A frozen Nirvana
Chillin’ at the Ice Hotel
Quebec City, QC—Quebec bikers are crazy and get a little out there during the depths of winter. I was in Quebec City in January to attend the largest bike show in the province and make the contacts necessary to carry out my summer touring plans. Determined to figure out what riders did when the snow was ass-deep for months at a time and temperatures dropped to negative double digits, I booked a room in the Waldorf-Astoria of igloos, the world-famous Hôtel de Glace (Ice Hotel) in nearby Duchesnay, located on Route 367 at Station touristique Duchesnay northwest of Quebec City (just follow the signs from Autoroute 40).
There’s only one ice hotel in North America and, being made entirely of ice and snow, it’s not a four-season resort. Every December since 2001, a new hotel is constructed and every April it melts away in a natural rhythm that has been inescapable since the last Ice Age. With the wind blowing out of the northwest and the temperature at minus 19 degrees, it seemed that another Ice Age was imminent. I stashed my gear in the heated Pavillon Talik and headed over to the hotel.
I was surprised at the relative warmth even as my breath rose hard and white on the still air. In the lobby a delicate bouquet of ivory flowers and green leaves screams in sensory contrast. Ahead stretches a reception hall in a style that I can only describe as Tolkienesque: walls the color of the finest Carrara marble carved in bas-relief beneath a Gothic arched ceiling supported by crystal-clear pillars of ice. In the center of the hall a massive ice chandelier infused with ever-changing spectral hues glows in dim splendor. With my steps leaving waffled imprints on a floor raked with Zen precision, I advance, expecting at any moment to encounter an ice queen or perhaps the White Witch of Narnia. Soon joined by my cohorts, we set off to explore this fantasy world of ice and snow—and to find our rooms for the night.
Detailed descriptions are useless—the hotel is built to a different design and the sculptural theme differs each year. Embedded LED lighting transforms 500 tons of carved ice and 15,000 tons of sculpted snow into surrealistic visions. Animal skins cover chairs and benches carved from special ice that’s made in Montreal and trucked north. Foam mattresses grace crystalline beds. One suite has a fireplace and a hot tub; my monastic room has a floor-to-ceiling pierced wall of ice as the footboard to the bed. Others feature elaborately carved walls with fantasy designs, dragons, hockey players and artifacts or photographs embedded in blocks of ice.
Since the ice hotel doesn’t boast a kitchen—they should open a sushi bar—we quickly walk to the government-owned and operated Pavillon Horizon. To our surprise and delight we discover an inexpensive five-star restaurant with impeccable service, a wine list to die for and a menu so exquisite that it nearly results in paralysis of decision for six devoted foodies. This was simply not expected in a rustic outpost on the edge of the Canadian wilderness.
In our absence, the public spaces of the hotel have been transformed from a Nordic ice palace into an ultra-chic nightclub. Music pulses in the acoustically flawless Ice Bar while colors sluice through ice and soak in walls of snow a meter thick. In one corner, imprisoned on four sides by thermal glass, a fire burns in heatless, décor-designed splendor while guests frantically sculpt ice on workbenches supplied for this purpose. The bartender pours concoctions into the rocks—the results looking like a cliché 1960s B-grade sci-fi movie—while a demonic face looks over his shoulder. I comment that my father had always admonished that I’d earn a one-way ticket to Hell. Bill retorts that this couldn’t be Hell, because the Devil would only allow a single drink for all eternity and we were getting refills. Point well taken. Meanwhile, the women have disappeared and there was only one place they can be.
In the courtyard, hot tubs gurgle beneath a full moon so crisp it doesn’t seem real. Fighting against the Artic night, none of the tubs can push the water temperature above 98 degrees. All guests go through a briefing before being allowed to stay the night. One of the admonishments was not to go to bed until your hair was completely dry or risk becoming literally frozen to the bed. Likewise, don’t put eyeglasses on the side table—they’ll freeze into the ice. Therefore the inevitable becomes an ad hoc experiment: How many nearly naked people, with whom one is not on intimate terms, can be packed into a 6’x4′ sauna? (The correct answer is 11.)
Dressed in a bathrobe and hiking boots, I contemplate what was learned while padding back to my room through snow tunnels. The past couple of days had been spent snowshoeing, dog sledding, and watching teams of athletes competitively push and paddle special ice canoes across the treacherous pack ice and currents of the St. Lawrence River. I had checked out arcane machines designed for winter riders and watched thousands of people of all ages reveling in Winter Carnival activities in spite—or defiance—of the frigid weather. Snuggling deep into my Artic sleeping bag I come to understand that Quebec bikers aren’t crazy, but rather are infused with a spirit that our puritanical American culture seems to lack. Up here they call it joie de vivre—the joy of living.
Baby, it’s cold inside
The Hôtel de Glace offers an absolutely unique experience and I highly recommend it. However, there are a few things you should know before planning your romantic getaway for next year. First: Quebec gets cold in the winter. Compared to outside, the interior of the hotel can feel rather balmy at around –5 degrees Celsius (24 degrees Fahrenheit) but this is still below freezing. Second: There’s no Internet connection, no TV, no phone, and you’re out of cell range. Consider this to be a positive point. Third: You’ll be sleeping in an artic mummy bag while wearing wool socks, long non-cotton underwear and a knitted hat—most likely a “tuque.” Fourth: Forget about the en-suite bathroom. There’s a heated bathroom but it’s probably not near your room. Guys, bring an empty bottle. Fifth: You can get a wake up call in the morning. Your second wake up call is when you realize all your clothes were put in the freezer for the night. Finally: Your luggage is stored in the secure warmth of Pavillion Talik, just across the yard and up the hill. Pray you don’t need a forgotten something in the middle of the night. Now, one last warning: Book well ahead! There are only 36 rooms and they’re very much in demand by visitors from around the world. (www.hoteldeglace-canada.com)
Yes, it’s a foreign country
This province is far more biker-friendly than any region in the United States and brand elitism is far less prevalent. My French is limited to being able to read road signs and identify a couple of dozen different types of stores, but during the past six years I’ve not had a single negative response to my linguistic shortcomings. (The well-publicized anglophone/francophone conflict is a political tug of war, not a personal one.) Just to set the record straight before stepping down from my soapbox, I’ve never had problems crossing the border and I do so with great frequency. Canada is a foreign country and Quebec is recognized as being a separate nation within this confederation so a positive attitude counts. Passports are now required and a Canadian Insurance Registration Card (free from your U.S. insurance agent) has always been required, but in 20 years I’ve never been asked to show mine. Speed limits are posted in kilometers per hour (yeah, I know—everyone drives like they’re for miles per hour) and gasoline is sold by the liter (3.7 liters = 1 gallon U.S.). Right now each U.S. dollar buys $1.25 Canadian, more than enough to offset the VAT tax (6% Federal + 7.5% Quebec Provincial) and almost enough to match gasoline prices in New England.