Chilling at the Snow Hotel

As i looked upward, the clouds slowly parted. An iridescent green ribbon suddenly appeared in the night sky and danced above my snow covered cabin. Its’s my last night at the Snow Hotel Kirkenes and Mother Nature put on the ultimate finale send off, a vivid display of the Aurora Borealis. 

A Themed Room at the Snow Hotel Kirkenes Photo: Bill Wiatrak

The Northern Lights are one of the reasons that travelers make their way to this town 240 miles above the Arctic Circle. I came for a different reason. I have been fascinated with sleeping in an ice hotel room since I heard of it years ago. I wondered how sleeping in a room made of blocks of ice could even be possible. There are a few ice hotels scattered around the world, but after some research, the Snow Hotel in Kirkenes seemed like the coolest option for me. Besides sleeping on ice, there’s lots of activities to keep guests entertained; which is great for me, because I’m easily bored. 

Ice Bar at Snow Hotel, Kirkenes Photo: Bill Wiatrak

It was a direct flight from Oslo to Kirkenes, a small town near the Russian and Finnish borders. When we arrived at the reception, we were invited to visit all the rooms before the other guests checked in. Each of the chambers has a unique theme with ice sculptures and images carved into the ice. The hotel is essentially a giant igloo with a “lobby” at one end and an ice bar on the other. There are 13 rooms with arched entryways  cut out of the ice with sliding curtains instead of a door. There’s no wood, cement or other non-ice materials. Blue and pink up-lighting give the sculptures and carvings a cool otherworldly appearance. The beds are ornately carved out of ice blocks taken from the lake, then covered with mattresses and furs.

The Ice Lobby Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Don’t be mistaken though. These aren’t the kind of hotel rooms where you can hang your jacket, put up your feet and watch tv. They’re  too cold for lounging around, and there’s no electrical  plugs or closets.  Your luggage is stored  in a lodge next to the hotel along with the bathrooms, sauna and other amenities. When you’re ready to sleep, you’re supplied with a sub-arctic sleeping bag, wool socks, a sleeping sheet and balaclava to keep your head warm. It’s a strange sensation sleeping in a room made out of ice, but once you’ve gotten your bed set up, it’s surprisingly warm. It’s a bucket list item. At least it was on mine. I slept well and dreamed of penguins and polar bears. 

Huskies Taking a Break Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Another reason I chose the Snow Hotel was the option of of a dog sledding adventure. How fun is that? As cool as it sounds, I had mixed feelings about how I’d actually feel being pulled by a team of huskies. Would I be too heavy? How would I get them to go? Would I have to use a whip? 

All of my concerns were unfounded. The little canines love to run and they can’t wait to take off as soon as they’re harnessed to the sled. The only thing that keeps them from running off before the passengers are seated is a snow brake held down by the driver. 

Dog Sledding in Kirkenes Photo: Bill Wiatrak

There were two of us riding, the driver, and the sled all being pulled by eight eager dogs. As soon as our wrangler yelled out the command, we were off. Dogs barking and running, they ran and ran following the other sleds in front of us. They sprinted with hardly any effort pulling us as fast as they could run. It was epic. When we reached our destination, a rest spot with a roaring fire and hot apple juice, the dogs took a break and rolled around in the snow like little puppies that don’t know what to do with themselves. When I went over to take some closeup photos, they stood up and started licking me. I’m not really a “dog person”, but they might have turned me. 

One of the Catches on the Crab Safari, Kirkenes, Norway Photo: Bill Wiatrak

The crab safari is another amazing excursion  that allows guests to visit the nearby fjord and watch the fishermen pull up the crab traps. The history of crabbing in the area is narrated by Dirk “the crab hunter” as guests take selfies with the huge crustaceans. After learning about king crabs, we were taught how to clean them, tried crab sashimi, then rode in a sled pulled by snowmobile back to the resort.   Out guides steamed the giant legs and claws in boiling pots and served us a seemingly unlimited supply of deliciousness. Were any of us there to learn about crabs? Or were we all just imagining the feast to come? I think as soon as we saw them being pulled out of the water, all the guests were already fantasizing about dipping their steamed legs in melted butter. I ate everything I could and there was still a tray full of crab claws and bright red legs after everyone was sated. 

Snowmobiles on the Fjord. Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Our last organized adventure was a snowmobile trek. Gliding through the snow and speeding across the frozen fjord is  an adrenaline rush that’s hard to match with anything else. Our guide gave us a quick tutorial and then let us ride almost to the end of the channel where the sea begins. The days are shorter in the winter, so after a couple hours we’d had enough and we’re ready to grab dinner and make sleeping plans. 

Gamme Hotel, Snow Hotel Kirkenes Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Sleeping in the ice room had been truly amazing and I mistakenly figured any other option would be a letdown after that. However, after one night in below-freezing quarters, a little creature comfort is quite welcome. We moved to one of the Gamme cabins, a luxurious wooden cottage with a giant arched front window made for watching the sky. It’s the perfect setup, with a small sitting room with blackout curtains, a teapot  and two comfortable chairs where guests can gaze out at the stars and try to spot a glimpse of the northern lights. 

We weren’t very optimistic about seeing the Aurora however. The heavens had become cloudy and  the only way to see the lights is with clear skies at the right time of year. I’ve tried in multiple locations around the world and just never have had any luck. The night before in our frozen lodge had been impossible. 

Northern Lights, Kirkenes Photo: Bill Wiatrak

There are no windows in the ice hotel, so there was no way of knowing even if it’s day or night. Tonight, the cabin offered our only chance to catch the elusive green Aurora. We charged our phones and stared out the window hoping for a meteorological miracle.  

There was no trace of green however, it was 8:00; time to head to the restaurant and enjoy a nice dinner. The menu; reindeer steak and lingonberry sauce. All the guests are served at the same time so we gathered our coats and looked out the window one last time. 

A small crowd of guests were gathered in front of our cabin. Looking up and snapping photos, they chattered excitedly. Could it be?

We raced outside and looked up. There appeared to be swirls of greenish clouds above. It wasn’t clouds however, clouds don’t move like that, and they’re not green. Once we raised our cameras towards the northern lights, the lens captured colors the human eye can’t process alone. The entire sky was full of green ribbons, slowly churning, disappearing and reappearing. The sun had set hours ago, but a white halo of light on the horizon got brighter and wider. We could see slight red tinges that the camera couldn’t. 

Reindeer Steak at SnowHotel Kirkenes Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Our photos came out amazing. The reindeer steak was epic. In two and a half days we packed in so many arctic adventures, I could barely keep up with my social media. The only thing missing was being chased by a polar bear. That will be my next trip.