Travel: Northern Sweden

Words: Liz Schaffer
Images: Angela Terrell

February 21 2016

125 miles north of the Arctic Circle you’ll encounter a seemingly impossible scene; a castle built from Torne River ice that, while architecturally astounding, simply melts away when the season comes to an end. This is the iconic Icehotel, a functioning artwork whose 16 art suites are each completed by a different creative or artistic team –some of whom are intimate with the intricacies of ice and snow, others who are having their first dalliance with this light catching material. The art suites sit beside the lavish deluxe suites, Northern Lights rooms (that use light installations to recreate the aurora borealis spectacle), and family-friendly ice and snow rooms. Nearby are the church and ice bar which both assume a different shape each year, one hosting weddings while the other serves colorful cocktails in tumblers made from ice – this is where the delighted staff venture in January to celebrate the sun’s return to Swedish Lapland.

Located in the town of Jukkasjärvi and first founded in 1989 as an immersive art exhibition, the Icehotel has continued to grow, largely because it isn’t only the Swedish army who want to sleep in a glorified igloo at -5°C, 23°F. Survival in such extremes rarely feels this luxurious. After a night in the Icehotel you wake with such a unique sense of calm, you breathe deeper, slower and don’t even find it strange that you slept so solidly upon a bed of ice and reindeer fur.

It turns out that even when the temperature is well below freezing all you really want to do is be active, to get amongst this chilly winter playground. It’s too beautiful not to. The Icehotel understands this, and it offers a range of activities that will allow you to take complete advantage of your otherworldly surrounds. There is ice sculpting, where you quickly find that frozen water cuts like butter, or the chance to snowmobile in search of the Northern Lights, once thought to be omens from the gods. In the early morning, beneath a pastel sunrise, you can dog sled to an island where coffee and kanelbullar (fika essentials) warm your bones and the horizon appears endless. Or there is the sauna where, like a true local, you roll naked in the snow and lower yourself into a hole in the frozen lake while rapidly working your way through every known profanity. You’ll never be so aware of the rhythms of your own body.

This magical white wilderness is so captivating, so improbable, that imagining Swedish Lapland in spring is almost impossible. Every branch is covered in snow, reflecting the returning sun’s rays, the ground is blanketed in white and the colours are perfectly muted by soft winter light. But Spring does come. The tundra clears, the Torne flows, the Icehotel drips away and this wilderness becomes beautiful in an entirely different way. Mother Nature is funny like that.

Liz Schaffer is a Sydney native and the London-based editor of Lodestars Anthology