Cold Comfort

updated 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IN A FEW WEEKS, THE FRAGILE BEAUTY of the northern spring will melt the snow and ice of Jukkasjarvi, where winter has held sway since late October. The town of 700 people in Swedish Lapland sits about 125 miles inside the Arctic Circle and enjoys (as best it can) an average of five hours of winter sunlight a day, with temperatures that sometimes reach a bone-chilling—40°F. Even so, there will be mixed feelings in Jukkasjärvi when the first thaw comes, especially for tourism entrepreneur Nils Yngve Bergqvist, manager of the ARTic Hall. As temperatures rise, the 44-year-old innkeeper will watch his business disappear. Believed to be the world's only ice hotel, ARTic Hall will be a puddle by late May. "We have a contest, guess the date it will fall," says Bergqvist.

The hotel—actually nine guest cubicles separated by frozen snow partitions, plus a bridal chamber with a larger than king-size snow bed—is just one wing of an 1,800-square-foot ice palace that also includes a bar, a chapel and a theater for slide shows. Bergqvist built his first outsize igloo in 1991 as a gallery for local artists. It seemed such a good idea that he repealed it last November and expanded it to its present grand proportions. Five workmen spent nine weeks on its construction, piling 1,000 tons of snow on wooden forms and freezing it solid by spraying it with water. The wooden framework was then removed, leaving the giant igloo, which actually resembles a barn buried in snow. Eighteen feet high, the structure requires walls that are four feet thick. "The walls carry the whole building, like an old Roman cathedral," explains Bergqvist.

So far, more than 100 people, many of them foreign tourists, have paid $46 each to sample its charms, including sauna and breakfast at the local inn—which Bergqvist also owns, along with 30 heated guest cabins—and to receive a certificate of accomplishment. Shots of 90-proof aquavit are extra.

For those accustomed to staying at Ritz-Carltons or Hiltons—or even at Motel 6—ARTic Hall may seem spartan. Room temperatures hover around 32°F, and the guests hover around the art gallery and the bar fully dressed until bedtime. There are no doors, there's nowhere to hang clothing, and management advises that guests use the bathrooms at the nearby cabins—a couple of minutes walk—before retiring, because there are no facilities inside the igloo.

At bedtime the packed-snow sleeping platforms are covered with plywood and reindeer hides. Then the guests are ready to slip into their state-of-the-art microfiber sleeping bags. Finally, Bergqvist or one of the staff checks in on the guests with a supplementary supply of blankets. "People come because it's different," says Bergqvist, who admits to coming up with the idea "after one or two beers" in the sauna. "They've heard about people surviving in Arctic conditions—but we teach them how to do it."

For most guests, like Stockholm journalist Mats Lundegard, ARTic Hall is strictly a one-night stand. "I'm not sure I'd do it again," he says, "but I recommend it for the fun of it. It's an odd sensation to go to bed with your cap on."

Those guests who make it through the night—and Bergqvist says he hasn't lost one yet—find that Jukkasjärvi is an ice place to visit. At the conventionally built inn, which serves all the guests, the cuisine features such Lapland specialties as reindeer stew, grouse and the ubiquitous cloudberries. Outside, there is cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, dog-sledding, snowmobiling and ice-fishing. The aurora borealis flickers overhead during the cold, clear winter nights. Visitors can tour the local iron mine or—if they are really determined to make this a cultural trip—Lapland's oldest wooden church, built in 1608.

Fun isn't everything, though. "I wanted to develop tourism with a base on culture and wilderness activities," says Bergqvist, whose first job was as an environmental researcher. He feels that ARTic Hall also embodies a message of ecologically sound design. "This was all just water before," he says, surveying his ephemeral inn, "and a few months from now, it will all be water again."

CATHY NOLAN in Jukkasjärvi

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