The ICEHOTEL could be the most uncomfortable hotel in the world. Such are the curious vagaries of the “experience economy” that people will pay (handsomely) to spend the night in a freezer, albeit a very artfully decorated one. It is something like camping in a display home – you move in after six in the evening, when the daytime hordes have passed through to have a look, and you’re up early and out again before the next lot arrive. It also has the sense of adventure, transience and the enjoyably makeshift nature of camping – along with many of its more striking discomforts. Who would have thought people would clamour to stay in a room where the temperature is minus five degrees, you can’t store your luggage because it will freeze, the most comfortable thing you can slip into is a padded snowsuit and there is no bathroom or toilet? Regardless, a stay at the ICEHOTEL would have to be one of the most strange and beautiful experiences to be had anywhere.
In the far north of Sweden, above the Arctic Circle, the ICEHOTEL has been constructed every year since 1990. Located on the Torne River near the village of Jukkasjärvi, for the most part the hotel is not made of ice but rather of hard snow, which is compacted over a barrel-arched formwork using industrial snow cannons, and then carved and fitted out. I was there in mid-January and it was still partly under construction, a hive of activity even in addition to the four hundred guests. With the smell of diesel fumes, the beep of reversing heavy machinery and the howling and barking of the huskies, it was like a strange cross between an art gallery, a fish-processing plant and a theme park.
There is much about the ICEHOTEL that is almost comically kitsch. This doesn’t seem to matter much – the place is so fairytale-like that the usual standards of judgment don’t apply. But it is still undeniably full of bad art, especially in the “art suites” – hotel rooms that have each been decorated by an international guest artist solicited through an open call on the ICEHOTEL website. These rooms show a distinct leaning towards esoteric and fantasy themes – carved dragons, tribal motifs, giant chess sets and interpretations of the northern lights. Unlike the high concept and high design of Finland’s Snow Show, with its collaborations between world-famous artists and architects, the ICEHOTEL is much more of a hokey affair, closer to a theme hotel than a boutique one. While it is so well managed that it never becomes faceless or crass, the ICEHOTEL is nevertheless a well-oiled mass-tourism machine. But the place is enchanting in spite of its bad taste, since it remains so childishly exciting to sleep in a building made of snow.
Some parts of the ICEHOTEL complex manage to be cool as well as cold ¬– the cold foyer and art gallery, the ice chapel and the Absolut Ice Bar. On my visit this bar was full of people still dressed in their bulky outdoor suits, looking rather self-conscious – probably because we all looked like blue Michelin Men. Ice is used throughout the hotel for windows inset in the hard snow, but it is perhaps most amazing in the chapel, where there are apparently one hundred and fifty weddings every season. On first entering, the most overwhelming sensation is actually the smell of the reindeer skins covering each bench. Something like a cross between wet sheep and not-so-clean dog, the odour is very strong indeed. The space is beautiful, though, and it is mesmerizing to see the silvery flaws and schisms deep in the ice, tracing the small pieces of river weed and the long threads of bubbles trapped there.
The complex is actually less a hotel than a whole resort, complete with a diverse program of organized outdoor activities, its own restaurants and naturally a shop full of ICEHOTEL merchandise. In addition to the “cold accommodation” it is also possible to stay in one of the conventional hotel chalets clustered about the site. In fact, it is recommended not to stay for more than one night in the cold rooms, and when the staff explain the procedure you can see why – it is not exactly restful. You change into pyjamas and boots in a dressing room in the adjoining building, walk across a freezing outdoor courtyard, through a reindeer-skin-covered door, along a snow corridor and into your room. Once there you climb into the sleeping bag quick smart ¬– and if you’re anything like me you’re straight off to sleep, warm and cosy, only your face and plumes of foggy breath emerging from the sleeping bag’s hooded cocoon. If you want to go to the toilet in the middle of the night you reverse the whole procedure. Upon hearing this, there is some nervous muttering amongst the guests, and a sense of grave solidarity as we are brought together by the ordeal. It would feel like being a backpacker again, if everything wasn’t so monumentally expensive, and if we weren’t all such comfortable, pampered, bourgeois tourists. At such moments you realize just how absurd it is, to have travelled so far to enjoy the discomforts of a brief, highly aestheticised adventure in cold.
On my final day, under the darkening twilight sky at two o’clock in the afternoon, I went for a walk on top of the frozen river. Looking back at the distant hotel, I had a sudden existential sense of how easy it would be to just lie down in the soft, perfect whiteness, to fall quietly asleep and never come back. Naturally I didn’t, knowing that I must dutifully return to bring the tale to you, dear reader. But travelling in such a cold, beautiful and bleak landscape remains an other-worldly, transforming experience, and the ICEHOTEL is the perfect expression of that.