Lapland, skiing and the man with a dream

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The Ice Hotel

The current fascination with the northern lights phenomenon – “aurora tourism” – is making British travellers far more likely to visit Scandinavian destinations in winter than ever before. There is no better place to experience both aurora borealis and winter pursuits than Swedish Lapland, home to the original Ice Hotel and several pristine ski resorts. Lapland covers almost a quarter of Swedish territory, much of it scenic and sparsely populated. The furthest reaches of the region are well over 1,000 kilometres north of capital Stockholm.

The Ice Hotel – How it all began
The man behind the Ice Hotel, a Swede called Yngve Bergqvist from Östersund a few hours south, began his love affair with Jukkasjärvi, the hotel’s small hometown in Swedish Lapland, running white-water rafting trips in summer. Bergqvist wanted to create something that would attract visitors in winter as well and did his research in other cold places worldwide to learn their tricks. It was in Japan that he first encountered ice art and ice sculpting on the island of Hokkaido. This in turn led him to set up winter art exhibitions on the frozen Torne River, close to the cottages he was renting out in summer. By the second year of this venture, so many people were coming to view the art that there simply wasn’t enough room to house them. Thus was born the idea to have people stay in the igloo built for the ice exhibition itself and the Swedish army was brought in to brief visitors on how to survive in sub-zero temperatures. Lo’ and behold, the visitors loved the experience and the Ice Hotel has since grown to become an international phenomenon with “copycat ice hotels” in various countries, as well as Ice Bars in Stockholm, London, Oslo and elsewhere.

restaurant starter

Just a starter in the restaurant

Building a palace of ice
The Jukkasjärvi Ice Hotel has now been running for over 20 years and has some 300 rooms, roughly 70 cold and 230 warm, the latter surrounding the ice palace itself. The warm rooms are actually the summer cottages that Bergqvist originally rented out on the Torne River, fully equipped with central heating of course. Every year 3000 tonnes of ice are gathered from the frozen river in huge blocks at the end of each winter, to be stored and used for next year’s building. In other words, this year’s ice is next year’s hotel. Not all of it is used for the hotel itself – a lot is also exported to the abovementioned Ice Bars; an astounding one million glasses are made on-site in the ice production plant. By late October the main building works are usually in full swing and mid-December sees the hotel at least partially open (this year it opens 7th December). It takes 40 different designers from all over the world to construct the hotel and surrounding buildings each year, but come late April most of these beautiful ice creations are melting back to nature again, only to be reinvented the following winter.

The Ice Hotel –reasons to stay
Spending a holiday, or even a honeymoon, at -5 degrees C, may sound like a crazy idea, but there are plenty of reasons to stay, as long as you wrap up warm. First of all the building itself has got to be seen to be believed – beautiful, unique, palatial and completely in tune with its environment. It’s rather like staying within a pristine work of art that changes from year to year. Then there is the famous Ice Bar with excellent cocktails, such as Wolf’s Paw – vodka and lingonberry juice – in the signature ice glasses. There’s even an Ice Church, licensed to conduct wedding ceremonies. Interestingly most couples tying the knot here are Swedish or British, the former knowing what to wear, the latter looking fabulous, but turning blue very quickly. The surrounding landscape and outdoor activities present another great draw – snowmobile safaris in search of the northern lights, husky sledding, cross country skiing, Sami cultural experiences, ice sculpting and much more. The hotel restaurant has Arctic food at its finest, including ptarmigan, Arctic char, reindeer and moose dishes, often served on beautiful ice plates. Although the rooms are kept at a constant -5 degrees C, strangely enough they don’t feel uncomfortably cold. There are plenty of fluffy blankets and reindeer pelts keeping you warm at night and the showers are in the heated section. Above all, a stay is worth it for the out-of-the-ordinary experience and the unspoilt Arctic wilderness surroundings. Far from big cities and light pollution, it’s an excellent place to see the northern lights in the winter months.

Skiing in Lapland – Björkliden

Björkliden

Just over an hour by train from Kiruna, near the Ice Hotel, lies Björkliden ski resort. This scenic spot originally sprang up as a stop-off point along the Kiruna – Narvik railway. The railway, constructed over a 4-year period 1898 – 1902, was mainly used to transport iron ore from the Kiruna mine to the seaport of Narvik across the border in Norway. For a long time it was the only transport link between the isolated communities in this part of Lapland. Although Björkliden was inaugurated as a resort in 1926 and got its first ski lift in 1946, it was only in the 1980s that it became reachable by road. The train is still the best way to arrive and it’s even possible to get the “ski train” from Stockholm up here – a journey of some 18 hours. Downhill skiing here is excellent for beginners with plenty of gentle slopes to choose from, but there is also enough to keep the more advanced skier occupied. The season lasts as late as mid-May and the ski conditions are usually very good. Perhaps best of all, with the Arctic ski pass, it’s possible to ski in three different resorts in Sweden (Björkliden, Abisko and Riksgränsen), as well as Narvik in Norway, all on the same train line, or alternatively reached by bus shuttle.

Cross country excursion
It’s not just skiing of the downhill kind that’s popular here – cross country is another viable option, even in the mountainous regions. For an interesting day excursion, bundle yourself with skis and all onto a bandwagon – an all-terrain army truck – travelling across the snowy wastes at a leisurely pace up to Låktatjåkko, the highest mountain station in Sweden at 1,228 metres. The café up top makes some of the best waffles in Lapland – and that’s saying something in this “waffle-mad” part of Sweden – and then it’s a nice trip back down to Björkliden on gentle slopes best suited to cross country skis.

Way up north – Riksgränsen
Half an hour from Björkliden along the railway track, just before Sweden rolls into Norway, lies Riksgränsen (literally “kingdom border”). At 200 km north of the Arctic Circle, it’s Europe’s northernmost ski resort. Here the looming mountains look more forbidding and the downhill skiing is better suited to the intermediate or advanced skier.

Riksgränsen

The surrounding landscape is dotted with frozen lakes and rivers, high peaks and, usually, vast amounts of snow. The hardy skiers that make it up here are rewarded by fantastic ski conditions, stunning views and perfect pampering at the Riksgränsen hotel. If you’re considering a holiday with a difference this winter, Swedish Lapland offers plenty of excellent skiing, shorter ski lift queues, the world’s largest Ice Hotel and, with a bit of luck, a sighting of the ethereal aurora borealis.

Getting There
Some tour operators offer direct chartered flights London – Kiruna when booking a package.
Scandinavian airlines fly London – Kiruna via Stockholm or Copenhagen.
It’s also possible to use a low-cost carrier to Stockholm and get the ski train to Kiruna, Björkliden, Abisko, Riksgränsen or Narvik.

Getting Around
The best way to travel between the different resorts is by train or free ski bus shuttles.

Further Information
www.visitsweden.com
www.icehotel.com
www.bjorkliden.com
www.riksgränsen.se

© Anna Maria Espsäter First UK Rights

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