Ice Hotel Nightmares

Quebec City Travel Blog

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Ice Hotel

There was only a tiny gap left in the windscreen and I squinted through it desperately trying to see where the road was. Outside, the snow, (“frozen pellets” the radio had said ominously) rocketed towards me smashing into the front of the car. The windscreen wipers were barely moving at quarter speed and looked only seconds away from total collapse. I peered into the mirror. I was the only car on the road. Had I somehow missed the meeting that told everyone in Quebec to stay indoors and lie on thick bear rugs in front of cosy wood fires listening to Leonard Cohen?
Whatever, there were to be no hearthside happy endings for me tonight. Even if I made it through the blizzard my adventure was only just beginning. I was on my way northeast from Montreal towards Quebec City. My destination was “L’Hotel De Glace” an ice hotel just outside the charming cobbled street capital of Quebec.
“You don’t really want to stay the night do you?” Asked the concerned lady at my car rental agency.
“Just go visit it and then stay in Quebec City, much more comfortable and amazing food to boot.” She continued temptingly.
Hindsight is a marvellous thing? Why hadn’t I listened to her? I could have been lolling on a cosy firelit Grizzly right now. No, I’d got on my high horse and taken her cautiousness as a challenge and told myself that I should definitely spend a night there. It was an ice hotel after all. Surely over-nighting was the very point of the place wasn’t it? Besides, it was one of those things on my “hundred things to do before I die “ list. I’d always fancied trying it.
I was always meaning to go to the one in Northern Sweden but had never got round to it. Then I read that they’d opened one outside Quebec City. I’d always fancied going there as, in Canadian terms, it’s relatively ancient, the most European of all cities in North America…and, more importantly, the food was apparently superb.
So here I was in the most extreme snowstorm that I’d ever been in, driving some big anonymous American car up an endless Canadian highway into the middle of nowhere. Maybe they’d find my car in the spring when the snow melted, my hand frozen in one last desperate attempt to wipe the windscreen. I was beginning to panic slightly. What the hell was I doing here? I’ve got a lovely wife and kids back home, why couldn’t I just be an accountant or something? I was getting a state when…suddenly, like the reassuring beam of a lighthouse, there it was, a big blue sign: “Hotel De Glace 5kms,” I’d nearly made it.
I turned left onto the un-gritted exit and my car went into a tailspin. It must have turned through 1080 degrees as I froze and braced for the impact. But there was none. If there had been any other cars around I’d have been a goner. As it was, I ended up somehow facing in the right direction with the engine still running. It was clearly my destiny to freeze my arse off in the ice hotel and not die in the back seat of my car. I drove on cautiously.
I parked my shell-shocked car and clambered up to the imposing entrance lit by two huge tikki torches. A fairly frightening looking doorman asked to see my ID? Didn’t he realise what I’d been through to get here? I needed a drink and fast and I really felt that I was old enough. He explained politely that, to get into the place, you needed a series of coloured ID stickers indicating if you were a visitor, an overnight guest or just a passing polar bear. I retreated defeated to the cosy, warm lodge situated on the hill above.
Once I’d thawed out slightly and got my blue badge I wandered back down to have a look around. It really was quite extraordinary. The ice that is carved into huge blocks and used to build the place is not your normal bog-standard ice. Apparently this has too many impurities and so this stuff is especially purified and becomes far more see-through and allows it to do weird things with light and make you feel like you’re on the Superman set somewhere near the North Pole.
For entertainment there was a night-club and the obligatory “Absolut” bar complete with ice bar and ice glasses to drink from. There was also an ice chapel where a couple from Washington DC who, in that US diaspora type of way, fancied themselves as Scots and were getting married replete with bag-pipers and kilts.
I slipped away to visit the bedrooms as someone started reading some Robert Bruce in a terrible Scottish accent. Each room was a small windowless ice cell off long snow-tube corridors. Most had a particular theme. There were beds of ice made in the shape of Dragons and Sphinxes and Sleighs, it was all very impressive and outstandingly beautiful but I couldn’t get the fact that I was going to be spending the night here out of my head. The only thing in each room not made of ice was a thin mattress that lay on a concealed wooden board on top of each iced bed sculpture. Strewn over the mattresses were several rather scraggy animal hides of indeterminate origin. Nothing gave me any reassuring indication of any sort of warmth ahead.
I padded back up to the lodge to be told that I would have supper there before having a lecture on how to survive overnight in the hotel. I ate well, if not apprehensively, before assembling in front of the lodge’s inviting looking open fire for my lecture. The first thing that was produced was a very impressive looking Arctic sleeping bag. I felt better already. This didn’t last for long. I’m a bilingual French speaker and had felt the urge to show off by opting for the French language lecture. This was partly to avoid any possibility of meeting any English tourists but mostly, to show off. I would pay for my hubris.
A tough looking woman started speaking about the sleeping bag and I nearly jumped up to her aid. The noise coming from her mouth was like nothing I’d ever heard before, except once when our family cat got her tail caught in a door. I sat there looking round the room wondering if anyone else was going to do anything about the obvious pain she was in. French-Quebecois (for this was what she was semi-communicating in) is like no language that I have ever heard. It’s like listening to someone from deepest, darkest Glasgow giving a lecture in authentically guttural Chaucerian English. Worryingly, most people seemed to be understanding what she was saying. Any normal person would have owned up to their ignorance and got themselves transferred to the English lecture. Being English, I did nothing of the sort and nodded through the whole thing. I left none the wiser as to how I was going to survive the night in Guantanamo on ice.
A large group of overnighters were making their way down to the hotel so I fell in with them trying to pick up any tips I could. I quickly realised that I stuck out like a sore thumb. Everyone, bar me, was a couple. I felt a bit like the fully clothed person stumbling round a nudist colony. Most of the couples went off to the bar for their complimentary cocktail and the obligatory photographs. I took this opportunity to slip off towards my bedroom. I didn’t fancy being a wallflower and I was actually rather tired having spent the previous night out on the tiles in Montreal with my young “niece,” a student at McGill University. I had opted for the “sleigh” bedroom, mainly because it was the nearest to the external heated bathrooms that I planned to spend my night in if everything went pear-shaped. As I made my way towards it I came across a little courtyard in the middle of the building that I hadn’t noticed before. In the centre was a hot tub in which you could lie back and look at the stars. Things were looking up. I stripped off as quickly as possible in my room and put on the dressing gown that I’d been given in the lodge. I kept my feet in my warm furry boots and headed off back to the hot tub. I got in and, for a moment everything was fantastic. The starry canopy above me was crystal clear and I could feel my body gently recharging its’ batteries. Then, from another corner of the courtyard, came a canoodling couple in their matching dressing gowns. As they reached the wooden slats that surrounded the hot tub they noticed me and stopped in their tracks. Whatever information had been in their lecture had clearly not included the possibility of a solitary whale beached in the hot tub. I smiled politely but they studiously ignored me. They eventually got in but acted so awkwardly, staring at me and tapping their fingers on the rim that I soon got the hint. I hopped out, the icy air pricking me like a thousand little daggers. I got into my dressing gown and boots and legged it back to my cell. I put one of the animal skins on the floor and piled all my clothes onto it in a vain effort to keep them dry.
I clambered into my sleeping bag and tried to do it up from the inside. Halfway up my body, the zip broke off. I was nervous now. I didn’t know how serious not being completely covered might be but it was too cold to get out and try to get a new one. I was starting to feel a little lethargic. The way Ray Mears always tells you that you’re going to feel, moments before you die of exposure. I stuffed all my clothes into my sleeping bag and tried to wrap them round the opening of my sleeping bag. I was incredibly uncomfortable. Moments before I finally fell asleep, I can remember actually wondering if I was ever going to wake up again which didn’t make for a relaxing experience.
There was a womb-like silence in the room. The walls were over a metre thick and, cocooned in my broken sleeping bag, I felt a kinship with one of the Pharaonic slaves, locked up alive in his master’s tomb, watching the last chink of light being snuffed out by relieved courtiers. I presumed that a lot of my dark thoughts were to do with being alone? An enthusiastic blonde would have definitely made the whole experience a lot easier.
I did wake up, my nose numb with cold, aching slightly and realising that I had to get out of this place immediately. I had absolutely no idea what time it was. I threw off my sleeping bag and struggled into my sweaty damp clothes. I tried to pull on my boots only to find that, because they’d got damp after my hot tub, they’d completely frozen solid inside. I put on my socks and, carrying my boots scurried out of the building towards my car. A dozing security man jumped up out of some ice cubicle and asked me if everything was OK? I behaved in my best English fashion and nodded enthusiastically as I wandered towards the car park at five in the morning in my rapidly freezing socks. I got in the car, gunned the engine, whacked the heating on full and slid away in the direction of Quebec City and the Grizzly Bear rug.
Three days later having indulged myself in an orgiastic marathon of gluttony in one of the best cities I’ve ever visited I had time to reflect on my ice hotel experience. I was very glad to have seen it and very proud of myself for having braved a night. My advice is to definitely pay it a visit but, if you’re planning to spend the night, bring a blonde.

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photo by: peppertm