KIRKENES, Norway - It's nearly 10 on a Friday night and an eerie silence has descended over the 24-room hotel I'm booked into deep in Norway's northern Finnmark County. The usual racket such as dinging elevator doors, the din of the city and faint laughter filtering from the hotel bar simply don't exist here. Lying in my army green sleeping bag, the only sound I can hear is my own breath pushing against the cold air of my frosty digs.
Like any good Norwegian hotel, the bar here is tended by a young, svelte bartender sporting a goatee and hipster-style beanie. The difference is we are at 70-degrees latitude just a few miles from the Russian-Norwegian border, and this bar has been crafted from massive blocks of ice. An animated-looking troll ice sculpture poised at the bar's end pays homage to traditional Norwegian fairytales.
This would, indeed, be an odd-looking crowd if you didn't consider it was smack in the middle of the Kirkenes Snow Hotel's lobby. Here, in what appears to be an oversized igloo illuminated with pastel-colored LEDs, guests sport black balaklavas (think ski masks), reindeer-leather gloves, and heavy down parkas. Prada be damned, this looks more like a gathering of nervous terrorists than an upscale hotel for the courageous.
In bounces Finnish sales manager Anne Koivisto, as much dorm mother as camp counselor, offering up guidance and room assignments. "There is one common thing in every room," she giggles. "The cold, of course! But don't worry; you will have a very warm sleeping bag, your survival suit."
Obediently guests move off to inspect the night's quarters, the lobby's glittering walls festooned with carved, dancing trolls left to reflect gently glowing LED lights alternating from purple to pink and then blue in a sort of polar silence.
First constructed in 2006, the hotel is recreated each year in November. When the snow pile has topped out at 700 cubic feet, huge balloons are placed in the hotel's soon-to-be footprint and blown to the size of the rooms. Then, roughly five feet of snow is blown around them and left to harden for five hours. The balloons are then deflated, producing rooms with no additional structural supports.
To create the bar and sculptures, about 15 tons of ice are cut with chainsaws from the lake and pulled by snowmobile to the building site. Eight ice artisans from northeastern China arrive, carving around the clock in final preparations for the hotel's reopening.
Themes vary from year to year. This season Norwegian fairytales and dreams take center stage. Frolicking trolls, Father Christmas, penguins and even Marilyn Monroe are among the themed rooms in two wings. Previous years' themes included the Arctic Sea, Sami culture and Northern heroes.
According to co-owner Ronny Ostrem, when the weather warms in spring, the electricity is unplugged, smoke detectors removed and the hotel simply melts, returning the water to the lake in a final farewell to the Norwegian winter. "It's the world's greenest hotel," he winks.
For a few guests, the snow hotel is a sort of bucket-list experience. But the large property also is home to a restaurant, gear shack, indigenous Sami tipi-like lavvu and base for adventurous snowmobiling and king crab safaris. Most guests arrive from cruise ships such as the iconic Hurtigruten, whose 11-ship fleet has been plying the Norwegian coastline for 120 years. Originally designed to deliver cargo and later mail to distant ports, today Hurtigruten offers destination cruises with comfortable ships and unique itineraries. Kirkenes is the furthest northern port on its Norwegian fjords and northern lights journeys before returning south to Bergen.
Snowshoeing, suiting up for the hard-core king crab safari or riding on a traditional dog sled behind an amped-up group of 10 Alaskan huskies are some options.
In the restaurant Gabba, both Sami and traditional Norwegian design elements are represented. I'm happy to drag out the evening here after a high-octane afternoon zipping around on a snowmobile across the frozen, salty fjord where we cut through thick ice to pull out traps for king crab, an invasive species in lakes throughout the region. Here, a well-stoked fire in the middle of the room casts a warm glow as guests settle into the family-style tables with long benches.
The meal begins with skewers of smoked reindeer bratwurst and an invitation to get up and cook it over the spit. Salmon and cod are next on the menu, chased with a bowl of vanilla ice cream topped with warm forest berries for dessert. As a rule, Norwegian food is lighter with fewer cream sauces than many European countries. Gabba's menu is no exception.
The moment of reckoning has come. I head to the sauna room to change into a thermal undershirt and shorts, throwing my clothes and parka back on top. Then, making my way through falling snow to room No. 4 in the Fairytale wing, I notice the gently lit pathways and buildings along the way, and can't help thinking this might be romantic if it weren't so … nippy.
The hotel provides a sleeping bag rated to minus 31 degrees, but since the rooms stay a relatively consistent 25 degrees, warmer than outside, I'm not worried. These are ideal conditions, I'm told by staff. Nevertheless, I double up with a borrowed balaklava and my own woolen hat, complete with ear flaps and pom-poms. Because I also use my phone as a camera and the cold has caused it to lose power more than once on this trip, I stuff the whole mess in the bottom of my bag, jump in and tighten it so only my face is exposed.
Room No. 4 is a perfect circle, roughly 15 feet in diameter. My only companions tonight are the ice skate carved into my ice footboard and playful trolls on the walls in a sort of perpetual dance around the room.
To keep airflow, doors have been eliminated in favor of curtains hanging on heavy wooden rods over sharply angled openings. The lights are never turned off, which is comforting when I awake in the middle of the night.
So how did my night's glacial goings-on get on? Although I woke once, mostly because I'm unaccustomed to sleeping in what feels no wider than a coffin, the morning's early hours find me rested and clear-headed.
Maybe it was the cold air, or maybe just adrenaline. But to my surprise I've woken up for the first time in six months without a grinding headache. In my world, that borders on a religious experience. Now, if I could only figure out how to import a mountain of snow and 15 tons of ice into my own back yard, I'd be a bona-fide convert.
If you go:
The Kirkenes Snow Hotel is open through April 20. Prices are about $430 per night, and include transfers from Kirkenes city center, a three-course dinner at Gabba, unlimited access to the sauna room (with showers) and a buffet breakfast.