White Hot and Cool

The original Ice Hotel, Sweden

The original Ice Hotel, Sweden

As technological advances push the boundaries of what is possible, our ability to enjoy the winter cold wherever we are increases apace. We now have the largest igloos ever known, carved from the ice and erected anew every year, machines that blast out snow where there isn’t any so we can ski whenever we want, and a London bar totally built and furnished from ice transported from Lapland.

Surreal? Yes, but very hot and very cool. See you there…

Would you like ice with that…?
The world’s first ice hotel, and still the most famous, is the one near the village of Jukkasjärvi in Sweden, 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in Lapland. In the winter of 1989, Japanese ice artists visited the area and created an exhibition of ice art and that spring, French artist Jannot Derid held an exhibition in a cylinder-shaped igloo in the area. One night there were no rooms available in the town, so some of the visitors asked for permission to spend the night in the exhibition hall. They slept in sleeping bags on top of reindeer skin – the first guests of the ‘hotel’.

The entire hotel only exists between December and April and is made completely out of ice blocks taken from the Torne River – even the glasses in the bar are made of ice, something that is replicated in the Absolute IceBar in London, see ‘Chill Out Zone’. The river is covered with an exceptionally clear meter-thick ice layer in winter, and it is this that is used to build and sculpt the ice hotel and the chapel anew every autumn. The latest incarnation has more than 80 rooms and suites, a bar, reception area, and church, and each room is unique, having been designed by a different designer.

Although the hotel itself has become very famous, it stands in what is still pristine wilderness. Around Jukkasjärvi there are vast forests and unclimbed mountains and in winter the white blanket of snow show the footprints from wild reindeer, moose, and wolves. Lapland stretches across four countries and is still the ancestral home of the Sami people, the original inhabitants. In the area around the Icehotel their traditional way of life continues relatively undisturbed by the amazing feat of engineering and technology that rises on the banks of the River Torne each autumn.

The experience of actually staying at the Icehotel is a surreal one, and pretty uncomfortable, truth be known. The hotel is never warmer than -5°C to -8°C inside, which actually feels warm compared with outside. The unique rooms are decorated with ice art and sculptures, and since it is a museum during the day (between 10am and 6pm) the rooms don’t feel ‘yours’ like they do in other hotels, especially as you can’t take your luggage in as it will freeze (the porter takes it to a special heated luggage area) and, apart from in the deluxe rooms, there are no doors, simply curtains. Thermal sleeping bags are provided, and you actually sleep on a bed made of a giant ice block topped with a thick mattress covered in reindeer skins.

Staff wake you in the morning with a mug of hot lingonberry juice, and there are heated washrooms and changing facilities, as well as morning sauna facilities, in the adjoining buildings, all of which is included in the package. The hotel has permanent chalets as well as the Icehotel, so you can stay for longer than a single night (trust us, one night in the Icehotel itself will probably be sufficient), and the hotel specializes in organizing winter adventures for their visitors, such as dog and reindeer sled trips, ice fishing, moose tracking, and the legendary winter ptarmigan hunt, which is conducted entirely on skis.

The ephemeral chapel has become a popular place for children to be baptized and couples to renew their wedding vows, and you can even choose to get married here if you want a wedding day that is truly memorable.

Chill Out Zone

Fancy that, but want a taste of it without having to pack up and travel to Lapland? Then you’re in luck, because the recently opened Absolute IceBar in Mayfair in London offers just that. A collaboration between Absolut and Icehotel, the IceBar is a -5°c vodka bar where everything from the bar stools to the glasses is carved entirely of crystal clear ice imported from the Torne River in Sweden. The £12 cover charge gets you entrance, one drink and 40 minutes in the bar. And there’s no need to wear your skiing gear because thermal parkas with attached gloves are provided. Fashionable they are not, but essential if you don’t want to be shivering within minutes of being allowed in through the air-locked entrance, which is specially designed to maintain the -5°C environment inside the bar.

The bar area is rather small, but that’s not an issue since the number of people inside at any one time is regulated (you’ll need to book in advance). The walls are all made of ice, as is the furniture including the telephone booth, and there are photo-opportunities galore, from kissing the statue of a man carved out of ice to toasting the bar staff in their Russian fur hats. The vodka-only menu (there are some alcohol-free drinks) is short, but all the drinks are quite complex (mine had blueberry liquor among other things) and are served in a hollowed-out cube of ice. While the allocated time span might seem short, it is actually quite generous because by the time you’ve finished your first drink (and no, the ice glass doesn’t melt when you hold it), the cold starts to set in and  you need to decide whether to grab a second (iced) drink or move on, perhaps next door to the more chic and warm Below Zero, the lounge and restaurant adjacent to the IceBar.

And yes, it is a bit gimmicky, but let’s face it, where else can you drink perfectly chilled vodka out if an ice goblet while wearing a giant thermal poncho and entombed in ice from Lapland while standing in the middle of London? Hats off to technology and go and experience it at least once.

The White Stuff

Whether you are a seasoned snow-bunny, have baby bunnies in tow, or are strictly aprés, we have rounded up 10 of the very best places to indulge your passion for the white stuff. You can go for black-run thrills, beginner’s lessons, a bespoke chalet party, or just about whatever takes your fancy so long as it involves snow. Santè!

1. Borovets, Bulgaria
Best for families on a budget

Situated in venerable pinewoods of the Rila mountains and the oldest Bulgarian winter resort, with a history dating from 1896, today Borovets is the biggest and most modern resort in Bulgaria. Brilliant for families on a budget, Borovets offers crèches and kindergartens, ski schools, and free lift passes for children aged 8-12, as well English-speaking instructors, traditional folk music and ‘horo’ dancing, barbeques, wine tasting, oh, and good value, very good, skiing for all levels and tastes, including a World Cup run behind the village, night-skiing and ski jumping. See www.inghams.com for more details.

2. Chalet La Sonnaille, Chatel Portes du Soleil, France
Best for a family house party

The Chalet La Sonnaille is a small, owner-run chalet in Chatel, an unspoilt village on the French/Swiss border that still has its Savoyarde farming village charm in shovel loads, with pretty, rustic looking chalets and hotels. The Chalet La Sonnaille is a favourite destination with families in the know, who describe it as “fabulous ‘bespoke’ skiing in a house party atmosphere”. Sleeping up to 12 adults and 12 children, if you go with just your immediate family the owners will make sure you are sharing with other families with kids of similar age, although it’s obviously much better fun if you fill the place with all your mates, especially as there is an outdoor jacuzzi, indoor sauna, adults-only lounge, and separate children’s playroom.

Childcare is provided in the chalet for young children and on the slopes with qualified instructors for older kids, with a flexible mix between the two. Book direct at www.snowfocus.com.

3. Bacqueira-Beret, Spain
Best for chilling out

Famous as the resort where the Spanish king and his family come to ski, the resort takes its name from the neighbouring traditional Spanish villages of Baqueira and Beret, and is hidden in a secluded Pyrenean valley some 160km from the nearest main airport. Once you’ve survived the hair-raising drive along narrow mountain roads amid spectacular scenery complete with shaggy ponies and cattle, you find a perfect gem of a skiing village. Stunningly beautiful and renowned for the wildlife and sunshine, it’s small, but perfectly formed, with intermediates having the best of the skiing – although for true snow bunnies there’s the infamous Escornacrabes run from the top of Cap Baqueira, a steep and narrow downhill plunge with a name that translates rather ominously as ‘the place where the goats die’! Once there, there’s a range of top class hotels to choose from, including one of the ‘Small Luxury Hotels of the World’, La Pleta, where you can relax in the on-site Spa Occitania. See www.exsus.com for details.

4. Krvavec, Slovenia
Best for snow bunnies

If short transfer times and maximum time on the slopes are the only things that really matter to you for a skiing break, then Krvavec in Slovenia beats other resorts standing. It has one of the world’s shortest transfer times from any city airport, at around 15 minutes from Ljubljana by taxi, followed by a seven minute gondola ride right on to the mountain. The wide open, varied alpine meadows at the edge of the Kalška mountain range, do not require a deep blanket of snow to create ideal skiing conditions, and with snow guns to ‘assist’ nature covering up to 90% of the trails, the season normally lasts 150 days and 100 days are guaranteed. See www.inghams.com for more details.

5. Banff, Canada
Best for sheer luxury

Pure unadulterated luxury seems strangely out of sync with the bustling and friendly little town of Banff in the Canadian Rockies. Set in the beautiful Banff National Park it’s not unusual to see elk and the occasional moose wandering the streets. However, luxury is provided in no small measure by top flight hotels including the five star Fairmont Banff Springs and the five star Rimrock Luxury Hotel, both offering spa treatments, steaming outdoor pools and hot tubs, and relaxing chill-out lounges. See www.igluski.com for more details.

6. Seefeld, Austria
Best for cross-country skiing

Seefeld is the home of cross-country skiing (“langlauf”) and is Austria’s leading cross-country resort, with an impressive 250kms of marked trails including the course designed for the 1976 Olympics and the 1985 world championships. The gentle incline to the slopes of Seefeld also make it a superb place to learn to ski. Seefeld’s position above the Inn Valley, close to Innsbruck, means you can get there is about half an hour from the airport, and there are excellent après facilities, including a huge selection of restaurants and the casino. See www.innsbruk-tourismus.com for more details.

7. Ischgl, Austria
Best for après ski

Set high up in the stunning Silvretta mountains, Ischgl has become the Alps’ party central. Concerts in the resort routinely feature A list performers, the nightclubs and bars are excellent, and it is true to say that the aprés-ski here is probably the best you’ll find anywhere – once you find out they have their very own Pacha nightclub, you know exactly what to expect! Top spots include the nightclub at the five star Trofana Royal and, obviously, Pacha at the exclusive designer hotel, Madlei, a mere 100m from the skiing track. See www.crystalski.co.uk for more details.

8. Soll, Austria
Best for beginners

Söll forms part of Austria’s large 250km linked ski and snowboard area, known as the Ski Welt, in the Wilder Kaiser mountain range, and is one of the best places to go to learn to ski, although experts find thrills hard to come by. Many good UK ski operators include it in their ‘Learn to Ski’ tuition and equipment-hire packages. A lively and good-value former Tyrolean farming village, it has an abundance of things to do when ski legs tire, including a large sports centre, tobogganing, squash courts, sleigh rides. See www.igluski.com for more details.

9. Chamonix, France
Best for snowboarding

Chamonix is legendary amongst the snowboarding community. A traditional Alpine town set against breathtakingly spectacular scenery at the foot of the majestic Mont Blanc (Europe’s highest peak), Chamonix’s long-standing reputation with skiers has been enhanced over the last couple of decades by the growing band of dedicated Chamonix snowboarders, many of whom just went there on holiday and never wanted to go home again. The amenities in Chamonix are excellent, the après ski very good, and you can book yourself into the snowboarding school if you want to learn or improve. See www.alpinelements.com for further details.

10. Sainte Foy, France
Best for style

Exquisitely pretty, traditionally-built French ski resort, Sainte Foy is currently the in-place to go if you want to ski with the in-crowd. Rather lacking on the apres ski front, it more than makes up for it in sheer attractiveness, with charming vistas and sweeping runs, not to mention the style and luxury of the accommodation. Here you will find log fires, saunas, jacuzzis, and every luxury you can imagine, regardless of whether you choose to stay at one of the internationally-recognised hotels or a catered chalet.

There is a concierge service that will help you organise everything you need for the perfect break, from a qualified nanny to reflexology and husky rides, and the restaurants are also superb. See www.saintefoy.net for further details.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you

First published in WTF magazine, 2008

Share

Filed Under: AdventureBlogfamily breaksTravelTravel with teens

Tags: , , ,

Comments (2)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Ever since I saw that horrible James Bond movie with Halle Berry I’ve always wanted to go to an Ice Hotel. The one in Sweden is at the top of my list for sure, but it may be a while before I can head over there to visit it. I’ve had a dream for a long time to visit all of Europe, so we’ll see how things go these next few years.

  2. davenycity says:

    great blog thank you

Leave a Reply




If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a Gravatar.

Tracked by Hobo