ICEHOTEL Review

I just vacationed in Swedish Lapland, the northernmost part of Sweden. In January. Why did I do this? Well, aside from this Georgia girl being perennially-deprived of snow, I desperately wanted to visit the Icehotel, a hotel carved from, well, you get it. (Technically the Icehotel's name is in all caps: "ICEHOTEL." But I'm not going to spend this very long post screaming at you like a mom on Facebook every time I reference a proper noun. So forgive my artistic license in using "Icehotel.")

Planning for this trip was difficult the ambient temperatures in Lapland are no joke, routinely hovering in the single or negative digits Fahrenheit. And the Icehotel website, though technically in English, is not as clear or comprehensive about accommodations or environment as you would hope. I'm a compulsive Yelp/Tripadvisor review person anyway, so I scoured the internet for details on packing list, itineraries, and important information about the hotel before we went. There's some good intel out there, but much of it was incomplete, scattered, and contradictory. So, I thought I'd take to this platform to provide a comprehensive overview of our vacation with some practical tips and instructions to anyone who's out there googling how the hell to pack for a trip where you sleep on ice.

SWEDEN

First and foremost, I want to emphasize that this entire trip was completely amazing, awe-inspiring, and magical. It is utterly worth doing. That being said, realistic expectations and awareness of some of the realities of both the hotel and Swedish culture will benefit anyone embarking on this trip.

A word about Sweden before we begin. In Michael Booth's excellent The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia (which my mother-in-law fortuitously gifted me right before we left), he paints the reputation of Swedes among other Scandinavians as humorless, pedantic rule-followers. I'll give them more credit for fun than that, but they are a nation who won't cross a street where there's a flashing red pedestrian light, no matter how utterly empty of cars the street is. Booth calls them taciturn, reserved, somewhat suspicious of strangers, and inclined to stand in the back of a line and wait rather than attempt to find out what people are queuing up for. They are cripplingly afraid of appearing foolish, especially if they are insecure about their (unfailingly perfect) English.
Carrying this understanding with us was enormously helpful in navigating Swedish culture.  I would phrase it: Swedes are polite but not helpful. No one was overtly rude, but there's a frostiness, a cultural insularity, that permeates interactions with strangers. In our experience, this translated into a willingness to answer honestly, but not to be overly accommodating. No one was anticipating our needs; in order to get the information you wanted, you had to ask the right question.

A couple of examples. One night, we trek across a frozen river to a semi-remote restaurant owned by the Icehotel. When we arrive, they can't find our dinner reservation. The hostess asks for a confirmation number. We find our confirmation email, which requested a reservation for four on January 2nd. The email, however, confirms a reservation for four on December 30, a day before we even arrived. Icehotel's mistake.

My friend Jane: It looks like it was accidentally made for the wrong day.
Hostess: ...
Jane: We tried to make a reservation for today but they confirmed the wrong day.
Hostess: ...
Jane: ...
Me: ...
Hostess: ...
Jane: [looks at friends, ready to head back out into the snow]
My husband: Any chance you could seat four people right now for dinner without a reservation?
Hostess: Of course! We'd be delighted to have you for dinner. Right this way.

What. What? I genuinely think she would've stood behind the desk and watched us put our coats on and head back into the snow without ever offering to find us a table unless we'd asked the exact question. She was never rude, but it didn't occur to her to help us get a table until we directly asked. (Once she led us back into the restaurant, we discovered that there were plenty of empty tables, more than enough to accommodate our little party of four.)

Indulge me another example: one of the main points of visiting Lapland is the opportunity to see the Northern Lights, which are often visible from that latitude at this time of year. The Icehotel sells themselves via the Northern Lights; their website is covered with photos of them, they advertise Northern Lights snowmobiling tours, Northern Lights dogsledding tours, Northern Lights photography tours, you get it:


On New Years Eve, we attended the Icehotel's recommended prix fixe NYE dinner at their fancy restaurant, an affair that lasted from 9:00 pm to approximately 11:30 pm. During this time, apparently, the Northern Lights were visible over the hotel. Despite the fact that we along with all the other guests had traveled a very long way to see the lights and were spending a not-insignificant amount of money as both guests of the hotel and guests at their fancy restaurant, no one alerted us about the lights. We found out the next night when another traveler showed us his crystal-clear iPhone photos of the lights...visible right over the restaurant where we'd been eating. After a week in Sweden, our weary joke became, "well, we never specifically asked our waitress: are the Northern Lights out now? How about now?"

There are dozens of examples of this sort of interaction over just a few days. I genuinely don't think anyone tried to be rude in fact, to the contrary but Americans have very specific expectations for customer service that were not intuitive to our Northern Swedish hosts. Knowing this in advance explains some of the lukewarm internet reviews about the Icehotel and hopefully helps would-be Icehotel guests take things in stride.

GETTING THERE 

To access the Icehotel, you will most likely fly to Kiruna, Sweden (a mining town that is actively being moved two miles east?). There are highways that reach it, but I sure wouldn't want to drive on them in the dead of winter. The very easy, one hour and forty minute flight from Stockholm is traversed by several "budget" airlines, Norwegian and Scandinavian Airlines. When you arrive, the entire plane does a frantic donning of winter wear and you disembark from your plane straight onto to the snow. Here some photos from our 2:30 pm arrival on December 31st:



Lapland is the Land of the Midnight Sun.

In summer.

In winter, that latitude means that it's the Land of the Noonday Moon.™ For the month of December, Lapland experiences Polar Night, a time where the sun does not rise for days. The light increases incrementally beginning January 1st. This doesn't mean it's pitch black for the entire day; the sun never rises above the horizon line, but a dawn and dusk light ("civil twilight") permeates for several hours. That being said, it's nighttime-dark most of the time, which is a little disorienting. But also really, really cool. It legitimately feels like you're on another planet with a totally different, surface-of-the-moon, snow-white topography and an atmospheric space-sky all the time. It's the farthest away from home I've ever felt.

ICEHOTEL

The Icehotel itself is insanely amazing. Every year since 1990, the Icehotel has been built on the banks of the Torne River from scratch each November. (The ice and snow comes straight from the frozen-solid river; the pure river water is what makes the ice blocks crystal clear and the sculptures so magnificent.) Beginning around March, the whole structure melts. In 2016, for the first time, the Icehotel built "Icehotel 365," a permanent, year-round Icehotel that's snow-covered in winter and grass-covered in summer. Solar panels take advantage of that good ol' Midnight Sun to keep the ice rooms icy even in the middle of summer.

Icehotel 365 and the Icebar on the left; this year's built-from-scratch Icehotel on the right: 


So: there's the original Icehotel, rebuilt each season, and the Icehotel 365, a separate ice structure. The Fuzzy Chisel, the Icebar, is attached to 365:






The seasonal Icehotel has artistic rooms, a Game-of-Thrones-style ice hallway, and a solid ice chapel where they host 200 (?!?) weddings a year.




In addition, the Icehotel has several permanent "warm" buildings. There are two lobbies, one to check into your cold ice room ("cold lobby") and one to check into warm accommodations ("warm lobby;" more on those later). The warm lobby also has a casual lounge attached, featuring a bar, a fireplace, couches, and sometimes live music. The "cold" lobby (which is itself warm) has communal gender-segregated bathrooms, showers, and saunas. I did not anticipate writing this elaborate review of the place, so I didn't photograph things like the lobby and the bathrooms, but luckily The Points Guy did. So, if you want to visualize these spots, click over here.

There is also the Icehotel restaurant, just called "Restaurant," which shows you how much competition they're worried about. It serves breakfast, lunch, and fancy dinners. The other restaurant, Homestead, is a 15 minute walk up the road and serves more casual fare with a heavy emphasis on reindeer burgers. The lounge serves sandwiches, which is important because when we arrived to check-in, we asked if the lounge served sandwiches and the desk clerk said "no." This was not a case of us not asking the specific right question; we literally asked "does the lounge serve sandwiches?" and were told "no." I'm going to dramatize this moment for you:

My friend Jane: Is there any food still being served?
Desk clerk: Oh, no, you just missed lunch. Restaurant stopped serving lunch at 2:30.
Jane: Does the lounge serve food?
Desk clerk: No, just some pastries at breakfast.
Jane: I read online that the lounge served sandwiches. Does the lounge serve sandwiches?
Desk clerk: No.
Jane: So the lounge does not serve sandwiches?
Desk clerk: No.
[A tray of sandwiches is delivered to hungry guests in the lounge just out of our sight line. They cheer.]

I studied playwriting, just saying. 

So, now you know.

The lounge serves sandwiches.

Sandwiches.

In the lounge.

There's also a gift shop. It sells some crucial winter gear if you forgot anything, some novelty winter gear if you want a fur-lined hat that says ICEHOTEL on it, and some extravagant, inconveniently-sized souvenirs that I assume they ship to your house? If you want a three-foot tall Nordic Santa or a reindeer antler chandelier, that's your place.

ACCOMMODATIONS

The Icehotel only recommends staying in an ice room for one night and I strongly concur. It is a unique and worthwhile experience, but it's not the most convenient or comfortable way to sleep, not to mention that it's prohibitively expensive to do this. But you're not flying all the way to Lapland for one night, so what to do? The Icehotel has "regular" warm rooms, too.

The warm accommodations the Icehotel offers are pretty rustic. It's much more akin to a glorified campground than a hotel. The warm rooms are one-story cabins with one or two bedrooms. Intended for families (I guess), our cabin had one room with a double bed and one with bunk beds. Maximum romance, Big style. For the culture that gave us Ikea, they are shockingly poorly outfitted; the furniture is basic even for Scandinavia and the small space is poorly designed. You're there for the adventure and not the room, but a little bit of glamping would be a welcome modification.

Also there are sandwiches in the lounge.

The Icehotel and its fancy ice rooms are a museum during the day, meaning its open to the public to tour. This means that when you're sleeping in an ice room, you can't check in until 6:00 pm at night and have to check out by around 8:00 am in the morning. This also means if you're moving from a warm room to an ice room, you check out of the warm room at 11:00 am, but can't check in to your
cold room for several hours. The Icehotel is extremely upfront about this on their website, though I'm sure they still get a fair share of complaints about it.

Frankly, I thought this would be a lot more burdensome than it ended up being; it really wasn't much of an inconvenience, and given the circumstances, I can't come up with a much better way they could organize this. The Icehotel will store your luggage for you during the day (apparently, if you leave it in your room they will transport it to storage for you, but we did not know this because we did not ask the front desk this exact question).

They recommend doing an excursion during that down time, which makes sense. We didn't do this, though, and our itinerary was just fine for us. Instead, we slept in (watching the Rose Bowl the night before until 3:30 am might have factored in this decision), checked out at 11:00 am, had lunch at Restaurant, wandered over to the Sami (indigenous peoples of Lapland) lodge about a mile up the road, and toured their outdoor museum.

Then we went to the lounge for sandwiches. THEY WERE DELICIOUS.

NIGHT IN AN ICE ROOM

Artists come in from all over the world and design the ice rooms with unique and elaborate themes that you genuinely have to see to believe. The mind-boggling artistry of the place alone is well worth the adventure North. Just a few examples:








THESE AREN'T EVEN THE GOOD PHOTOS, YOU GUYS. Seriously, it's remarkable and awe-inspiring and you're cold and you slept in a bunk bed and you've only eaten reindeer for three days and then you walk into these rooms and think, "take ALL my money this is the best thing I've ever done." There is just no substitute for how epic and beautiful these rooms are and the hotel could literally have made me sweep and mop and I would've thanked them for letting me see these rooms.

(Joke's on them, I can't mop for shit.)

When you sleep in an ice room, you cannot have your things with you because they will freeze. Hah! Unless you book a Deluxe Suite ($$$$), there is not an ensuite bathroom to any of the ice rooms. So, the Icehotel provides a changing room in their "cold" lobby (which is warm; we've been over this). The changing room is about the size of a walk-in closet and, again, while I thought this process would be annoying, it really wasn't bad at all.

The day of our ice sleep, we went to the communal sauna and showers to get ready for dinner. The communal bathrooms were akin to a country club locker room spacious and clean with ample mirrors and hairdryers (though the showers are needlessly transparent; wouldn't kill the Scandinavians to frost some damn glass for their absurdly modest, puritanical American guests.) Then we trekked to dinner where our missed reservation story happened.

After dinner, we changed into our long underwear in our changing room. My husband and I were both able to change in there at the same time, which given our massive suitcases is saying something about the size. The Icehotel recommends sleeping in the ice room in only your baselayer, and we found this to be a great recommendation. Anyone who sleeps cold in the ice rooms must have too many layers on! The Icehotel gives you an astronaut-style sleeping bag (single or double) with a clean sheet. This bag is toasty, toasty warm and if you let your body heat warm it through just a baselayer, you will NOT be cold. We made the mistake of throwing some hand warmers in our bag for extra warmth and our only complaint about our ice sleep was being too hot.

We slept in a beautiful art room in the Icehotel 365. The bed itself is made of ice, but there's a mattress on it covered by reindeer hides. Then, you place your sleeping bag on top of the hides. It's genuinely quite comfortable and I promise cozy warm.





But what happens when you have to pee? I have a bladder the size of a goldfish and drank 100 bottles of wine water at dinner, so I was very concerned about the nighttime relief situation. In the 365 building, there is a really lovely public bathroom. (I know that's odd to say, but it's a pleasant, warm room with about eight stalls, each with floor to ceiling doors and their own sinks. It's gender neutral, but I found it largely unoccupied.) There's also a warm room of shelves in the 365 building in case you want to bring anything with you that you might need but won't keep in the room. Like your sinus medicine. (Nerd.)


Into the ice room I wore my baselayer, my boots, a knit hat, and a light puffer jacket (the liner from my Columbia ski jacket). I left my boots by the bed and I stuffed my jacket into the sleeping bag outside of the sheet. When I had to get up in the night, which I did, I pulled out my warm jacket, slipped on my boots, and scurried to the bathroom. It was not unpleasant at all! (I also kept a large leather glove on my nightstand to store my glasses in so they wouldn't freeze.) (Nerd.)

Pro-tip: we brought a bottle of water into the ice room in case we got thirsty at night.

How.

Stupid.

Are.

We.

Yeah that was unsuccessful. Water and cups in the warm bathroom, though!

I was annoyed that we had to wake up early and get out (waking up early is not my thing), but that was actually pleasant. You get an in-person visit from a staff member who serves you a hot lingonberry juice. Then they leave you to leisurely sip your juice and slowly wake up, before you head off to the communal bathroom. A hot sauna and shower after a cold sleep was delicious! Overall, the ice room experience was well worth it.

PACKING LIST

So, given all of this, what should you take to the Icehotel? Well, first, the Icehotel loans you outer-layer winter clothes. I sort of overlooked this and probably purchased more (unusable in Georgia) winter items than I should have. The Icehotel has really great, really appropriate, really, really warm outerwear. We borrowed it for our snowmobiling excursion, but plenty of people wandered around the Icehotel grounds the whole week in their full borrowed gear. I would definitely trust that they'll have warmer stuff than you will and encourage you to rely on their loaners more than I did. 

The Icehotel provides: 

1. Outer jumpsuit: a giant, one-piece snowsuit. 
2. Hardcore snowboots
3. Balaclavas
4. Hardcore giant leather gloves

You need to bring: 

1. Underwear and bras (recommend sports bras for ladies) 

2. Baselayer: a couple of good pairs of underwear will be your best friend. I would recommend at least two pair, but potentially more considering how long you are staying in Lapland. I was just as pleased with this affordable pair from Amazon as I was with my expensive Odlos. In fact, these are the ones I slept in the ice room with (see super flattering photos above). Highly recommend. 

3. Midlayer: a couple of good fleeces is all you need. I brought too many dressy items; no one dresses up there, even on New Years Eve at the fancy restaurant. Given that the main nighttime bar is in a below-freezing ice room, the only thing people ever see is your outwear, anyway. Skip anything fancy; nice black turtleneck is the most you might want, but honestly a fleece will pass anywhere. 

4. Overcoat/parka: I recommend a good outer layer for any time you're not in the Icehotel snowsuit, such as travel from the airport, or if you're doing an excursion not booked through the Icehotel. But you don't need more than a standard ski jacket given the mega Icehotel suit. 

5. Boots: something waterproof is going to be helpful for this trip, but again, you don't need to buy a new pair of Sorels if you don't have any. The Icehotel has got you covered for your extreme weather needs; their boots were much sturdier and warmer than anything we brought. 

6. Accessories that I highly recommend: hat, glove liners (for use in the Icehotel gloves), neck gaiter, good, thick wool socks. I took earmuffs and was glad to have them, but I didn't see anyone else with them. We really liked having hand warmers and even more having foot warmers (same principle, but inserts shaped like your foot). Foot warmer + Icehotel boot + ski sock = my feet are at the beach even when standing on a dogsled covered in snow up to my knees.

PRO TIP! We brought ski goggles for snowmobiling and dog-sledding. Our standard ski goggles are tinted for skiing in the daytime. This was super unhelpful when it is DARK ALL THE TIME. We were operating machinery at night in a snowstorm with sunglasses on. That was stupid. If you bring your own goggles, which I don't think are hugely necessary but you may want, I recommend purchasing some non-tinted ones. 

EXCURSIONS

The one excursion we booked through the Icehotel, nighttime snowmobiling, could not have been better. We snowmobiled across the most beautiful, tranquil, winter-wonderland landscape to a tiny cabin where we ate delicious reindeer stew and drank our hot lingonberry juice. This trip was magical and the tour guide was the best of our trip. We also went dog-sledding, which is one of the most epic, fun experiences I've ever had. But we booked that through an off-site company. If any readers are curious about this experience, comment or message me and I'm happy to discuss.

Overall: this is a really incredible, one-in-a-lifetime experience that I highly recommend. Going into it with the right clothes and the right attitude will make it a perfect trip. Enjoy!

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© 2015 by Alison

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