuffed with cream cheese and the house white wine, from Alsace, France. The entree -- grilled tenderloin of beef in Madeira sauce with a terrine of root vegetables -- was followed by a dessert of chocolate mousse. Everything about the meal was exceptional, including the service. When I told the waiter I was sleeping in the Icehotel that night, he advised me to pass on after-dinner coffee.

Then there was nothing to do but seek warmth and courage at the ice bar. It has ice tables that look like giant thumbtacks, a reindeer skin-covered banquette and a beautiful long curved ice bar with colored liqueurs gleaming from icy shelves. The drinks are elaborate vodka concoctions served in glasses made of beveled-out ice blocks. (A few nonalcoholic beverages are available as well, but they have to be stored in the fridge to keep them from freezing.) As elegantly seductive as it looked, there was a decided frisson of fear among those headed to ice beds.

I was scared when I downed the last drops of my Bear’s Eye, made of Absolut Citron and blueberry liqueur, and got my sleeping bag. No one has died in the Icehotel yet, I kept telling myself.

In Room 316 I spread out the bag, stuffed an extra sweater and socks inside and got in. I zipped up and pulled the string on the hood until only my nose was exposed to the cold air. It was comfy, in a way. So far, so good.

Is it any surprise that sleep eluded me? There was a crease in the back of my long johns I couldn’t straighten; the Velcro at the top of the bag kept scratching my lips; I couldn’t easily move my feet; and when I tried to turn on my side, I got tangled in the cotton sleep sack lining the bag. I must have dozed off, because at one point I awoke, worried about losing the hole in the hood and being smothered, which kept me from getting back to sleep. And then morning came, with the warm lingonberry juice and the diploma.

When I think of the Icehotel, a song from the musical “Gypsy” comes to mind: “You Gotta Have a Gimmick.” To get people to lovely Swedish Lapland, you need a gimmick, I guess.

I’m thrilled to have been there and glad to have made it through my night in the Icehotel, but ... let’s just leave the obvious unsaid.