The Swedish Arctic
Story by Ben Ehrenreich | Photography by Joachim Lundgren | Rhapsody, November 2016
In search of the northern lights from a base camp at the world famous IcehotelI had always wanted to see the northern lights.
I grew up in the New York City suburbs, where the only lights in the northern sky traced the flight path to LaGuardia, JFK, or Newark International. The notion of a vast, shimmering curtain of glowing green and violet falling over the sky like the entryway to some otherwise invisible reality sounded too whimsically beautiful to exist. But it did exist. You just had to climb the globe far enough north and hope for clear skies and distant storms on the surface of the sun.So in early January, as the rest of the hemisphere longed to travel south, I flew to Stockholm, and then to Kiruna, the largest town in the Swedish arctic, a quick ride from tiny Jukkasjärvi, home of the famous Icehotel, and one of the better spots on the planet from which to view the northern lights. The thermometer read seven degrees Fahrenheit when I boarded the hotel shuttle. “Perfect weather," the driver said with a grin—the day before the low had been 40 below. It wasn't yet two in the afternoon, but the sun was already setting, a thin orange light in what the compass on my phone suggested was not the west but the southern sky. I was nearly on the top of the world, and it felt like it, the landscape a study in monochrome, snow-frosted earth and snow-heavy trees, like the top of a wedding cake.Fortunately, the Icehotel's reception area, restaurant, and half of its rooms are permanent structures, well-heated and insulated against the elements. I checked into a “warm room," furnished in sleek Scandinavian style, its walls crafted of more conventional materials than ice. The hotel's bar, chapel, and 55 of its 65 total rooms are constructed of ice and compressed snow—“snice," they call it—and built from scratch each year when the cold descends. A team of artists and builders carve blocks of ice and spray snice like stucco onto prefabricated metal forms, which are then removed, leaving behind clean, silent, cavernous halls and rooms. The whole thing is destined to melt in the spring and flow back into the river Torne, which will soon freeze again, providing ice for the hotel's future incarnations. (This month, the property is adding a new solar-powered building, Icehotel 365, which will be made of ice and snow and kept at 23 degrees year-round.) The author drives a reindeer sleigh on the frozen tundra of Jukkasjärvi. This buck proved an obstinate travel companion.I took a quick walk through the ice rooms. The simplest were unadorned chambers of snow, like the inside of an igloo but equipped with a platform bed, blue-tinted lighting, and a government-required smoke detector. Individually titled “art suites" were more elaborate, and often extraordinary, designed by jury-selected artists flown in to sculpt in snow. Some were abstract. AnnaKatrin Kraus and Hans Aescht's The Flying Buttress, in which I would sleep two nights later, felt like the apse of a polar cathedral: Overlapping arches surrounded the bed, a square, ice-rimmed altar topped with two pillows and a reindeer hide. Some suites were whimsical, others surreal. In AnnaSofia Mååg's Elephant in the Room, a glassy, larger-than-life pachyderm stared dolefully down at the bed. Another guest room was lined with busts of dozens of blank-faced men in hats and a bas-relief turtle looking on from above. I peeked in at the chapel and caught a wedding in progress. The bride and groom wore snowsuits. They had to take off their ski gloves to exchange rings.“I was staring at electrically charged winds that had been cast out by the sun and traveled through 93 million miles of void. Or at the wandering souls of someone's ancestors. It didn't matter."That evening, I pulled on not one but two ski masks, or balaclavas—“the balaclava is your best friend," the guide assured me—and joined an expedition to seek out the northern lights by snowmobile. We set off in a long caravan, skirting the hotel compound and the few houses of Jukkasjärvi until the lights of the town disappeared. We sped along what looked like wide, flat plains—in fact it was the surface of the frozen Torne—onto a curving track through the forest. Spruce and pines rose frosted on all sides, clumps of snow staring down from their upper branches like an audience of silent ghosts. We sped across a lake, then back through the woods and over frozen marshes. It began to snow, dashing my hopes of seeing the lights, but the snow eventually stopped, as did we, at a camp of wooden cabins where our guides lit fires and heated meals of reindeer stew.The Sami people, who inhabited the Scandinavian arctic long before it was divided into nations, regarded the northern lights with appropriate awe, as visitations from the spirits of the dead. The contemporary scientific explanation is no less mystical: Charged particles are carried to Earth by solar winds and pushed by the planet's magnetic field to the poles, where they collide with atmospheric gases, producing colored lights, just as neon bulbs do when electricity passes through them. In other words, the northern lights really are a window onto an invisible reality, the unseen currents that connect us to the sun. Very rarely, they appear far to the south: Galileo saw the lights over Venice and in 1619 dubbed them aurora borealis, combining the names for the Roman goddess of the dawn and the Greek god of the north wind. But the closer you get to the pole (and the farther from the artificial light of human settlements), the more likely you are to see them. After that, it's up to luck and the weather on the Earth and on the sun.The entrance to the IcehotelBy the time I'd climbed back onto the snowmobile, the sky was clear, starless, and dark, a richer and more variable black than I was used to seeing. If I stared long enough, I could imagine it was tinted red in some places and green in others, but as hard as I looked, even with my imagination on overdrive, I couldn't fool myself. There was no aurora that night.I'm not sure how it happened, but the next day I ended up driving a reindeer sleigh. The Sami, who still populate much of northern Scandinavia, run tours in Jukkasjärvi to supplement their income from herding reindeer. They roped a buck for me, harnessed it to a one-man wooden sleigh, and handed me the bridle. The reindeer was a reluctant partner in the adventure, stopping whenever it could to glare at me with dull rheumy eyes before burying its nose in the snow and snarfing whatever greens it could find frozen there. We trotted out through the woods to the river. Even absent the aurora, in the middle of the short, arctic day, the sky was magnificent, pink and gold where the sun, just risen, was already setting, the air a crisp, unearthly blue.Late that evening, I bundled up and wandered out onto the icy river. It was almost entirely overcast. Again, I imagined I saw colors in the sky, but I knew it was wishful thinking. I wanted to see “the silver dance of the mystic Northern Lights," as the British-Canadian balladeer Robert W. Service put it, “wild and weird and wan … a sight for the eyes of God." Suddenly, a sharp white light illuminated the horizon and swept the sky in a long arc, but it was only a faraway car with its high beams on. The silence was so deep that it had texture—there were whole rooms in it and long hallways connecting room to room. I wandered through them for a while. It was bitterly cold and after midnight. I went inside. I had one more night.The Elephant in the Room suiteOn my last day in Jukkasjärvi, it snowed all morning and all afternoon. I trekked down to the old church at the end of the road. It had been there for 400 years, built when the town was just a seasonal gathering place for the still-nomadic Sami. The murals behind the altar were magnificent, the colors so bright they seemed stolen from some more temperate climate. Later, I let myself be convinced to try the local sauna ritual, which involved plunging into the frigid waters of the Torne through a hole carved in the ice. I whimpered, I confess, in a most unmanly way. After an excellent dinner, warm again, I prepared myself for the night I was to spend in the cold room by heading back out to the river. (It wouldn't be necessary: The sleeping bag the hotel provided was more than warm enough.)When I reached the bank, I lay down in the snow. The sky was overcast. I stared up at the shifting clouds until a space cleared just above the horizon to the north. Suddenly, without introduction, a shimmering green light appeared in the gap beneath the cloud, growing in intensity and fading and brightening but unmistakably there, unmistakably an aurora. The silence deepened. The lights seemed to dance. I was staring at electrically charged winds that had been cast out by the sun and traveled through 93 million miles of void. Or at the wandering souls of someone's ancestors. It didn't matter. I forgot that it was cold. I forgot I had a body even. And then, as quickly as they had appeared and with as little fanfare, the lights dimmed and went away. I stood, slapped the snow from my snowsuit, and retreated to my bedroom, blue and cozy, a balmy 23 degrees.
Following the devastating wildfires in Australia and powerful earthquakes that shook Puerto Rico last week, we're taking action to make a global impact through our international partnerships as well as nonprofit organizations Afya Foundation and ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency).
Helping Puerto Rico recover from earthquakes
Last week, Puerto Rico was hit with a 5.2 magnitude earthquake, following a 6.4 magnitude earthquake it experienced just days before. The island has been experiencing hundreds of smaller quakes during the past few weeks.
These earthquakes destroyed crucial infrastructure and left 4,000 people sleeping outside or in shelters after losing their homes. We've donated $50,000 to our partner charity organization Airlink and through them, we've helped transport disaster relief experts and medical supplies for residents, as well as tents and blankets for those who have lost their homes. Funding will go towards organizations within Airlink's partner network, which includes Habitat for Humanity, Mercy Corps and Americares, to help with relief efforts and long-term recovery.
Australian wildfire relief efforts
Our efforts to help Australia have inspired others to make their own positive impact. In addition to teaming up with Ellen DeGeneres to donate $250,000 and launching a fundraising campaign with GlobalGiving to benefit those impacted by the devastating wildfires in the country known for its open spaces and wildlife, our cargo team is helping to send more than 600 pounds of medical supplies to treat injured animals in the region.
Helping us send these supplies is the Afya Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that seeks to improve global health by collecting surplus medical supplies and delivering them to parts of the world where they are most needed. Through Airlink, the Afya Foundation will send more than $18,000 worth of materials that will be used to treat animals injured in the Australian fires.
These medical supplies will fly to MEL (Melbourne) and delivered to The Rescue Collective. This Australian organization is currently focused on treating the massive population of wildlife, such as koalas, kangaroos, and birds, that have had their habitats destroyed by the recent wildfires. The supplies being sent include wound dressings, gloves, catheters, syringes and other items that are unused but would otherwise be disposed of.
By working together, we can continue to make a global impact and help those affected by natural disasters to rebuild and restore their lives
Australia needs our help as wildfires continue to devastate the continent that's beloved by locals and travelers alike. In times like these, the world gets a little smaller and we all have a responsibility to do what we can.
On Monday, The Ellen DeGeneres Show announced a campaign to raise $5 million to aid in relief efforts. When we heard about Ellen's effort, we immediately reached out to see how we could help.
Today, we're committing $250,000 toward Ellen's campaign so we can offer support now and help with rebuilding. For more on The Ellen DeGeneres Show efforts and to donate yourself, you can visit www.gofundme.com/f/ellenaustraliafund
We're also matching donations made to the Australian Wildfire Relief Fund, created by GlobalGiving's Disaster Recovery Network. This fund will support immediate relief efforts for people impacted by the fires in the form of emergency supplies like food, water and medicine. Funds will also go toward long-term recovery assistance, helping residents recover and rebuild. United will match up to $50,000 USD in donations, and MileagePlus® members who donate $50 or more will receive up to 1,000 award miles from United. Donate to GlobalGiving.
Please note: Donations made toward GlobalGiving's fund are only eligible for the MileagePlus miles match.
In addition to helping with fundraising, we're staying in touch with our employees and customers in Australia. Together, we'll help keep Australia a beautiful place to live and visit in the years to come.
20. Spot Giant Pandas in China
In 2016, giant pandas were removed from the endangered species list, and China would like to keep it that way. This year, the country plans to consolidate the creatures' known habitats into one unified national park system spanning nearly 10,500 square miles across Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi provinces—about the size, in total, of Massachusetts. —Nicholas DeRenzo
19. Follow in James Bond's Footsteps in Jamaica
When No Time to Die hits theaters on April 8, it marks a number of returns for the James Bond franchise. The 25th chapter in the Bond saga is the first to come out since 2015's Spectre; it's Daniel Craig's fifth go-round as 007, after rumors the actor was set to move on; and it's the first time the series has filmed in Jamaica since 1973's Live and Let Die. The Caribbean island has always had a special place in Bond lore: It was the location of one of creator Ian Fleming's homes, GoldenEye (which is now a resort), and the setting for the first 007 movie, 1962's Dr. No. Looking to live like a super-spy? You don't need a license to kill—just a ride to Port Antonio, where you can check out filming locations such as San San Beach and colonial West Street. Remember to keep your tux pressed and your Aston Martin on the left side of the road. —Justin Goldman
18. See the Future of Architecture in Venice
Every other year, Venice hosts the art world's best and brightest during its celebrated Biennale. But the party doesn't stop during off years, when the Architecture Biennale takes place. This year, curator Hashim Sarkis, the dean of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning, has tasked participants with finding design solutions for political divides and economic inequality; the result, on display from May to November, is the intriguing show How Will We Live Together? —Nicholas DeRenzo
17. Celebrate Beethoven's 250th Birthday in Bonn
Catch a Beethoven concerto in Bonn, Germany, to celebrate the hometown hero's big 2-5-0.
16. Eat Your Way Through Slovenia
When Ana Roš of Hiša Franko was named the World's Best Female Chef in 2017, food lovers began to wonder: Do we need to pay attention to Slovenia? The answer, it turns out, is definitely yes. This March, the tiny Balkan nation about two hours east of Venice gets its own Michelin Guide. —Nicholas DeRenzo
15. Star- (and Sun-) Gaze in Patagonia
Come December 13 and 14, there will be no better spot for sky-watchers than northern Patagonia, which welcomes both the peak of the Geminid meteor shower and a total solar eclipse within 24 hours. —Nicholas DeRenzo
14. Explore Miami's Game-Changing New Park
About 70,000 commuters use Miami's Metrorail each day, and city planners aim to turn the unused space beneath its tracks into an exciting new public space, a 10-mile linear park aptly named The Underline. Luckily, the Magic City is in good hands: The project is being helmed by James Corner Field Operations, the geniuses behind New York's High Line. “Both projects share similarities in their overarching goals," says principal designer Isabel Castilla, “to convert a leftover infrastructural space into a public space that connects neighborhoods, generates community, and encourages urban regeneration." When finished, Miami's park will be about seven times as long as its Big Apple counterpart. The first half-mile leg, set to open this June, is the Brickell Backyard, which includes an outdoor gym, a butterfly garden, a dog park, and gaming tables that call to mind the dominoes matches you'll find nearby in Little Havana. “We envision the Underline dramatically changing the way people in Miami engage with public space," Castilla says. —Nicholas DeRenzo
13. Kick Off the NFL in Las Vegas
Former Raiders owner Al Davis was famous for saying, “Just win, baby." His son, Mark Davis, the team's current owner, is more likely to be shouting “Vegas, baby!" Swingers-style, as his team becomes Sin City's first NFL franchise, the Las Vegas Raiders. After years of threats and lawsuits, the Raiders have finally left Oakland, and this summer they're landing just across the highway from the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in a 65,000-seat, $1.8 billion domed stadium that will also host the UNLV football team, the next two Pac-12 championship games, and the Las Vegas Bowl. Construction is slated to be finished July 31, just in time for the NFL preseason—and just in time to lure football fans from the sportsbooks to the grandstand. —Justin Goldman
12. Celebrate the Suffragettes in Washington D.C.
All eyes are on the ballot box this year, but the electorate would look quite different if not for the 19th Amendment, which was ratified 100 years ago this August. Many D.C. institutions, such as the National Archives Museum and the Library of Congress, are honoring the decades-long struggle for women's suffrage with exhibits. In particular, the National Museum of American History unveils Sarah J. Eddy's portrait of Susan B. Anthony this March, before putting on a 'zine-inspired show on girlhood and youth social movements this June. —Nicholas DeRenzo
11. Go for a Ride Through Mexico City
If you want to get somewhere quickly in Mexico City, try going by bicycle. During peak traffic, bikes average faster speeds than cars or public transportation—which might explain why ridership has gone up almost 50 percent since 2007. And riding on two wheels is getting safer and easier. In 2019, the city announced plans to invest $10 million (more than it had spent in the last six years combined) into the construction of about 50 miles of new paths and lanes. Now, you can cycle on a two-mile separated path along the Paseo de la Reforma, from Colonia Juárez and Roma to Chapultepec Park and Polanco. Future plans include a route along the National Canal between Coyoacán (where Frida Kahlo once lived) and Xochimilco (with its floating flower farms). “The goal is to finish the six-year [presidential] term with 600 kilometers of bike infrastructure," says Roberto Mendoza of the city's Secretariat of Mobility. Time to start pedaling. —Naomi Tomky
10. Consider the Mayflower's Legacy in Massachusetts and Abroad
Before they came to America in 1620, the religious separatists now known as the Pilgrims lived in England and the Netherlands. This year, the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing will be commemorated not only by those nations but also by a fourth: The Wampanoag, the confederation of tribes that live in New England and whose role in this world-changing event has been at best left out and at worst distorted.
“We're challenging the myths and stereotypes," says Aquinnah Wampanoag author Linda Coombs, a board member of Plymouth 400, Inc., which is planning cultural events such
as an Ancestors Walk to honor the native villages pushed aside by settlers, as well as
an indigenous history conference and powwow (plus an $11 million restoration of the replica Mayflower II).
Kerri Helme, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag nation and cultural programs manager at Plimoth Plantation, says that “people want to hear the whole story." She notes that it's a commonly held belief that the Pilgrims were welcomed by the natives, when in fact their first encounter was violent, since the English had been stealing the Wampanoags' food.
“The Wampanoag are key players in all of this," says Charles Hackett, CEO of Mayflower 400 in the U.K. “It's a whole other aspect of this history." In England, a Mayflower trail will connect Pilgrim sites in towns such as Southampton and Plymouth, and in Leiden, the Dutch town where the Pilgrims took refuge before embarking for the New World, the ethnology museum will run an exhibit about the natives.
“The most important thing for us, as the Wampanoag people," says Paula Peters, a former Wampanoag council member, “is to be acknowledged as a vital tribe comprised of people that, in spite of everything that's happened, are still here." —Jon Marcus
9. Discover Lille's Design Scene
Previous World Design Capitals have included major cultural hubs such as Helsinki and Seoul, so it came as a shock when Lille, France's 10th-largest city, beat Sydney for this year's title. Judges cited Lille's use of design to improve its citizens' lives; get a taste for yourself at spots like La Piscine Musée d'Art et d'Industrie, a gallery in a former Art Deco swim center. —Nicholas DeRenzo
8. See Stellar Space in Rio de Janeiro, the World Capital of Architecture
Rio de Janeiro is renowned for the beauty of its beaches and mountains, but the Cidade Maravilhosa's man-made structures are as eye-catching as its natural features. For that reason, UNESCO recently designated Rio its first World Capital of Architecture, honoring a city that boasts such landmarks as the stained glass–domed Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading, the fairy-tale Ilha Fiscal palace, and the uber-modern Niterói Contemporary Art Museum.
"Rio is an old city by New World standards, having been founded in the mid–16th century," says architectural photographer Andrew Prokos, who took this shot. "So the city has many layers of architectural styles, from Colonial and Rococo to Art Nouveau, Modernist, Brutalist, and contemporary." In the case of this museum, which was designed by perhaps Brazil's greatest architect, Pritzker Prize winner Oscar Niemeyer, Prokos was intrigued by how the 24-year-old building interacts with its surroundings. "The upward slope of the museum complements the slope of the Pão de Açúcar across the bay," he says, "so the two are speaking to each other from across the water." – Tom Smyth
7. Join the Avengers at Disneyland
This summer, Disney California Adventure unveils its Marvel-themed Avengers Campus, with a new Spider-Man attraction, followed later by an Ant-Man restaurant and a ride through Wakanda. If the hype surrounding last year's debut of Disney+ is any indication, Comic-Con types are going to lose their fanboy (and -girl) minds. —Nicholas DeRenzo
6. Listen to Jazz in Cape Town
Cape Town's natural wonders draw visitors from all over the world, but there's a hidden gem beyond the mountains, beaches, and seas: music. Much as jazz was born from America's diverse peoples, Cape jazz combines the traditions and practices of the city's multiethnic population, creating genres such as goema (named after a type of hand drum) and marabi (a keyboard style that arose in the townships). Cape Town has hosted an International Jazz Festival for
20 years (the 21st edition is this March 27–28), and now UNESCO is giving the Mother City its musical due by naming it the Global Host City of International Jazz Day 2020. The theme of the event—which takes place on April 30, features an All Star Global Concert, and is the climax of Jazz Appreciation Month—is “Tracing the Roots and Routes of African Jazz." During the dark days of slavery and apartheid, music became an outlet through which repressed people could express their struggle for freedom. What better way to mark a quarter century of democracy here than with a celebration of that most free style of music? —Struan Douglas
5. Take a Walk Around England
Many hikers love walking around England—but how many can say that they've truly walked around England? When it's completed, the England Coast Path will be the longest managed seaside trail in the world, completely circumnavigating the coastline, from the fishing villages of Cornwall and the beaches of Nothumberland to the limestone arches of the Jurassic Coast and the sandy dunes of Norfolk. Much of the trail is already waymarked (the 630-mile South West Coast Path is particularly challenging and beautiful), with new legs set to open throughout the year. If you want to cross the whole thing off your bucket list, be warned that it's no walk in the park: At around 2,795 miles, the completed route is 605 miles longer than the Appalachian Trail and about the same as the distance between New York and Los Angeles. —Nicholas DeRenzo
4. Get Refreshed in the Israeli Desert
Six Senses resorts are known for restorative retreats in places like Fiji, Bali, and the Maldives. For its latest location, the wellness-minded brand is heading to a more unexpected locale: the Arava Valley, in the far south of Israel. Opening this spring, the Six Senses Shaharut will offer overnight camel camping, off-roading in the surrounding desert, and restaurants serving food grown in the resort's gardens or sourced from nearby kibbutzim. While the valley is said to be near King Solomon's copper mines, the Six Senses is sure to strike gold. —Nicholas DeRenzo
3. Say konnichiwa on July 24 at the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, which plays host for the first time since 1964.
The Japanese capital plays host for the first time since 1964. This year, softball and baseball will return after being absent since 2008, and four new sports—karate, sport climbing, surfing, and skateboarding—will be added to the competition for the first time. Say konnichiwa at the opening ceremonies on July 24, which will be held at renowned architect Kengo Kuma's New National Stadium. – Nicholas DeRenzo
2. Score Tickets to Euro 2020
Still feeling World Cup withdrawal? Get your “football" fix at the UEFA European Championship. From June 12 to July 12, 24 qualifying national teams will play games in stadiums from Bilbao to Baku, culminating in the semi-finals and final at London's hallowed Wembley Stadium. Will World Cup champion France bring home another trophy? Will Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal repeat its 2016 Euro win? Will the tortured English national team finally get its first title? Or will an upstart—like Greece in 2004—shock the world? —Justin Goldman
1. Soak Up Some Culture in Galway
Galway has long been called “the cultural heart of Ireland," so it's no surprise that this bohemian city on the country's wild west coast was named a 2020 European Capital of Culture (along with Rijeka, Croatia). The title puts a spotlight on the city (population 80,000) and County Galway, where more than 1,900 events will take place throughout the year. Things kick off in February with a seven-night opening ceremony featuring a fiery (literally) choreographed celebration starring a cast of 2,020 singing-and-drumming locals in Eyre Square. “This is a once-in-a-generation chance for Galway," says Paul Fahy, a county native and the artistic director of the Galway International Arts Festival (July 13–26). “It's a huge pressure. There's a heightened sense of expectation from audiences, not just from here but from all over the world." Art lovers will no doubt enjoy Kari Kola's illuminating work Savage Beauty, which will wash the Connemara mountains in green light to coincide with St. Patrick's Day, or the Druid Theatre Company's countywide tour of some of the best 20th-century one-act Irish plays. Visitors would also be wise to explore the rugged beauty of Connemara on a day trip with the charismatic Mairtin Óg Lally of Lally Tours, and to eat their way across town with Galway Food Tours. But beware, says Fahy: “Galway has a reputation as a place people came to 20 years ago for a weekend and never left." —Ellen Carpenter