So what would you choose if you were given £500 to do something you had always wanted to do? This was the envious position in which I found myself in the latter half of 2012, after my father (the brilliant travel writer Jos Simon) gave me and my sister £500 each to do just that.
Of course, I immediately opted for a solo trip to the coldest, darkest place I could possibly find. Well, come on – you didn’t really expect me to head for the Maldives, did you?
The decision was not actually a difficult one. Ever since watching the fantastic movie Local Hero (also referenced in the trip to Western Scotland that previous summer), I had wanted to see the northern lights. Not a particularly original desire, granted, but I do try and aim to do things that I actually want, rather than just for novelty. (Though, if I’m being honest, the search for novelty plays a part in my travel decisions far more than it probably should. Who, after all, doesn’t want to win the game of ‘have you been to…?’. Iraq is currently my trump card…) So northern lights it was. As I live and work in the United Arab Emirates, the northern lights are typically a very, very long way away. However, taking advantage of the fact that I would be home in the UK for Christmas and New Year, I booked myself a flight from Manchester to Kiruna in arctic Sweden – the cheapest of the arctic airports to which I could travel.
I knew nothing about Kiruna, had never even heard of it, despite having toured Scandinavia (including the arctic) some 18 months previously. I went straight to booking.com and discovered that, as in most of Scandinavia, hotels in Kiruna were expensive! I booked a single room at the SPiS Hotell City for the bargain rate of €250 (£195; $275) for three nights. I also booked a rental car and a dogsledding trip into the wilderness. Where, of course, I would see the northern lights.
I didn’t think a great deal more about it for some weeks, until I noticed on the news that SAS, the airline on which I was booked, was in very real danger of going bankrupt: an eventuality which my annual travel insurance would not cover. Although I have never really been interested in financial news, I spent much of the following week glued to the city pages of the BBC website, growing increasingly frantic until… SAS survived. Just.
Filled with a renewed sense of excitement about the upcoming trip, I set about looking at what else there was to do in the area. I discovered that I would be 145km north of the Arctic Circle, considerably further north than Rognan in arctic Norway, the furthest north I had previously been. Far enough north, certainly, to ensure that I wouldn’t see sunlight in my four days there. Which, for a northern lights hunter, is a good thing. And, for a miserable introverted goth, a very good thing. I discovered that Kiruna has the world’s largest iron ore mine and has the Esrange Space Centre, from where they launch rockets. Cool! I also discovered that, although it was possible to tour the iron ore mine, it would not be possible for one person travelling alone between Christmas and New Year. More anti-miserable introvert bias at work! So, what, then, would there be for me to do?
Then I saw it. Nearby, near the tiny village of Jukkasjärvi, the original Ice Hotel. Built annually in December, the entire hotel then melts each April. It is built from snow and from blocks of ice from the nearby Torne River, with water so pure that the ice is transparent. Well what would you do? I had already accounted for the £500 by way of flights, hotel, car rental and dogsledding. I was not exactly flush at the time. But there was no way I was going to travel to Kiruna in midwinter and not stay there. No way on earth.
The Ice Hotel is not cheap. Neither is is comfortable. In fact, I would be spending €370 (£285; $405) for a night in the cheapest of the ice rooms – a room with no bathroom or minibar. A room, in fact, with no window or door. The more expensive, artist-designed rooms (more of which later) will currently set you back around €900 (£700; $1000) a night. Normally, people don’t stay for more than one night in the cold rooms (there is also a permanent block of normal rooms, not made of ice, on site that go for €185 (£145; $200) a night). I opted to stay for my first two nights in the hotel I had already booked in Kiruna, followed by one exorbitant, massively uncomfortable and totally unforgettable night in the cheapest of the ice rooms.
Even though by the time I finally set out on the trip I had had a week of ‘acclimatisation’ in the British Midlands, the cold as I left the aircraft in Kiruna was painful. Minus 20 degrees celsius, and that was without windchill. I arrived late in the evening (though in the polar night, 20 hours every the day feel like late evening to deep night). The airport was compact and there were few travellers alighting beside myself. It was snowing and, from the heavy blanket across the landscape, had probably been doing so for some time. Like several years. I collected my rental car, finding to my pleasant surprise that I had been upgraded to a family estate car (the closest I think I will ever come to, y’know, actually having a family). All familiar so far, except the cable that I was shown how to fit into a port hidden in the car’s front grill which I should then, I was told, connect to the heating box which would be present in every parking space. This would keep the engine warm enough overnight to stop it seizing completely and fusing into a useless, frozen chunk of iron and thus completely ruining the car. I couldn’t work out how to connect it properly, but, hey, no pressure.
The drive into town was very exciting. So much so that I pissed myself. Or at least that’s what I thought when I felt a warm puddle slowly spreading in my lap. I had never come across heated driver’s seats before, see? Well I live in the damn desert. Once I realised that I had not suddenly become incontinent, I relaxed and enjoyed it. Such a pleasant sensation. So very, very pleasant. Oh yes.
The hotel was sparse, but clean and, above all, warm. I had managed to hastily and cheaply assemble a cold-weather wardrobe from various factory outlets both in Dubai and the UK. As I finally closed my bedroom door, I caught sight of myself in the full-length mirror. Somehow, and entirely coincidentally, I had managed to become a refugee from early-90s Seattle. Oh well.
The following day I got up. I have no idea whether it was early or late, as it was dark out. I had already experienced the opposite in midsummer arctic Norway, and even if you can imagine how either perpetual daylight or unending night feel, the reality is still quite jarring. I ventured into town. I knew that Kiruna is a fairly modern mining city, and thus was not expecting it to be attractive. And I dare say that in the summer, it might well not have been. But heavy snowfall can make anywhere look pretty. I’m sure if snow ever fell heavily on my erstwhile home town (and presuming the locals didn’t then beat it up for ‘not being from round here’), then even Stoke-on-Trent might look pretty. Though that’s quite a stretch…
Kiruna, however, was delightful. I searched out the important things first – the supermarket (I couldn’t really afford to eat in restaurants) and the off-licence (Sweden only sells booze stronger than 3.5% through state-licensed liquor stores called Systembolaget). I checked out the tourist information centre in the town hall and found the place from where my sled-dog experience would leave that evening. I wandered the streets of central Kiruna (all five of them) for a while until the cold started to tell, then returned to my room to prepare for some (arctic) night photography. The first thing I found was that my tripod, unused in many months, had completely fallen apart in its carry bag. Well this was no good. There was no doubt in my mind that the northern lights were gearing up for a very special show just for me that evening. And there was no way I could photograph them without a tripod. This, then, became my number one priority. No matter how miserable, gothic or introverted I become when I travel, I need photographs! I used my iPad to find a local photography shop (how much more difficult was travel in the those far-off olden days before 3G and wifi?) and, thanking both of my lucky stars that I had seen fit to rent a car, set off in search of a small retail park on the outskirts of town. After first enjoying that heated seat for a moment or two. Or, indeed, three. Oh yes. Again. It turned out to be a fortuitous trip as I saw a few more of the sights of Kiruna that I might otherwise have missed – namely the Town Hall and a rocket monument to the local contribution to the exploration of space.
Thus it was that I set out for my dog-sledding in the the wilderness experience with a full photography set-up, including a brand-new tripod, all ready for some ass-kicking, world-beating, award winning photographs of the Aurora Borealis. And some dogs, too.
“You can’t take that,” said the terrifyingly manly guide, pointing at my camera and tripod. I was at the office of the dogsledding adventure company, pulling on the heavy overalls and fur lined boots provided by the company for the wilderness experience.
“Really?” I said, deflated. “But…”
“No room on the sled. Camera OK. Not this other.”
So no tripod then.
No matter. I’d make do. I’m good like that. And he really was rather terrifyingly manly.
We travelled by minibus through the gloom, collecting other people from the few hotels scattered through the city, and drove for an hour or so to a location outside of the city. As is usually the case, I was the only solo traveller, garnering carefully hidden looks of sympathy from the others. I’m used to it – it happens a lot. We disembarked and were shown to our sleds. I got one to myself, given that I didn’t have another person to perch between my knees. I have often thought I should compile a list of these moments where solo travel marks you out as ‘different’, and should I ever marry again, write them into my vows: “I promise to take thee, XXXX, in sickness and in health, for cheaper prices on hotel rooms, so as not to pay the single traveller supplement, between my knees on a two person dogsled…” and so on. I often get the feeling that I’m destined to live alone…
The dogs were Siberian huskies, beautiful animals, yipping and prancing in delight as they were let out of their mobile kennel. I am not much of an animal person – in fact, usually the only time I like to get close to animals is when they are served inside a burger bun, but these dogs really were such beautiful creatures. They were lined up, 10 or 12 to a sled. I have no idea of what the animal cruelty quotient is here (and given that I am a bullfight aficionado, perhaps I am the wrong person to judge) but the dogs seemed well treated and happy enough.
It is easy to imagine a dogsled trip through the arctic wilderness, but again, the reality is so much more. To travel at speed through the darkness, with no sound but the excited yipping of the dogs and the swishing of wooden runners through packed snow, is quite, quite magical. The tour (clearly a tourist tour but none the worse for that) took us an hour or so out into the darkness beyond the city, to a traditional Sammi tent (lavvu) where we were served coffee brewed over an open fire, and assorted Sammi delicacies. The darkness out here was complete, the milky way resplendent overhead. Truly incredible. So breathtaking was the celestial view, in fact, that I didn’t even notice the complete absence of the Aurora Borealis for quite some time.
Back inside the lavvu, I continued with the pretence of jollity often necessary when being the only solo traveller in an organised group. Perhaps understandably, given my love of solitude, I have a somewhat lugubrious demeanour. As a child, I went to the dentist and was given gas and air. This, my first encounter with altered consciousness, was by far the best I had ever felt. The happiest I had ever been. “Cheer up,” said the dentist, “you look like your dog just died.” Forget resting bitch face; I have resting goth face. Which is much, much worse. And now, I am still terrified that my presence as a solo traveller might make others try and befriend me. Consequently I have to, at all times, appear happy and fulfilled as a human being. Which means smiling. Thankfully, there were no small children present on this particular trip, as me smiling frequently makes them cry. And in some cases, hysterical. But that’s a different story.
On the journey back from the lavvu, we stopped for a moment. The guide pointed to the sky. “Northern lights!” he boomed, manlily. “They are not always colourful.” I looked to where he was pointing. There was indeed a rippled sheet of grey-white extending across part of the sky. I decided to trust the guide (and not just because he scared me) and tick ‘seeing the northern lights‘ off my bucket list (ugh, I hate that phrase). Though personally I could have sworn that we were all oohing and aahing over some clouds. Cirrus clouds to be sure. But still. Clouds.
That night, we were back early enough for me to go out for a drink. Yes, I had been to the Systembolaget, but I actually felt like going to a bar. A real bar. With people. Real people. Needless to say, I took my Kindle, just in case any of the aforementioned real people decided to try and talk to me (they didn’t). The only bar I could find was warm, welcoming and lively. I bought a pint, switched on my Kindle and settled back to watch. Dear god, the people were beautiful. Sooo beautiful. Looking at the seven foot tall Viking males and their similarly statuesque female counterparts, I thought, I need to move to Scandinavia. These people are just beautiful. It took another pint for the correspondent thought to form: Fuck. These people are beautiful. And that makes me the weird, misshapen troll in the corner. And, looking around me, I knew I was right.
The following day, I took photographs in the lunchtime dusk (the closest it gets to daylight) before heading out to Jukkasjärvi. I visited the village of Jukkasjärvi itself, and its famous wooden church (now enclosed in a corrugated metal shell). I also found a small supermarket and bought a bottle of vodka. Vodka doesn’t freeze, see? Then, it was time for the Ice Hotel. I knew that access to the rooms was not possible until 6pm as between 10am and 6pm, the Ice Hotel is a museum (free access for guests!) allowing visitors to wander the corridors and rooms. And indeed I took the tour myself, (again, the only solo traveller, smiling and grimacing to ensure the safely-coupled that I was perfectly OK in my solitude and neither needed nor indeed would welcome any attempts at companionship). The hotel really is an astonishing thing. As mentioned before, it melts every April and is rebuilt every December. It is built from a combination of frames upon which snow is sprayed, and blocks of ice cut from the impossibly pure Torne River. Each year, artists are brought in to design the more expensive rooms, each coming up with their own theme.
There is an Ice Bar (the original ice bar, whatever the management of your local Ice Bar franchise might tell you), an ice reception and, coolest of all (quite literally) an ice chapel, where one can get married. Again, on the unlikely off-chance I ever decide to couple-up legally again, this is where I want to read those aforementioned vows.
Even with the tour, I was still a couple of hours early for my room. It was, nevertheless, two hours spent very pleasurably, in the warm reception room, reading a book and drinking a whole series of complementary (and extremely good) hot chocolates. And if I gained weight because of them, I figured, it could only serve to make my evening more comfortable. I’m sure that if seals and whales had access to hot chocolate this good, it would become an intrinsic part of their winter-blubber-preparation diet. Probably. Again, scarves were invaluable here as a solo traveller – as the day progressed, the reception area filled up. Even though, as always, I took up as little space as possible, selecting a small table and a single chair in the corner, a well placed scarf and book ensured that the space was still mine after I returned with yet another hot chocolate.
When it was finally time to check in to the room, the rules were explained to me. I would be provided with a heavy, warm, thermal onesie, fur lined boots and a four-season sleeping bag. As the rooms were made entirely of ice and snow, it would be a constant minus five degrees celsius inside, regardless of how cold it got outside. Well, that’s OK then! I would leave all my belongings in a locker in the permanent warm building, which is also where the bathrooms would be. If I needed to pee, then I’d have to leave the ice building for the warm building. Same as if I needed anything from my luggage. I would have a bed (made out of ice but covered in reindeer pelts), a table, chair, bedside table and sculpture (?) made out of ice and a woollen curtain instead of a door. And nothing else.
Thus I snow-suited up, stored my stuff and went to my room. Wow. Nothing really can prepare you for the silence of being inside a room made entirely of snow and ice. It is hard to describe the overall feeling. I can try, but it still won’t come close to the actual experience. As expensive and uncomfortable as it may be, I would highly recommend you give it a go it should you ever be fortunate enough to have the chance. Just wonderful.
There was clearly no way I could spend the entire evening alone in my room, as I normally might, so I had to make the most of the hotel facilities. I had a few drinks in the Ice Bar (the one made literally out of blocks of ice). It was sponsored by a vodka company (I forget now which one) so most of the drinks were short vodka cocktails. At about €10 (£7.75; $11) they weren’t cheap. But they were delicious. Also, you are sitting in a bar where the bar, all the tables and chairs and, indeed, the very walls, are made out of blocks of ice. And the gimmick with the drinks (and it’s a good one!) is that they are served in glasses also made out of ice. A truly incredible place, but much like the rest of the cold parts of the hotel, not comfortable enough to spend a whole evening in. So I went on to the warm (permanent and not made of ice) part of the hotel.
First I ate at the restaurant. The food and the ambience were brilliant. All the dishes were local and organic and very well prepared. Reindeer meat, a variety of arctic fish and deserts made from arctic brambles, served by the most beautiful human beings you have ever seen, it truly was a perfect experience. As with everything here, it certainly wasn’t cheap. But also as with everything here, it certainly was worth every krona.
From the restaurant, I had a few beers in the warm bar (also incredibly pleasant) before liberating a (plastic) glass, returning to my sub-zero lodgings and zipping myself and my nightcap-sized bottle of vodka in for the night.
Thanks more to the vodka than the comfort of the room itself, I slept well. And the next day, was able to drive straight to the airport and thence home.
So the original question was: if I were given £500 to do something I always wanted to do, what would I do? As it turned out, it cost double that. So, £1000 for a three night stay in an incredibly uncomfortable room in a freezing mining town where it never gets light and the aurora borealis are indistinguishable from a dirty strand of cirrus clouds. Would I do it again?