Kiruna - Reindeer, frozen rivers and the awe-inspiring Icehotel

Posted by ~Summer~ on February 06, 2012
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Visiting Kiruna was like a dream come true for me.

I mean, having stayed in Sweden for over 3 years and not visiting the famous Icehotel which has been featured in documentaries around the world, it would really be a pity. And what about riding a snowmobile through snow-covered forests and across frozen rivers in the middle of the night? I probably won't get a second chance to do that once I return to the tropics. Then there is the mysterious, breathtaking but somewhat elusive Aurora Borealis (aka Northern Lights) that I had hoped to witness, and even if I didn't have that stroke of luck eventually, well, at least I tried. Better to have tried and failed than to have failed to try.

Facts about Kiruna:

1) Kiruna has around 20,000 inhabitants.

2) It was founded in 1900 as a mining town, and today, its iron ore mine is said to be the most technically advanced and the biggest underground mine in the world.

3) It is located in the north of Sweden, 145 kilometres north of the Arctic circle.

4) The sun doesn't set between May 30 and July 15, and perpetual daylight lasts from early May to early August. This natural phenomenon is called the midnight sun.

5) The opposite occurs from early December to early January, when the sun doesn't rise and this is called polar night. Can you imagine 24-hours of night time?

6) Every year in winter, the Snow festival is held with activities including scooter jumping, reindeer racing, an ice sculpture contest, and more.


We were greeted by mountains of pure white, glistening snow the moment we arrived at Kiruna airport. Since the airport was only located 8km southeast of town, it was a short drive to our hotel after we were picked up by Kiruna Guidetur. By the way, we had booked the grand package trip with them which is pretty much all-inclusive if you wanna explore Kiruna and its surrounding.


Considering our last minute booking, we were lucky to get a nice double room in Vinterpalatset, ranked #1 out of 11 hotels in Kiruna on Tripadvisor. We were allocated a room in the annex building which was separate from the main building, so while that meant we had to dress up in full gear for breakfast every morning, it also meant that we had a bigger bedroom and a bigger adjoining bathroom.



On our first night, we set out on an adventurous Northern Lights tour as we rode on snowmobiles, braved the freezing temperatures and endured biting cold winds. Of course, Angel was too young to ride on the snowmobile so she had to sit in a sledge with one of us and be pulled along by our tour guide. Well, let me just tell you that no matter how many layers of clothes you had on you, and regardless of how accustomed you were to winter temperatures, you would still be cold out there!

The sledge was equipped with reindeer skin which was one of the best insulation materials on earth. We were told that reindeer have hollow hairs and supposedly if you were to put snow on their skin, it won't melt. So, I used it as a blanket to wrap Angel and keep her warm because I was just so scared she would suffer from hypothermia or frostbite which at a point of time, I really thought she did and that gave me a bad fright.

We rode through snow-covered forests, saw mountain hare tracks, sped across the frozen Torne river and then stopped for dinner in a little wooden hut as we huddled up by the campfire. It was my first time eating reindeer meat and well, I have to admit it tasted pretty good. I guess anything hot would taste yummylicious when your body is freezing.

Initially, I was rather reluctant to switch drivers because Angel was clinging to me like a scared little bear and all I wanted was to hug her, assure her and keep her warm. She was really my brave one who endured through the many hours of cold and only acted up a little while in between. Anyway, I was glad that I decided to try driving the snowmobile after all, if not I might have jolly well missed this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I don't think I was an expert driver at it (not surprising considering I'm a bad driver in real life too) but hey, I MADE IT and we all arrived back safe and sound! Kudos to Angel for being the youngest one to survive that tour which lasted past midnight!

You know, in places all covered with snow, baby strollers don't really work well unless you have those with wheels as big as tyres. Well, ours didn't so fortunately, we rushed to town and managed to buy a sledge just 15 minutes before the shops closed and we settled our form of transport for Angel for the next three days.


She really loved it and kept calling it the 'slide' since she couldn't pronounce 'sledge' well. But she was half right after all because whenever jw pulled her down the slopes, she would slide down, giggle non-stop and feel like she was on the quest of her life. In fact, she could even sleep in the sledge after we realised that our backpack fitted in nicely as her backing. See, how is it that she could sleep in subzero temperatures with chilly winds blowing and snow falling onto her face, I would never know.

Oh, another thing I loved about the sledge is that I get to ride on it too, with Angel. Sometimes she would ask for company and that would be when I would happily reply "Ok, mummy sit with you!" and my brawny hubby would shake his head but have no choice but to pull us both along. He could even run and turn it into an exhilarating roller coaster ride for us though it was a strenuous job for him. Yes, thanks dear, you did a marvellous job at it!

The second morning, we went out on a Sami culture tour where we met the Sami people, learnt about their culture and came up close with the reindeer. The Sami people are Europe's northernmost and the Nordic countries' only officially indigenous people. Their best-known means of livelihood is semi-nomadic reindeer herding. They also make a variety of handicraft, something that interests me, and they range from sami knives, drums, gakti (clothing) to woven baskets and dolls. We bought from them a wooden birch cup just so for memory keepsake and to support the Sami way of life.

Well, of course, lectures and Q&A sessions don't interest my 2-year-old that much. She was much more keen to be out in the cold and come face to face with the reindeer, many of which were only a year old and were somewhat tame and shy.


Not only were we able to pat the reindeer, take close-up shots with them and feed them, we were also able to go on our first ever reindeer sled ride!! Ok, it's not like you will have a bunch of reindeer pulling you along a jungle trail or something, we were pulled by just one experienced, strong, male reindeer around a small, round track. Which was actually perfect for Angel, not too long out in the cold and yet had the chance to do something fun and new.

See? After the ride, she said she was thirsty and this was how she quenched her thirst. We had lunch in a traditional Sami-style tipi and once again had a nice warm lunch by the campfire. Ok, no prizes for guessing what we had. Right, reindeer stew, again. With carrots this time and Angel devoured all of them before asking for more.

After meeting the reindeer, it was time to proceed to Jukkasjärvi, a village near Kiruna, where the renowned Icehotel was located. Yippee, we were finally here!

Some interesting facts about the Icehotel:

1) It is the world's first ice hotel. It is also the biggest hotel of ice and snow in the world, spanning over 6,000 m².

2) The hotel is made out of snow and ice blocks taken from the Torne River, even the glasses in the bar are made of ice. It is said that pure freshwater is even purer in ice form because the freezing process eliminates the minerals, salt and impurities. Therefore, it is only natural to serve drinks "in the rocks" instead of "on the rocks".

3) Every year in April when spring arrives, the hotel melts away and returns to the river in an eco-cycle. Then, an entirely new one is reconstructed - this means that the art suites and hotel architectural design is unique year after year!

4) The Icehotel only exists between December and April, and has been listed as one of the Seven Wonders of Sweden.

5) Every year as soon as winter begins, a team of acclaimed international snow builders, architects, designers and artists gather in the village of Jukkasjärvi far north of the Arctic Circle. This year, which marks Icehotel #22, is designed by artists from 15 countries all over the world.

For more information on the Icehotel, visit http://www.icehotel.com/uk/.

Now you understand why I was anticipating my visit to Icehotel so much? I mean, it's like magic before my eyes! Apart from Disneyland, I mean.

This was the igloo-like entrance to the Icehotel. Back in 1990, a French artist held an exhibition in a cylinder-shaped igloo in the same area. One night when there were no hotel rooms available in town, 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, and became the first guests of the "hotel". That was how the whole Icehotel concept was born.

I guess I was a little naive to expect the Icehotel to really look like a multi-storey hotel. I mean, c'mon, an elevator made out of ice?? What was I even thinking?

 


The reception area of the hotel was simple, a reception table made of ice and a friendly receptionist dressed in a cape. When we opened the door beyond, this was what greeted us, a breathtaking lobby made of ice columns, snow walls, ice sculptures and even an ice chandelier.

There were signboards that led us to the different places including a bar, church, dressing room, hotel rooms and suites for over 100 guests. Interestingly, the inside of the Icehotel was maintained at a temperature of -5°C to -8°C, so after braving outside temperature which was worse, we actually felt warm to be in the Icehotel.

The dressing room was the only place which was not at freezing temperatures and there were even saunas available. Toilets and lockers were also found and the guests had to keep their baggage here because guess what, if you take them to your room, your shampoo, lotions, creams and contact lens fluid will freeezzzzeee.



We spent a long time just in the lobby because Angel figured out those ice blocks could double up as slides and she had a fun time just gliding, and falling, down the ice. Thankfully we had the entire afternoon to ourselves today so well, no harm in letting our girl immerse in some icy fun.


After that, we made our way through the corridors to explore the rooms and art suites. It was pretty amazing to me how a perishable material like ice could be used to build solid walls and corridors.




This was how a typical ice room looked like, equipped with an ice bed, ice chairs, ice table and reindeer skin. Come night time, guests who were staying over would be issued warm sleeping bags.

I had initially planned to stay one night at the Icehotel just so to have that unique experience, alas the guide actually advised that "it might be too cold for small kids and they usually don't like it", so we backed out and saved quite a sum of money eventually. The good news was that the entire Icehotel was open to winter visitors (yes, including every art suite and hotel room) up till 6pm daily and there were even guided tours in English.

We moved on to explore each of the 16 art suites, which I would say was the highlight of the visit. Each suite had an unique theme and was specially designed, so you were pretty much in for a surprise every time you stepped into a new room. I couldn't help it but be blown away by all the ice and snow sculptures and marvelled at the amount of hard work that went behind.








My favourite room was the metamorphosis-themed one with the butterflies and cocoon, probably influenced by my girl's love for the holometabolous insect.

Having visited the Icebar in Stockholm, we of course could not miss visiting the mother of all Icebars here in Jukkasjärvi, where the whole concept of having an ice and snow bar was conceived. In fact, it had become so successful that we now have Icebars in not only Stockholm, but also London, Copenhagen, Oslo and the latest Istanbul.

Just like the Icehotel, every year, the Icebar changes its theme and design. It takes about 35 to 40 tonnes of ice to make one Icebar.


Imagine drinking vodka from a glass made of ice and dancing on a floor of snow, quite an incomparable experience, isn't it?

Last but not least, we also visited the ice church, which has become an attraction for couples from all over the world. Each winter, almost 150 weddings are held at the Icehotel. It was said that "perhaps being in this unique setting, in the here and now that happens once, the art of exchanging rings and vows is treated with extra special reverence".

Despite the cold temperatures, I'm pretty sure that for all the couples who were married here, they gained warm and precious memories to last for a lifetime.


So, with that, we bidded farewell to the Icehotel and were glad to have set foot in it.




It was Chinese New Year's eve that night and being in a cold city thousands of miles away from home, it wasn't any like the typical steamboat dinner we always had at home. We had wanted to dine at a bar restaurant but the kitchen was closed, we went to a fast food restaurant and that was closed too. Ok, we get it, it was a Sunday and Europeans don't work on Sundays. But hey, don't people need to eat dinner everyday?

In the end, we were lucky to be able to take away some pizza and pasta from a kind boss who accepted our order just five minutes before his shop closed for the night. Angel and I became the "delivery girls" on our sledge, jw was the "driver" and we had a fun ride home. Ok, fun for me at least, I remembered squealing in delight while riding over the snow. So, we had a simple but happy reunion dinner in the comfort of our hotel room that night.


On the third day, which was the first day of Chinese New Year, whaddaya know, we were still in Kiruna and it was below -20°C! We actually had the dogsled tour lined up for us today (you know, the one we did in Sälen before) but we decided to cancel it in the end and not put Angel through another freezing cold ride. Seriously, I remembered I couldn't feel my toes at all during the dogsled tour.

Jw was right to make a point that a family vacation should be an enjoyable one for everyone, so we decided to take it free and easy on our final day in Kiruna. Our plan was to visit the iron ore mine but sadly, we were told that children under 6 years of age were denied entry. In the end, we made our way to the Kiruna church.




As one of Sweden's biggest wooden buildings, the Kiruna church was built between 1909-1912 in the form of a Lapp cottage. The light entering from above, together with the ceiling design, resembled that of a typical Lapp cottage. It had been previously voted as Sweden's best looking church and in 2001, it was voted by the Swedes as the most beautiful public building in Sweden.


Jw took the time to write our names on the book as I coaxed Angel to sleep. We really appreciated the peace and were glad to stay warm and take shelter from the howling winds. For a while.

Then, we also took a long walk and visited the house of the first managing director of the iron ore mine - Hjalmar Lundbohm, who was also regarded as the founder of Kiruna. His house now functioned as a museum and cafe and we were the only ones there on a peaceful Monday. It was a simple afternoon complete with sandwiches and coffee.


On our way home, we saw this beautiful sunset against a fairytale blanket of snow. I didn't know why but the snow here seemed to be more shinier, glossier and more luminous than snow I had seen elsewhere.

So I couldn't resist it but request to take a jumping shot against that pretty backdrop. It's surely going to stand out from the jumping shots we did at beaches filled with sand and blue waters.


On our last night, we had a delectable dinner at our hotel restaurant and I felt adventurous enough to tell jw that I wanted to build a snowman outside our cottage though it was really cold that night. You know what, I did it myself because we didn't want to let Angel feel the chill after her bath. After ermmm, two hours, this was what I achieved. One of the most hideous looking snowmans I had ever come across. But hey, I DID IT MYSELF and I'm still proud of it. Angel came out to view the finished product and well, at least she said "Snowman, snowman!" (she can say "monster" too) and wanted to take a picture with it. *smug look*


So, we missed out on the Northern Lights but this was a picture taken from the Aurora Sky Station, an hour's drive from where we stayed in Kiruna on that exact night that we were on the lights quest. Apparently it was too clouded on our side but at this sky station, the skies are pretty clear every night. Once again, I had planned to come here but I was told that to get here, we needed to take a chair lift up a steep hill and this was not advisable for a small kid, so we gave up again. See, Angel darling, mummy and daddy gave up so many things for you. BUT, it's all worth it to know that you are safe and happy.

I then read online that on 24th January, the day we departed, there was a phenomenal, dazzling display of Northern Lights in many places due to a solar storm and it was even sighted in places like Canada and London where you rarely see these lights. So, I guess we were really not fated to see it.

You know, I actually camped out and laid beside my hideous snowman the last night after jw and Angel went to bed. I gazed up into the sky, saw a clear sky adorned with bright stars and little pieces of white clouds floating around. It was a moment of peace, of tranquil and of reflection. Yes, I didn't see the lights but I did see shooting stars. And you know what was the best of it all? I had my beloved hubby and baby on this fun family vacation, and to know that this would yet be another bagful of smiles and happy memories stored in my heart, it just made it the happiest heart in the world that night.

To see more of the world, visit my Travelogue page here.


10 comments:

  1. Such an amazing opportunity. And your girl looked so cute on the sledge! I hope to visit a winter wonderland with my girl soon too.. she had a small opportunity with snow last Dec at 313somerset and she liked it so much.

    Ai @ Sakura Haruka

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    1. Thanks Ai, yeah I think all kids love snow and hope your little one will get more chances to play with it!

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  2. wow you are not just a happy mum, but a lucky mum, lucky wife, lucky daughter! envy that you have the opportunities to enjoy life so much and visit so many places n counting! keep your blogs coming, love reading them!

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    1. so true WL, I totally agree! Lucky me! Thanks for your continued support!

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  3. Hehe I love Kiruna too! It's really a peaceful and beautiful place. And SH and I made a pact to come back too when we are old. hahaha. Maybe we can leave our kids at home and visit Kiruna together!
    Ft

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    1. Cool, can't wait for that day to come!

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  4. what a wonderful experience!!! and the sledge is a wonderful idea! i'm glad she agreed to sit on it rather than run around on the snow cos you'll have a hard time chasing her! :)

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    1. haha yeah, she'd prefer to sit in it than run around cos' there was just too much snow and too cold! I do, too!!

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  5. Hi, Summer. I really enjoy your blog and would like to feature you this Wednesday as my up-and-coming blog of the month. If you are cool with that, just let me know and I'll write about and promote your blog this Wednesday :)

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    Replies
    1. Hi Jessica, thanks much and it means a lot to know you like my blog. Sure, go ahead and I'll pop by your blog very soon! Thanks in advance!

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Yoohoo, thanks so much for reading my blog and leaving your comment! I am feeling the love! (^.^)

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