QUEBEC IN WINTER
Spend a night at the Ice Hotel and a day at Carnaval de Quebec
article and images by Carole Terwilliger Meyers
Chillin' at the Ice Hotel
You can learn a lot about a person by spending a night with them in the Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel): their ability to follow instructions, their tolerance level for adversity, their sense of humor. In fact, though couples do come here to get married in the Ice Chapel, I think I’d rather test the preliminary waters here and then perhaps make it permanent later, somewhere warm.
First constructed in 2001, Canada’s Ice Hotel is rebuilt every winter using 500 tons of ice and 15,000 tons of snow. Though there are “snow” hotels in Finland and Norway, they use wood or metal in their construction. Only this one in Quebec and another in Jukkasjarvi, Sweden, are true “ice hotels” made entirely of ice and snow.
Guests come from around the world--the staff told of visitors from Mexico who had never before seen snow and of others from Hawaii who brought along leis--and have ranged in age from 9 months to 77 years. With 36 rooms and suites, the hotel can accommodate 88 people per night and also offers a popular day tour.
After checking in at the welcome Pavilion of the Hotel de Glace, our small group deposited luggage in lockers at the Celsius Pavilion and then gathered around the fireplace for instruction in getting through the night. There is no need to reinvent the wheel here. In a nutshell, the pre-bed procedure for a good night’s sleep is to hit the hot tub, dry off in the sauna, wear nothing or at the most long underwear, put on a chapeau and wool socks, hop into a provided polyester sleep sack, stuff all outer clothes into the sleeping bag, and then jump in. (Later I had trouble tightening the cords so that the bag allowed just my face to stick out, and all night I felt the tiny bit of air that let in. Also, my one pair of wool socks were damp from the day, so I improvised satisfactorily with my wool mittens.)
Thoroughly tutored in the fine points of sleeping on ice, we headed back into the sub-zero night for dinner at the Le Dijon Restaurant (a complimentary buffet breakfast is also served here each morning). In a large, open dining room with high ceilings and a fireplace, I feasted on a blueberry-spiked terrine of organic farm-raised elk, delicate lettuce soup, and pan-roasted merou fish topped with guacamole. We discussed the upcoming challenges with glee, and, like some of the other older women with weak bladders, I considered limiting my liquid intake in an attempt to up my chances of getting through the night without a run to the john. However, I was so thirsty that I just decided to drink until I wasn’t. That decision permitted me a glass of wine, several glasses of water, and a cocktail served in an ice glass later.
After, I rearranged my suitcase and filled a big plastic bag with necessities, then bundled up and set out to explore the Ice Hotel's chapel, two art galleries, and spectacular themed suites. My Medieval Suite had a castle theme and two queen-size platform ice beds topped with insulating deer pelts and an Arctic-weight sleeping bag. My favorite, the Boreal Suite, was filled with fragrant pine boughs. Each bed has a light switch, and candles add more light and atmosphere and also help suck out any damp air from the room.
After sipping a colorful vodka-fruit juice cocktail from a carved-out ice cube glass in the shimmering Ice Bar, where Pink did her best to "Get This Party Started" (though it never quite happened), I headed to the warm changing room to don my bathing suit.
I was surprised that I was the only one of my fellow travelers who followed the suggested regimen for a good night's sleep. A few of the women said they hadn't brought a swim suit and didn't take to the suggestion that they wear bra and panties. Another didn't like public hot tubs. So I found myself the only one from my group in the tub, but I wound up having a good chin-wag with a young Canadian couple stewing along with me. I did appreciate that the tub area was forgivingly dark, not to mention downright steamy, and I was glad I always travel with a swim bag that holds flip flops, as they protected my feet from the icy snow.
When I left the changing room, I heard giggling coming from the men's changing room. Hmmm. Someone figured out it was too cold in the rooms for hanky panky.
I slept well from around 1 a.m., when I went to bed, until before sunrise, when I got up at 6 a.m.
Back at the Celsius Pavilion next morning, I heard from the others in my entourage who shortchanged the regimen that they had to get up during the night to use the restroom, that they didn't sleep well, that they were cold. One guest hadn't made it through the night. No, he didn't freeze to death. He just walked back up to the heated Celsius Pavilion to sleep tight on one of the six cots that are always available. Apparently, only 1 percent of the guests each season don't weather the entire night, many of them being claustrophobic and discovering too late that there are no windows in the rooms.
Carnival de Quebec
Few things are more enjoyable in winter than bundling up in warm gear and attending a festive outdoor event. Crowds add cheer and coziness. Quebec City's annual Carnaval de Quebec--also called a "Mardi Gras on Ice" and said to be the largest winter carnival in the world--features an ice castle, snow and ice sculptures, horse-drawn carriage rides accompanied by the brilliant sound of sleigh bells, and a lighted evening parade. There's also a wild and crazy Snow Bath, in which bathing suit-clad people of all sizes and shades frolic in the snow for what seems like a very long time. Parents pull babies along in charming carts and sleighs, and joyous kids are colorfully bundled up. And all the while the sound of French chatter and of deep-pitched horns fill the air, the later originating from long, red, flute-like souvenir horns. Another popular souvenir is a hollow red plastic cane that is filled with caribou, the carnival's potent, sweet, port-like official drink).
After wandering this winter wonderland, visitors can explore the adjacent old walled city--the only one remaining in North America, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985--and slip gently back in time while strolling winding cobblestone streets leading to unique boutiques and a bevy of fine restaurants.
Ice Hotel Quebec-Canada In Quebec City, (877) 505-0423, (418) 623-2888. Season January through March. $219+/per person, double occupancy; includes breakfast and bar drink. Many opportunities for winter recreation are close by, including snowmobiling, ice fishing, and a huge dog-sledding operation that can take you on everything from an hour-long adventure to an overnight trek with food and lodging included.
Carnaval de Quebec (866) 4-CARNAVAL, (418) 621-5555. Runs for about 17 days in late January, early February.
Quebec City Tourism
Carole Terwilliger Meyers blogs at Travels With Carole.
copyright 2013 Carole Terwilliger Meyers