The Cold Shoulder: A Night at the Ice Hotel in Quebec

There was palpable trepidation as the date approached. I swallowed hard and could almost detect the raw beginnings of a sore throat.  Was I feverish?  The Toronto forecast predicted a high of -5 for the afternoon. Were we really going to sleep, overnight, in a room that hovered around –3 degrees?

I love everything that is associated with being uncomfortably hot, sweating, humidity and summer heat advisories. I love the beach, surf, sand and the marriage of coconut oil and salty ocean air in my nose. What were we thinking? A night at Hotel de Glace (yes, the Ice Hotel!) in Quebec in February? Voluntarily?

Kim experienced the sore throat sensation too, surely it was a psychological symptom. I couldn’t fathom anything worse than being smacked with a snivelling cold and having to sleep in an igloo overnight. I ate oregano pills like Smarties and drank gallons of orange juice on my strict cold prevention plan until I gave myself a psychological ulcer.

It had to be done. It was a joint entry on our must-do life list. Hundreds had survived before us, surely we wouldn’t perish in the night of hypothermia or bad thermal fashions.

The Inside Scoop (spoiler content below):

When you book a night at the Ice Hotel, you are also provided with a room at the Sheraton Four Points in case of a big suck-out sometime during the night. A shuttle runs between the two hotels (five minutes apart) constantly. So, we had that. And we had Fireball cinnamon whiskey. And outdoor hot tubs and a sauna to warm our blood in.

Ignoring the Air Canada flight delay that backed us up, we dropped our bags at the Sheraton and made our way out to the Ice Hotel just before sundown for a sneak preview. Guests (and the general paying public– for $16) can tour all the hotel rooms and suites until 6pm. No two rooms are alike, and the elaborate carvings are like exploring an Arctic gallery. The theme suites carry a bigger price tag, but are worthy of the upgrade. Uplighting from the beds (no, you don’t sleep on ice—there are foam mattresses and serious sub-zero North Face sleeping bags to snug-up in) create a very sensual and surreal space. This year’s theme was biodiversity, and the artists embraced this concept with giant tree frogs, palm fronds, herons, hammerhead sharks, jellyfish, gigantic bumblebees and lily pads.

Entering the Ice Hotel for the first time creates an instant, undeniable jaw-dropper-moment. And even as the minutes pass by, the sense of wonder and awe escalates. I had to keep reminding myself that I was surrounded by ice. My kid-sized self dreamed of such a dreamy escape in a very primitive “snowbank hole” (I won’t even credit myself with the term igloo. We built fox holes in snowbanks on the verge of collapse that we quickly crawled out of after overwhelming claustrophobia).

It was definitely -3 inside and despite my torso being warm, my oh-so-cool new Converse boots felt like ice sculptures on my feet in no time. Mild panic set in as I realized this was as warm as I was going to be.  Kim assured me that I just needed a drink. Our hotel stay included one free cocktail in the famous glass carved out of ice. Finally I was able to drink a lychee martini without slopping it on myself at some point. Rectangular glasses do have their merits!

I spied mulled wine and Caribou on the drink list ($9) and needed further warming.  I had read about the Caribou drink—served hot or cold, it is a blend of port, brandy, mineral water and maple syrup. The port represented the poor man’s wine of the UK, while the brandy was associated with the French. The combination is an ode to Canada’s two founding European nations, and when blended with maple syrup from Canada’s First Nations, it serves as testament to our strong union.

I felt more unified with the Caribou inside me. Kim still had her jacket open and refused a toque. I was zipped up, toqued, with Hot Shots in my palm. I asked if we could take refuge in the warming centre called Celsius.

This is the only reprieve at the Ice Hotel, and it’s open all night. They have hot chocolate and coffee, an ambient fireplace, proper toilets made out of porcelain, not ice– and hair dryers. No showers though.

We (I) thawed and soon returned to the Sheraton to re-pack for our night at the Ice Hotel, with a better sense of what to expect and dread. There are no doors on the hotel rooms (just a heavy curtain to draw closed), so you have to squish your belongings into two bags that the hotel provides and keep them in the locker area.

We piled on the layers and non-cotton longjohns. We took sips of Fireball. We ordered French onion soup and a carafe of red. And a scallop and smoked trout salad verrine that we are still joking about. The salad part was definitely lost in translation, and our thoughts of splitting it were laughable when it arrived in a shot glass with a blade of grass sticking a foot out of it. Pretty, but not practical. I had trail mix back in the room if need be.

(Note: Le Dijon at the Sheraton is basically your only option for dinner unless you order in St. Hubert’s or a pizza. There is nothing in the vicinity—walking or otherwise).

We shuttled back out to the Ice Hotel with the excitement that tickles your stomach, and immediately swooned at the magic of it all when we approached. It glowed like a fantasy land that we had golden tickets to visit. Eighty-five others had golden tickets as well, but the moment was solitary, and it was like walking into our own private dream.

All guests are required to attend a mandatory information session on staying at the hotel. We scoffed at this a bit, but my friends Nicole and PJ who had stayed at there just two weeks before insisted. “You need to go, or you’ll never figure out how to get into your sleeping bag.”

I still didn’t believe them, because I have at times, slept in sleeping bags more often than a proper bed in many uncomfortable places around the world. Usually while breathing in a suffocating mosquito net lazily hung from some tree or rafter. But, this was the ice hotel after all, and I had hypothermia worries eating away at me.

The info session ended up being quite comical and involved a staff person reminding us not to place dentures on the bedside ice table, or she would be forced to come by in the morning with a hair dryer to remove them. Anything wet will freeze to the surface, and every surface is ice. So, wet bikinis, towels, dentures and the like had to be kept in the lockers in the Celsius area.

We were advised to change into the dry socks for sleeping that we didn’t bring. And by the wide eyed response of everyone else, they hadn’t either. Cotton was a danger zone due to sweating and freezing, we received the  memo on that one. Toques and gloves as sleep gear were also advised (Kim braved the night without either).

Sleeping bags would be delivered to our room along with the polypropelene sausage casing-liners that we had to crawl into first. If one had to pee in the night, the sleeping bags could be unzipped at the bottom so you could shuffle like a worm to the Celsius lounge.  Logs would be delivered to the rooms with fireplaces and would be lit at 10. I felt hope in the fire.

Informed, we poured ourselves some French wine and went for another wander to see the hotel’s  transition into night. We took a run at the slide in the middle of the hotel, which is designed for slippery pants, not the type I had on which left me feeling more like an adhesive bandage…with an anxious 6-year-old ready to ram me from behind.

Outside the stars studded the sky, and there was an enormous peace felt in the presence of the hotel and the isolation it offered. The chapel with the stretched out caribou skins on ice pews bled romance in the buttery light. The ice bar (with throbbing music, ambient fireplaces and a moody blue and lime hue) offered a great space to exchange stories with other guests prompted by the question, “So, what made you decide to come here?”

The hot tub area had three tubs and a tiny sauna that looked much like an over-sized whiskey keg.  I think Kim and I spent three hours there absorbing as much of the 100 degree temps as we could. I’ve never experienced a night more still. Most of the hotel was asleep by 2, but we carried on with the engaging and hilarious conversation of another Toronto couple, Amy and Evan.

Around 3:30 we decided it was time to brave our sleeping quarters. Our bones were now radiating heat from the hot tub and dry-off period in the sauna.

Kim stoked our fire to a five-alarm blaze inside the glass. Our room was a beautiful collision of fire and ice. It was a moment that rooted itself deep inside my mind. It was a moment as significant as walking into the depths of a Central American rainforest for the first time. As grand as banging along the vast stretches of savannah in Masai Mara in a hot-box of a Land Rover in Kenya looking for lions. It was the thumping heart of seeing my first blue footed booby in the Galapagos Islands. It was the kind of moment that made me feel so alive and grateful, stunned and awestruck by where we can find ourselves in life.

We slept like babes in arms. When we awoke, snow was actually falling inside our room through the opening in the ceiling where the fireplace vent poked out. We did it. We survived the night in a hotel made entirely of ice.

We all have the ability to live our dreams out loud. Staying in the Ice Hotel was our dream. I realize it’s not an experience that many are eager to have, but, what’s yours? Next on our list are the orbs suspended in the skyscraper-sized trees of Coquitlam on Vancouver Island.

Where do you want to sleep?

Book your night at the Hotel de Glace here– *open until March 20th, 2011

Categories: Passport Please | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “The Cold Shoulder: A Night at the Ice Hotel in Quebec

  1. Quelle belle aventure en terre québécoise! I really enjoyed the post … 🙂

  2. Jane Gardner

    I choose a night at the Chateau Frontenac! What an adventure Jules. You and Kim are almost Voyageurs!!

  3. noelle

    Love it!! You have me sold on this adventure. =) Thank you for sharing.

  4. Thanks very interesting blog!

  5. Pingback: Ice Hotel – Quebec (Canada) | World for Travel

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