I woke early. I looked around my hotel room and wondered why there were snowflakes drifting through a six-inch hole in the ceiling. I rubbed my eyes to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Sure enough, in the early morning light, I could see a few snowflakes gently floating into my room. I smiled.
In any other circumstance, I would have been concerned. Today, I lay back and watched. This was so cool ... literally. I was in the world’s coldest hotel room, had a hole in my ceiling, there was no heating and no TV, but I wasn’t complaining. I was in Valcartier, a 20-minute ride from Quebec City, spending a night at the Hotel de Glace, affectionately known as the Ice Hotel and the only one of its kind in North America. If you’re looking for a unique experience, this is it. I was one of only about 160 people who would spend a night in this particular hotel room -- ever. A couple of months after my visit, the hotel and my room with it would become a very large puddle. Now, if that’s not unique, I don’t know what is.
1. Book Early
The original Ice Hotel was created in northern Sweden some 30 years ago. Today there are over a dozen dotted around the world. Hotel de Glace has been built and rebuilt almost 20 times since its first construction in 2001. It takes 500 tons of super-pure ice blocks, 40,000 tons of snow, and about 32 days (depending on the weather) to build this 42-room hotel, which has the shortest opening season (early January to late March) and super-high occupancy rates. So book early, and know that since the season is so weather dependent, it’s best to avoid the very end of March.
2. Arrive Early And Take A Guided Tour
The ice hotel itself is just one of a number of ice buildings in Valcartier. There is also an ice chapel, an ice bar, a Grand Hall, and an indoor and outdoor ice slide. Visitors who are not staying at the hotel can pay to visit the ice buildings, and there are guided tours available. This is worth doing to see the different themed hotel rooms and suites which, once guests start checking in, are no longer available for viewing.
The ice hotel itself is a single-story building with 42 rooms, most of which contain a double bed (a wooden box-spring and mattress covered with animal skins and sitting on blocks of ice), have no door (just a curtain), no closet, and no en-suite. But you do have beautiful one-of-a-kind wall carvings. It really is just a place to lay your head.
A much more spectacular building is the ice chapel. Complete with altar, pews, statues, and carvings made from nothing but frozen water, this is a marvelous piece of artwork whose beauty is enhanced by subtle lighting (yes, there is some electricity here). And it’s functional. The pews are covered with animal furs so you don’t stick to them, and the chapel can be booked for private weddings. The chapel is open all night and once the day visitors had left, the solitude of sitting in the subtly lit freezer was like having an art gallery to myself.
The Grand Hall is similar but larger -- an ice hall filled with exquisite ice sculptures and a showcase of what talented artists can do with frozen water.
The buildings are lit with accented blue and mauve lighting, which makes them particularly striking once the sun has gone down.
There is a modern, permanent (and heated) lodge on site which houses changing rooms and lockers, an auditorium, restrooms, and a restaurant where breakfast is served. It is open around the clock, so if you get cold at any time, you know you have an escape room and a place to reconnect with your fingers and toes.
3. Learn How To Stay Warm
This is key to making your stay enjoyable rather than miserable. In a warm and bright theater auditorium, we were instructed on how to remain comfortable during our stay. Each guest is given a sleeping bag in which to sleep -- it was more of a cocoon than a sleeping bag with only your eyes and nose visible when used correctly. The secret -- the most important thing we would learn -- is to make sure you go to bed warm and dry. Your cocoon will not dry or make you warm if you start off cold or, worse still, damp.
4. On The Rocks?
Ice bars can be found in many major cities around the globe -- from New York to Barcelona -- but here is the real deal. This is as authentic as it gets -- a bar where the ceiling, walls and floor, and everything inside is made of ice. Like your beer cold? You’ve come to the right place.
I preferred a brightly colored and ingeniously named cocktail for the most unique experience. It was served in a four-inch cube of ice with a one-inch hole drilled in it. It was awkward to hold to start but after one or two, strangely it became much easier. Ski gloves are an absolute must and no, the drink did not seem to get diluted during the evening as the room temperature was nicely below zero. We stood at the bar marveling at the intricate ice sculptures, chatting with fellow intrepid experience seekers, and wondered just how a fire log could keep burning without the place melting. Additional drinks did not help us solve this conundrum.
5. Get Warm Before Heading To Bed
There’s only one way to end the evening before turning in: getting warm. One fun activity to enjoy beforehand is whooshing down the outdoor ice slide. There are two parallel slides, so you can safely race your partner to the bottom. It’s a straight run and not very long so even us boomers can replay being a kid again. Then it was into the hot tub or sauna to get nice and toasty before heading to the Lodge to change into sleepwear. I wish I owned one of those head-to-toe cotton onesies that my grandpa wore back in the early 1900s. Short of that, a cotton tee shirt and thermal longjohns did the trick. I brushed my teeth, used the restroom -- this is vital -- jumped into my snow boots, slipped on my ski pants and ski jacket, popped a fresh pair of socks in my pocket, and headed to my room. Once there, I followed the advice of our instructors, slipping on a dry pair of socks before shimmying into my sleeping bag. The reason: Your feet tend to sweat and the damp will make you feel cold all night. Good advice.
6. Book A Second Hotel
Breakfast was served in the lodge, after which we checked out and were on our way by 9:30 a.m. We found it really useful to already have a room in a local hotel to which we could return and get changed for the day ahead. If you’re staying in the area, it’s also useful to check in before heading to the Ice Hotel and take only what you will need for the one night. The lockers in the lodge aren’t designed to hold large suitcases.
7. Visit Quebec City And Go Dog Sledding
Although there is no need to spend more than a single night here, there are other things to see and do in the area that will make a visit to the area worthwhile. Quebec City, with its Old Town European ambiance and quintessentially French cuisine in cozy restaurants that retain their tasteful Christmas decorations until the beginning of February, will make you feel you have been transported 3,000 miles east to the west bank of the Seine.
Another popular option is to try dog sledding 45 minutes from Quebec City with Au Chalet en Bois Rond. You can choose to drive the dog sled or simply sit back and enjoy the ride through the snowy woods. If you have never tried this, don’t pass on this terrific opportunity. Just remember you are in Quebec, so the dogs speak French. En avant! (Or “Onward!”)
If you don’t like the cold, you might think this is not for you. But with good planning, you will stay warm and have an experience others will envy -- and that will be the basis of many a dinner party story. You can find a helpful preparation guide here. I woke warm after a surprisingly good night’s sleep. Those colored cocktails obviously did the trick. Just don’t forget to visit the restroom before turning in.