We had a relaxing drive through eastern Ontario, then north to Quebec. We haven't seen much of Ontario before. The farmland looks beautiful in winter. It looks just like my native New York State, which makes sense, since it's pretty much the same land mass.
Because we work late on Sunday nights, we couldn't get a very early start on Monday, so we decided not to make the whole drive in one day. We made it past Montreal, then stopped north of the city in a town called Berthiersville, because we saw a sign for a motel right off the highway. We had a comfy night and an early start the next day.
We've been in Montreal many times, but we've never driven elsewhere in the province of Quebec. Looking at the map, we were amazed at how much of Quebec is national park or wilderness area. (We will definitely make a trip to see the Old City of Quebec, as well as to Ottawa.) We passed frozen streams, rivers and lakes, and saw a long line of ice fishing shanties stretched out on one lake. The last part of the drive was through a tiny town called Ste.-Catherine-de-Jacques-Cartier, near Quebec City. It was deep winter there, and very quiet.
The Ice Hotel is built on the grounds of the Auberge Duchesnay, on Lac St.-Joseph. There are villas right on the lake where several families can stay together, smaller lodges, cabins for hikers and skiers, as well as the main inn, where all the rooms overlook the lake. I would describe it as rustic elegance - a natural look that fits with the surroundings, very warm and inviting. Very beautiful.
We got settled in our room, put on a few more layers, and went down the hill to see the Ice Hotel. Workers were still building some sections and putting finishing touches on others. We never found out if they were behind schedule because of the warm weather earlier this winter, or if the hotel is always a work in progress for the first few weeks. It was very interesting to see the work going on, though. The hotel wasn't actually open to visitors that early, so we just wandered around ourselves. We took a peek in the room that had to be ours - since it was the only one with a back door leading to a private hot tub and sauna.
There was a fair amount of administrative business to take care of: we had to check in at both the Auberge and the Ice Hotel, sign up for the orientation for overnight guests, get passes, vouchers, a locker, all kinds of things. We were really glad we decided to drive up the day before. Arriving after a 9-hour drive would have greatly detracted from the enjoyment.
Once the business was taken care of, we had lunch at the lodge, overlooking the frozen, snow-covered lake. (Everywhere you go there, you're overlooking the lake.) Then we went back to the Ice Hotel to look around more.
The theme this year was Atlantis, the mythical underworld city. There were sculptures of Neptune or Poseidon, an huge octopus holding up the bar at the N'Ice Club, and fish, snails, mermaids and all kinds of marine life carved into the columns.
Although everything is carved out of the same material - ice - the sculptors use a huge variety of textures. The columns are made of shiny ice blocks; some walls look like rough, snowy bricks; some of the work is very fine and detailed; some looks like it's been carved out of snow, even though it's solid.
Built into the sculptures is special lighting that emits no heat. The sculptures are lovely during the day, but at night, the coloured lights bring out more detail, and they are spectacular. We didn't want to bother with our better (conventional) camera and lenses, and you would probably need professional lighting to really capture the detail, since so much of it is monochrome. But we did what we could with our little digital camera.
In the late afternoon we took the orientation. The guide showed the arctic sleeping bag that would be delivered to your room, and explained how to keep warm at night. There's an inner nylon bag that you get into first, then the arctic sleeping bag, which is rated for -40 C.
She gave us various important tips - like changing into a dry base layer (no cotton!) and dry socks before bed, putting your parka in the outer bag that the sleeping bag comes in, and how to keep your boots from freezing shut overnight - and she demonstrated how to zip yourself in so only your face will be out of the bag. We had read about this in advance, and it would all be pretty simple to follow if there wasn't this little detail of the hot tub...
We were also quietly enjoying the fact that we had the most luxurious suite in the Hotel, as well as our beautiful back-up room in the Auberge. This was a very special splurge for us, and we felt we deserved to bask in it a bit.
The orientation was held in a small lodge reserved for overnight guests. It would be open all night, with a fire going, coffee and hot chocolate available, and heated bathrooms. Overnight guests could come in any time for a break from the cold, or if they started to freak out in their sleeping bag. (Apparently this is not unusual.)This is also where you pick up robes and towels for the hot tub, and there are lockers for people without a back-up room.
After the orientation, we had dinner at the Auberge, which was really lovely. It's so cool that we can drive to the province next-door, and it's like being in another country. When I lived in New York, I always said that visiting Montreal was like going to Europe for the weekend. This felt the same way. It's not only the language, although that's part of it. It's the ambiance. It has that French, European feel. I love it. It's beautiful that this, too, is Canada.
After dinner, we bundled up and headed to the N'Ice Bar. The larger N'Ice Club wasn't open - you could go in and walk all around, see all the sculpture, but there was no bartender and it wasn't set up for guests. So we hung out at the N'Ice Bar, drinking out of glasses made of ice and chatting with other overnight guests.
In case you're wondering, we were wearing: three pairs of socks (one of them made of llama wool), boots; base layer pants, thermal underwear and cotton pants or jeans; a short-sleeved t-shirt, a long-sleeved t-shirt, our Aran knit sweaters from Ireland; parkas; glove liners, gloves, and a hat. Normally I hardly ever wear my Aran sweater - it's seldom cold enough. And I've never worn it under a parka! Dressed like that, we were nice and toasty the whole evening at the bar.
When we were ready to quit the bar for our hot tub, it required quite a bit of preparation. We picked up robes and towels from the guest lodge, and got our dry socks and sleeping layer from our locker - but still. It was confusing, and a bit of a production. Even with a small heated changing room, how do you approach a hot tub in the snow? How do you dry off completely between hot tub and bed - when it's -25 outside?
There's simply no way to completely avoid it: at some point you're going to be naked, outdoors, in the snow. Whoa baby. That was a first for me!
Our boots were next to the tub, but it was snowing, so while we were relaxing in the hot bubbles, our boots were filling up with snow! You could either put your feet straight from the hot tub into snowy boots (which Allan did), or run barefoot through the snow to the changing room (which I did). At one point I ran from the changing room to the ice room in my robe, screaming, "Socks, I need socks! I'm barefoot in the snow!"
I must admit that the hot tub was more fabulous in theory than in practice. But it was all pretty hilarious.
Then came the big production of getting ready for bed: getting completely dry, changing into a dry base layer, unrolling the sleeping bags (which you only do right before bed), stashing your parka in the bag the sleeping bag was in, putting your layers for the next day in the bottom of your sleeping bag... on and on.
I never succeeded in getting the sleeping bag tight around my neck, and I couldn't locate a scarf in the cold and dark, so cold air was drifting in my sleeping bag through the neck hole. My feet were cold, too - not painfully so, but enough to be uncomfortable. I guess I slept off and on, although it felt more off than on.
I was disappointed by this - yet everyone I saw the next day asked, Did you sleep at all? Did you make it through the night? How long did you make it for? and such. So apparently it's not at all uncommon to give up and come back to the lodge for the rest of the night.
In the morning, I was tired of lying in the cold, tired of lying in the same position. Fishing around in the bottom of my sleeping bag, I found my cell phone, still on: it was 6:00 a.m. At 7:30, staff would be coming in to wake us with mugs of hot chocolate. I thought, what the hell, I've made it to morning. No point lying here for another hour and a half.
I found my robe, wrapped myself up, stuck my feet in my freezing cold boots, and dragged everything else into the outdoor changing room - where the heater had been on all night. I threw clothes on, threw my parka on, didn't even bother to tie my boots, kissed Allan goodbye, and trudged out.
I trudged through the Ice Hotel, passing a staff member on duty - "Going back to my warm room" - and trudged outside.
There were six inches of freshly fallen snow on the ground. It was completely silent. It was so beautiful.
I trudged up to the hotel, into my wonderfully warm room, stripped, and took the world's hottest shower. It was positively brilliant.
Allan showed up about 7:45, holding my mug of coffee. He had been sound asleep when they came to wake him.