Beautiful. And frigid.
That’s the comment left by one brave guest at Canada’s famed Hôtel de Glace on the shores of beautiful Lac St.-Joseph, just 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 six weeks to build and is rebuilt every year, each time slightly different from the year before. More than12,000 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.
A stay at Hôtel 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 getting the cold shoulder here.
For the less adventurous, you can easily take a quick tour of the property for a fee. The more courageous can spend a thrilling night inside, in temperatures that hover between -2 and -5 Celsius. If you do choose to spend the night,I can assure you it’s worth every chilly moment.
The kind folks at the Hôtel de Glace don’t want you to freeze overnight 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 -40 degrees (your fridge, by the way is only -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 an ice bed shaped like a sleigh.
Jet setters should first head to the main social scene at the hotel — the hot tub. Besides your bathing suit, I recommend a stylish woolly hat to keep your head and ears warm. And don’t worry about being fashionable: everyone else 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 then put on 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.
The secret to a good night’s sleep here 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. Pro tip: don’t wear cotton, even if it’s what your thermals are made of. Cotton, once it gets wet with perspiration, can make you feel very cold indeed.
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 — it’s much too cold for that). There are no Picassos or Monets hanging from the icy 30-centimetre 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.
You won’t find a nicely locked door between you and the other guests, but 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 so you’ll have no problem falling asleep.
For me, one or two shots of vodka (research purposes only, you understand) 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 travelers afraid of the dark, don’t worry — the magical glow from the outside hall gently illuminates your slumber.
If you’re not dancing the night away in the ice disco to the sounds of “What’s Cooler than being Cool?” and checking out each other’s hip moon boots, or even admiring the ice chandelier (just how do they get it to stay up there on the ceiling?), then look for the Himalayan photo exhibit.
This has photos of the trek to the Himalayas, the world’s highest mountains — just 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, 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). It’s the opportunity toregale 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 the next day 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. They actually have to leave the hotel and walk several yards outside into the heated lodge close by. The Ice Hotel has no toilets on the premises.
It’s not surprising that some just don’t make it back down from the lodge and end up carrying out the rest of their night’s sleep in the heated locker room area close to the restrooms!
In the morning, 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 includes 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 with 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?
It’s an experience that I, for one, have frozen in my memory.