I stood frozen. It wasn’t just the bitter cold of Quebec in February. I was looking at an Eskimo’s wet dream.
L’Hotel Glace, the Ice Hotel, is the biggest, most magnificent, most elegant igloo anyone has ever imagined. I knew it was insane – a spoiled Californian going to Quebec in mid-winter? Nuts. But now I am glad I went even if I was crazy – as crazy as les Quebecois, I learned.
It was a cold, snowy, wild week in the frozen North. I arrived in the midst of their Carnaval – a Mardi Gras in the snow. (Well, if they are going to celebrate it, it has to be in the snow up there.) I went to a snowy Nordic spa with an icy waterfall to splash in next to the hot tub. I saw truly mad Quebecois frolic in public in the snow wearing bathing suits.
This hotel is made of ice. “I may have to write about how you Quebecois torture yourselves,” I said to my guide, Sylvan. “No, Andrea, you must understand. We embrace winter, so we can enjoy it. Otherwise, it is just a long boring wait until spring,” he laughed.
So here I was embracing winter in a big way. I took a daylight tour of the palace that exists only three months of the year, from January through the end of March. Artists and architects help design it and a crew of 74 works around the clock for three weeks to construct it each year. During daylight hours for $14.00 Canadian, the public can tour it, but at nightfall it belongs to the overnight guests.
As dusk falls, the hotel takes on an eerie beauty as the ice glows. I toured the lushly carved theme suites lit with fiber optic lights embedded in the ice – the Chinese room, the Egyptian room, a Viking room, a room with an elaborate sleigh bed carved out of ice. There's even a honeymoon suite with a specially built fireplace that sheds no heat so the room won't melt.
Guests pay anywhere from $140.00 per person to $500.00 for a suite. Before I went off to a fine gourmet restaurant on the resort grounds where I enjoyed a sumptuous dinner and gorged on fondue, I met a bride and groom, newlywed, married in the fairy-tale lovely, ice wedding chapel. The bride wore a white silk dress and high white fur boots. They eloped – no worries about guests. “You can only have the chapel a half hour because the seats are ice and guests get cold,” the bride laughed. Their love and a fur robe kept her warm through the ceremony.
Before being turned loose in our accommodations, we guests had to have our special “sleep training”. Ambroise, in his Canuk accent, showed us the bag, good to 40 degrees below zero (where Fahrenheit and centigrade finally meet), that would be waiting for us in our rooms. He whipped one out of its bag. “To be warm you need to get much hair in ‘ere,” he stated. Easy for him to say. He had a thick, full ponytail. One of our numbers was bald, another, a girl, sported a crew cut. “So you must shock eet much.” We were dumfounded.
He looked at our blank expressions and then demonstrated, shaking the sleeping bag vigorously. We relaxed and laughed, “Oh, air – shake it to get air in it.” He suddenly understood our confusion and grabbed his ponytail, “No, not these.” We were to put anything we didn’t want to freeze in the bag, and go cool rather than sweat because that would freeze us to our bags. He also said there were a few emergency rooms for anyone who chickened out.
Ambroise then told us to go to the courtyard where the only sources of heat were located – the bathroom building, hot tub and a sauna, to “heat ze core” of our bodies. If we used the hot tub, wore a hat, the rising steam wouldn’t freeze our hair.
We were free. We made our way to the N’Ice Club. The music system was protected in a fur-lined wood box, the iced speakers belted out loud music. Nooks of snow held ice tables and chairs. I got a drink in a glass made of ice. “Hey, my drink froze,” complained one guest. “No problem,” the bartender said. “We have a refrigerator in a tent outside. I’ll get you a warm one.”
If the hotel was cold, the music was hot, we danced in our heavy coats, scarves, boots, earmuffs, mittens and fur. In Quebec, fur does not inspire protests, but envy. Coveting warmth is a blatant sin up there. The most successful pickup line men use is, “Come with me. I’ll keep you warm". As much as we danced, we knew we had to go bed.
I was smart and came up with strategy. I dehydrated myself the last two hours (no plumbing in the ice and there were lots of snowy corridors between my room and the bathrooms). When one of us put Ambroise’s warning to the test, removed his hat in the hot tub, he timed it and found it took 20 seconds to freeze his hair. I opted for the dry sauna, wore my long johns under the fleece robe we’d been issued. I also took my outer clothes to warm them by the stove. I ran pell mell back to the room and stuffed the hot clothes down into the sleeping bag where they could warm my feet. I was toasty on my glowing bed of ice. I tied the neck muff of the sleeping bag around my neck, pulling up the hood with the built-in pillow, tied it so only my face was exposed to the night air. I was in a warm cocoon.
Between me and the ice there was a piece of plywood and a thin foam mattress, but the magic sleeping bag did its job. Wake up call was at 8:30 because at 9:00, the hotel opens to the public and some tourist is liable to photograph you at your morning worst if you want to sleep in. My clothes that had warmed my toes, had been kept warm by my body heat. I wriggled into them in the bag while my roommates cracked apart the frozen folds of their garments. I slipped out of the warm mummy bag into my boots and coat, ran for the bathroom and reception buildings where there was hot coffee waiting.
Over breakfast with other guests, I heard the stories. “My contacts froze. I forgot to put them in the bag. When I had to get up I couldn’t see and got lost. When I got to the bathrooms, I jumped into the hot shower and thought my family would have to move up here because I never wanted to leave it again. I used the hairdryer under my pajamas to get warm again.” We agreed it had been a unique experience we wouldn’t have missed. I was smug as I ate my Eggs Benedict. I had stayed warm, dry and asleep until the wake up call.
Yes, I know how to embrace winter now. Merci, Sylvan. Merci, Ambroise. Merci, beautiful Quebec.
The Ice Hotel gets booked well in advance. Make your reservations early.