Lapland and the Ice Hotel Feb 2007

So after a night in the Thistle Hotel just near Heathrow we headed to the airport at 5.15 am to a rather large queue at check in and an even longer queue at security with only 7 mins to go before the flight left we managed to queue barge but yet more waiting when I had to have my bag checked, all and sundry was taken out (yes including Bunny!) for the world to see and the lady sensed that we were a little stressed and asked us if we were waiting for a plane – YES IT LEAVES IN 3 MINS.  She didn’t really speed up and just as we were ready to run we had to do the whole shoe saga thing too.  So there are the 4 of us sweating like pigs running through the airport with my shoe laces all undone having to run with my legs out wide so as not to trip up.  Just as we sat in our seats on the plane, after knocking several heads off on the way down the plane, it taxied out.

Upon arrival in Kiruna (200km north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden) we were greeted by our guide, Jordana, and headed to the hotel and had a meeting in the breakfast room to go though the dos and don’ts of surviving the freezing temps and to sign up to the activities that we wanted during the long weekend.  Bang went all of the cash I had taken with me as I signed up for everything – well you only live once!  As for the advice that we were given, it was more of a suggestion really, but if you are suggested things to do and not to do by a local, then I am not stupid enough to ignore it.  So: no showers in the morning, no make up, any moisturiser, no lip balm, any cotton socks or clothes.  Little of that bothered me bar the no cotton socks, it was all I had taken and was planning on 2 or 3 layers of them and thought I would be ok.  We headed off for an orientation walk in the town of Kiruna, in the dark, and felt the temperatures of the Arctic Circle.  We headed off on our own to buy wool socks, ended up buying an incredibly fetching pair of charcoal wool leggings which actually turned out to be the best buy but I have to say I am not too sure that I will actually be wearing them out a) in public or b) that I will need them in the UK.

Anyway, headed to first group meal and was left at the end of the table with a wall for company and a spare chair opposite as we were 13. Nice start! Shitake mushroom and reindeer heart soup and reindeer meat for main, only a tiny bit of which I could eat as was on a bed of veg which turned out to be blessed peppers.  Blooming tasty actually and we all ended up in eating reindeer for every meal where possible, some of us ate more than we bargained in terms of parts of reindeer which you will hear about later!!  After which we went back to the hotel to flake out after our early start.  Unpacked a little and climbed into the VERY slim single and no space next to Jan who I was sharing a room with.  Chatted for a bit and so on then drifted off only to be woken up by a hippo in the next door bed!  The beds are close enough anyway but with the snoring so bloody close didn’t end up in sleeping a wink!

What a view in the morning though from the window – wow!  The sun shining on the thick snow of the Iron Ore mine that we could see from our window.  After breakfast we headed off to go Husky Sledging.  We went in a bus about 10 km outside of Kiruna to where the dogs were kept, as one of the first group to put on the ‘oh so attractive and very slimming’ all in ones. I then helped to take some of the dogs out of the cages and up to where the sledges were all ready to go.  It was great as we got to learn a lot about each of the dogs that we were taking up.  Some had also been bought in from elsewhere and they were much louder i.e. barking loads once they had been attached to the rope but the ones that we were helping take up from the kennels were really quiet as they had been chosen out of the mass of dogs that were in the kennels to run today.  It turns out that they were the youngest ones and they were in the process of training them.  It was great to be able to ask all the questions that we wanted and be so up close to the Huskies. It was pretty nippy out and I was on the first sledge, we had some noisy ones behind us as we could hear them screaming and so on and I am sure that they were calling out my name at one point too!  It turns out that they, heaven only knows how, managed to fall off their sledge! We had a break part of the way in and were given coffee and tea from a little Tipi in the middle of the country side.  The sight around of us of the snow was quite amazing. Snow that far north is more like cane sugar i.e. you can’t compress it into snow balls and the way it glitters, well you just have to see it to believe it as my photos did not really pick up clearly enough just how beautiful it was.  The snow off the tracks that the dogs were running on was really deep – like waist-high and no one seemed to be playing.  Our guide spotted this and told us how much time we had left before we moved off again and it was quite a while so I threw myself into the snow literally.  It was great!  So soft (thank heavens!) and I had several others following suit.  The worst thing about it was that I found it very difficult to get back up again as there was nothing to lean on.  I made snow angels and basically had fits of giggles all the time.  The air was quite bracing once we had taken off the fashionable all in ones and after an interesting trip home in the bus we had a few hours of rest before the next activity which was cross-country skiing in the evening from the Ice Hotel.

We headed to the Church to have a little look and had some chips for lunch in the American Irish Bar (which is a chain) which was all that we needed really.  It was a rather bizarre building which the Swedes had called the most beautiful building in Sweden.  I have to say it was rather striking being that it was made simply of wood and looked like a gingerbread house almost with long sloping roofs to the ground. 

We arrived a the Ice Hotel and my stomach started churning BIG time, some of you may know why I am a tad scared of throwing my self down a hill of snow for those of you that don’t well Mummy has told me the story of how she broke her leg when skiing from a very young age and with sound effects which has totally put me off the idea.  I was more scared of the skiing idea than I was when I did my bungy jump!  How ridiculous is that?!  We spent what felt like an age working out which skis were right for who and then the guide just put them all in the back of the truck which to me seemed like a total waste of time but who was I to argue.  The journey up was rather amusing and certainly highly uncomfortable and I was having fits of very nervous giggles.  We had a coffee and so on around a camp fire while we were told about all of the animals that like to come out at night in this part of the forests.  After walking down hill a bit to get to a marginally flatter bit to get kitted up.  The light was non-existent at this stage we had the light of the moon and the reflection of the snow to guide us down which initially we thought was rather cool but then when you couldn’t actually see the blooming bits of red and yellow tape to show you where to go we became less amused we had not been shown what to do or how to stop and were not given headlamps so that we could see where we were going.  The whole thing was a joke.  Some of the others gave up and sat in the van which eventually caught up with us and guided us the last 100m or so.  I may have been last in the van at the bottom but I was absolutely determined to finish it. I did spend a majority of the trip down hugging random trees that I couldn’t swerve around, falling into HUGE piles of snow and generally going arse over tit and forgetting that I had huge great skis on my feet when trying to get up and so having fits of yet more giggles. Boy oh boy did I deserve the pints I had that evening, stuff the food intolerance/no drinking thing I thought and enjoyed two of the best tasting pints in a very long time. I definitely had earned them from my earlier efforts in the day though.  Everyone was really proud of me when I got to the bottom and so on – evidently I was a little snappy and as white as a sheet before I went down.  Oops! Thank god one and all understood! 

We headed back to the hotel where they had made Carbonara for us (oh well bang goes no wheat!) and then some of us mad idiots that had been doing everything all day joined some of them that hadn’t and headed down the iron ore mine.  It was huge and a focal point of the town – we could see it from our rooms and it provided most of the jobs for the town of Kiruna before the delights of technology took over and now pretty much all the mining is done from the 7th floor of a near by building via computer – amazing.  Anyway we went to visit the Mushroom Man as suggested by Jordana down in the mine that used to work down there but now runs his mushroom farm down there in a disused room.  He grows Shitake mushrooms and it was fascinating to see and hear all about how he has done it.  I wont bore you with all of the details apart from it was very dark when he turned the car lights off on the way back you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face – we tried! And it was + 15 degrees down there and that was a constant temperature – oh wow!  We climbed into bed totally shattered after showering (for the first time!) though and me climbing up onto the top of a HUGE mound of snow outside the entrance of the hotel which was not actually as comfortable to slide down as it looked!  I did have rather a bruised behind after that silly idea, oh well!

The following morning when we had breakfast you could tell that we were all REALLY excited about the events of that day – we were going to be driving Skidoos around till after lunch and none of us could wait.  I was a little nervous that I would not be able to control it properly after driving one out in Finnish Lapland and not really being given much instruction and driving it really joltily if that is a word!

We headed over to the Ice Hotel and got kitted up again in the attractive all in ones of a green and black variety and took everything that they gave us as suggested by Jordana who was coming with us on this trip.  Balaclavas the lot then we got our helmets with the visors and after a quick how to session off we went!  It was such a stunning day with the sun out and a clear blue sky – idyllic bliss.  All worries disappeared as I revelled in the sheer natural beauty of my surroundings.  I was fine with the controls of the skidoo frankly the best bits of the whole trip was when we could go really fast, I made it up to 82 kmph!  I learnt to keep back and then slam on the accelerator to see how quickly I could go! Brilliant! You were not allowed to over take hence that was the only real way that I could get any speed up!  Several people, well in fact that is a blatant lie, two people on the same skidoo went off track several times including into a large bank of snow, the back of the people in front and a tree.  It turns out that their skidoo was a tad faulty and when they first touched the accelerator it did nothing and then lurched forward as they were sent to the front on the way back and Jan went on theirs. We didn’t all half enjoy winding them up about it all and we all giggled over that for quite a while – notice the common theme – a lot of giggling?!  How good did that feel for me after months of doom and gloom, to feel comfortable enough in these, frankly, strangers company and feel accepted and wanted and, cared for.  My no drinking and screwed up dietary needs were accepted without question and were 100% supported once I had explained my reasons, such a nice feeling for a change.  I tell you there are times like this when you know people are 100% genuine and who your true friends are. Anyway back to the skidoo trip.

Part way through the trip we stopped to do a bit of Ice Fishing which was hilarious just trying to find the ice and making the hole, of course there are no fish around at this time of year and but we all had a go at holding the line and so on and thought up loads of stories to tell folks back home about the ones that got away!  We had lunch in a little cabin and then got back on the Skidoos to head back to the Ice Hotel.  We handed in helmets and nipped to the ladies, one thing that I have been most relieved about was that I was never caught short in the middle of nowhere, the idea of having to disrobe in the middle of the freezing cold or even in a tiny wooden loo really did not appeal!  Really didn’t want to get frost bite on my bum – how would I explain that?!! We had a few moments and so on to wonder around before the next activity, I just stayed in the warm and tried to thaw out a little before we headed out again.

The next activity was still at the Ice Hotel and we were snow shoeing up a mountain which was frankly more like a hill and then, if we wanted to abseil down the other side.  So we all got kitted out with our snow shoes and followed one of the guides up the hill.  Well at least we had headlamps for this journey as it was again pitch black but it was incredibly steep and at times we had to really walk on our toes in fear of falling over and knocking over all of those that were behind.  In fact that was not me as I was bringing up the rear as they say with the second guide, walking uphill is the worst thing for my asthma.  We finally made it to the top after sweating buckets in our all in ones and we were given some hot chocolate whilst one of the guides set up the abseiling equipment and it started to get really cold.  We sent those that had not done it before down first and as I had I ended up in being 3rd from last. It was going to be a breeze I thought but suddenly as I got to the top and the fact that because of the dark you could see nothing below you my stomach flipped and my legs turned to jelly, I made it down though no problems, I was just a little shaky at the top!

We had supper out in the evening followed by looking at some of the ice sculptures that were on show around the town including the table and chairs in the square.  We had borrowed empty and cleaned beer bottles from the place that we had had supper in and accosted some strangers to take our photo at the table, mine was the only one that came out – it pays to have an expensive camera! Once we were back at the hotel we had a sauna before we had to start to sort out bits and pieces ready to pack in the morning as the night after was in the Ice Hotel and we didn’t have a room as such to lay everything out to pack it. We had our second and last shower of the trip and then headed to bed.

A fairly early start in the morning as we packed before we had breakfast and we were checking out at 9 I think it was.  Panic stations as Jan and I had to pack ready to go as we had an early start the following morning as we had chosen to do yet another option the day we left that left at 8 in the morning.  It was all sorted though and we were ready to go no problem!  We put all of our stuff in the coach and we headed to the place where we would be looking at reindeer’s and having a go at reindeer sledging.  Jordana had given us some guidance on the coach and it sounded a little scary.  We were greeted by 2 gents in the Sami clothing (the indigenous people of Lapland) and shown some of the reindeer on their farm.  We walked through the farm and a field of what looked like relatively young reindeer with a very sweet looking plain white one.  I am not sure if they were there because they were young or because they we deemed not necessary and so would be slaughtered.  I didn’t really want to know.  Anyway we headed to the Reindeer race track when the gentleman showed us how to do it again.  By the time that the first few had been whizzed around my poor little toes were sheer blocks of ice and I could hardly feel them.  Some of the Reindeer it was safe to say were far quicker than others and one in particular sticks out in my mind, thankfully not mine but it nearly flung its rider into the fence it went around one of the corners so quickly.  Amusingly the wife of that poor sod’s reindeer was the slowest.  We had to bark like little puppies to encourage the reindeers to go faster, didn’t half feel like an idiot doing that and I seriously thought for a moment that they might be having us on just to make us look like silly tourists!

After thinking that I seriously had frost bite in my toes as I had absolutely no feeling in them we went into a little tipi type place with a lovely roaring fire, it was still pretty darned cold though as we kept our coats etc on and you can see our breath in the photos that I took.  I told Jordana that my feet were literally frozen, well I think that she might have actually guessed as I pretty much had my feet in the fire!  She told me to take my shoes and all of my socks off and to put them near the fire. Thankfully the feeling began to be restored to my feet and after some time I was able to put my socks back on and then my shoes and revelled in the fact that I could just about wiggle my toes in my tiny sized shoes!  We had some reindeer soup for lunch and of course some coffee, I swear that they drink more coffee in this country than we do. From here we headed back to the bus and a little trip to the Ice Hotel – the highlight of the trip!

We arrived at the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi (ucas-year-vi) at about 1pm and Jordana checked us all in while we all started donning the oh so fetching clothing provided which I have to say was a godsend.  I headed straight to the shop to get the gifts for myself of course and some other lucky few!  Not that I am a shop-aholic, I just wanted to get that all done and dusted and most importantly packed as we had booked an early start morning wake up call on our final morning as Jan and I had opted to do one final activity.  We then made it to the guided tour of the Ice Hotel and were basically explained where everything was.  There is really not much to it as you would expect, in the actual ice rooms are the all important Absolute Ice Bar and the rooms and suites.  When we were shown where they all were at the end of the tour and suggested that we look at them all on my own I did my best to loose my self from the others that I was with.  I wanted to take a photo of each of the suites and soak in the freezing air and contemplate my achievement for getting here, making it a success and enjoying every moment by forgetting all about the past few months.

The difference between the 22 suites was amazing the imagination of the artists that come from all over the world not just from Sweden which I found fascinating.  There were of course rooms that I preferred over others.  Each room had a plaque on the exterior of it to tell you who the sculptors were and where they came from and a little bit about the room.  I read them all before I went in each individual room and some I had to come out and read again as I simply did not understand where the artist was coming from. Some of the rooms had very obscure ideas behind them.  Of course not all of my photos have come out brilliantly, I could have been taking photos of all of the rooms for ages but I really had to stop somewhere and I had also actually found a very handy book in the shop which went through each room and gave more info than was on the plaque about each of the suites and the deluxe suites.  The fact that it is all built in suck a short space of time is just unreal too.  There is really not much to look at of the Ice Hotel from the exterior as it is kind of surrounded by outbuilding that are all heated and also the two huge building that could easily be mistaken for airplane hangers which house the spare ice that is taken from the Torne River that is sent abroad for whatever needs i.e. the Ice Bars in London, Tokyo etc and are basically mega huge fridges. 

It is really difficult to sum it up anymore than that really.  It is a once in a lifetime experience and I would recommend it to ANYONE.  The fact that it actually feels warm when going into the building from the outside of -21 as it was when we were there was just so bizarre but yet we still had the all in ones on in the bar and holding our ice glasses (yes they are glasses made from ice!) with our gloves but with rosey red cheeks, could that be from the vodka cocktails that we were drinking?!  There were three weddings happening while we were there and boy oh boy did the brides look cold after!  Some of them were in the restaurant that we all had our last meal in.  I joked with one of the ladies from the group that we would do it in the all in ones, no need to worry about the hair and make up – ideal!!! 

Our last meal was delicious and I have managed to find the menu on line and have copied what I had to eat:

*Deep fried sweetbread of reindeer with almond potatoes and wild mushroom mayonnaise.

*Grouse stuffed reindeer round steak, with savoy cabbage cooked in cream, smoked reindeer sausage and oxtail glace. Served with Västerbotten purée and cranberries cooked in port wine, served in a glass made from the crystal clear ice of the Torne River.

*Chocolate terrine with banana ice cream and lukewarm lavender sabayon.

With of course the 2 pints that were another treat as the end of the holiday drew to a close and it was back to alcohol shortage and screwed up diet for the next few months. 

After supper we re-robed and hit the Ice Bar.  I had the plain and simple intention to be the last one out of the bar!  We had much hilarity with several classic comments and happy moments which I wont bore you with as they will mean nothing to you all but the fun carried on all evening and I did end up the last of 3 to head to bed and felt very proud of myself.  It was so nice to be able to drink again and enjoy myself and feel comfortable, confident and accepted with the company that I was in.  Perhaps I might venture out of doors back at home now and start going to the pub again with the neighbours? (Ok so I have already since I started writing this, it is quite long!)

Yes you do really sleep in your thermals and in an arctic sleeping bag and yes you do walk through the ice hotel with just them on and your snow boots to your room.  I don’t remember it actually being that cold.  The hilarity and excitement I think must have kept us all warm.  Last thing I remember was trying to arrange my coat which I had taken with me to sleep on in case I needed a loo stop in the night and the next thing I was being woken up with Lingonberry juice.  I certainly didn’t hear Jan’s hippo impressions!

We upped and dressed and had some breakfast, Jan’s head was pounding thankfully mine was ok. We took our bags with us and met the others from the Ice Hotel that we were going to be travelling with and looking a moose with.  Off we headed towards the mountains and closer to the border with Norway and the largest mountain in Sweden.  The scenery was beautiful and it was lovely to see a different section of Sweden.  We did get to see some moose, sadly none with horns though as only the males have horns and at this time of year it is only the females and the young that can be seen from the road.  We were driving around in a big red van so I am pretty sure that they all saw us coming. How tempted was I to burst out into song of Postman Pat, it was going around in my head!!

So we had a hellish time coming home as the flight was delayed and yet the plain was held for us apparently and so we basically got split and the plane I was originally meant to be on were ALL worried about me as there were only 3 of us that did not make it on and at least the others were a couple but I was all on my own!  What a nightmare to put it mildly!  Anyway I managed to make it back to Bath 3 hours after the original arrival time.  Poor Lucy had me ranting and raving and on a high for only a short while before I flaked out.  Of course didn’t sleep as my dreams were all about running from airport to airport and my poor little brain was totally exhausted come the morning! Wed was a bit like that too but now it is a week since I got back and I have sent my photos to the others and am waiting for Jan’s to arrive.  It has taken me ages to write this.  Basically it is amazing.  I hope to go back there in the summer and catch up with Jordana and help her out with the dogs that she has (50 huskies) I will be creating a scrap book with the photos and bits as soon as I get them from Jan so I am sure, if you are ever unlucky enough, I may bore you with those one day!

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Posted on February 9, 2007, in Europe. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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