Romancing the goosebumps at Canada’s ice hotel
Staying in an ice hotel became one of those ‘do it before I die’ desires about 10 years ago when I saw an article about the world’s first ice hotel.
Story and pics by Wanda Hennig
A modified version of this story first appeared in the travel magazine of the Sunday Tribune, South Africa.
“What does a girl from the subtropics wear for a night at the Ice Hotel?”
I ask my question on Facebook. In a flash, an answer bounces back. “Your favorite string of diamonds, of course.”
The message comes from aboard a supply ship bound for Sharjah in the Persian Gulf. My friend is the master of the vessel. I know where his mind is going with the sparklers suggestion…
But I get the picture and not a bad idea, with the right person. Champagne chilling, the white shag rug, candles flickering atop tables chiseled from ice, the single strand of gems glinting and bodies warmed by flames dancing in the fireplace.
Schmaltzy? Indeed. Clichéd? For sure. Romantic? What could be more so? Love in a pristine sanctuary that comes into being each year, never in quite the same form, and then melts away, like it was all an illusion.
Now for the real thing. Imagine a hotel with no restaurant, no room service, no TV or Internet access and where, to get to the loo in the middle of the night, you have to negotiate an outdoor courtyard where the temperature is below freezing and, if snow is falling, it will be falling on you.
Sound crazy? Believe me when I say that’s a bit of an understatement.
In fact, spending a night at Canada’s Hôtel de Glace — ice hotel — makes you feel you must be a little crazy, if not downright insane. At least that’s what it did to me. And not just because the interior, an otherworldly maze of ice chambers, glistening ice columns, glinting ice chandeliers and snowy-white arches and alcoves, looked like it should be inhabited by an ice queen and her attendants, instead of regular folk bundled against the cold.
It starts when you park your car in a snowy lot and, layered against the cold and
looking somewhat like the Michelin man, you pull your bags through the snow to the Pavillon Talik, a down-home wooden lodge that is perched a very cold walk up a hill from the Hôtel de Glace.
The Pavillon Talik is where you register, get a locker to leave all but your overnight essentials, which include a swimming costume and sandals (for your outdoor hot tub experience in what is paradoxically called the ‘Nordic relaxation area’), and assemble for a briefing on how best to survive your night on your ice bed in the refrigerator adorned with snowy sculptures that is your room.
Fortify yourself with dinner
If you’re planning to fortify yourself with dinner or recover with breakfast, you walk, yes, through more snow, up the hill from the Pavillon Talik to the Auberge Duchesnay. This is sort of luxury lodge with a good restaurant, a rather fabulous menu, an impressive wine list — and regular heated rooms with real beds and plump pillows, which some of the overnight ice hotel packages offer the chickenhearted as a backup.
(Note: Renting one of these rooms is a good idea of you’re getting married in the Hôtel de Glace chapel and hoping to consummate your union without succumbing to ice balls, a glacial g-spot, and losing vital body parts to frostbite. At least that was my verdict after my fantasy met harsh reality.)
Staying in an ice hotel became one of those “do it before I die” desires about 10 years ago when I saw an article about the world’s first ice hotel, which had opened a couple of years before in the Swedish village of Jukkasjärvi.
A surreal, whimsical, sculpted place
What etched itself in my mind was a surreal, whimsical, sculpted place of lofty ceilings, gentle lines, soaring columns, intricate carving and glistening furnishings all created from ice and packed snow. Its ephemeral nature — the idea that each year it came into being, never in quite the same way, and then melted like an illusion — tickled some sense of wonder.
Life hasn’t yet taken me to Sweden. But it recently took me 40 minutes by road from Quebec City to North America’s only ice hotel. An annual winter phenomenon since 2001, it was inspired, as I was, by the one in Jukkasjärvi.
Like its Swedish counterpart, it’s a place that seems not quite of this world all the way to the Ice Bar, the center of activity for overnight guests with its ever-shifting mood
lighting that ranges through vivid purples, pinks, greens and mauves. Here people snap pictures, carve ice sculptures and drink colorful cocktails made from a boggling assortment of liquors and liqueurs and served in square ice glasses.
Your room at the Hôtel de Glace is yours from 9:00 p.m. until 8:00 a.m., which seems late, short — and early — until you think about it. Inside my room, waiting for me on my slab of ice with its wooden bed frame, is a foam mattress and a sleeping bag designed for temperatures as low as 30º C (-22º F).
No comfy place to curl up
No cuddly pillows, no room with a view unless you count the themed sculptures carved into your snow walls, no room service, no TV, no Internet access, no bath to laze in, no
bedside reading lamp or comfy place to curl up with your book.
You do have warm changing rooms in a heated building, which also houses the hotel loos, located in what is paradoxically called the Nordic relaxation area. The three hot tubs — the reason you’ve brought your swimming costume — are here, open to the stars, the snow should it be falling, and the sub-zero temperatures. “Use them,” our guide advised us in our Pavillon Talik briefing. “You warm up your sleeping bag. It doesn’t warm you up.”
Indeed. Shortly after midnight, I dutifully don my beach attire, skedaddle across the snow, shimmy up the icy wooden stairs and duck into the hot tub. Open for several hours to the frozen night, the water is as warm as my bath when I run it and forget about it for an hour.
Having endured many Durban summer, I usually think of saunas as hellholes, wondering why anyone would choose to go and sit somewhere to sweat. But tonight the small crowded sauna in the Nordic relaxation area is bliss.
You have the option of being a day-tripper and forgoing the adventure of a sleepover in this super-igloo built from 500 tons of ice blocks made in Montreal and 15,000 tons of snow, created with the aid of snow canons and water from a nearby lake. But that way you wouldn’t get to toss and turn, chilly in your Polar mummy bag with at most, your eyes, nose and mouth exposed to the elements — until persuaded to conquer the corridors of a frozen fortress and to jig past the outdoor warm tubs, wearing only your lightweight sleeping attire in
mid-winter Canada, by a need to pee.
I heard someone call what we were doing “upscale winter camping, except I don’t have to build my own shelter.” Crazy, indeed. But isn’t it the crazy things that make travel memorable?
The location of Canada’s Hôtel de Glace has changed since I was there. It is now built closer to Quebec. Check out their website. Also for rooms and rates and to book.
© Wanda Hennig, 2015