by Sheila O’Connor
“Beautiful. And frigid”. That’s the comment left by one brave guest at Canada’s famed Ice Hotel on the shores of beautiful Lac St.-Joseph, a mere 20 minutes west of Quebec. The frozen fortress gets its name, not surprisingly, from the fact that nearly everything in the hotel is made of solid water. That includes the walls, ceilings, beds, furniture, chandeliers—even the glasses you drink from at the bar.
This icy enclave is a snow fort for kids of all ages. It takes almost 6 weeks to build and is rebuilt every year, each time slightly different from the year before. Over 12,000 tons of snow and 400 tons of ice are used. Once the weather warms up, around early April, the stunning edifice is demolished with less drama than it took to build it. The original idea came from the Ice Hotel in Sweden and some adventurous guests have experienced both.
A stay at Hotel de Glace would not be complete without a chilly libation at the N’Ice Club—try Absolut Vodka “in’ the rocks (the drink is poured into a glass formed from ice), or hot chocolate to heat up, but be careful where you put your glass down, whether the drink is hot or cold, it tends to slip off the edge. The pounding beats of the latest Euro-pop hits are bound to get you up rocking to the music. People dance happily in groups or on their own. There’s no need to worry about rejection or “getting the cold shoulder” here.
For you less adventurous, you can easily take a quick tour of the property for $14 CAN. Or you can join the courageous and spend an thrilling night here in temperatures that hover between 23 and 28 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 2 to minus 5 Celsius). As daring Divas, I trust the latter choice will be yours. I can assure you, it’s worth every chilly moment.
The kind folks at the Ice Hotel don’t want you to freeze to death, mercifully, so they give you an information class that shows you how to get into your mummy bag—it’s warm enough for temperatures that plummet to minus 40 degrees (your fridge, by the way is only minus 8 degrees). Honeymooners get to zip their bags together and yes, there’s even a wedding chapel on the premises. Makes you want to ask: “Did you get cold feet?” but that would be too corny. Romantic rooms include the ice bed shaped like a sleigh and the Nephertite room.
Of course, as a jet setting ice princess, you first head to the main social scene at the hotel—the hot tub. Besides that oh-so-sexy bikini you’ll be sporting, I recommend a stylish woolly hat to keep your head and ears warm. No fashion faux pas here darling, everyone is sporting a hat in the hot tub. The ritual is followed by a wonderful stint in the dry sauna to heat up your core temperature. You dress with a cozy spa robe, boots, and hat then head to your ice chamber. Your clothes for the next day go at the bottom of your sleeping back so they stay warm and don’t end up cold the next morning.
The secret to a good night’s sleep is actually to make sure you don’t breathe inside your sleeping bag as that would cause humidity and you’d eventually get cold. Even wearing that day’s socks to bed can do the same thing, so be sure to put on fresh socks right before you climb in.
The beds are surprisingly comfortable and don’t worry–you’re not sleeping on ice itself, although the outside of the bed is made from the frozen water. Instead, the inside is built of wood, with a foam padding on top. A pillow is provided inside the hood of the mummy bag. Leave your snowboots outside the bag, they’ll be fine in the morning. Oh, and don’t wear cotton, even if it’s what your thermals are made off. Cotton, once it gets wet with perspiration, makes you feel very cold.
The rooms are pretty much bare apart from the ice beds and the snow that lies between them (remember you’re only there to sleep, there would be no point in hanging around, much tooo cold for that). There are no Picassos or Monet’s hanging from the icy 12 inch thick walls. But the way the light dances on the dewy ceiling and the sheer drama of the fact you’re staying in a frozen building is enough to stimulate the senses. Although you won’t find a nicely locked door between you and the other guests, everything feels very safe. And the eerie silence of the room after midnight is a sure sign that the lack of a door is not something to worry about and you’ll have no problem falling asleep. For myself, several shots of Vodka (for research purposes only) along with that decadent hot tub experience were the reasons I fell asleep before I knew it.
The geniuses who designed the hotel strategically place lights inside the ice bed. Once you’re nestled up in your mummy wrap, the only light you need to switch off is the one you’re laying on. For you Divas who are afraid of the dark, don’t worry — the magical glow from the outside hall gently illuminates your slumber.
If you’re not checking out the hot tub or dancing the night away in the disco or admiring the ice chandelier (just how do they get it to stay up there?), then look for the Himalayan photo exhibit with its pictures of the trek to the world’s highest mountains. And feel glad you are only spending one night in the cold. Those explorers did it for much, much longer and in hazardous conditions! Brrrr!
At breakfast next day, you can see the proud, beaming faces of the snow warriors who survived their one night of sub-zero temperatures (most people only do it once, we are creatures of comfort, after all). They regale their fellow travelers with stories of how long it took them to get to sleep, how warm they felt in their bag and how surprised they were to don their snow boots still remarkably dry and comfortable, before heading for the hot showers in the warm locker room of the auberge.
Sad though, is the face of the visitor who had too much to imbibe (even if it wasn’t alcohol) and had to get out the sleeping bag to don warm clothes and make a bathroom visit in the wee small, freezing hours of the night, only to return and go through the whole undressing-and-back- into-the-bag-again process. It’s not surprising that some just don’t make it back down from the lodge situated several yards away outside and end up carrying out the rest of their nights sleep in the heated locker room area!
Activities outside the hotel include cross-country skiing, ice-fishing, snow-shoeing, dog sledding and skating. Or you can simply stay warm by eating. The food at the Ice Hotel is to die for and you can enjoy options like cheese fondue (try the bread, cheese and a grape all in one mouthful) or the locally fished trout.
After a successful night at the Ice hotel, I looked forward to returning home to my toasty 50 degree weather. But snow boots and thermals packed away, I surprisingly missed the Ice Hotel and all its quirky offerings. Was it beautiful? Breath-taking, like nothing you’ll see anywhere in North America. Was it frigid? Not for the adventurous in spirit. More importantly, was it worth it? Absolutely. It’s an experience that I, for one, have frozen in my memory.
IF YOU GO
Ice Hotel Canada: www.icehotel-canada.com; (877) 505-04223.
Quebec Province: www.bonjourquebec.com; (877) 266-5687 (877-BONJOUR)
To see more pictures of this amazing hotel, check out these photos by John Jerney at his website