Chill Out at the Ice Hotel and Have an “Ice Stay”

“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 crystalline walls, ceilings, beds, furniture, luminescent chandeliers and even the glasses you drink from at the bar.

And 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. Over 12,000 tons of snow and 400 tons of ice are used and once the weather warms up, around early April, the 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 of them.

And a stay at any of the Hotels 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 you up. Be careful though, about where you put your glass down. Whether hot or cold, the drink tends to slip off the bar. And you might not notice because you’ll be up dancing at the disco, rocking away to the beat of Euro-pop hits. So what if you think you can’t dance? People dance happily in groups or on their own and nobody minds either way. There’s no need to worry about rejection or “getting the cold shoulder” here.
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If you’re not dancing the night away in the disco or even admiring the 400lb ice chandelier in the hallway (just how do they get it to stay up there?), then look out for the Himalayan photo exhibit with its pictures of the trek to the world’s highest mountains. And feel glad you’re only spending one night in this ice haven. Those explorers did it for much, much longer and in hazardous conditions too! Brrrr!

For those not feeling very adventurous, you can easily take a tour of the property for only $14 CAN–over 70,000 people do it this way every year. Or, better yet, join the courageous and spend that one-of-a-kind night here. There’s nothing like bragging you spent the night in temperatures that hover between 23 and 28 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 2 to minus 5 degrees). And survived.

But first you’ll have to take an information class to learn 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). Note they recommend you sleep nude. Yes, really. Honeymooners, should you happen to be among them, 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.
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The best practice is actually to go in the outside hot tub to increase your core temperature. You’ll need to wear your winter hat for this, but don’t worry, everyone does. Hats and hot tubs go surprisingly well together. Then you dry off in the dry sauna and put your spa robe (provided), boots and hat back on, before heading 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 — that would cause humidity and you’d eventually get cold. Oh, and don’t wear cotton–even if it’s what your thermals are made off–should you decide to go the thermal, rather than the nude, route. Cotton, once it gets wet with perspiration, also makes you feel cold. Even wearing that day’s socks to bed can do the same thing, so put on fresh synthetic socks, right before you climb in.
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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 made 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 and they’ll be just fine in the morning.
The rooms are pretty much bare apart from the ice beds and the powdery snow that lies between them (remember you’re there to sleep; there would be no point in hanging around. Much too cold for that). There are no Picassos or Monet’s on these 12-inch-thick walls. And although you won’t find a nicely locked door between you and the other guests–just a curtain–everything feels safe. Interesting to find the lights in the room are actually placed inside each bed itself, giving off an other-worldly glow. It means you don’t have to move anywhere to turn them off. Keeping your nose warm is the hardest part, but this can be resolved by pulling your hat down onto your nose.
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Next day, you’ll see the proud, beaming faces of the snow warriors who survived their sub-zero night(most people do it only once, we’re creatures of comfort, after all). The successful regale how long it took them to get to sleep, how warm their plush bags were and how surprised they were to don snow boots still remarkably dry and comfortable, before heading to the inviting hot showers 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, 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, a few short–yet somehow endless–yards away. They end up instead spending the rest of the night on a couch in the heated locker room!

Other than sleeping, the hotel offers activities that include cross-country skiing, ice-fishing, snow-shoeing, dog sledding and skating. Or you can simply stay warm by eating. The food is everything you’d expect from a five-snowflake resort and you can enjoy options like cheese fondue (try the bread, cheese and grape all in one mouthful) or the locally fished trout.

So how did it all turn out? After a successful night at the Ice Hotel, this warm-weather lover anticipated returning home to some toasty 50 degree weather. But snow boots and thermals snugly packed away, I surprisingly missed the Ice Hotel and all its quirky offerings. Was it beautiful? Breath-taking, like nothing you’ll see anywhere else in North America. Was it frigid? Not for the adventurous in spirit. More importantly, was it worth it? Absolutely. Unequivocally. It’s an experience that, I, for one, have frozen in my memory.