Just outside of St. Raymond, Quebec*, the snowmobile capital of the world, the ingenious creator of the Ice Hotel, Jacques Desbois, decided to build his snowy masterpiece. He chose this location because of the chill factor, an important element to keeping an ice hotel solid. Also, he wanted it closer to civilization and more affordable than the swank but very expensive Swedish version. Winning the award for the most successful marketing program in Quebec, Desbois’ Ice Hotel had been written up in a total of more than 200 publications around the world.

We had chosen to stay at the ice hotel because of its very unique appeal—where else in the world except Sweden could you claim that you had overcome nature’s frigid fury and lived to tell about it? On arrival, we were invited to an information session explaining in detail the ice hotel experience. Between the press and the website, I was under the assumption that we would be sleeping under fur blankets like the Iroquois Indians, but they had included a few important modern amenities like a subzero sleeping bag.

The Ice Hotel supplied us with emergency cell phones in case we couldn’t hack the icy conditions. We were advised about the dangers of hypothermia, told to sleep nude and keep our clothes in the bag which was very good advice. I could tell that the people who stay at the ice hotel are not your average hotel travelers, appealing to the more rustic traveler. Still, the Ice Hotel did boast of a few modern conveniences like a heated bathroom, shower and even a hot tub for the very adventurous.

The tour guide gave us the unique background and history of this glacial palace.  She explained how the ice hotel idea was first conceptualized and tested in Quebec City, then moved to St. Raymond because of its sustainable cold temperatures and large open spaces. The shape of the hotel was in rounded igloo form, because the curved form was the sturdiest, preventing it from caving in on itself. Desbois had created huge curved molds in which the snow was packed, so that in future years, variations on a theme of an ice hotel could be created. He also included theme rooms carved out by local Quebequois artists as well as an ice sculpture gallery. The New York room was spectacular with an ice sculpture of the statue of liberty and an eagle. Other themes went from futurist, to romantic, with ice sculptures and furniture adding to the décor. The most creative was the media room, complete with computer and big screen TV and an ice sculpture of a satellite dish, one of the sponsors.

Another novelty was the arc-shaped movie theater—the snow was of course the screen with fur-covered snow steps acting as tiered seats of a movie theatre. The movies were “snow-focused” documentaries, whereas I would have preferred exotic tropical beaches against a snow-screen backdrop, but I guess the audience preferred snow, or so it would seem. They had even thought to build an ice chapel, complete with stained glass window and altar, even a desk to sign the famous contract. Their first patrons were a couple from Hawaii, wanting a vastly different experience from their tropical homeland.

The best place in the hotel was without exception the Absolut bar, complete with an oversized bottle of Absolut Vodka carved from ice, where you could pose for a photo. Of course, the drink of choice was Absolut—served of course in a square ice shot glass, called serving the vodka in the rocks, not on the rocks. Bar tables were carved in ice and placed in round cubbyholes in the walls. Fur blankets covered the benches to protect against the cold, but the vodka also helped in that direction. For increased ambiance, a real fireplace had also been built with a double-insulated glass pane to keep the heat inside. Another curious item in the bar was a refrigerator—we asked why– it was actually to keep the drinks from freezing.

Now for the real experience—sleeping in the Ice Hotel! After the tour, we went to our room, quickly jumping fully clothed into our cramped mummy sleeping bags. We had been given linings to keep the sleeping bags clean, but they proved to be very cumbersome, and ended up at the bottom of the bag in the morning anyway. It was quite the acrobatic experience to undress in a mummy bag quickly and move the clothes to the bottom of the bag. The next hurdle to overcome was keeping the freezing hole where you needed to breathe from preventing you to sleep. A drawstring around your neck kept the cold air from penetrating the rest of the bag. The ultimate challenge was where to place the hole so you didn’t have the cold air on your face, but wouldn’t suffocate. I found the best place for the air hole at my forehead. I didn’t sleep well that night, with the furs a little short to cover the icy bed, but I took it in stride.

We were to be provided with coffee in the morning, along with a wake up call at, so I eagerly awaited the 8 am call. The next morning, we were warmly greeted with a bundled hotel worker holding a cup of hot cocoa. We leaped into our clothes with teeth chattering, gulping hot cocoa to warm our chilled bones. I have never appreciated so much the gust of warm air as we entered the breakfast buffet in a building a short walk away.

The next morning we noticed the other sleepy-eyed ice hotel guests slowly making their way to the breakfast buffet. We reenacted our unique experience at the Ice Hotel over a lingering breakfast and several cups of coffee, complete with promises to return—maybe not to stay overnight, but at least for another Absolut in the rocks if nothing else. Was it worth it? The Ice Hotel experience gave me the chill of a lifetime.

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*Please note that in 2010, the Ice Hotel location was moved closer to Quebec City, at the site of the Quebec City Zoo.