Ice Hotel Quebec low on comfort, high on adventure

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Just call me Nanook of The Bronx, the first Jewish Eskimo. There I was, indoors as it were, a multilayered mannequin wearing long johns, lined pants, a turtle-neck shirt, a wool sweater, a hunter's vest, an Austrian loden coat, insulated socks, a Norwegian ski cap, furry boots, a Scottish football scarf and claw-like gloves a hockey goalie would envy.

Why the sartorial overkill? I was simply trying to fend off hypothermia in the frosty confines of the Ice Hotel Quebec-Canada, French Canada's answer to global warming.

The polar ice cap may be melting, Mr. Gore, but you wouldn't know it here in this crystal palace, where the ambient temperature never rises above 28 degrees or, thankfully, sinks below 23 degrees.

The soft drinks in the Ice Bar and N'Ice Club nightclub are kept in a fridge so they don't freeze solid.

At this bone-chilling boite, if you want a shot of vodka, you take it in the rocks, as opposed to on, inasmuch as your antifreeze cocktail is poured into a hollowed-out chunk of ice.

Constructed of 500 tons of ice and 1,500 tons of snow and rebuilt over a month's time at the start of each winter, the Ice Hotel, about a 30-minute drive west of Quebec City, is a high-end property.

No little bottles of shampoo

Even though the Ice Hotel is devoid of any of the plush accoutrements usually associated with the high life, a typical one-night package in a themed suite can cost as much as $406 per person, with a two-person minimum.

Start with the basics, or lack of same: no room service, no TV, no telephone, no private bath, no chocolates on your pillow (no puffy pillow, either), no fancy amenities (or even crummy ones), no heat and no mercy.

Is it any wonder that, according to a hotel representative, fewer than 1% of visitors stay more than one night?

What guests get for their money, however, is an adventure unmatched anywhere in the world, save for the original Ice Hotel, which is located in the remote village of Jukkasjarvi in northern Sweden, both a far cry and a long haul from Quebec.

The program starts in the Aigle, a welcoming retreat with a fireplace and central heating that overlooks the Ice Hotel.

The Aigle, all homey and warm, is an unlikely place for a drill that educates edgy participants on how to avoid getting cold feet (literally and figuratively) or an attack of "frost phobia."

Survival tactics taught in the Aigle include:

  • How to deploy the sleeping bags that await guests in their rooms. There is more to hitting the sack than just getting into it, unfortunately, including a calculated choreography of unzipping, zipping, toggle-tying, flap-flipping and escape artist body-bending that left this sleeping beauty as tightly wrapped as the mummy of King Ramses II.

  • Where to find the heated communal bathrooms, which are distant enough to make a urologist think twice about getting up to go in the dead of night.

  • What to wear, or not wear, in the sleeping bag. Guests shouldn't overdress because sweating leads to chills.
  • They should change into dry clothing made out of synthetics; avoid cotton, which retains humidity; put on a pair of warm, dry socks, maybe two; and don a toque, or knitted hat.

    Or, they can go to sleep naked, as I did, and prepare to meet their maker.

    The Ice Hotel, which at full capacity houses 88 guests per night, comprises 36 rooms and themed suites, including one with a private hot tub, and some with vaulted ceilings as high as 18 feet and walls as thick as four feet.

    The rooms roughly measure 14 feet by 8 feet, while the suites are 14 feet by 14 feet. The packed-snow guest room floors are not vacuumed but scraped when it is time for the house staff to tidy up.

    The furniture, such as a gleaming bench in the shape of a polar bear, a glittering chandelier and a large armchair, are artfully sculpted from blocks of ice.

    A deerskin duvet

    My suite featured an igloo enclosing my bed, which itself was an uncompromising block of ice. The bed was layered with a thick foam mattress, a fleece sheet, deer skin pelts and topped by that all-important sleeping bag.

    The mummy sack, which is delivered to the room at 9 p.m., is guaranteed to resist temperatures as low as minus-22 degrees, but who wants to test that claim?

    The sack proved more than sufficient, however, to ward off the "umbles" -- stumbles, mumbles, grumbles and fumbles -- that, according to the National Institute of Health, mark the onset of hypothermia.

    It turned out that, after six or so hours of sleep, I was no more the "umble man" than ever.

    Other unique features of the Ice Hotel include two outdoor hot tubs and an adjacent sauna; two exhibition rooms; ice artwork; and a standalone, nondenominational chapel where 75 brides and grooms got their marriages off to a chilly start this winter.

    With each stay, breakfast is included at the Auberge Duchesnay's Aux Quatre-Temps, an excellent restaurant (don't miss having dinner there) that is the social center of the Station Touristique Duchesnay, an all-season resort on which grounds the Ice Hotel complex stands.

    The Ice Hotel closes on April 1. The 2008 season will open in early January, and travel agents, who receive 8% commission, are advised to book early.

    According to Sylvain Auclair, the Ice Hotel's marketing and media relations consultant, the choice dates -- the first two weeks of January, Jan. 27 to Feb. 11 (the Quebec Winter Carnival), the week of Valentine's Day and all weekends -- sell out early.

    "We have only two suites with a fireplace, and only one of these with a hot tub, so they go on a first-come, first-served basis," he said.

    For more information, visit www.icehotel-canada.com.

    To contact reporter Joe Rosen, send e-mail to [email protected].

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