"I'm sorry, sir," she said in an Finnish take on the Omaha dialect, "Your plane does not seem to exist."
I winced. Of course it didn't. "My" plane was way out on the tarmac, far away from proletariat jumbo jets, accessible only through a gate that the automaker had staffed and commandeered for the afternoon.
It was an auspicious start to three days of attending Bentley's exclusive fantasy camp for its affluent super-fans, which purportedly exists to answer the question: What can you give the Bentley fan who already has everything? For drivers more accustomed to making graceful entries and exits in their posh vehicles, several days of power sliding on a private track more than suffices.
For the better part of a decade, Bentley has decamped to Kuusamo, the town located just south of the Arctic Circle, to prove the British performance bona-fides of its lineup on 19 square miles of frozen Kuusamojärvi lake, as part of the wintertime Power on Ice event. The program satisfies the need of high-end performance enthusiasts who want something different than arriving at another five-star hotel for another weekend of good eating, drinking, and relaxing. Plenty of brands assert that they have a bespoke answer for discerning customers, but Power on Ice is truly different. You need not be a Bentley owner to participate in the program, but an aficionado of the brand with some cash burning a pretty big hole in the pocket.
You need not be a Bentley owner to participate in the program, but an aficionado of the brand with some cash burning a pretty big hole in the pocket.
For an entry fee of approximately $13,000 per driver – round-trip flight to Finland not included – you can buy into an all-inclusive experience that includes two days of ice driving, ice karting, culinary adventures involving local game and fowl, and a nighttime dog sled ride through a snowy forest. (More on that later.) Non-driving companions can take part in all other aspects for a nominally lower price. A staff of about 50 Bentley drivers and event planners remain on hand to ensure that all participants' needs are consistently met.
Throughout the year, Bentley offers opportunities to engage with those enamored of the brand in the public eye, at race events and at auto shows, but its private occasions are sought-after affairs with guest lists often restricted to customers. Power on Ice is somewhere in between, where anyone can pay to hold a spot to drift a Bentley with abandon on the lake. The might of almost all the Bentley lineup is on display, with only the rear-wheel-drive Mulsanne and Continental GT convertibles sitting out this year. It's a chance to flog six-figure supercars in an unusual environment that has an ultrahigh threshold for damage and danger, since there are no obstacles on the plowed-out course on the ice – and it was also an opportunity to introduce potential owners to the Bentayga SUV.
By coincidence, all the guests in our cohort were Bentley owners, and were eager to drive the company's cars a little differently than they do their own. We all piled on to the aforementioned chartered flight, a Boeing 737 bedecked with Bentley logos, champagne, and first-class accommodations, which was more than spacious enough for the dozen or so of us that included five participants from the United States, Bentley representatives, and media. (Two participants from Poland, a father and son who were attending Power on Ice for the second year, arrived separately.) A fleet of Volkswagen Tiguans greeted us as night fell at Kuusamo Airport, a regional terminal about the size a seasonal Colorado airfield, where we met the drivers who would ferry us around Lapland for the couple of days. When he isn't in Finland, which is most of the year, "my" driver, Kevin, spends his time traveling the world as a medic for high-intensity racing events, and he knows endurance races. Naturally, he was kind when I nodded off on the half-hour ride to the Chalet Ruka Peak hotel after 30-hour journey to arrive.
But you don't pay handsomely to attend Power on Ice as some sort of a relaxing holiday. The high-intensity program typifies the active vacation.
But you don't pay handsomely to attend Power on Ice as some sort of a relaxing holiday. The high-intensity program typifies the active vacation, and driving began the next morning as the sun rose – which, in northern Finland, is just after 9:00 AM. The drive to the lake in the morning was astonishing, as even more snow had fallen overnight, covering the ground and trees in an opaline glow. It was barely freezing as we arrived to the impressive lakefront compound that belongs to the Juha Kankkunen Driving Academy, and the sky was still transitioning from gray to less-gray. After a quick driver's meeting over coffee and pastries held in a storybook-quality wooden lodge, we met the pro drivers who would accompany us for the two days of driving. (If you've lost count, I now have two drivers assigned to my needs.) Tiago, a former Portuguese racer with an impressive CV, walks me out to the chartreuse Continental GT Speed coupe that would serve as my introduction to drifting on the ice, with another journalist riding with us. A row of Bentleys, all equipped with studded Pirelli Sottozeros, awaited.
Not a bad day at the office, right? That's when it set in that I wasn't sure if I was qualified to do this. Neither an accomplished drifter nor a particularly strong swimmer, I was hesitant as I rode in the backseat of the GT Speed out toward the massive lake. Think "small town," not the pond that's in one. How thick is the ice? Tiago showed us by trying to fit an imaginary toaster oven between his hands, noting the multi-ton tractors in the distance, which serve the dual purpose of clearing the driving courses on the lake and extracting Bentleys stuck in the ice. If the tractors are okay, Tiago argued, we should be okay.
Getting pulled out by a tractor is a badge of honor, showing that you were driving aggressively and with purpose. (Or so we were told.)
Then, he switched off all the stability control systems, floored the gas pedal, and began to send us sideways around the introductory dynamics course of ess-bends and short straightaways. With no more than a snap of the wrist, the GT Speed easily drifted its back end around the bend, massive mounds of wet snow flying behind us and sideways. Tiago used experiential education to demonstrate the grip of Bentley's all-wheel-drive system, as well as proper technique, in more than a few laps around the course, before vacating the driver's seat. By the time my drive partner was on his first lap, we saw our GT Speed's candy apple red twin headfirst into a snowbank. The universal call for "Bentley down" at Power on Ice was voiced as "Tractoré!" – the understood cry for help to release a vehicle. Contrary to the practice of shaming drivers who go off-course, getting pulled out by a tractor is a badge of honor, showing that you were driving aggressively and with purpose. (Or so we were told.)
My partner and I had better luck as we became accustomed to driving on the ice. There's little you can do with all 626 horsepower from the GT Speed's massive, 6.0-liter W-12, but having 605 pound-feet of torque makes it very easy to get around. Getting used to an accelerator that's designed for gentle launches and refined acceleration, in situations that require active and immediate response, is one way of coming to grips with the fact that you're not in a Ford Focus RS. By that same token, the light and disconnected character of the GT Speed's steering was not much of a boon in pointing the Bentley around a corner. After several laps, I was able to hold a slide around a corner. By noon, I was almost mastering the Scandinavian flick. It was time for lunch, which was a lavish spread of local meats and treats back at the lodge.
There's little you can do with all 626 horsepower from the GT Speed's massive, 6.0-liter W-12, but having 605 pound-feet of torque makes it very easy to get around.
Throughout the rest of the day, we cycled through courses, and Bentley models, to continue to practice our drifting. It was subtly easier to rotate the right-hand-drive Flying Spur around the bend, because of its better-balanced front and rear proportions, and hilarious fun to partake in what felt like Secret Service evasive driving exercises. Toward the end of the day, when the clouds were beginning to form again, we got behind the wheel of the Bentayga. Despite its higher center of gravity, Bentley's first SUV slid rather nicely around the bends. With the Naim stereo cranked up and playing Brazilian samba music, and snow starting to fall at a rapid pace around us, riding in the Bentayga was an out-of-body experience more akin to sitting in a jazz club. Bentleys powering through the snow? Caipirinha, please!
Given that Power on Ice is billed as more than a drifting academy, there were plenty of other diversions. Just after lunch, my partner and I headed over to another corner of the lake, where a pack of some of the friendliest Norwegian and Alaskan huskies, commanded by trainer Lowry, were on hand to offer sled rides. You haven't truly lived until you've allowed a troupe of dogs to let you guide them – or to let them lead you – around a frozen lake. (The short version: Hold on tightly and only brake the sled if something is terribly wrong.) It was great practice for the evening's activity, where those same dogs, plus almost 50 others, gave each pair of participants a ride through a moonlit forest replete with twisty bends on an unfamiliar course. Why should you put your life in the paws of some dogs you don't know on an expensive vacation? It's the most fun you can have standing up.
Grip was nonexistent on the ice, but the GT3-R compensated with directness and steering with more heft.
We returned to the lake the next morning, after a dinner of reindeer and more local delicacies, held in a traditional Finnish cabin, for a second day of driving. First up was a turn behind the wheel of the Continental GT3-R, the stripped-out, 572-hp, racetrack-oriented thoroughbred that reset expectations from what we had practiced the day before. Throttle response was immediate. Grip was nonexistent on the ice, but the GT3-R compensated with directness and steering with more heft. The noise from the engine bay and exhaust pipes were enough to echo across the lake with Jaguar F-type levels of pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.
It was a thorough practice for a hot lap with Juha Kankkunen himself, the World Rally Champion and record holder who runs the school on the lake that he owns. Juha also runs the winter driving course in an Audi RS 3, among other vehicles, and corroborated the evidence of his wins as he made it seem easy to drive at triple-digit speed around the icy course. The hot lap on the cold track was strangely anticlimactic, as it had been almost as much fun proving to myself that I was capable of driving myself around. That said, I'll never be as confident on the ice, or the tarmac, for that matter, as Juha, who seemed to enjoy his taxi-driver role in Power on Ice.
The day concluded with the chance to take go karts with studded tires out on the ice for some friendly competition, before we headed back to the hotel for a final group dinner. Toward the end of the coursed meal, our drivers presented us with certificates of completion for a job well done – and not a wreck had. The participant who required the most pulls out of the snow was rewarded with tractor-shaped cufflinks. Toasts were initiated, to thank the pro drivers, who doubled as fearless professors for my cohort's group, as well as the others that took part in January and February. A feeling stronger than camaraderie had formed in the short time that our group had been together. It finally sunk in that there would be no third day of exhilarating fun on the ice, and that all that was left was a long day of travel.
Every participant in the group indicated near-total fulfillment from the experience.
Camp was over. It was time to go home.
By this point, I was a converted believer in the transformative power of two winter days, both to produce more confident drivers and to meet like-minded enthusiasts. There are surely Bentley owners who want to take part in Power on Ice to prove their driving prowess to a spouse or family member, or to try a new experience that's virtually impossible to replicate on their own – and every participant in the group indicated near-total fulfillment from the experience.
The next morning, the group traveled together back to Helsinki on the charter flight, and bid each other goodbye at the airport. They were returning to Bentleys. It was all too easy for me to find my gate.