A night in the Snow Hotel

When you go on holiday to a place like Lapland in December, where temperatures can fall below -30°C, you’d think that your reward for a day out in the Arctic conditions would be a nice warm hotel room to sleep in. But some choose to then spend the night surrounded by ice and snow too. Of the five nights we spent in the area we slept for three of them in an airbnb apartment in the town of Rovaniemi, but then for the last two nights we headed 30km north west to the site of the Arctic Snow Hotel.

This small resort offers two types of accommodation: the snow hotel and glass igloos, and we spent one night in each. There are also a few ancillary buildings: a large reception/restaurant in a normal, heated building, another restaurant in a large yurt-type structure, and some sauna facilities. The snow hotel from the outside is nothing much to look at: a one-storey white oblong with no windows and only two doors. They build it every year, starting in November, and it takes about six weeks to complete. The entrance is fairly unassuming, although I did like the furry doors.

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Inside most of the corridors look like this, but the layout is fairly simple so getting lost isn’t a problem.

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There are individual rooms, family rooms, and suites. Here’s our family room, with two double beds and one single. The beds are blocks of ice but inside them are proper mattresses covered with reindeer hide. The LEDs in the base are the only lighting in the room.

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Adjoined to the snow structure are a couple of temporary wooden structures housing toilets/showers and a locker room/changing room. As the snow rooms are pretty small and dark, the idea is that you put all your stuff in a locker, get changed into a couple of thin layers you’ll wear in bed (for most people this means pyjamas with thermals underneath), and then take a pillow and sleeping bag back to your room. The bunks you see here are then available to sleep on if you decide during the night that you really can’t stand sleeping surrounded by snow.

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You are free to wander around the rest of the structure and even visit other people’s rooms, which is safe since no one leaves anything valuable in there anyway. There are no doors as such on the rooms, but you can draw a curtain and hang a “do not disturb” sign outside. There are a lot of LEDs to add some colour to the surroundings.

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The suites are a lot more elaborately decorated, and probably have a price tag to match. You don’t get any extra facilities or services, but a bit more space and light, and something to look at.

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You can also just visit the hotel and look around the rooms even if you’re not staying there.

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If the cold gets too much you can always warm yourself by the fire. The ICE FIRE, ha ha.

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There’s a small chapel where you can get married. Or pray, or whatever.

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There’s a restaurant where we ate dinner one night, and a bar where you can, er, chill out.

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My shot of cloudberry liqueur in an ice glass was very pleasant, and we bought a bottle in the airport on the way home.

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But of course what you want to know is, what was it like to sleep in? Well that depends who you ask. The rest of my party slept just fine. I barely slept a wink. Maybe it was because I found the sleeping bag uncomfortable and restrictive (I haven’t used one since scout camp over 30 years ago). The hood part of the bag came right up over and covered everything except a small area of my face. At a minimum my eyes were exposed, and I tried a couple of times just covering my head completely but that got too stuffy and claustrophobic, so I had to put up with my eyes and/or nose feeling chilly. Either way I just couldn’t get comfortable enough to drop off, although I think I eventually managed to get about an hour of sleep towards the morning. Staff members come and wake you up at 7:30am, but I was already up and dressed and keen to get out for breakfast by then, much to my family’s sleepy-eyed bemusement.

On the second night we slept in a “glass igloo”, which was much more to my liking. Essentially they’re individual cabins with domed glass roofs to allow you to see the Northern Lights if and when they appear (there’s also an alarm in the igloo which rings to let you know when the lights could be seen).

We’d been to Lapland once before in 2001 and seen nothing due to overcast skies, and by the last night of this trip I was resigned to having missed them again, in spite of having paid for an aurora notification app during our nights in Rovaniemi. And then, on our way back to the igloo from the restaurant on our final evening, just before 8pm, something started to happen in the sky. Nothing like as bright or spectacular as the images we saw every day on postcards in the gift shops, but it was there nonetheless. For about 20 minutes we saw several wavering bands and shimmering blobs of green. The photos don’t do them justice; I should have had a tripod for starters, but they should give you some idea.

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The next morning we woke at our leisure after a good night’s sleep, and saw our igloos in the daylight for the first time.

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Prompted by seeing the Japanese tourists from the next igloo doing it, we boiled a kettle of water and threw it into the air outside to see how it reacted to the chill morning air which was getting below -30°C (-25° Fahrenheit).

And finally, the aurora borealis wasn’t the only unusual atmospheric phenomenon we saw in Lapland. One morning while on a husky safari we saw these strangely coloured blobs on the horizon. They’re nacreous clouds, whose mother of pearl colours are caused by the light being diffracted by ice crystals. They’re also bad for the ozone layer.

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Moss and Moonscapes

Iceland has a lot of dramatic scenery. That’s kind of the point of Iceland. Glaciers, volcanoes, cliffs and waterfalls; all lovely.

But I actually found myself enjoying more some of the quieter, more subtle landscapes.

For example at one point driving through the hills near Möðrudalur we stopped for a breather in a relatively featureless, desolate spot.
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The view across the plains, in the direction of our accommodation for that night.

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Barely any life to be seen.

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A verdant moss haze filled nooks and crannies.

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Another favourite spot was Mýrdalssandur, on the south coast. Miles of flat plains; we had been warned by a friend that this was likely to be the most boring part of our tour. I loved it.

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Immense lava fields covered with sparse vegetation. Mossy hummocks as far as the eye could see.

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This was the bit of Iceland I’ll remember. Not so dramatic perhaps, but unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been.

More photos on flickr.

Water in Iceland

There’s a lot of water in Iceland and it comes in many shapes and forms. Not just the cold, hard kind implied by the country’s name.

For example, if you’re into waterfalls, you’ve come to the right place. Gullfoss, part of the Golden Circle series of natural attractions just east of Reykjavik, is a pretty spectacular double waterfall.

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There’s a very flimsy rope barrier keeping those people from plummeting to their doom.

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Sometimes it’s hard to decide which are more hypnotically compelling: the gushing torrents or the veils of drifting mist.

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Along the south coast you’ll find another couple of beauties. First, Skogafoss.

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And then Seljalandsfoss, which treated us to a rainbow. And you’ve probably worked out by now that “foss” means “falls”.

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Seljalandsfoss’ USP is that you can walk around and behind the falling water.

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Well that’s all very pretty and delicate, I hear you say, but I want a big, thunderous, Monster Truck style of waterfall. Where do I go for that? You go north, I reply. You go to Dettifoss.

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Dettimoss.

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You may remember this particular cascade from the opening scene of the movie Prometheus. It’s the largest waterfall in Europe in terms of “volume discharge”.

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So that’s the falling water, but what about water that shoots up into the air? Iceland’s got that covered too. Another stop in the Golden Circle tour is Geysir, home of the original geyser. Unfortunately the original geyser no longer works, allegedly because too many tourists threw stones into it over the years, blocking it up. But fear not, because just alongside it is Strokkur, which provides a satisfyingly big, loud, hot spurt every ten minutes or so.

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But of course, it’s called Iceland for a reason. So here’s some ice.

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These are fragments of glacier which have broken off and are floating in a lagoon called Jökulsárlón. Eventually they drift out to sea to be consumed by the waves.
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Black striations are caused by volcanic ash.

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Speaking of waves, we saw some dramatic ones on the Snaefellsnes peninsula over on the west coast.

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Loads more photos here.

Thin ice

A change to the lunchtime routine today. A social event in the lobby provided a free lunch, so my half an hour break was available to be used for something other than eating. Usually that would mean reading, but I wanted some fresh air and exercise and it was a bright, sunny day, so I wandered outside and found a park I’d never visited before, only a few hundred metres from the office.
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Don’t walk on the grass ice.

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Rebellious ducks.

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Frozen feather. The black blob stuck to the twig is a snail. I like how the ice creases and folds around the shell. Still, poor snaily.

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An awful lot of leaves in this pond.

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I was fascinated by the way tiny bubbles under the surface of the ice outline the objects below them; rocks and branches.

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Maybe I should get out more often.

Signs of the times

We just got back from the UK where the kids collected sweets and chocolate while trick or treating. For the grown-ups meanwhile, this morning meant a trip to the supermarket in order to stock up on fruit and veg in an attempt to make amends for the blow-out of the past week (full English breakfasts, cream teas, fish and chips…).

Approaching the small neighbourhood supermarket I noticed this image painted in the window. I’ve seen murals there before, notably Christmas and Easter themed ones, but this was the first time I’d really noticed that they changed it regularly to reflect the seasons. It’s a nice idea.
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Brussels Asperatus

It’s been a funny old weekend in Brussels, weather-wise, with hourly alternations between blazing sunshine and angry downpours, thunder and lightning and sizeable hailstones.

Late yesterday afternoon I went out into the garden to check on the drying laundry and saw this:

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Shortly thereafter my wife brought our daughter back from a playdate. She’d seen the clouds on the drive home and insisted that she and I go immediately to the nearby park to take more photos. Who am I to dampen the enthusiasm of a budding cloud-watcher?

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A friend (Hi, Jane) helpfully pointed out on facebook that these are known as Asperatus clouds; a name created by the Cloud Appreciation Society.

No-vember

The trees are all pretty much completely bare around here now (well, the deciduous ones, obviously), so I’m just in time for the obligatory “Isn’t autumn photogenic?” post.

A recent family walk in a nearby park yielded plenty of “Oooh – pretty colours!” moments…

as well as one “WTF?”

At one point we sat under a tree for a snack and noticed a couple of girls on the other side of the park taking some photos of their own. For some reason they seemed uninterested in the beauty of nature surrounding them.

They were there for quite some time, trying out a bewildering variety of poses.