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Ice Hotel

01/22/02 12:00AM By Ruth Page

I thought I'd read it all, starting with the man who spent months inventing golfballs that would not harm fish, so he could practice his swing even when taking cruises. Then there were the Japanese, investing in real estate on the moon, to build hotels and of course, a golf course, at such time as it becomes possible to establish a space there that provides air and water.

Recently I read in Smithsonian about a creation in Sweden, 125 miles inside the Arctic Circle, that sounds almost as impractical. Its success depends on the willingness of vacationers to pay hard cash to stay in a hotel made entirely of ice, furnishings included. Ice beds, ice benches, ice walls, ice corridors, and a gorgeous ice lobby whose light-absorbing color changes from pale green in the morning to heavenly blue in the early afternoon.

Mind you, it's the BEST ice, from the Torne River. It's so pure and translucent it's shipped to continents around the world, including Africa. Courageous reporter Rudy Chelminski and photographer Michael Freeman visited and stayed overnight.

The wacko-sounding idea was the brainchild of 52-year-old Yngve Bergqvist, who had visited the remote town of Jukkasjarvi in the 70's to examine an iron ore mine. Bergqvist started by running an ordinary hotel and restaurant for visiting sports folks - fishing, hiking, whitewater rafting. But what to do all winter, when nobody came? A friend suggested an ice building to contain an art exhibit. Bergqvist started simply, by shoveling snow to see how it packed. He made a plywood frame, shoveled lots of snow over it, and sprayed it with water. A couple days later he was able to knock down the frame, and there stood a beautiful igloo of pure, glowing ice. The art show, in 1989, was a success.

So Bergqvist hired a bunch of shovelers and made a huge igloo - to live in. With lots of mattresses, reindeer hides and sleeping bags, he and a few friends tried some overnights. They found that no matter how far down the thermometer went outside, inside the house it never went below 20 degrees above zero. For appropriately bundled-up people, that was downright cozy.

The mastermind opened the place to paying guests - and they came. Then he found that ice made from the sparkling river was more pure than snow-ice so he built a gorgeous Icehotel with more than six thousand square feet of space. Since then he's had to expand to accommodate all the guests. During the 90's, he switched to removable steel molds for the ice, and brought in heavy equipment, like snow-blowers mounted on tractors. Now each winter he has a beautiful, fully staffed hotel.

When the season is about to begin and thermometers hover at 20 degrees outdoors, workers pump water from the river into a snow cannon and make some 50,000 tons of snow. With blowers and throwers, they pile it into waiting metal forms. In a few days, all is set and the forms, which are mounted on skis, are towed to the site. Voila! An Icehotel. It includes an ice chapel with ice altar and shining columns of ice. It looks so pure, so almost enchanted, that couples like to come there to be wed.

There are ice hallways throughout the hotel. One leads to a central room with a soaring ice dome, compete with an ice chandelier overhead. There's an ice bar where drinks are served with ultra-pure ice cubes in ice glasses. When Bergqvist finally persuaded the Absolut vodka people that the place was for real, they offered to sponsor the bar. Super-models in skimpy outfits come there for 30-seconds-at-a-time photo-shoots.

When groups come, some choose snowmobile rides. Others take dogsled rides. There's also hot coffee and a sauna followed by a quick dip in a hole in the river-ice.

To get ready for bed, each guest wears a special snowsuit and a cozy hat; then crawls into a sleeping bag and sleeps on an ice bed covered with a piece of wood and reindeer furs.
Chelminski says he got so hot he had to take his sweater off. In the morning a young woman brought him a hot juice drink to start the day. Oh, yes, there ARE heated communal bathrooms, if you were worried.

This is Ruth Page, stunned by one more example of what human beings will do to put some variety into their lives.

---Ruth Page is a writer, former editor of a weekly newspaper and a national gardening magazine.


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