The first thing you notice come bedtime at the Ice Hotel is how incredibly quiet it is. The insulating factor of four foot thick walls made of snow cannot be exaggerated. Lying in bed, the only sound we heard was our own breathing as we stared at the frozen puffs of steam that rose between us each time we exhaled.
Contrary to what many think, we were not sleeping on a block of ice. Well, not exactly….
With fifteen years experience in making their guests comfortable, hotel operators know that a cold hard surface is not conducive to a good night’s sleep.
So even though the beds are in fact ice sculptures, there’s a plywood sheet that separates the bed from a very comfortable mattress and pillow.
Earlier that afternoon we’d arrived at the site located on the former grounds of the Quebec City zoo, fifteen minutes north of downtown. After checking in at the neighboring indoor and aptly-named Celsius pavilion, we dropped our bags off in our assigned locker and then took advantage of the daylight to tour the entire facility.
Those expecting something resembling a simple igloo are in for a surprise; the place is huge. In fact, after the fourth and final construction phase is completed in late January, Ice Hotel Quebec contains forty-four guest rooms including seventeen suites, some with fireplace, and even one with private hot tub.
Aside from the pavilion, which is a normal modern building with lockers, showers, washrooms, and free coffee, tea and hot chocolate for overnighters, the hotel features an ice chapel, the ice bar complete with disco lights and a dance floor, an indoor ice slide, and an outdoor spa with four hot tubs and a steam sauna.
For day visitors guided tours are available seven days a week in English or French every half hour from 9:00 am until 8:00 pm.
On the tour they explain that hotel construction begins in late November when workers bring in snowmaking equipment to lay down a six foot slab of compacted snow. Once they run the wiring for the building’s lighting and electricity in the slab, large steel forms are brought in for more snow to be shaped around, and the above ground structure begins to take shape.
Snow and ice sculptors are next in line to work their magic. Using a new theme each year they create the decorative elements that make all common areas and suites such a wonder to behold.
This year’s theme: The Human Journey Through Time. Visitors are met inside the main entrance by ice sculptures reminiscent of Dali’s melting clocks, there’s a hand-crafted milk/ice-chandelier, and a creative take on early cave drawings on the walls using coffee as paint.
Upon completion the hotel contains over 25,000 tons of snow and uses over 800 tons of ice for its sculptures. Our guide told us that the hotel occupancy rate is around 90-95%.
The ice chapel hosts between twenty and thirty weddings each season which starts just after the New Year and ends the last weekend in March. I joked that when not being used for weddings the ice chapel was where guests went to pray they wouldn’t freeze to death in the middle of the night 🙂
All of the larger suites, have unique decorative touches such as snow carvings with lights embedded right into the walls, and tables, chairs and sculptures made of ice.
Though pretty to look at, the gas fireplaces are there more for show, not for heating. They have quadruple-insulated glass and chimney to ensure the heat is vented outside and not into the rooms. This makes sense when you think about it, otherwise the place would start melting from the inside.
Our guide also shared a few funny wedding anecdotes about couples who make not-so-wise wardrobe decisions. Like the Scottish chap who insisted on wearing his kilt, traditional commando-style, with nothing underneath. Only a few minutes into the ceremony he began crossing his legs…frequently. By the end of the proceedings he was asked how he was doing down there only to cuss that he couldn’t feel a thing below the waist! Hopefully a dip in the hot tub saved his honeymoon.
And ladies, if you’re going to wear that beautiful off-the-shoulder wedding dress, be sure to bring a shawl or cape to keep covered until you’re ready for the photos, because even though the snow does have an insulating factor, the inside temperature stays a touch below freezing at around -5C (25F); not exactly bare shoulder conditions.
After touring the rooms we headed into town for an early supper, returning in time for our scheduled 7 pm information session at the pavilion. Along with another couple from France we spent the next half hour learning the do’s and don’ts in order to stay comfortable and make the most of our overnight experience.
We learned that humidity is the enemy. Absorbent fabrics like cotton are to be avoided in favor of moisture wicking base layers under polar fleece or nylon shells. The thermal underwear we normally use for cross-country skiing was ideal for pajamas.
A few other tips; keep a spare pair of dry socks in your pocket to bring to the room and change into them just before bed to keep feet warm and dry, and a fifteen minute dip in the hot tub just before bed raises core body temperature bringing a little extra heat with you to fill that sleeping bag.
When the guided tours end at 8:00 pm the overnight areas are roped off, staff prepares the rooms for the night, and day visitor access is limited to the common areas.
Everyone follows the sound of the music and heads to the bar. After the information session we headed there ourselves to enjoy a cocktail served in a glass made of ice as we mingled with other guests.
We met people from California, Texas, Wisconsin, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec and Ontario, as well as several European countries, and some from as far away as Singapore and New Delhi.
Around 10:30 we went back to the pavilion to take that suggested soak in the hot tub. We picked up towels and bathrobes and after showering and putting on our bathing suits, we made a frantic 50 meter dash to the hot tubs in our bare sandaled feet out into a -27C winter night. It was actually quite invigorating.
The reward; climbing into the hot tub and feeling the rising steam insulate us from the freezing cold night air. The downside? Knowing we’d eventually have to step out of our steamy cocoon and make that scramble back into the pavilion in wet bathrobes.
Safely back indoors we dried off, changed into our sleep clothing and headed to our room for the night. Compared to the suites, our standard room was sparsely decorated, with a bed, a night table made of ice and a candle. For extra lighting there were also LED lights embedded into the platform of the bed, the switch within easy reach.
Despite being properly-dressed for the conditions, a long day spent in below freezing temperatures takes its toll. As we lay there grinning, fatigue set in and it didn’t take long for us to drift off into a deep and peaceful sleep.
We slept surprisingly well. I was warm enough that at one point during the night I unzipped my bag a little to let out some heat. As someone who turns and stretches often during the night, my only complaint was the lack of legroom in the mummy-style bags.
We awoke just before 7:00 feeling well rested and hungry. Jumping out of bed, we put on our outer layer which we were advised to keep warm at the bottom of our sleeping bags. We stepped into our boots and headed over to the pavilion for a hearty breakfast.
We lounged around indoors for a while comparing notes with some of the other guests about how their night had been. Most agreed that it had been surprisingly comfortable.
With at least an hour to spare before our 9:30 check out, we looked out at the brilliant sun climbing over the trees, both thinking that at a very mild -21C, it was a perfect morning for one more dip in the hot tub before leaving.
With spring now upon us, the hotel closes this weekend for the season and re-opens with an all new theme in early January 2016.
For more details check out their official website here: Ice Hotel Québec