13 December 2010

How to make an ice hotel

Ice Hotel main hall
When you think about it, building a hotel out of ice and getting people to pay hundreds of euros a night to sleep on a bed of ice, in temperatures of around -5C, isn't something you would put at the top of your "great business ideas" list.

The Ice Hotel in the far north of Sweden has been operating now for 21 years - as a hotel actually made out of ice. How it came about  and its early development is one of those fascinating stories about luck and opportunity - and determination to follow through on that opportunity when it arose.

For starters, outside of Sweden, who had ever heard of the tiny village of Jukkasjärvi? The village was popular for a few months in summer and a local hotel owner started to think - as all good tourism operators do - about ways to extend his product through to the colder months. The first idea was to mount an art exhibition in an igloo built from ice on the Torne River, which runs alongside of Jukkasjärvi. Needless to say, the river freezes over during winter.

In 1990, a group of hardy tourists was unable to find a room in the hotel, and asked whether it would be possible to stay in the igloo overnight - they became the first guests of the "Ice Hotel". And from such inauspicious beginnings, a major tourism phenomenon has developed.

The igloo built on the river was unfortunately unable to cater for the growing crowds of visitors and in subsequent years was moved to the land between the river and Jukkasjärvi. From a small construction of approximately 60 sq m in the first year, the hotel now occupies some 6000 sq m with dozens of hotel rooms, a main hall, an Ice Bar, in partnership with Absolut Vodka and a church (the Ice Hotel is very popular for weddings, especially for Scottish couples for some reason).

"Snice" moulding on wall
The hotel is built anew every year, with ice harvested from the Torne River at the end of the previous winter and a composite material called "snice" - as the name suggests something that is in between snow and ice.

There's quite an art to the cultivation of ice with the clarity and purity that is needed for the ice hotel - and here's where Jukkasjärvi's position next to the Torne River becomes its competitive advantage. The water in the Torne is clear and well oxygenated, and it flows at the right speed needed for ice to form and grow in spectacular, crystal clear sheets.

Construction generally takes place between October and December each year, with full operations ramping up from mid-December onwards. Day-trippers are welcome during the construction phase, and depending on the weather (temperature), overnight guests can sleep in "cold" accommodation from mid-December onwards.

The basic "snow room"
There are three levels of accommodation: a basic snow room, an ice room and and an ice "art suite". The art suites are individually designed following the competitive selection process mentioned earlier.

Successful designers win the right to come and work 12 hour days for two to three weeks to personally construct their winning design.

The standard "ice room"
From its early history arising from an art exhibition on a river, the river is now used to create art that can be experienced in a most intense way!

According to my charming guide - who kindly turned his 4 pm Swedish language guided tour into an English language tour as I was the only one in the group - the construction of the ice hotel is a year-round operation.

Ice "art suite" - one of a kind
While the construction takes place at the start of winter, the raw material (the ice) is grown and harvested during the winter, then harvested and stored close to the hotel site, ready for use in the following season. The reason for this is that the ice hasn't grown thick enough to form the supporting pillars and other structural elements of the hotel at the start of winter - so the ice in this year's hotel was grown and harvested in March-April this year!

So just how do you sleep on a bed of ice, in sub-zero temperatures? The thing is to have exactly the right amount of clothing. Basically a couple of good thermal underlayers inside of a high quality down sleeping bag is what's required. If you try and get into the sleeping bag with too much clothing, you will paradoxically be colder than if you take off your cold outer clothing and get into the sleeping bag with your warm inner layers on.

Children are not encouraged at the Ice Hotel - not because they will damage the furnishings or make too much noise - but can you imagine having to get up in the middle of the night to take little ones to the toilet? None of the rooms has an ensuite!!

And for somewhere uber-cool to chill out in the evening, of course there's the Ice Bar.  Cheers!

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