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Cold comfort

Recipe for a surreal slumber party: tons of ice and snow

Email|Print| Text size + By Letitia Baldwin
Globe Corre

Stepping Across The Threshold, We Were Dazzled By The Dreamlike Sight Inside. Pearly Gates Images Sprang To Mind. An Ice Chandelier, Illuminated By Tiny Blue And Green Lights, Glittered From The Lofty Ceiling. Crystal-Clear Columns, Constructed Of Ice Blocks, Rose From The Snow Floor. A Nude, Blue Angel Painted On An Ice Panel, Ice Sculpture Of An Elder Inuit Kayaker Holding A Harpoon, And Artwork Embedded In The Snow-Packed Walls Heightened The Surreal Effect.

Spondent / January 30, 2005

SAINTE-CATHERINE-DE-LA-JACQUES-CARTIER, Quebec -- Polaris showed us north, and the three bright stars of Orion's belt twinkled in the southern sky as we headed toward the glowing arched entrance of a Quonset-shaped snow house.

Stepping across the threshold, we were dazzled by the dreamlike sight inside. Pearly gates images sprang to mind. An ice chandelier, illuminated by tiny blue and green lights, glittered from the lofty ceiling. Crystal-clear columns, constructed of ice blocks, rose from the snow floor. A nude, blue angel painted on an ice panel, ice sculpture of an elder Inuit kayaker holding a harpoon, and artwork embedded in the snow-packed walls heightened the surreal effect.

In the Absolut Ice Bar, a few ice armchairs, their hard seats softened with deerskins, and benches were scattered about. We were offered a nightcap of chilled Citron, Mandrin, Strasberi or other flavors of Absolut vodka served in ice shot glasses, resembling chunky candlesticks, before turning in for the night.

Welcome to the Hotel de Glace or Ice Hotel Quebec-Canada, one of three hotels in the world made largely of ice and snow. Icehotel Sweden lies in the northern Lapland village of Jukkasjarvi, while the Aurora Ice Hotel is northeast of Fairbanks, Alaska.

Half an hour from Quebec City, and a seven-hour drive from Boston, the Ice Hotel Quebec-Canada is nestled in the Duchesnay Forest Reserve. The hotel opened early this month, and will literally melt down in early April. Rebuilt each year, it boasts 19 rooms and 12 themed suites with names like "Hilton" and "Love Shack." The Absolut Ice Bar, Le N'ice night club, a chapel, art gallery, boutique, two hot tubs, and a sauna are among other amenities. Stay at the hotel -- or just visit it -- during a trip to the annual Quebec Winter Carnival, the world's third-largest pre-Lent celebration after Rio and New Orleans, scheduled this year from through Feb. 13.

Born and raised in Quebec City, Jacques Desbois, president of Ice Hotel Quebec-Canada Inc., has always been fascinated by the igloos once used by Canada's Inuit people to provide shelter while they hunted on the frozen sea.

"It's an environment where humans have been doing the most with the least to survive," Desbois, 41, reflected.

In his teens, working as a camp counselor, Desbois learned to build igloos and "queenzys," hollowed-out snow mounds created as temporary dwellings by the nomadic Montagnais and other native tribes in northern Quebec. Since then, he has created a business from his personal passion. His first venture was building igloos at winter resorts and the Quebec Winter Carnival, Montreal's Fête des Neiges celebration, and Quebec's Musée de la Civilisation.

Then, he heard about the Icehotel Sweden and thought the experience could be offered in Quebec. The Swedes eventually permitted the young, enterprising Quebecois to use their trademarked name because of his track record working with ice and snow as building materials.

In its fifth season, Ice Hotel Quebec-Canada gets bigger every year. The complex of connected chambers, covering 129,000 square feet, takes five weeks to build. Construction requires 400 tons of clear ice blocks, trucked in from Montreal, and 12,000 tons of snow produced on site. The exterior walls are 4 feet thick and ceilings soar to 18 feet.

After checking in, my husband and I, our 2½-year-old twins, and a friend peeked at Room 8, or "Chez Bou Bou," the theme suite for children, which would be ours for the night. Bou Bou, a Buddha-like teddy bear, had been carved out of snow and projected from one wall. Two fanciful beds with ice turrets and parapets, joined by an ice slide, had been constructed on separate tiers. Hudson's Bay blankets covered the foam mattresses.

Since guests cannot occupy their rooms until 9 p.m., we took a look at the chiseled-face Inuit driving a dog sled, and other life-size ice sculptures and artwork displayed in the galleries. Workmen, in insulated coveralls and snowmobile boots, shouldered past visitors. The ice hotel is a work in progress, so we watched a sculptor wielding a chainsaw put finishing touches in a theme suite, while another workman turned a section of an ice column on a lathe.

At nightfall, as temperatures plunged, we headed to the Le Quatre Temps restaurant, part of the Duchesnay Ecotourism resort adjoining the ice hotel. Dinner and breakfast there were included as part of the Ice Hotel package. The dining room was filled with families who had spent the day snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.

While jeans were fine as attire, Chef Sebastien Rivard's menu and wine list were sophisticated. The pear poached in anisette syrup, served with warm goat cheese and roasted almonds on a bed of greens, was a delight as an appetizer. We also enjoyed the linguine, cooked with crème fraîche and basil and sun-dried tomato pesto.

Over dinner, we formed a game plan for the night. My husband, a former commercial fisherman who had no interest in sleeping on a block of ice, smugly opted to retire to the backup hotel room, which the Ice Hotel provides every guest, at a nearby inn. One drowsy-eyed daughter would spend the night with him.

Meanwhile, the other, wide-eyed twin and our friend accompanied me back to the Ice Hotel. In the main office, a heated lodge next door to the icy edifice, we sat around a crackling wood stove and received instructions from a young Quebecois outdoorsman, Amboise Savard.

Like an Outward Bound instructor, Savard explained how to use the mummy-style sleeping bags designed for subzero weather. He advised us to wear a hat and change into dry socks before going to bed. And he showed us the way to the cold-water-only bathrooms housed in a heated trailer.

"Never get in the sleeping bag if you are cold," he cautioned in English. "It will take a long time to reheat yourself."

In the still night, with temperatures below zero, we were starting to get last-minute jitters about staying warm and sleeping through the night.

In Chez Bou Bou, we parted the thin cloth curtain that served as a makeshift door separating our room from the hall. As instructed, we fluffed up our sleeping bags and laid them out on two queen-size beds. We donned fleece hats, gloves, and other paraphernalia and scrambled into bed. I tucked a sippy cup, diapers, and wipes in my mummy bag -- to keep them from freezing.

By 9:30 p.m., my daughter, ensconced in her own sleeping bag, was the first to drop off. Face buried in her pink chenille lambie, she snored contentedly and her tiny fingers felt warm to the touch.

Meanwhile, my friend and I tossed and turned. We were warm enough, but the suite was brightly illuminated by lights inside the ice-block beds. There was no light switch. We stared at Bou Bou and the expressionless bear gazed back. Then the quiet was suddenly broken by the crunch of boots and loud voices of returning guests. It was beginning to feel more like the gulag than the pearly gates.

At 1 a.m., still sleepless, and facing a six-hour drive home that day, we packed it in. By then, the room and hall lights had been extinguished. We fumbled in the dark, stumbled into our boots, collected our belongings, and left.

A surreal dream or reality TV came to mind as I tried to navigate out of the maze-like hotel. At that hour, no one was about, yet lights blazed in the art galleries and other function rooms. Rock music throbbed softly as I trudged through the empty Absolut Bar. My slumbering daughter in my arms, I wound up behind the altar in the chapel and wove my way out between deerskin-draped ice benches that served as pews.

Once outside, where temperatures had dipped to minus 7 degrees, we dashed to our car. Scraping ice that coated the windshield inside, we beat a hasty retreat and headed for the backup suite at the Juchereau-Duchesnay Inn 10 minutes down the road. The innkeepers kindly had supplied us with a front door key just in case.

Do we have any regrets? No. We agreed the Ice Hotel has a storybook quality with its crystalline furnishings and touches. But looks are deceiving, especially when it comes to sleeping. Heaven for us, we discovered, was diving under a down-filled duvet.

Letitia Baldwin is a writer in Maine.

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