Only on a cruise ship can someone effortlessly visit three ice bars in three different countries in just over a week—so we did. The first lap of our Scandinavian trifecta began one day before we were to embark on an 11-day Baltic cruise on the Crystal Symphony leaving from Stockholm, Sweden.
Ice bars first originated in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden in 1994 but they have since sprung up in cities across the globe.
Billed as the “coolest bar” in the city, IceBar Stockholm is housed inside the Nordic Sea Hotel. (The hotel is conveniently located adjacent to the Arlanda Express rail station, which links the airport to the city.) Now ten years old, this ice bar holds the distinction of being the first in the world to remain open year-round.
As ice bar virgins, we had no clue how warmly to dress but it didn’t matter. We purchased entry tickets, good for one drink per person, and were provided with heavy fur-trimmed capes with insulated gloves dangling from them.
We passed through heavy double doors, designed to maintain the temperature inside the bar at -5° C. The walls, seating, and sculptures, all made of ice, glistened giving an eerie blue cast to the room. Music, mirrors, and flashes of cameras added a disco-like ambiance. The naturally harvested ice that was used to build the bar came from the Torne River in Swedish Lapland, said to be one of the cleanest rivers in the world.
Each visitor is offered a choice of an ice-cold vodka shot, or cocktail mixing vodka and a berry puree. I opted for the sweet potion. The mittens came in handy because the drinks are served in glasses made of ice (which melt, thus requiring no washing after use).
No one lingers too long, especially if, like me, they are wearing flimsy sandals on the cold metal floor. Visitors enter for 45-minute stays and even the bar staff doesn’t hang around beyond their three-hour shifts. With all the cruises coming to and from Stockholm, business is brisk; one bartender told us that as many as 20 groups visit in a day.
When our ship reached Helsinki, Finland, along with some 20 fellow cruisers, we boarded a tour bus headed toward a suburb. About twenty minutes later, it stopped in front of Unique Lapland, a structure that resembled a concrete, big-box store.
The large reception area looked like it belonged in a bowling alley. Instead of holding shoes, each cubicle contained warm, fur-lined boots in various sizes. We were issued thermal, zip-front snowsuits and were able to stash our personal belongings in lockers. An adjacent gift shop sold plastic molds to make ice glasses at home. (Another visitor next to me whispered that she saw them for less on Amazon.com.)
With various stations placed within and around the perimeter, this huge indoor amusement park was unlike any we had ever seen. First, we took a sleigh ride, sitting behind one another, with a driver guiding us from the back on a large circular track, as we were pulled by a fast pack of Siberian huskies.
After that, I walked up a hill of ice, where I daintily sat down on an incredibly tiny butt sled. Initially, I was reluctant to try the apparatus but I knew it would make a great photo to take home. When I reached the bottom of the sliding hill where my husband was taking photos, I discovered he hadn’t recognized me in my bulky snowsuit and captured a photo of another woman with the same color hair.
The whimsical venue allowed us to suspend our adultness and frolic like kids in the snow Surrounded by decorations carved out of ice, we tried walking in snowshoes and riding kick sleds, and then peeked into the furnished rooms of an ice hotel where guests can arrange overnight stays in sleeping bags.
At the ice bar located in the center, Vera, the bartender, served icy Finlandia vodka shots. We chatted with other visitors until the excursion guide came searching for us. There wasn’t enough time to try cross-country skiing or tandem skis.
Similar in style to the one in Stockholm, Icebar Copenhagen in Denmark is attached to a trendy hotel. Part of the First Hotel group, Hotel 27 is located on a narrow street only a stone’s throw from City Hall.
Admittedly, the novelty had faded by the time we arrived at our last ice bar. Now, among a group of first-timers, we were the ice bar veterans, wise enough not to wear open-toed shoes. The bar décor and ice art were unique but the hooded ponchos and iced walls looked the same.
Ice bars aren’t designed for serious drinking. Some may find them a bit touristy but this Scandinavian tradition is great fun in small doses. With smiles on our faces, we ordered our last cocktails of fruit-infused vodka and toasted each other saying, “Skol,” before heading back to our ship.
IF YOU GO
Reservations are suggested for each ice bar; check hours, which vary by season. On cruises, pricing varies according to the line and the excursion itinerary.
Located in the lobby of the Nordic Sea Hotel
Cost: 195 SEK (about $30) per person with one drink; slightly less, when booked in advance.
Located at Yllias Halli, Savikeikontie 4, about a €30 taxi ride from the center of Helsinki.
Cost: €32 (about $41) per adult for entry, costs for some rides are additional
Located across the courtyard from Hotel 27
Cost: 150DKK (about $26) per person for entry with one drink; discounted for hotel guests
[This article was published in the travel section of The Chicago Tribune on November 11, 2012. ]