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Kirkenes, the Snow Hotel, the Northern Lights & Russia
On Tuesday, February 26th, I walked down the gangway of Hurtigruten’s Midnatsol for the very last time as she arrived in the port of Kirkenes, Norway just after 10am local time. It marked the sad end of a voyage that had far exceeded my expectations, but my entire Norwegian winter experience was far from over.
Kirkenes, Norway is a very unique small town. Not only is it situated farther East than Istanbul, but it also has the distinction of being so close to the Russian border that street signs throughout town are listed in Norwegian and Russian. Finland also borders Norway near Kirkenes, allowing enterprising locals to effectively celebrate New Year’s Eve three times as each country has its own time zone.
My stay here was equally unique: I opted to take part in Hurtigruten’s post-cruise package that includes an overnight stay at the Kirkenes Snow Hotel.
Created by inflating gigantic balloons and covering them with ice and water until frozen, the design of the Snow Hotel changes with each season, and each of the hotel’s 20 “Snow Suites” have their own individual décor, theme and lighting.
I also wasn’t the only person from Midnatsol taking advantage of this package; there were probably a dozen guests or more from the ship, which made for a great opportunity to get to know people better before the end of our collective journey.
Our cruise vacation extension began with a transfer from the pier in Kirkenes to the Rica Arctic Hotel, where guests taking part in the Snow Hotel experience would be able to store their luggage. You only need a small overnight bag for the Snow Hotel, so I loaded up my backpack with the necessary essentials (toiletries, medications, warm clothing) and left everything tucked away safely – and warmly – at the Rica Arctic.
Since the excursion to the Snow Hotel didn’t begin until 6pm, I took the opportunity to walk around Kirkenes. It didn’t take long; it’s a very small, insular town that is easily navigated on foot. There’s a small shopping centre on the near outskirts of the downtown core, and nearby I found a great restaurant called Surf & Turf where I was able to finally satiate my pasta craving with some chicken and bacon penne pasta done in a tomato sauce with broccoli. It was also surprisingly trendy for Kirkenes!
After about three hours of wandering around, I returned to the Rica Arctic hotel to get some work done. I really appreciated that I was able to use the hotel’s Wi-Fi free of charge (despite not technically being a guest) and that those of us headed to the Snow Hotel were treated to free coffee and tea in the lobby lounge while we waited. I was also able to charge up my camera battery; remember, kids, there’s no electrical outlets at the Snow Hotel!
At 6pm, a motorcoach rolled up and we all piled in, quickly covering the four kilometer distance between town and the Snow Hotel, which is located along the highway leading to Kirkenes Hoybuktmoen Airport.
Now, I will admit that by this time, it was pretty cold out – minus 15 degrees Celsius with the wind chill. I will also admit that, privately, I was wondering why I had left the temperature-controlled comfort of the Rica Arctic Hotel for a “true” Arctic hotel!
As it turns out, my stay at the Snow Hotel Kirkenes will earn a place up there on my personal list of “Greatest Experiences Ever.”
If it was cold in the city, it was even colder out in the country at the Snow Hotel. Our guide was enthusiastically describing the entire evening’s itinerary to us as we made our way into the Snow Hotel. And my first impression: without the wind, it was much warmer inside than outside. So warm, in fact, that I began to sweat and had to take my hat off.
From the central bar area are two corridors, each of which contain 20 Snow Suites apiece. These aren’t separated by traditional doors, but rather by hanging curtains that can be closed to ensure privacy while you sleep. I’ll jump ahead in the story a bit here just to answer the question I know is coming: no, you can’t hear a thing. At night, I couldn’t hear any sounds at all – no snoring, coughing, laughing, talking – nothing. The rooms with their snow walls were better insulated that some of the “proper” hotels I’ve stayed in.
We were each given a welcome drink (a “Crowberry Shot”, they call it), and instructed on how to ensure a warm night’s sleep. Ironically, for the warmest night you should sleep naked, though I doubt many would have had the fortitude to brave a -6 Celsius strip-down. Instead, layers of clothing are the order of the day, and guests are given a sleeping bag rated to -35 Celsius along with what looks like a gigantic pillowcase to wriggle into before getting into the sleeping bag.
You sleep on real beds with real pillows, and clothes should be balled up and placed at the bottom of the sleeping bag to stay warmest. I was given Room 19, with soft yellow lighting and a snow carving of a swan above the bed. Ceilings are very high, and the only time you’ll have to stoop down is when entering the room.
After receiving our rooms, we made our way to the Gabba Restaurant for a warm dinner roasted over a wonderful, actual fire pit in the middle of the room. To say the atmosphere in here was wonderful is an understatement; it was a real experience, and the quality of the food – which consisted of hand-roasted reindeer sausages served atop potato pancakes, salmon, roast potatoes and vegetables, and another kind of fish who’s name escapes me – was far and above my expectations.
Since we hadn’t seen the Northern Lights yet, I joined some of the other guests from the Midnatsol that I became fast friends with on this excursion on an optional journey: for 500 NOK ($88 USD), we would go “hunting the light” and visit the Russian border.
I needed no convincing!
Just before 9pm, the vast majority of guests staying at the Ice Hotel walked the short distance back to the motorcoach for our excursion to hunt the elusive Northern Lights. We drove for about half an hour with our guide from the hotel, Thomas, who regaled us with tales of life this far North.
We were let off at a dark rest area on the side of the highway, bordered by a massive valley and an equally-imposing cliff face behind us. We were given reflective vests so approaching vehicles (there were few and far between) could see us, along with hot drinks, and we waited.
Suddenly, the faintest traces appeared in the sky. These appear almost white, but when photographed on a long exposure with a camera, turn green. And so began the task of those who were searching shouting out where they found light, and the photographers among us would scurry over to whatever we could find to get the best angle.
I forgot my tripod (essential for good shots), but I improvised and made a half-decent tripod out of the frozen snow on a nearby snow bank. Not bad!
We stood outside for two fantastic hours, absolutely freezing and not caring because the reward was so worth it.
Just before we got back on the coach, the most vibrant Northern Lights of the evening made an appearance. They were so bright that they appeared bright green even to the naked eye, and literally rolled over the mountain next to the bus. Someone gave a cry out and we all whipped around to look, admiring it. In half a minute, it was gone, leaving no trace of its existence, before flaring up brighter than ever on the other side of the sky.
Two days ago, I would have told you I didn’t care about missing the Northern Lights. Today, as I write this, I cannot imagine having missed them. My 500 NOK was well-spent, and made for one of my most memorable evenings.
But there was still more to do! Five minutes before midnight, the coach pulled up to the Russian border, marked with stern warning signs in English, Norwegian and Russian and guarded by steel gates marking the “No-Man’s-Land” between Norway and Russia. We were warned not to go near the gates; simply waving your hand past their perimeter would earn you a hefty 20,000 NOK fine – about $3,500 USD.
The Northern Lights were fantastic; the chance to visit the Russian border was the icing on the cake. But a sleep in the Snow Hotel was the real treat!
To be honest, many of us – including yours truly – were in no mood to go to bed when we got back. Despite the fact it was coming up on 1am, several people donned the thermal “snow suits” available to guests and sat outside admiring the Northern Lights, which continued to dance in the night sky far above the Snow Hotel.
I, on the other hand, went back into the Gabba Restaurant for a nightcap of rum and fresh, mixed berry juice and served heated.
Just before 2am, I crawled – or wriggled – into my bed for the night in Icy Room 19. I got the sleeping bag zippered up to my neck, so that only my face protruded. The lights stay on all night, but they’re so soft and soothing to begin with that you’re unlikely to mind.
Sleep came quickly and more pleasantly than usual, and I slept right until 4:30am when I awoke. Initially, I was aware of how cold my face was, but I just pulled my wool hat lower and went back to enjoy a soundless sleep until 7am this morning, when breakfast was served in the Gabba Lounge and the Reindeer – yes, there are reindeer! – began howling for their food.
Tonight as I write this, I am sitting in a proper hotel in Oslo, Norway in preparation for my journey back to Canada tomorrow. I have a thermostat, free Wi-Fi, a flat-panel television, and a hot shower and bathroom that aren’t in an out-building 200 feet away.
And yet, something is missing. I keep ratcheting the thermostat down. I like the hotel I’m at, near Gardermoen airport. It’s a chain I’ve used in the past and always enjoyed. But it seems somewhat more impersonal tonight because that’s, of course, what a hotel is.
The Snow Hotel Kirkenes, though, is something more. As I always like to say, it is an experience – and the perfect one to add to the end of an equally magical experience aboard Hurtigruten’s Midnatsol.
Our Live Voyage Report continues Friday, as we share some photographs of the final stop on our Hurtigruten Midnatsol journey through Norway: the capital city of Oslo!
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