We’re 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle in April and there’s a bittersweet vibe around ICEHOTEL as it begins to melt. Within a month, the world’s most intelligent igloo will return to its source at Torne River in tune with the cyclical rhythms of Mother Nature.
The people of Sweden have focused on smart design, the environment and healthy living since the Vikings. We were surprised just how much fun and swanky that can be here.
The multiple daily flights from Stockholm to Kiruna International Airport and the Swedish Laplands are around 90 minutes. Across the street, our group of planners fitted into toasty snowmobile suits in our prearranged size, along with big fat mittens and enormous attached boots.
We dressed up in these outfits for arguably the world’s coolest, greenest hotel transfer. Pulling four to a dogsled, the 16 Siberian huskies ran through the snowy forest trails seemingly without much effort until we arrived at a traditional log cabin. A warm fire was crackling below an old cast iron pot while a local chef with a big hunting knife on his belt prepared the hearty meal of reindeer stew with fresh veggies grown in a nearby mine. After some lingonberry wine and a friendly chat with the Finnish mushers, we returned to the sleds for the trip across the frozen Torne River to ICEHOTEL.
THE ICEHOTEL EXPERIENCE
Here’s how it works. Every fall, engineers and a team of ice sculptors selected from hundreds of applicants descend on the ICEHOTEL in a little community called Jukkasjärvi. They first erect rows of metal arches and beams, and then specialised tractors with huge chain saws cut out blocks of river ice the size of a Saab.
They cover the metal frame with the blocks, and after it all freezes together, they remove the metal frame. The only thing remaining that isn’t H20-based is the lighting.
The ice artisans then go into each of the 85 rooms to create the individual decor and beds of solid ice covered with reindeer skins. Guests, by the way, are provided with hi-tech sleeping bags at bedtime. The sculptors also carve out ice chandeliers, a chapel for the 100+ yearly weddings here, and the globally hip ABSOLUT ICEBAR. You’re going to love this.
Sponsored by the Swedish vodka company, the bar is the ultimate, um, icebreaker for cocktail receptions. We met our hosts here while drinks were served in big square ice cubes hollowed out with an industrial drill. FYI: A few Hot Rubies (Absolut Ruby Red vodka, warm lingonberry juice) and dancing to ABBA in a snowmobile suit do wonders for networking.
A series of modern wood buildings house the sparkling clean, large YMCA-style showers/changing rooms. There are also 95 “warm” rooms replete with natural wood floors/walls, business desks, good WiFi, flatscreen TVs, and sleek bathrooms straight out of IKEA. Most guests split time in both room types, and everyone in our group happily said: “I’m glad I spent one night in the ice rooms.”
Dinner is served in the timber Old Homestead Restaurant, originally built in 1768. Caught that morning, the arctic char was served on a thick plate of ice with shiitake mushrooms, goat cheese and salmon roe. Our meals were as good as any we had in Stockholm’s finest restaurants, combining ingredients absolutely singing with freshness.
There’s a powerful, emotional sense of connection with Mother Earth following your first night of hibernation at ICEHOTEL when you walk out into the white landscape. It’s deadly quiet and the lack of electricity and color have a deeply calming effect. The best cup of coffee, ever, is next door.
At our morning ice sculpting class, we all chiseled away at ice blocks like a bunch of ruddy-faced Rodins. We raced snowmobiles around the lake and stopped for lunch in one of the wood cabins. And then we raced reindeers that pull sleds around a track. The afternoon ended with coffee around a fire inside a giant teepee with a member of the local Sami culture (ancestral Laplanders), who regaled us with tales of hunting life before and after the invention of the snowmobile.
Speaking of technology, ICEHOTEL aims to be carbon negative by 2015, meaning it will produce more renewable energy than it uses. This is a major motivation behind the hotel’s existence, and it already derives much of its energy from geothermal and solar power. Kiruna is home to Nordic Europe’s space program—which will be one of Virgin Galactic’s global space travel hubs—so there’s already a built-in scientific infrastructure in place.
A series of “Tech Visits” have been created for visiting groups to learn more about the advanced clean tech innovations, which ICEHOTEL shares willingly.
“This is about doing your best and setting an example,” says Dan Björk, director of sales/marketing. “The message is for other mid-size companies to come up here, which is frequently happening, and we will tell them exactly what we have done. It’s an open book, total transparency. We want people to copy what we have done, and that’s happening all the time, which is maybe the most rewarding part of this.”
Another Tech Visit revolves around Entrepreneurship & Brand Management.
“One factor that is very attractive to U.S. businesses is the entrepreneurship of the ICEHOTEL and the crazy part about the ICEHOTEL, where we’ve succeeded in building a house of snow and ice, which is natural from where we live, and that we’ve been able to turn it into a successful business,” says Björk. “We discuss how we got the idea, how we’ve grown together as a group of like-minded people, and how we went to the bank and said we have an idea—and we were thrown out. We’re no longer being thrown out of the bank.”
SLOW FOOD + FAST BOATS
There is not a capital city in Europe more connected with the sea than Stockholm. Water covers 1/3 of the city consisting of 14 islands in an archipelago where Lake Mälaren flows into the Baltic. Other cities have massive ports but that relationship is commercial. This one is personal, intimate, individual.
I had to laugh as we pulled on snowmobile-style suits again the first morning in Stockholm. Except these were all black, accessorized with black lifejackets, boots, beanies and goggles. Looking like a band of mercenaries on our way to invade Oslo, we screamed out of the harbor at 45 knots with RIB Sightseeing. “RIB” stands for Rigid Inflatable Boat, like the zodiacs used by Navy SEALS. They handle 24 pax with handles in front of each seat to keep you stationary.
Thoroughly invigorated after the 20-minute transfer, we pulled up to Bockholmen Restaurant, housed inside a Martha Stewart-ish 2-story wooden estate house surrounded by tall trees and water on three sides. This may have been the most relaxed meal of the trip, in a private room on the top floor. The corn-fed chicken with summer truffle risotto from Gotland goes well with Sancerre. Really well.
HISTORIC MEETS HIGH-TECH
Across the street from each other in the heart of Stockholm, two truly staggering group venues couldn’t be more different.
The Nobel Prize award dinners are held annually inside the iconic Stockholm City Hall, built in 1911 with eight million bricks designed like an Italian piazza. The main Blue Hall seats 1,300. The Golden Hall upstairs overlooking the water seats 700, surrounded by 23.5-carat gold mosaics created with over 18 million pieces of tiny tile. About 150 groups meet here a year, and you can choose from any of the past 81 years of Nobel Prize menus. For extra impact, bring the group via boat.
Next door, the brazenly modern Stockholm Waterfront Congress Centre opened last winter, along with the attached 414-room Radisson Blu Waterfront Hotel. The 11,000 sf of glass envelope includes solar collectors gathering about one MW of energy daily. That’s roughly the same as 90,000 low energy lightbulbs. The convention center is cooled by lake water stored below in giant ice tanks, and almost the entire facility is illuminated by natural daylight. The 2-tier, 2,800-seat Main Hall faces 40-foot high glass overlooking the city; there’s a fun outdoor terrace seating 340, and you’re within five minutes walking distance to 2,800 rooms.
“I like that WiFi is included in the conference center rate and it’s very customizable,” says Wendy Wright, a planner with Burlington-based Heming Group, who’s bringing a med group here. “Both are very convenient for our group because you never know when there’s going to be a last minute change.”
HAUTE & HISTORIC
Our hotel in Stockholm was the furthest departure possible from Jukkasjärvi. Dripping in Old World elegance across the harbor from the Royal Palace in the historic district of Gamla Stan, the 345-room Grand Hotel Stockholm opened in 1874. The well-lit, retro mod Verandah restaurant/bar off the lobby is the power watering hole of the city, and it’s one of the few offering traditional Swedish smorgasbord. For fine-dining, Mathias Dahlgren was listed on Pelligrino’s top 50 list in 2009. It consists of two spaces: the two Michelin star ”Matsalen” (dining room) and the one star ”Matbaren” (food bar), a country bistro for Vogue designers ordering salmon/reindeer sushi. Private dining for 8/25 respectively.
For venues, the Grand lives up to its name and then some. The Winter Garden space for 800 pax is designed like a Tuscan Village, which used to be the horse stables. The hero space is the 500-pax Hall of Mirrors, outfitted with gold leaf and Italian frescos with lovely prefunction space overlooking the harbor. The Nobel dinners were held here until 1930.
As a fan of “adaptive re-use architecture”—a major theme in the field of sustainability—I really enjoyed the new 186-room Elite Hotel Marina Tower, Stockholm, with 15 meeting rooms including the 3,800-sf Gyllene Salon. The protected brick building was once a flour mill, located in Saltsjöqvarn, with 40% of the rooms offering great views over the inlet to Stockholm and the leafy island of Djurgården. The rooms are bright Swedish modernist affairs starting at 320 sf.
Everyone’s favorite guide, the gracious Kristofer with Strömma DMC escorted our group aboard a private ferry for the 10-minute ride back into downtown. Strömma operates a wide variety of land/sea tours around the archipelago.
FRESH FROM THE BALTIC
Behind the Grand, B.A.R. Restaurant is the epitome of susty chic and one of the hippest restaurants in Stockholm this year. The “A” stands for the aquariums in the restaurant full of lobster and shellfish pulled to order. It’s all white and steel with a sleek but wholly comfortable industrial vibe, seating 150.
Look into private dinners at Grill Restaurant for its superlative free range BBQ menu and a wildly eclectic range of decor, inspired by Versailles, hunting lodges, bordellos and country farmhouses. We started in the private dining room with four rounds seating 12 per, before moving into the main dining room for dessert. Fantastic place for networking with the sexy schitzo setting. This was everyone’s fave dinner.
The busiest museum in Sweden, Vasa Museum houses the restored wreck of the Vasa warship that sank here in 1628. They do fun banquets for 750 pax alongside the massive vessel. Various menus are 100% organic on demand, like the “17th Century Menu” offering smoked reindeer filled with cabbage, root veggies and honey. It’s a fitting venue to celebrate Sweden’s stewardship of the sea.