I have to say, it was an expensive trip – I’ve never paid so much for a long weekend! – but it was worth it. Kiruna was the most northerly airport I’d ever flown to and my first trip to the Arctic Circle, so I wasn’t surprised when the temperature dropped to -35ºC.
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. I wanted to avoid the check-in tailback at reception, so I started off by checking out the hotel instead. 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 amongst dozens of wooden chalets and outbuildings. It’s 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!
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. As the hotel is rebuilt every winter, the rooms are never the same from one year to the next. My favourites were The Flower, Blue Marine and Dragon Residense, 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 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. It was going to be cold, so I wore every possible item of clothing I could, including the snowsuit, 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 civilization 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 I wasn’t impressed enough to 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 and dine on smoked reindeer washed down with hot lingonberry juice. Our guide also helpfully told us how to imitate the calls of the male and female moose!
We stayed in ‘warm’ accommodations that night, and the following morning I was determined to get up early to see the dawn. A pink and gold sky above a frozen river gives you plenty of chances 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, and 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 somebody that she had seen a gloriously ‘ethereal and spiritual’ display of the northern lights the previous night – 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 realized 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, it was overcast. I did get briefly excited by a strange, yellow glow in the sky above the pines, but only until I found out it was light pollution from the local town!
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 of our luggage in storage, check out a 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. I was there for the experience, and I was certainly grateful for the cup of hot lingonberry juice that was brought to my bedside 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 it didn’t work in the restaurant, so I had to 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 inside and outside temperatures during the night (-5º and -11ºC!).
That evening, we booked a table at a smart place down the road called The Homestead. We kicked off with champagne and nibbles in our (warm) chalet and then walked to the restaurant. It was certainly worth the trip. The food was excellent, and it was nice to be able to take off our snowsuits for once.
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 toward Abisko, which apparently offered the best viewing spot. There were only two seats remaining, and I was determined to make the most of my chances, but the rest of the group wasn’t so keen. Fortunately, that meant I was able to borrow a tripod from Susannah, who decided to stay 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…
After five or ten minutes on the road, 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 was still suspicious, so I asked Christopher, 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 coloured light in the night sky in the Arctic Circle, it’s hard to believe it’s just 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 rushed back with 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 – particularly as the others 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 clearly visible to the naked eye, and I set up my camera and tripod again in the hope of salvaging something from the trip. Amanda was next to me, and she suggested setting the ISO to 1600.
I thought it was a bit bizarre to use a less sensitive setting, but I had to try, and – lo and behold! – the first shot 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.
The following morning, it had clouded over, so I couldn’t get any shots of the sunrise, but I did join a 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 made 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 under my control, and the combination of staying at the Icehotel and seeing the northern lights makes a good adventure. If you can stand the cold and the sleepless nights and have the odd couple of grand lying around, I heartily recommend it!