It’s snowing hard, really hard; a velocity no mere cloud produces. This gunfire of ‘snice’ (snow and iced river water) from an overhead cannon covers everything in persistent polar dandruff — plaster, of sorts, used to render the walls and ceilings taking shape around me. Meanwhile, forklift trucks convey building blocks of frozen river ice to teams of power-tool-wielding workers in giant moon boots, balaclavas and high-vis jackets. Blades run, sparks fly, and ice shavings scatter. It’s more Mad Max Beyond the Snowdome than an artist’s studio but art, or at least hotel art, is exactly what’s being created here.
What began 30 years ago as little more than an art gallery-cum-igloo has morphed into a hotel phenomenon much emulated in polar places. Home to the seasonal Icehotel that melts away each spring, the blink-and-miss-it village of Jukkasjärvi, just north of Sweden’s Arctic Circle, is now unveiling the game-changing Icehotel 365, meaning travellers don’t have to wait until winter for their a sub-zero stay.
“We don’t copy, we are copied,” says creative director Arne Bergh. “Each year, different artists create the rooms. We never repeat a design.” He’s a man of singular vision, once shipping ice from the nearby Torne River all the way to South Africa for a megabucks BMW show that created an incongruous ice gallery in the sunshine. “There, I had the idea for a year-round hotel,” says Arne. “Solar panels and turf roofs mean we keep to our original eco principals, and we can now employ people year-round, which benefits the local community and improves service standards.”
This neat solution also, of course, equates to greater revenues. Nightly rates are upwards of £360 for an Art Suite: pricey for the privilege of sleeping in a cold room. Later that evening, mere minutes after squirming into my four-season sleeping bag, I feel my face start to freeze as I hunker down and turn out the lights — transforming the slightly claustrophobic beauty of my ‘Don’t Get Lost’ room (sculpted as a labyrinth, with the bed at the centre) into pitch darkness until morning, when I’m up an out again in minutes. This is not a place you hang around in — and with public hotel tours during the day, time in your room is limited.
Deluxe suits at 365 have heated bathrooms, complete with sauna (where I bolt to in the morning; a sauna before bed means you feel the cold more). Nothing can be stored in the ice rooms themselves (kept at a chilly -5C), so most guests pad around in their long johns to use the loo or access belongings stowed in lockers. It’s a discombobulating experience, neither rustic nor luxury.
In these, the final days of the hotel’s construction, I meet sculpturists from as far and wide as Africa and Singapore, not only surviving but thriving, working in polar conditions with material that had often previously been alien to them. Spirits and ambitions are high. There’s a room of undulating waves that resembles a stormy Nordic sea, another, with colourfully backlit ice lozenges that look like oversized sweets. But for me, the beauty of the raw material seduces most: rough-cut blocks alive with bubbles and mist, crystals and kinks; and the snowy, cave-like tunnels between rooms.
Linger in the Icebar to best appreciate the freezy fantasy. The Ice Menu (five-courses including moose, arctic char and other Scandi delicacies) is exquisitely presented on slabs of ice but served in a neighbouring heated, ski resort-like cabin. This and the surrounding ‘warm rooms’ (simple, heated chalets) break the sparkling spell somewhat but mean less hardy guests have cosier overnight options. Icehotel 365 may be ‘always cool’ but it’s pragmatic enough to offer more than cold comfort.