I am not a winter person. The first time I witnessed snow was when I was 16 years old. My grandmother and I had just flown 24 hours from New Delhi to New York and we woke up to see a winter wonderland outside our window. From the heated room at the Hilton Hotel, it looked as magnificent as I had always expected North American winter to look like. Only once I stepped outside to make a snowman (the kids in Hollywood movies seemed to do it so easily), I realized a chilly breeze that numbed my face instantly, came as an accompaniment to the snow-white vistas.
Thankfully, I moved to the South the following day and didn't have to bear below freezing temperatures more than a few times a year. Between living in north India and Atlanta, I never really got comfortable with winter or snow.
Then what on Earth drove me to sleep at a hotel made entirely of ice?
I first heard about Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel) while visiting Montreal, Canada for work. It was listed as one of the must-see winter attractions located near Quebec City, only a three-hour drive from where I was at the time. I remembered one of late Nelson Mandela's quotes, "Courage isn't the absence of fear, but the ability to overcome it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear." After looking at pictures and reading reviews by other travellers, my curiosity took over my fear of freezing. My friends questioned my judgment when I told them that the hotel was constructed in January and melted away in March each year. It definitely took some courage to sleep overnight inside a giant igloo, but I was determined to conquer my fear.
Hôtel de Glace in Quebec City is perhaps the largest ice hotel in the world. With 44 rooms, a chapel, ice bar and slides, it is an incomprehensible structure that you can only see to understand. All guests are given a tour of the hotel and explained how it is created. Basically, a huge metal dome is placed at the location of the hotel, which is among the woods about ten minutes outside the city. Snow accumulates over the dome during the course of a few weeks. Then clear ice is brought in to construct the walls that form the layout of the rooms. Local artists from Quebec are hired to carve out the ice into sculptures and wall murals. Students from architectural and design schools also come in and create the décor of the ice suites. Coloured LED lights give it a nice visual effect as you walk through the hallways.
Each one of the suites and chambers at the ice hotel had a different theme and layout. The ice beds were shaped into circle, star and square platforms. No, I didn't have to lie down directly on the ice. There were mattresses, cushions and pillows like on any other hotel. Sofas, chairs and coffee tables were also carved out entirely of ice. I was surprised to see a working fireplace (contained by glass) in the honeymoon suite. The contrast of whitewashed walls, clear ice beds, colourful backdrop lights against the delicately carved murals made it feel like I was in a fairytale ice castle.
Being that it was -20C (-4F) in Quebec City, I was very well layered with thermal underclothes, flannel, cashmere and a down parka. Along with that, two pairs of gloves, two caps, wool tights and snow booths barely managed to keep me from shivering. It was THE coldest I had been in my entire life!
Hôtel de Glace was open to daytime visitors between 8am and 8pm, so I could only check in after dinner and not go to my room until I attended an orientation session.
During the evening, I hung out at the Ice Bar sipping chilled cocktails served in a glass made of ice. Some of the guests tried to get their blood flowing by moving to eighties music under disco lights. It was a happening Ice Club, only without high heels or cocktail dresses. I had to keep my gloves and parka on the entire time.
After a tour of the ice hotel, I was taken to a large heated cabin appropriately named "Celsius" that had locker rooms, showers, a sitting area, café and Wi-Fi. This is where overnight guests were given an hour-long workshop on "how to survive at an ice hotel." The instructor told us that if proper measures were not taken, one could die or at least suffer major brain damage or hypothermia in the night. As I mentioned earlier, I had no prior experience in winterizing, let alone camping, but I was not going to give up now. I kept telling myself, "Conquer your fears and live to tell about it."
During the workshop, guests were told to take a hot shower. Then to put on bathing suits and run to one of the outdoor Jacuzzis or steam rooms. I still don't understand why they didn't plan for a backup indoor hot tub for people like me. I skipped this step, as I could not leave the building wearing a bikini, only to end up in a hot tub with a warm body and icicles on my face. After other guests enjoyed the hot soak under the stars, it was time to make another dash back into the cabin. We were reminded to make sure to completely dry ourselves for any dampness could result in discomfort.
To prepare for the night, we needed to change into long johns or pyjamas (no winter wear) and walk back to our rooms where we had sleeping bags waiting for us. Taking off the parka and stepping inside a North Face sleeping bag took a leap of faith. One had to act quickly to zip it up or take of risk at getting frost bitten within matter of seconds. It was wise to leave a wool hat on to keep my head warm. Apparently, the sleeping bag (if used properly) preserved heat from the body and regulated temperature throughout the night. Campers and trekkers in snowy conditions used it to sleep outside. Here I was on what felt like a Tempur-Pedic mattress (probably because of how hard it got), with four walls and candlelight. This was better than camping!
Going to the restroom in the middle of the night was out of the question. It meant going through an entire ritual of unzipping, exposing, dressing, running, exposing and zipping, which would take at least thirty minutes. Restrooms were only located at the Celsius cabin, not at the ice hotel.
My room did not have doors or windows, but it was absolutely stark quiet. I could not hear my neighbours or anyone passing down the hallway, even though there was only a curtain in place of a door. While I lay still on my ice bed in my serene ice room, I looked around the peaceful surrounding and carved sculptures, enjoying the magnificence of the place and felt fortunate to have had the experience.
Being a light sleeper, I slept very well in my ice room. It was cold but very comfortable. When I woke up to the early morning alarm (guests have to vacate their rooms by 8 a.m.), the water bottle at my bedside had completely turned into ice.
When I returned to the cabin, I found that a few of the guests had given up in the middle of the night. They had traded their ice rooms for leather couches and a heated living room. Hôtel de Glace offered back up bookings at a regular hotel nearby in conjunction to the ice rooms, so some folks had made their way out of the ice hotel already.
Sleeping at an ice hotel is not for the faint hearted. It is not a scary adventure either. It is cold, but marvellous experience that I will cherish forever. Every time I tell someone "I stayed at an ice hotel in Quebec" they raise an eyebrow thinking I am quite the daredevil. But if you plan properly and follow instructions correctly, you may actually wake up with a restful sleep and a conquered fear.
Read more about my winter adventures in Quebec on my blog, Go Eat Give.