The guests are in one way or another associated with the Swedish company NIBE's UK branch. The group includes technicians and subcontractors who have participated in various sales competitions. A trip to ICEHOTEL, accompanied by their better halves, is the prize. However, the guests do not yet know one another. Inquisitively, they meet new friends in a new and spectacular setting.
"We have all had many expectations and questions prior to our visit to ICEHOTEL. 'How much snow will there be? How cold is it? Will we see the Northern Lights? What will it be like to sleep at ICEHOTEL, and what should we pack?,' " relates Jackie Lambon, Marketing Manager at NIBE and arranger of the trip to ICEHOTEL.
Half way, at a wilderness camp owned by ICEHOTEL, we pause for lunch. The hungry guests sit comfortably at tables fanning out from the crackling fire that blazes in the centre of the large teepee-style tent. They are served quickly. Soon, a piping hot dish of moose stew is placed before each guest. The meal, a regional classic, is accompanied by hot lingonberry juice and soft flatbread. A tantalizing aroma of food, wood and smoke drifts suggestively up to the vent, high above us, at the peak of the tent.
Sören Fjellborg serves the fantastic lunch. Peering with cheerful eyes in the dim light of the tent, he tells us:
"The Fjellborgs are the oldest pioneer family in Jukkasjärvi. We can trace our ancestry back to the 1600s. I have worked as a policeman in Kiruna, but I'm now retired. My parents were local council representatives in Jukkasjärvi, so you might say I've completed the circle. My son Kent and his wife Anna do dogsledding tours for ICEHOTEL. They operate a large kennel in Poikkijärvi, where they live with their three daughters."
Ann Fjellborg is driving one of the teams for today's trip. Although her roots are in southern Sweden, she trained for work in tourism in Kiruna, met the love of her life and stayed.
"When you love nature as I do, the Kiruna and Jukkasjärvi area is a fabulous place in which to live and work. We have more than 100 dogs and five employees during the peak season. Sure, it's a lot of work; but there is more to it than that. It's a lifestyle. And we like to share it with our guests from all around the world," explains Ann.
Replete with great food and many new stories, we resume our journey. We share a sled with Alison and Michael Watts from Cumbria, in the north of England.
"It wasn't until afterwards that I realized we'd been eating moose stew. It was really good. Eating game feels completely natural," says Michael.
The conversation moves as effortlessly as the sled's runners over the snow. We speak of nature, Kiruna and the mining industry; of the town that must be relocated as the underground mine expands, and of winter and the coming night at ICEHOTEL.
"Help! I think I'm a bit apprehensive about sleeping in ICEHOTEL tonight. What will it be like?," wonders a smiling Alison.
Just over two hours from our departure from the airport, we arrive at Jukkasjärvi. The eight teams pull up near the shore just below ICEHOTEL. Farther out on the Torne River, the ice harvest for next year's ICEHOTEL is in progress. Huge rectangular blocks of ice have been hauled out of the water and will be placed in storage. The guests fish out their cameras and move eagerly towards the large structure of snow and ice. A strong inclination to touch and feel the snow and ice is immediately apparent. Smiling and chatting happily, the guests pose in the snow against a backdrop of ice.
As the guide, Lasse, assembles the group in from of the ice church, a murmur passes through the crowd as a newlywed couple exits the surrealistic, white and transitory chapel.
"Oh, look at them! So lovely," says the woman next to me.
Inside, Lasse tells us that some 150 wedding ceremonies take place in the ice church each winter. This year, Swedish artists Anders Rönnlund, Anders Eriksson and Johan Fremling are responsible for the design. This year's design, a tribute to the sacredness and sanctity of the church space, derives inspiration from several mediaeval churches in central Sweden. Clean lines reach towards a vaulted ceiling bearing up a structure of smooth white surfaces of snow. The stylistically pure interior of crystal-clear ice fascinates. We meet Eva Lundström /kolla namnet/, who is in charge of wedding arrangements at ICEHOTEL. A German TV crew has just finished filming the wedding. The reportage will feature in a German documentary about the world's seven most unusual wedding locations.
"Since the turn of the millennium, for couples from near and afar, the ice church at ICEHOTEL has been a popular spot for weddings. Naturally, a church that melts and vanishes is spectacular. It is thought-provoking and places a focus on the wedding vows, of caring for and preserving the mutual love of the couples," explains Eva.
And now it is time to enter the world of ICEHOTEL through leather-clad doors.
"Welcome into the warmth," says Lasse. The group laughs.
But he is right. Today's outdoor temperature is about -10°C, while inside ICEHOTEL it is never colder than -5°C; in other words, quite warm and cozy. Temperatures in Jukkasjärvi and Kiruna normally drop to below –20°C during much of the winter.
Staff in the ice lobby wish us a warm welcome. The science-fiction-like feeling pervading the whole atmosphere is heightened by the silver-coloured capes worn by personnel and by the guests' identical snowmobile suits. Lasse takes us into the impressive hall of columns, with a ceiling height of more than five metres. Transfixed by the art, ice and snow, the guests gape in amazement as they absorb the spectacle.
"The hall of columns is the heart of ICEHOTEL. Now, look around, visit our ice suites and let yourselves be seduced by the fabulous art. Incidentally, did you know that ice from the Torne River is even purer than the crystal-clear water from the same source?," asks Lasse while guests take pictures and move farther along the hotel corridors.
Barely an hour later we reassemble in the Dressing Room, which is directly adjacent to ICEHOTEL, for a briefing on procedures for our overnight stay. Here, later this evening, guests will be issued warm sleeping-bags. There are also saunas and toilets. Hot drinks are available, should anyone feel the need to ward off the chill during the night. And here, the guests’ baggage, retrieved at the airport, has already been delivered. Now it is secured in lockers bearing numbers corresponding to those of the guests' rooms.
"The baggage will be most comfortable here tonight. If you take your bags with you to your rooms, your shampoo, creams, lotions and contact-lens fluid will freeze," explains Lasse.
People crowd around Jackie to receive their keys and hear a run-down on this evening's programme. 'Where will we eat dinner?' 'How far do we have to walk?' 'What should we wear?' When all questions have been answered, it is time for a welcoming aperitif in the ABSOLUT ICEBAR.
In the bar, music pulsates from the sound system and people are starting to relax. Bartender Fredrik Minnhagen mixes an ABSOLUT Reindeer. Reading the menu, I see that it contains Midnight Sun juice. Mmm..., drinking the Midnight Sun surrounded by snow and ice. I shudder with delight.
Martin and Fiona McCormack from Staffordshire do the same.
"This is amazing. It's absolutely breathtaking," exclaims Fiona. Her husband, Martin, concurs.
"It is so incredibly beautiful and peaceful, and ICEHOTEL is much bigger than I had expected."
Philip Linn and Schofield Linn are equally impressed.
"Seeing the art suites was a fantastic experience. So imaginative, so tranquil. Everything is just so incredibly beautiful and so... surprising. And it isn't nearly as cold as we had imagined. We were a bit nervous about overnighting, but now it feels much better."