At a frozen harbour in a frozen town in Lapland stood a great castle made of snow. With shimmering towers and turrets it looked magical. And within its thick white walls it even presented a display of imposing fairy-tale ice sculpture: a crystalline Snow White; a frosted Puss in Boots; a Little Mermaid with an icy tail and ice clamshells covering her breasts... The line-up was thoroughly kitsch. But with blue, green and red lighting added, the sculptures were rendered retro-funky. Here was a snow hotel cool in every sense. Come spring, the whole of this evanescent place - sculptures, turrets and all - would melt. Yet the knowledge that another snow castle, with more ice art, would take shape the following winter added to a prevailing air of wacky enchantment.
We had arrived late in the evening at the port town of Kemi on the Gulf of Bothnia in northern Finland, 100km south of the Arctic Circle. Set close to harbour-side houses, the castle became visible through dim street lamps only as we drew up outside the glistening gateway. We scrunched through the archway entrance. As we passed along the frosted fortifications, the sounds of traffic and even the noise of our exclamations became muted by the snow. The structure, the ice art and the play of lights were astonishingly beautiful. Despite the Arctic over-suits we had been given for this extreme climate, we didn't stand back to admire the ice aesthetics for long. At around -5C, the temperature inside the castle was a great deal warmer than the air beyond; nevertheless the chill was challenging.
Sleeping in the snow castle proved a prospect more daunting than I had anticipated. The sheer cold wasn't the only factor. Swathed in fleece and wool inside a tightly drawn sleeping bag, and bedded down in a cell-like bedroom enclosed by snow, you can't help feeling more than a twinge of claustrophobia - and grateful that the warm reception chalet, a discreet distance from all the snow construction, remains staffed all night and open to those who want to come in from the cold.
Yet waking inside an ice world the next day, you feel a sense of achievement. In the strange blue light of the northern morning, I clambered into my over-suit and set off to explore the premises: the children's snow playground with ice slide, sledge roundabout and more; the restaurant whose ice tables were illuminated in a shade of aquamarine; the bar with ice counter and side booth with ice benches set around a wittily sculpted ice fire, the frozen flames lit up in tones of orangey red. Perhaps best of all was the chapel with its snow pews and great ice cross shining translucent at the altar. But the ethereal effect was somewhat eroded by the taped electric organ music that started up every time the chapel door was opened.
Over in the heated reception chalet, complete with breakfast café, I learnt that the chapel had been busy: 30 weddings had been booked that season. Most brides come with the full white works, marching down the frozen nave in off-the-shoulder dresses. So was this a new Finnish tradition? "No, no," came the hasty answer. "The Finns aren't that crazy. They certainly wouldn't get married in those conditions. The wedding parties mainly come from Britain."
Regardless of marriage ceremonies, ice hotels are very much a growing enterprise. The first was constructed 17 years ago in the village of Jukkasjärvi in Arctic Sweden. Business has boomed and the Swedish Ice Hotel has now added a (conventional) conference centre and a wilderness camp - as well as offering ice accommodation, ice chapel and ice art gallery. Food is served on thick ice plates in a heated restaurant, where eating quickly may be an advantage. Meanwhile over in Finland, Kemi's first snow castle was built in 1996. It was devised as a performance venue, with stage, restaurant and a playground for children. By 1999, it had also evolved into a hotel.
Forget the long-term planning most hotels devote to refurbishment. The need to re-devise your establishment every year is, I was told, liberating - and very satisfying. Those fairy-tale and fire sculptures I saw on my visit in early 2006 are now so last season: the new Kemi castle will have an art theme of "the sea", so the hotel corridors will be lined with ice sculptures of waves, ships, fish and more. Built every year on the harbour-front, the 24-bedroom castle takes about two months to complete. Construction begins once the weather has turned consistently cold enough, which is usually around the end of November, although at the end of last year the temperatures were unseasonably warm and building was delayed by rainfall. Nevertheless, the hotel restaurant opened as scheduled on New Year's Eve, with the accommodation expected to be ready by the end of this month.
Snow on the ground is scenically desirable but natural snow is, I was told, too soft for good building results. Besides, there is never enough available when work begins. So artificial snow is made. At Kemi, this is created from the harbour water. It's a neat arrangement since come April the hotel dissolves back into the sea. Building is a fairly straightforward procedure, and largely the same for all ice hotels from Sweden to Quebec in Canada. Man-made snow is sprayed on to large moulds, which are removed once the structure freezes hard. The easiest and most effective shape to construct for a snow or ice room is an oval arch, which, when joined with other arches, forms a sort of barrel-vault.
Kemi's snow castle is by no means the only ice hotel in Finland. Quite apart from the igloo resorts of Kakslauttanen and Harriniva (respectively at Saariselkä and Muonio), a wilderness snow complex has been created for the past five winters about 17km from the ski resort of Ylläs. The Lainio Snow Village, 150km north of the Arctic Circle, is owned and run by the Kurtakko family, whose property neatly becomes a woodland retreat of log cabin accommodation in the summer. The winter snow complex is cleverly constructed over a permanent wooden building with sauna, loos and warm bedrooms that guests can use should the ice conditions prove too uncomfortable for them.
We stopped for dinner in the Snow Village's huge igloo-like restaurant, which sports a dome about 10-metres high. Seated on ice benches covered with animal skins, we feasted on salmon and reindeer meat, washed down with much vodka; the curved walls around us decorated with striking snow relief work of birds and beasts.
The Snow Village prides itself on art and innovation. This season, for example, the top part of the restaurant's dome is constructed of ice rather than snow, so that light glows through during the day and is refracted at night. On my visit there were snow reindeer in the barrel-vault corridors, snow art on the walls of the 25 bedrooms (stars, rabbits and more); there was even a snow fireplace near the entrance to the complex - while in the wall beside it was a real red fire extinguisher, a bizarre requirement of Finnish construction legislation. The sculptures were the work of art students from the University of Lapland in Finland's Lapp capital, Rovaniemi. This season's hotel has an even greater design element; the art students joined by a professional team which has devised the look of the public areas.
Despite the warm conditions elsewhere in Lapland, the Snow Village has had lasting cool early in the season. Construction began in November, with the hotel opening for business in early December. And so, in the midst of the wilderness in Lapland, 200,000 cubic metres of snow have beenshaped into an other-worldly resort that, almost literally, takes your breath away.
The writer travelled with Discover the World (0870 060 3288; www.discover-the-world.co.uk/icehotels), which offers tailor-made packages to ice hotels in Finland, Sweden and Norway. A three-night trip to the Ylläs area of Finnish Lapland costs from £629, including flights from Heathrow via Helsinki to Kittila, transfers, two nights' warm B&B at the Hotel Ylläs Saaga in Ylläsjärvi and one night in a Snow Village ice room.
The most convenient gateways are Kemi-Tornio for the Kemi SnowCastle, and Kittila for the Lainio Snow Village. Both are served by Finnair (0870 241 4411; www.finnair.com) via Helsinki from Heathrow and Manchester. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.co.uk). The cash is used to reduce the output of carbon dioxide.
Kemi SnowCastle: 00 358 16 259 502; www.snowcastle.net
Lainio Snow Village: 00 358 16 565 112; www.snowvillage.fi
Finnish Tourist Board: 020-7365 2512; www.visitfinland.com
You can download or listen to Simon Calder's podcast on Lapland by visiting travel.independent.co.uk. Podcasts from The Independent are free.Reuse content