Thursday, March 15, 2007

Ice Hotel Holiday 2

We were woken the next morning with a warm mug of lingonberry juice. Then it was time to reverse the routine of the previous night, handing in the gear, and dressing in warm clothes to brave the outdoors on our way to breakfast. We had arranged for us all to join an ice-sculpting class in the morning. So we made our way to the tepee by the river, where our teacher greeted us with a French accent. He told us that he was the designer of the Hammam room in the hotel, and spent some time up here each year. We each had a block of ice set on an ice column, which we were going to carve. He demonstrated the use of the tools, then turned on some suitable music, and let us exercise our imaginations. It was wonderful to see how everyone came up with interesting ideas to make from their block of ice. More lingonberry juice sustained us, and the morning just flew by. We wanted to take the English language tour of the hotel at 11.30, so off we went and walked around with a guide who told us about this year’s designers as well as the history of the hotel.

 We were also able to visit the wedding chapel, a great venue for that occasion. There were a few people about who were obviously dressed for a wedding, and we saw brides in wonderful Snow Queen outfits. A really romantic setting for tying the knot! We decided to walk down the road to the Homestead Restaurant for lunch, which was a bit further than we had imagined, but we had delicious sandwiches and coffee, before returning to move our bags to the warm Nordic Chalet for our second night. We all took showers, before our evening Northern Lights snowmobile adventure.
Our guide explained what we were going to do, and took us off to kit up in appropriate gear including balaclavas and helmets. We then paired up on the snowmobiles. I was lucky to be able to ‘drive’ one. With the senior guide in front and another two interspersed between us we set off, rather tentatively at first, but gained confidence all the time. At our first stop, the guide told us that she was sure we were going to see some Northern Lights activity as she could see something appearing on the horizon. This looked like some grey clouds, but then, what did we know? Off again, following her rules of keeping inline and keeping up; but then suddenly the man in front of us veered off to one side, ploughing through the thicker snow, then swinging across our path to the other side, eventually coming to a stop, so we sneaked slowly by him as did the others. Our guide stopped again, and our ‘friend’ who went ‘off piste’ was put up front behind the guide. The Northern Lights were beginning to build up, but we set off again. More ‘off piste’ driving ensued, so when we stopped again, the culprit was put behind one of the other guides – no more driving for him! The Northern Lights were really putting on a display and so D, with his pro camera set up some long exposure shots. At a minute exposure, he was getting some impressive photos - .  Other people were actually using flash in an attempt to take a photo! This simply does not work. We just sat back and took in the amazing sight. It is like nothing else, as if the sky is alight with green fire, with a hint of purple. We set off again, this time to the circular log cabins where dinner was cooking for us. We filled up two, and the guides served us moose stew, with apple cake and custard and tea. All the time, the Northern Lights were performing, and D had his camera on the tripod taking automatic time lapse photos, which have proved an immense success.

 Now it was all over and it just remained for us to motor back along the river to the Ice Hotel. What an evening it had been. By the time we got back to Jukkasjarvi, we couldn’t see the Northern Lights any more – just the wrong outlook, and too much light pollution. But we had seen them and they are everything they are reputed to be. We just had to go to the Icebar to talk about it. Then it was bedtime in our cosy chalet.

Our last morning, and we were all packed up ready to leave in time to meet Bjorn our guide to Moose Spotting. He is a great bear of a man with a rather old minibus, in which we were to drive on a moose safari. He drove us and all our bags off to look for moose, regaling us with stories and asking us about where we came from and other travels we had been on. We soon reached the area where we could see moose and it wasn’t long before we started to spot them in the trees, or lying in the snow. Bjorn was quite concerned as many of the calves had been lost this year due to the moose not being able to find enough food under the snow. Nevertheless we saw 15 moose, before stopping at Nikkaluokta for a coffee. From here we had a fabulous view of the mountains of Kebnekaise, where one can tour – either on skis, or on foot in the summer. It is very close to the Norwegian border and the Sámi areas span the border. Now all that was left to do was to drive to the airport and get on the plane home. We all flew to Stockholm and then caught our different connections home. It was a fabulous few days together in a true paradise. Next year it will be different – and so was last year, so it was also truly unique.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Ice Hotel Holiday 1

Imagine staying at a brand new hotel that was built for the season, with designer rooms, a bar and even a wedding chapel; and at the end of the season it will literally melt back in to its natural surroundings. This is the famous IceHotel at Jukkasjarvi in Sweden, built from ice from the Torne River. The word Jukkasjarvi means meeting place in the Sámi language.
We went there for a family gathering in March, the season runs from December to as far into April as possible. The holiday began with us flying to Stockholm from various points of the compass. By the time we had all arrived it was too late to fly up to Kiruna, the airport for Jukkasjarvi, so we made our way into Stockholm for the night. Our hotel, The Strand, was on the harbour side, and after settling into our rooms, we met downstairs for dinner. The restaurant is in the atrium with chandeliers suspended in the middle of the space. There were also many lovely photographs on the wall as well as a triptych of the Stockholm waterfront. Our food matched the quality of the décor, and we enjoyed the family company after some months apart. We retired to bed after a short walk along the harbour wall, taken instead of coffee.

The next morning, we breakfasted at a reasonable hour, then walked along the harbour, eventually turning into the old town by the palace.

Our taxi was due at ten and we were soon on our way to Kiruna. We made sure that down jackets and hats were to hand when we landed as Kiruna is two hundred kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. We took the bus to Jukkasjarvi, and were swept off immediately on arrival to visit the Sámi encampment just down the river. The young Sámi people still practise the traditional life of reindeer herding; but also enjoy showing the tourists a little of what that means. In fact Jukkasjarvi is in the Sámi village of Talma, one of fifty two reindeer herding communities in Sweden. We tried lassoing some fairly docile reindeer with little success – only managing to get close to a stationary male. Luckily there were several Sámi people around, who organised the reindeer into harnesses attached to sleds. After one demonstration, pairs of us were sent off round a circuit, racing our sleds against each other. This involved yelling madly at the reindeer while slapping the reins across their backs. Their fur is so thick, that they can hardly feel a thing. Anyone with the slightest inhibition negotiated the track at snail’s pace, so those shouting their heads off got the fastest rides. When all this excitement as over, we were invited into the tepee for a warm drink and a snack. First came the warm lingonberry juice, which was tangy and refreshing, and while our host described what went on in the tepee – day to day life of working, eating and sleeping, he started to cook reindeer meat on a huge metal frying pan over the fire that was burning in a stone fireplace in the centre. We were all lying on piles of reindeer skins arranged around it. He placed slices of cooked meat in local bread smeared with lingonberry sauce, and invited us to eat. What a delicious flavour, just the job after spending the afternoon outdoors. But soon we had to head back to the hotel – to find our rooms and get organised, as we hadn’t managed to check in before the afternoon’s event.

 We piled back onto the sleds being pulled by skidoos and were soon skimming along the frozen Torne River back to the IceHotel. As it is quite an attraction, people do stay in the area and visit during the day to look at the designer rooms etc. We were shown where we could store our things in lockers. We would spend our first night in ice rooms, which have just a bed in the room closed with a curtain over the doorway. Of course, it is always below freezing in the IceHotel, so the facilities - the showers and loos are all in the wooden annex, where the lockers are. Only when you are actually ready to go to bed, do you get your sleeping bag, liners and hat to take to your room. We couldn’t wait to explore, so we entered the IceHotel and began a ‘voyage of discovery’.
First we found our rooms, just the standard types that are rather like the inside of a small igloo. We had a double bed made from ice, with a slatted base, mattress and several reindeer skins. Floor level lights illuminated the room operated from a switch on the bed. But it was the central corridor that caught the eye, with its twinkling chandelier and ‘Jessica’ chairs all carved from ice. At the end, there was an etched block commemorating the tercentenary of Carl von Linne (Linneus), the famous Swede who invented taxonomy. There is also the flowering ‘ice flower’. The corridors off on the opposite side are where the designer suites are found. These are amazing and different every year as ice sculptors from all over the world are invited to come to Jukkasjarvi in November to create them. They take about three weeks to build, and are stunning. There are so many interpretations involving etching the pure ice as well as intricate sculpting and the subtle use of lighting. Screens, seats, tables, beds and much more make up romantic rooms within rooms, which are an art gallery in their own right. These rooms are a little more expensive, and people reserve them for special occasions.

Although there is a beautiful wedding chapel, we did see a wedding taking place in a particularly beautiful Art Nouveau room designed by Russian artists. There was a room based on a Turkish Hammam, another like a Gentleman’s Club, and one with a circular table and bench covered in reindeer skins so you could sit down without freezing to the seat. This was the technique used in the Absolut Icebar where predictably they served lurid coloured cocktails based on vodka, served in ‘glasses’ made from blocks of ice. You had to keep your gloves on here to avoid sticking to your glass. There were armchairs with low tables carved from ice; and ice pictures ‘hanging’ on the wall. All the designs could be see at the Ice Hotel website, but 2007 pages 'have melted away'.  I think our favourite was the Russian Art Nouveau.

Now it was time for dinner, which we had booked in the IceHotel Restaurant. This is not made of ice – a bit tricky with warm food in the necessarily sub-zero temperatures. But nevertheless, the lovely glass all round us was very ice-like. The drinks glasses, glass candle holders and so on reflected the warm low lighting, with a special ambience. The food was outstanding. Feeling quite replete, we walked across to the Icebar for a nightcap. Did I mention lurid drinks? These were rainbow coloured and fairly strong cocktails served in the blocks of ice with hollowed out centres. You shouldn’t miss this very jolly experience. Well fortified, we went across to the annex to change into thermals and complete our ablutions. Then we collected our sleeping gear, which included hats and snow boots, and made our way to our rooms. We snuggled into the lined, down sleeping bags, and hardly a page was read before the eyes started to close and we snuggled deep into the warm bedclothes for a good night’s sleep.

Ice Hotel