Although ice hotels have been gracing northern Europe’s wildest remotes for nearly 30 years with their artistry and imagination, the average Scandiphile knows very little about them. It all started with the Swedish ICEHOTEL and since then everything from igloo hotels to whole snow villages have sprung up among the higher latitudes, each with their own unique features. But there are some hidden fundamentals that they all share.
Aren't ice hotels, well... cold?
Although the original snow hotel in Sweden dates back to 1989, the principles behind them reach back much further. They’re founded on the insulating properties of compressed snow, something that stranded explorers and natives alike have used to survive for centuries. In fact, the snow hotels’ walls can measure metres in thickness, tightly compacted to keep out the bitter Arctic wind. As such, their rooms stay between a steady zero and minus five degrees even as outdoor temperatures plummet. But the Inuits weren’t even the first, with Nordic animal life having using subterranean snow tunnels as shelter for millennia.
It’s something that should be immediately obvious but many don’t realise – ice hotels are seasonal. Each year, they’re built anew after the summer melt – usually around November – in preparation for their winter guests. This means that not only are no two the same, but each iteration of the same hotel are different. It’s something of an arms race with each adding more and more fantastical artwork and features – there’s even one with an ice slide.
How they're built
Given their ephemerality, the construction of an ice hotel has been honed to an exact science. The general idea is that a steel girder mould is formed and then snow is blown over it at a rate of thousands of litres an hour. As such, even though there’s a skeleton, walls, fixtures and fitting will all be entirely formed of snow. It’s all held together with delightfully named ‘snice’. As the portmanteau suggests, this is a mixture of a snow and ice, used as a binding agent between sections. It’s from this canvas that the hotel’s artists will work to carve out those spectacular sculptures and friezes that add the hotel’s character.
No self-respecting luxury hotel would be without a collection of grand facilities and the ice hotels are no different. You might have heard of ice bars and restaurants where you’ll be able to sip cocktails out of ice glasses and dine on fresh food, served on tables of, yes, ice. In fact, the restaurants have even become something of a destination in themselves. Given their remote location, chefs will often make full use of local, super-fresh ingredients, combining traditional recipes with inventive techniques. For example, you can feast on glow-fried salmon, cooked on an open fire in Finland’s Arctic SnowHotel or tuck into a king crab that you’ve fished from the ice near Norway’s Kirkenes Snowhotel. In fact, you’ll have every opportunity to experience a whole host of wintery activities with dogsledding, snowmobile tours and snowshoeing all readily available whichever accommodation you choose.
Quirks of each hotel
• While each hotel is rebuilt, the original ICEHOTEL saves a selection of its best artwork in giant fridges, preserved for next season. They’re also the people behind the innovative ‘ICEHOTEL 365’ concept. Set to launch in November 2016, it promises to be the world’s first ice hotel that’s open year round, running – rather ironically –solely on solar power.
• The Kirkenes Snowhotel, set in Norway’s wild northern reaches, flies in a team of Chinese ice artists each year. These specialists all hail from Harbin in the country’s north, which is host to one of the world’s most fantastic ice festivals.
• Add in a touch of reverence when you visit the Arctic SnowHotel of Finnish Lapland, where you'll find a delightfully decorated chapel constructed entirely from ice. Best Served’s very own Kirsi Jokela has even attended a wedding there.
• But if that’s not regal enough for you, you could also stay in a snow castle with the opportunity to set sail on the world’s only icebreaker to run excursions for tourists.