ice hotelsHave an ice stay at Canada’s Ice Hotel where glasses, walls, ceilings, chandeliers, and furniture are all made of frozen water. Created in Sweden, the Canadian hotel attracts over 70,000 visitors each year.

“Beautiful. And frigid.” That’s the comment left by one guest at Canada’s Ice Hotel on the shores of Lac St.-Joseph, about 20 minutes west of Quebec. And it gets its name, not surprisingly, from the fact that nearly everything in the hotel is made of frozen water. That includes the walls, ceilings, beds, furniture, chandeliers – even the glasses you drink from at the bar. We were a little apprehensive at first about bringing the kids, not being sure what any of us should expect, but we figured they were up to the challenge – at ages 15, 12, and 10 they had been camping before and were not afraid of the elements.

So we duly took the kids for winter vacation this year. And this frozen wonder is a snow fort for kids of all ages. There were plenty of children around though admittedly we didn’t see any infants or toddlers. Using more than 12,000 tons of snow and 400 tons of ice, the hotel takes almost six weeks to build and is rebuilt every year, each time slightly different from the year before. Once the weather warms up, around early April, it takes a mere six hours to demolish. The hotel opens in January and it’s a good idea to book well in advance, up to a year is a good idea. The original idea came from the Ice Hotel in Sweden and some guests have experienced both of them.

Visit the N’Ice Club for a drink (hot chocolate is available for the kids) but be careful where you put your glass down, it tends to slip off the bar. And the beat of the disco is bound to get everyone up rocking to the music. Families dance happily in groups or on their own. So there’s no need to worry about rejection or “getting the cold shoulder” here.

Tours of the hotel are available or you can join the adventurous and spend a frozen night in temperatures that hover between 23 and 28 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 2 to minus 5 degrees Celsius). Staying over is by far the best part!

An information class shows you how to get into your mummy bag – it’s warm enough to keep you cozy in temperatures that go down to minus 40 degrees (your fridge, by the way is only minus 8 degrees). Honeymooners 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 Nefertiti room.

The best family activity is actually to go in the outside hot tub to increase your core temperature. (You’ll need to wear your winter hat 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 on. Your clothes for the next day tuck into the bottom of your sleeping bag so they stay warm and don’t end up cold the next morning. Our kids thought this part was hilarious and loved all the squirming to get into the bag.

The secret to a good night’s sleep is actually to make sure you don’t breathe inside your sleeping bag as that would cause humidity and you’d eventually get cold. Even wearing that day’s socks to bed can do the same thing, so be sure to put on fresh socks right before you climb in.

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 built of wood with foam padding on top. A pillow is provided inside the hood of the mummy bag. Leave your snow boots outside the bag; they’ll be fine in the morning. Oh, and don’t wear cotton, even if it’s what your thermals are made off. Cotton, once it gets wet with perspiration, makes you feel very cold. The whole family can snuggle together for extra warmth on one bed.

If you’re not checking out the hot tub or dancing the night away in the disco or admiring the ice chandelier (just how do they get it to stay up there?), then look for the Himalayan photo exhibit with its pictures of the trek to the world’s highest mountains. And feel glad you are only spending one night in the cold. Those explorers did it for much, much longer and in hazardous conditions! Brrrr!

At breakfast the next day, you can see the proud, beaming faces of the young and old snow warriors who survived their night of sub-zero temperatures (most people only do it once, we are creatures of comfort, after all). They regale their fellow travelers with stories of how long it took them to get to sleep, how warm they felt in their bag, and how surprised they were to don their snow boots still remarkably dry and comfortable, before heading for the hot showers in the warm locker room of the auberge. The kids thought the whole event was wonderful (and told their friends at school over and over again when they got back!), though they never admitted to their buddies that they whined for the first half an hour because their faces were cold. This quickly went away when we got them to pull their woolen hats down over their noses. Once toasty, all we could hear instead of the whining was the snoring!

Sad though, was 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 small, 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 situated several yards away outside and end up carrying out the rest of their night’s sleep in the heated locker room area! We were quite glad we’d limited the kids as to how much drinking chocolate they’d had the night before, knowing that not having to head for the bathroom was key to staying comfortable and sleeping longer.

Tours without an overnight stay are available from $14 and over 70,000 people each year come for the tour alone. Since this is a huge part of the hotel’s revenue, rooms are open to the public during the day and into the evening. Guests get access to their room between the hours of 9pm and 8.30am. With so much going on outside and in other parts of the hotel, this is more than ample time.

Activities outside the hotel include cross-country skiing, ice-fishing, snow-shoeing, dog sledding, and skating. Much as we would have loved to have done some of the activities, our schedule didn’t permit it, alas – a good excuse for us to go back, methinks! Or you can simply stay warm by eating. The food at the Ice Hotel is to die for and everything you’d expect from a five snowflake resort. You can enjoy options like cheese fondue (try the bread, cheese, and a grape all in one mouthful) or the locally fished trout.

The next day this writer and family headed to a cozy 50 degrees back home. Snow boots and thermals packed away, we surprisingly missed the Ice Hotel and all it had to offer. The kids though were quite happy: they got bragging rights for weeks to follow with all their friends at school for actually sleeping in an ice hotel.

“Awesome. I never knew they could do so much with ice,” says my 10-year-old daughter, Christine.

Was it beautiful? Breath-taking, like nothing you’ll see anywhere in North America. Was it frigid? Not for the adventurous in spirit. More importantly, was it worth it? Absolutely. It’s an experience that our family, for one, has frozen in memory.

IF YOU GO

Ice Hotel Canada: www.icehotel-canada.com; (877) 505-04223.
Quebec Province: www.bonjourquebec.com; (877) 266-5687 (877-BONJOUR)
For more pictures of the hotel, http://www.jerney.com/travel/quebec/icehotel