Jo Kearney checks into a hotel where fridges stop the drinks from becoming frozen and vodka provides the heating
BEHIND the hotel bar a fridge purred away, the drinks stacked on the shelves of its door gently rattling. But as we clutched our glasses of flavoured vodka, the barman told us that the fridge's sole purpose was not to keep his stock of drinks cool but to stop them from freezing over.

When we'd checked in at reception on our first day, it wasn't a key we picked up from the desk but another suit of clothes: quilted overalls to put on over our own clothes. Then there were fur hats with ear-flaps, boots and gloves, and down sleeping bags.

These cultural about-turns were just two of the many we had during our stay at the world's first ice hotel, deep inside the Arctic Circle. Reception was a wooden hut 50 yards from the hotel, which looked from a distance like a great iceberg etched against the dark sky. So, wrapped in our winter warmers as protection against the 33C below temperature, we waddled like Michelin men across the snow to the main entrance. We passed through the tiny doorway into a huge hall supported by clear blue ice pillars and lit by a chandelier made of 116 droplets of ice, each with its own optic fibres. In the lounge almost everything was made of ice: the chairs, tables, even the chess board. In stark brown contrast, a stuffed elk's head hung above the ice mantelpiece.

The hotel has 45 bedrooms with ice beds draped in reindeer skins, ice chairs and tables littered with candles and decorated with ice sculptures. Temperatures inside range from minus five to minus eight - cold, but compared to outside, relatively warm.

It being New Year's Eve the Absolut bar was filled with guests, all dressed up in their hotel regulation winter suits. Drinks served, understandably, were all vodka-based, the most popular being the Northern Lights, mixed with champagne and lingonberry juice and served in a giant ice container which you throw into a corner after use.

The doorway to the bar is carved in the shape of an Absolut bottle and, not surprisingly, the company uses the bar to film promotional material. It once brought the model Naomi Campbell there to make an advert but apparently she declined to stay in an ice room, preferring a hotel in nearby Kiruna.

There's no restaurant inside the hotel but the Wardshuset, a nearby inn and the only restaurant in the area, turns out traditional Swedish dishes. With no other choices on offer the guests enjoyed its special New Year supper of lobster, salmon and reindeer and local berries and liquors. Afterwards we gathered on the frozen lake for fireworks followed by champagne in the ice bar.

We were glad of the vodka in our bellies as we headed back to our igloo bedroom. Shedding your clothes and getting into a very cold sleeping bag requires some Dutch courage. But once inside, the feather linings soon warm you up, and, with the exception of my face, I ended up getting too hot. After the perpetual noises of London, the quietness seemed strange and it took me a while to fall asleep.

We were woken at 7am by a lady bringing us hot lingonberry juice. My nose, the only bit of me sticking out of the sleeping bag, felt cold and it was only the thought of a sauna and smorgasbord breakfast that prevented me from staying under the covers. In mid-winter it barely gets light for four or five hours and then it is more like dusk. Despite the greyness and cold, there's no need to stay indoors. The frozen lake provides an excellent place for cross-country skiing. Skis and boots are provided, along with husky and snowmobile trips.

We opted for the husky ride, which we were told was quieter and a lot cleaner than skidoos. Sitting on the sleds waiting for the dogs to start, you could have been mistaken, such was the ferocity of the barking and the amount of dog shit on the ground. But once we got moving there was only the sound of the sleds shooshing along the snowy paths through the woods.

The concept of an ice hotel started only 10 years ago. The manager, Yagve Bergkvist, explained that previously it had been traditional to build an art gallery from ice. "One winter a friend came up to see the exhibition and there was no room in the chalet hotel. Rather than miss out altogether, he opted to stay in the gallery, and it was then that the ice hotel was born."

Every year the hotel has to be re-created. In November when the river Torne freezes, massive ice bricks are cut with chainsaws and dragged by diggers to the site. The large indentations in the river are refilled with water, which quickly freezes over. Artificially made snow is sprayed on to plastic rafters and ice bricks are used for pillars and furniture.

The hotel attracts sculptors and wood carvers from all over Sweden, each of whom design their own rooms. They say that ice gives them more artistic freedom, even if the end result is not permanent. Barbara Behm, who for the past eight years has carved the chapel, said: "We don't have to worry about buying wood and then having to sell our work. We form it, shape it without destroying anything, and then it all melts back into nature."

The Arctic Circle has always been strictly a summer destination. But now, with an ice hotel to stay in, a winter holiday there is possible too. But, despite the number of foreign visitors who now stay there, the staff seem a little reluctant to embrace the international element. I was reminded of a group of villagers running an impromptu jumble sale, which all added to the charm. There was a pleasing lack of security. The breakages that occurred, particularly at night when the vodka bar was open, were all part of this topsy-turvy ice world.

The sculptors just shrugged their shoulders and set about re-creating their masterpieces. They could hardly complain: their work was going to disappear anyway, in the spring when the great meltdown came.


the ice hotel

The world's largest igloo

Every autumn work starts on the ice hotel, which is built from thousands of tons of snow and ice. Guests keep warm in sleeping bags, which withstand temperatures as low as -35C. In the Absolut Bar vodka is served in containers made of ice.

When to stay

This year the hotel expects to be open by 1 December, and to be open throughout January. It closes - melts - in spring. Aeroscope (tel: 01608 650103) offers three nights in Lapland for pounds 536 per person, including flights on SAS via Stockholm to Kiruna, one night b&b at the ice hotel and two nights at the Scandic Ferrum hotel in Kiruna.

Further information

Swedish Travel and Tourism Council (tel: 0171-870 5600).