An obvious destination for any tourist travelling around Kiruna in winter is the tiny village of JUKKASJÄRVI (known locally simply as “Jukkas”), 17km east of Kiruna and 200km north of the Arctic Circle, and the location for Swedish Lapland’s blockbuster attraction: Icehotel. What’s effectively the world’s largest igloo, Icehotel is built every year by the side of the Torneälven River in late October, from when it stands proudly until temperatures rise definitively above zero in May, when it finally melts away back into the river. A new venture, Icehotel 365 – three times smaller than the original structure, and made of regular building materials – opened on the same site in November 2016 and stays open year-round.
Although Icehotel totally dominates tiny Jukkasjärvi from its position at the entrance to the village, it’s worth taking a stroll down the main (and only) road, Marknadsvägen, passing a handful of simple dwellings owned by locals – not all of whom are in favour of the changes that the hotel has brought to their village.
The brains behind Icehotel belong to Yngve Bergqvist, a southern Swede who moved to Lapland in the 1980s. In 1989, he built an igloo – barely sixty square metres in size – as an art gallery to showcase local Sámi crafts and design. Visitors asked to sleep in the igloo, and the concept was born. Today, covering roughly 6000 square metres, Icehotel is constructed of thirty thousand tonnes of “snice”, as Icehotel calls it, a combination of snow and ice (cut from the Torne River); its exact shape and design changes from year to year, though there’s always a chapel, in which couples can marry. From the entrance hall there’s usually one main walkway filled with ice sculptures, from which smaller corridors lead off to the bedrooms and suites (all with electric lights, and beds made out of blocks of compact snow covered with reindeer hides) that make up the bulk of the hotel. Though many visitors stay the night, the hotel is also open for day visits.
Staying in the hotel
Icehotel usually opens some time in November and remains open until late March/early April, though the weather decides the final date of opening.
There are two reception areas: one for cold accommodation (Icehotel itself) and another for warm accommodation (double rooms and cabins) – simply follow the direction signs. Staff in the cold reception will dish out warm clothing and general information about how to survive a night in sub-zero temperatures. When it’s time to go to bed, you should leave your valuables and most of your clothes in lockers provided close to reception (where there are also heated bathrooms with showers and a sauna) and then make a run for it from here to your room (wearing as little as possible; see p.000) and dive into your sleeping bag as quickly as you can – the temperature inside the hotel is –5ºC, while outside it’s generally around –20 or –30ºC. Guests are provided with specially made, tried-and-tested sleeping bags of a type used by the Swedish army, who have used the hotel for Arctic survival training; the bags are supposed to keep you warm in temperatures down to -35°C. However, as they enclose your entire body and head (bar a small area for your eyes and nose) they are rather claustrophobic. You should take off all the clothes you’re still wearing and sleep naked to prevent sweating; stuff your clothes into the bottom of the sleeping bag to keep them warm and place your shoes on the bed with you to stop them freezing. Don’t expect to sleep – you won’t – it’s simply too cold and uncomfortable. In the morning, you can refresh yourself with a sauna and have a hearty breakfast at the restaurant across the road, though you’ll soon notice from people’s faces that nobody else has slept a wink either.
Ever the entrepreneurs, Icehotel have now hit on a new idea to satisfy the seemingly bottomless market of visitors who flock to Swedish Lapland every year to experience an Arctic winter: Icehotel 365, which offers the chance to sleep in sub-zero temperatures at any time of year – even in the height of summer. Smaller than the original Icehotel, Icehotel 365 is made of regular building materials, though it does also contain snow and ice. Innovative new technology has made it possible to store energy captured by a new generation of solar panels which can then be used to cool the structure through the summer months, ensuring a year-round temperature inside of -5C, just like the original. In many ways, Icehotel 365 is similar to its predecessor – it’s designed with the same arched corridors, it contains ice rooms and suites and even a bar. Icehotel says it gives visitors a chance to combine a night in sub-zero temperatures with summer activities like kayaking and hiking. Critics say it’s just another attempt to turn Lapland into a theme park and squeeze yet more kronor out of hapless tourists.
A traditional sight awaits at the end of the dead-end Marknadsvägen: an old wooden Sámi church, parts of which date from 1608, making it the oldest surviving church in Lapland. Check out the richly decorated altarpiece by Uppsala artist Bror Hjorth, depicting the revivalist preacher, Lars Levi Laestadius, alongside the woman who inspired him to rid Lapland of alcohol, Maria of Åsele. The triptych was given to the church in 1958 by the mining company, LKAB, then celebrating its 350th anniversary.
Under the floor are the mummified remains of villagers who died here in the eighteenth century (not on display). The sandy ground and frost are thought to have been responsible for keeping the bodies, including that of a woman dressed in a white wedding dress and high-heeled shoes, so remarkably well preserved. The organ above the door is made from reindeer horn and birch wood; the artwork in the centre of the organ, suspended over the pipes, symbolizes the sun rising over the Lapporten, the two U-shaped mountain-tops near Abisko which are one of Lapland’s most enduring images.
Nutti Sámi Siida
Across the road from the church, the wooden houses of the rather pedestrian Nutti Sámi Siida contain the usual suspects: a stuffed reindeer, an old sleigh, a rickety spinning wheel and other equally dull paraphernalia.