Northern exposure


Once you start ticking off the things to do on your bucket list, it’s hard to stop, so – inspired by my trip to Kenya – I signed up to go to the Icehotel in January to see the northern lights. (It’s officially called ‘Icehotel’ rather than ‘the Icehotel’ or ‘the Ice Hotel’, but what’s a definite article between friends…)

One of the good things about both holidays was that there were always two goals to look forward to. Not only would I have the chance to go on safari for the first time, but I’d also be able to climb Mount Kenya. In Sweden, seeing the aurora borealis was not guaranteed, but I’d have the experience of staying at the Icehotel and take a few photographs for my collection…

I have to say, it was an expensive trip – I’ve never paid so much for a long weekend! – but it was worth it. After loading up on duty-free champagne and whisky at Heathrow, I suggested to Amanda, Jackie, Susannah and Jason that we start off with a champagne breakfast at the Oyster Bar, and they were easily convinced. When you’ve spent so much money already, you might as well push the boat out!

Kiruna is the most northerly airport I’ve ever flown to, and it wasn’t the only personal milestone I set. After standing on the Equator for the first time and then climbing to the highest point I’d ever reached at the summit of Mount Kenya, I went on to endure the coldest temperature I’ve ever experienced (-35ºC!) and visit the Arctic Circle for the first time.

After a coach ride by the light of the other-worldly, pink ‘Alpenglow’ you only find in the far north or at altitude, we arrived at the Icehotel. We had all booked different activities for each day, but I wanted to avoid the check-in tailback at reception, so I started off by checking out the hotel itself. To call it a hotel is not really fair. It’s more like a village, in which the bit made out of ice is only a small part, alongside dozens of wooden chalets and outbuildings. It is more like Portmeirion, the setting for the cult Sixties spy series The Prisoner – except with everyone wearing snowsuits instead of black and white blazers. Most people know it from the James Bond film Die Another Day, but the scene wasn’t actually shot there. Having said that, you still get the snow and ice and the frozen river – all that’s missing is Halle Berry and the Aston Martin with the built-in rockets and machine guns!

The hotel itself has been around since 1990, when French artist Jannot Derid held an exhibition in an igloo in Jukkasjärvi. Unfortunately, some of the guests couldn’t find rooms in the town, so they were allowed to stay overnight in the exhibition hall – and the legend was born. The first purpose-built ice hotel was built the following year on the Torne river out of ‘snice’ (a mix of snow and ice) from its crystal-clear waters, but it promptly sank! Since then, it has successfully expanded and now accommodates thousands of guests each winter before melting in the summer months and being rebuilt in October. Its most famous export is the Ice Bar, in which everything – including the glasses – is made of ice. It’s a nice idea, but be prepared to pay around £35 for a glass of Laphroaig!

Most of the rooms are of a standard design with a bed covered in a mattress and reindeer hide and a table and chairs made out of ice, but a couple of corridors off the Main Hall contain ‘luxury suites’, which are all designed by individual artists and sculptors whose names are shown on a plaque outside. As the hotel melts each spring, it has to be rebuilt each winter, and the rooms are never the same from one year to the next. My favourites were The Flower, Blue Marine and Dragon Residense [sic], which had an extraordinarily detailed sculpture of a Chinese dragon on the wall. There was also a Church, an Exhibition Hall full of photographs of the construction of the hotel embedded into the icy walls and an Aurora Balcony off the Main Hall from which you could view the northern lights – with a bit of luck…

Our first expedition to see the lights came on the first night, and it was only a partial success. It was going to be cold, so I wore every possible item of clothing I could including the snow suit, boots and leather mittens that the hotel issued to all the guests. We drove snowmobiles out into the wilderness – another first for me – and I felt as though I was further away from any sign of civilisation than I had ever been (until the streetlights came on later…!). When we stopped to look at the sky, we did see a faint, silvery glow, but we were more worried about the freezing temperatures, and I was sufficiently unimpressed that I didn’t even take any pictures. The others did, though, and they were rewarded with an ethereal green glow that showed up much better on camera than we could see with the naked eye. I was disappointed to miss out, but we were soon bundled off to a ‘lavvu’, or traditional tent made by the local Sami people, to warm up, dine on smoked reindeer and lingonberry juice and feed a herd of reindeer. Our guide also helpfully told us how to imitate the calls of the male and female moose…!

We stayed in ‘warm’ accommodation that night, and the following morning I was determined to learn from my experience in Kenya by getting up early to see the dawn. I’d been told that there would only be a couple of hours of daylight that far north, but the sun actually rose just after eight and set around four. A pink and gold sky above a frozen river gives you plenty of chance to take photos, and I stayed out as long as I could before my fingers threatened to drop off with frostbite! Unfortunately, my tripod was not designed for Arctic temperatures, and it broke when I tried to screw on the camera attachment. That was a bit of a blow, as taking pictures of the northern lights was going to be almost impossible without it. Hmm…

Breakfast at the hotel was doubly disappointing. Not only did the restaurant make a hash of the English breakfast and fail to provide either muesli or proper coffee, but I also heard from a girl I’d met on the plane that she and her mother had seen a gloriously ‘ethereal and spiritual’ display of the northern lights just coming back from the restaurant – when the rest of us were busy drinking in the bar! Grrr…

After I broke the bad news to the rest of the party, we all went snowmobiling again and had lunch with a group of other people at a little hut in the forest on the banks of the frozen Torne. Reindeer and lingonberry juice were on the menu again, and I realised we might have to get used to a less than varied diet while we were here! The good news was that the skies were clear, which boded well for our chances of seeing the lights that evening.

Sadly, the good weather didn’t last, and by the time we jumped into a rudimentary sleigh hauled by another snowmobile that night, the clouds had extinguished any hope we had of seeing what we were there for. Riding on the snowmobile, I did get briefly excited by a strange, yellow glow in the sky above the pines, but I was eventually persuaded that it was just light pollution from the local town! (It was still pretty, though…) When we stopped for dinner at another forest hut, our group got separated in the dark, and I almost ended up joining a random Swedish family who were gathering next door! Fortunately, I was rescued before I caused anyone any further embarrassment…

When we got back, we had a few drinks in the ‘warm bar’ together and then prepared ourselves for a night in the Icehotel proper. Before we went in, we were given a ‘survival briefing’ by a prototypical Swedish blonde called Anna. We were told to put all our luggage in storage, check out a four-season sleeping bag from reception and change into thermal underwear, socks, boots and a woolly hat. After that, we were free to walk across the ice to our rooms whenever we liked, swathed in our sleeping bags. My room was number 304, and the temperature inside hovered around -5ºC. The only problem was that the temperature in my sleeping bag was about 35ºC, so I was either very hot or very cold. Not surprisingly, I didn’t get a very good night’s sleep, but that wasn’t the point. It was an experience. And it was certainly worth waking up to the cup of hot lingonberry juice that was brought to my bedside before dawn the next morning – though, sadly, not by Anna…

I hadn’t booked any activities that day, so I watched as the rest of the group went off dog-sledding and ice-sculpting. Fortunately, the hotel had a wi-fi network, but, unfortunately, it didn’t work in the restaurant, so I had to have another disappointing cold breakfast and then traipse across to the ‘warm bar’ to read the papers and catch up on the news. I also collected a special ‘diploma’ from reception to commemorate my stay and record the outside and inside temperatures during the night.

That evening, we had booked a table at a very smart restaurant just down the road called The Homestead. We kicked off with champagne and nibbles in our (warm) chalet and then walked to the restaurant. I got separated again and almost got lost (!), but it was certainly worth the trip. The food was excellent, and it was nice to be able to take off our snowsuits for a change.

After dinner, we had a decision to make. We still hadn’t seen the northern lights in all their glory, so I was keen to take a coach ride north towards Abisko, which is where you apparently had the best chance of seeing them. There were only two seats remaining, and I was determined to make the most of the opportunity (just as in Kenya on the final game drive), but the rest of the group weren’t so keen. Fortunately, that meant I was able to borrow a tripod from Susannah, who was staying behind, so I was all set. I walked back to the meeting point at the Icehotel in time for the minibus ride, only to find Amanda there, too. She had apparently changed her mind, which suited me perfectly. It would be nice to have some company – and, it turned out, some technical expertise…

The minibus driver was Christopher, the same chap who had led us snowmobiling, so Amanda and I had a bit of a chat with him in the front seats as we drove north. After five or ten minutes, I looked out of the window on my side and saw what I thought must have been the northern lights, so I asked Amanda to have a look.

“No, it’s just light pollution,” she said.

After another few minutes, I still wasn’t convinced, so I asked our driver.

“Can you have a look on my side? I think it might be the lights.”

“No, it’s just the ambient light from the town,” he said.

Well, this was no good. When you see swirling patterns of light in the night sky in the Arctic Circle, it’s usually a safe bet that it’s not the glow from a bunch of streetlights! So I had one last go…

“Are you sure it’s not the lights? It looks pretty similar to what I’d expect it to look like…”

“All right,” said Christopher, slowing down and pulling over into a lay-by. “I’ll get out and have a look. Stay here until I get back, everybody, and I’ll tell you if there’s anything to see.”

He got out of the minibus and almost immediately came back to tell us the news.

“Everybody out! It’s the northern lights! It’s magnificent!”

We all piled out excitedly and started fiddling with whatever expensive digital cameras and tripods we had with us. I set my ISO rating to the most sensitive I could and took a shot of the lights. Nothing. I took another shot. Nothing but a black screen. I took a dozen more, and every time the same result. This was not good. After all this effort, not to be able to take any pictures because my camera wasn’t good enough! I was getting worried – particularly when the other photographers seemed to be having no problem at all capturing the moment.

After a few minutes, the display died down, and we drove on a few miles to another lay-by. This time, the green lights were vividly visible to the naked eye, and I set up my camera and tripod again in the hope of salvaging something at least from the trip. Amanda was next to me, and she suggested setting the ISO to 1600 or less.

“You mean 16000?” I queried.

“No, 1600.”

I thought it was a bit bizarre to use a less sensitive setting, but I thought I’d try it. It was better than nothing. And, lo and behold, the first picture I took showed a brilliant green sky above the snow!

“Amanda, come and look! Quick. Come and look. Quickly!” (I was very excited at this point.)

“Yes, I’m walking as fast as I can…Oh, wow!”

Oh, wow, indeed. We drove a few more miles and stopped a couple of times for more shots of the lights, but nothing quite matched that initial thrill. That’s what it was all about…

We met the others later on back at the hotel, and it turned out that they had seen the lights, too, from the Aurora Balcony. That was good news, and I happily went to bed and spent half an hour sorting through all the images on my camera.

The following morning, it had clouded over, so I couldn’t get any shots of the sunrise over the Torne, but we did have a chance to join a group tour of the Icehotel after breakfast. It was interesting to learn about the history of the place and how it was built, although I almost missed the coach to the airport when the tour overran! Disaster averted, I wended my way home.

I enjoyed our trip, and I’m glad I went. My photos may not have been as spectacular as I’d hoped, but that was never going to be in my control. Rather like going on safari, you never know what you’re going to get. However, the combination of staying at the Icehotel and seeing the northern lights makes a good adventure. If you can stand the cold and the food and the sleepless nights and have the odd couple of grand lying around, I’d recommend it!

Mission accomplished.

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