Writer and broadcaster

Nights on ice in Sweden’s Arctic wonderland. The Observer

The teenage me, buried deep beneath midriff fat and caution, screamed yes at the thought of a trip to the Swedish Arctic. The grown-up me – mother, wife, daughter, fulcrum of home life – started to risk assess. But my father had died in June and I thought a small adventure would do me good.

After two plane rides, I landed in Kiruna, home to the largest underground mine in the world – not that you see this, as the airport is tiny.

The drive to Jukkasjärvi is short. The Swedes use no special snow chains, they just drive, normally, through the snow and ice, without screaming. This is a small village, where the landscape shrinks to monochrome. The original Ice Hotel is seasonal, but the new Ice Hotel 365 is open all year round and kept cool by solar panels.

With the addition of each thermal layer – you usually wear three – you shed other, unnecessary, rituals. Life becomes simpler, slower: no one really cares what you look like, as everything is about surviving. It is liberating and recalibrating. This is not a place to come to if you are on a diet. The cold means you must eat a lot. (I lost weight while I was there, despite eating heartily.)

Jukkasjärvi is immensely pretty. When I was there it had just two hours of sunlight, so activity is packed in accordingly. The Ice Hotel complex consists of the ice structures themselves and small wooden buildings housing the warm rooms. The restaurant is a short walk across the road; meal times are set and food is not available at other times, but there was a great food truck down the road.

As with the original hotel, the rooms in the IH365 are individually crafted by artists and beautiful. But now – unlike the original – some have warm, private en suite bathrooms, which are stunning, and a sauna.

I had seen pictures of the Ice Hotel, but to see it in the flesh, and understand the feat behind it, is incredible.

However, when I was alone in my room I couldn’t shake how tomb-like it felt, despite its size. Lying on reindeer skins on an ice bed in a thermal sleeping bag, I was not too cold but too hot, with no hope of variation: you were in the sleeping bag or out of it. I’d been awake for 23 hours by this point, so I thought I’d take a trip to my warm bathroom for some diversion.

Due to the cold, or teething problems, I got locked out of my bathroom and, more seriously, away from my warm suit. I found myself wandering round the camp at 2am, in -18C, wearing nothing but my pyjamas and a sleeping bag wrapped round my shoulders, looking for the 24-hour manned reception. Just as I was imagining the headlines: “Journalist found dead in PJs, no one knows what she was doing out of bed”, I found reception – saved! – and Gertrude put me and my frozen lungs back to bed with a hot chocolate.

The activities are everything at the Ice Hotel: husky rides, survival courses (I can now light a fire without a match and make pine needle tea) and snowmobile tours across frozen lakes. There is a fabulous sauna near the cosy Homestead restaurant where I rolled in snow in my swimsuit. You can also jump into a hole cut in the frozen lake, but even my teenage self wouldn’t have done that.

Do walk up the road to Nutti Sámi Siida, where you can get excellent food, look at the Sámi museum and feed lichen to the reindeer. And do make sure you stand still, quite alone, at some point and stare at the apricot-coloured sky.

After two days, we drove to Nikkaluokta, where the road ends, picking up snowmobiles to get to a roadside café, Enoks, by Lake Láddjujávri. It wasn’t late, but it was dark and our path was lit only by the lights from the snowmobiles and small cane sticks to mark the path. It was a bit scary and exhilarating to realise you really are in the middle of nowhere with no phone signal, and your life depending on someone you met an hour ago. It was fantastic.

Enoks has stood for 100 years, but was recently redone and is a modernist masterpiece. You can’t get over how warm it is inside, and how good the food is. A snowball’s throw away are four cabins where you sleep for the night: basic but gorgeous, like being in a doll’s house (each has a private bathroom). We ate, we drank Swedish whisky and, at 11.30pm, the northern lights came out, like the Wizard of Oz behind a heavy green curtain shining his torch.

The next morning we could fully appreciate Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain, right in front of us. We took snowmobiles on to a frozen lake, drilled holes in the ice and I caught a small perch which my guide killed and left for the Arctic foxes.

You miss the scenery later, when you’re home; when you’re there it’s so huge, so different, you can’t really take it in. I could have done with another day.

Two funny things happened to me in Sweden. Since my father died, I have had to surround myself with nice smells – an olfactory cocoon. In the Arctic I stopped wearing perfume. And after that first day, I stopped wearing my glasses, I just didn’t need them any more. I no longer needed to see detail – it was all about the big picture.

  • Annalisa Barbieri was a guest of Simply Sweden. The Ice Hotel – Luxury Snowmobile trip costs from £1,370pp, including flights and transfers, one night in an ice room and one in a warm room at the Ice Hotel, plus a night at the wilderness cabins, based on two sharing. Warm outer clothing is provided. 

This article first appeared in The Observer Travel section on 15 January 2017.