030307 Swooning Through the Walled Streets of Old Town
After a late start thanks to my job at the National Arts Centre m’lady and I raced towards Quebec City, occasionally hitting speeds of up to 100mph such was my excitement to begin our little frosty vacation. As we drove the moon rose in a complete eclipse. We watched as our celestial neighbour appeared through the intermittent cloud cover, first as a mere sliver and then ultimately it revealed itself as a full moon.
We made it to Quebec City in record time. We became a bit lost as we made for the Old Town in search of our hotel (the Delta Quebec) and we were surprised to creep around a corner and figuratively drive into a huge mob of happy looking Quebecers parading thickly through the cobbled streets. Throngs of people absolutely filled the rue we were attempting to meander through slowing our progress considerably. At least asking directions was easy enough! I rolled down my window and asked the nearest reveller what was going on and was told it was Red Bull Crashed Ice.
“What’s Red Bull Crashed Ice?” I asked.
“If you don’t know, you don’t know,” was the friendly and helpless response. The guy could have merely stated that Red Bull Crashed Ice was an insane if not suicidal downhill ice skating race that thrust contestants down what is essentially a ten-foot wide bobsled track that had been assembled careening through the steep streets of Quebec’s Old Town at a dizzying and deadly downward angle. We had just missed the races, but seeing the track later that evening and the next day with its built-in steps, ramps, obstacles, and dizzying turns made it seem quite unbelievable that anyone could maneuver such a course safely. Anywho, we ended up finding our hotel in pretty short order, checked in and had a drink in our room before setting out for a tour.
A snooty and rather pretentious aside: We had booked the room on priceline.com for a good price ($86) but we seemed to get a fairly crappy room. Well, though there was no fridge the room itself was okay, but it was conspicuously distant from the elevator. And not to complain about the view – which overlooked Quebec’s parliament buildings and was fairly decent – but given the hotel’s location right outside of the Old Town wall and within spitting distance of the Plains Of Abraham you would expect the view to have been spectacular. I would, anyway. Our speculation was that the priceline deal led directly to the lesser quality room.
We finished our yummy drinks and left the hotel for a little exploration of the area. Three minutes away from our hotel we passed though the ancient wall and entered Quebec’s Old Town. Easily betraying it’s European roots, street after street was lined with centuries-old buildings, many with plaques detailing the establishment’s history. The area is well preserved with vibrant residents and shops, and though the area has a strong tourism-geared faction it never crosses into Disney-style reach-for-the-authentic fallacy. In a nutshell: it’s gorgeous. M’lady and I walked hand-in-hand swooning through the streets catching huge Dickensian snowflakes on our tongues.
The snow fell like you always picture the snow should fall when you’re walking along holding hands with a pretty girl, but it really got all dreamy-like as we neared the Chateau Frontenac and watched the giant flakes fall through the huge spotlights that remained from the Crashed Ice party. The castle (or hotel, or chateau) was a beautiful sight, made even more so under the snowy circumstances; we wandered and marvelled.
Our tummies forced us to find a pub so find a pub we did. The view through the frosty windows was great and the atmosphere was welcoming and cosy, the beer was tasty but the food sucked. We were both hungry enough to enjoy our meals anyway, and somewhat sated we left the pub and it’s namesake statue outside and wandering in the lackadaisical direction of our hotel. We detoured and meandered and watched the full moon loll in the sky above a pretty little church. We climbed atop the thick stone wall that surrounds Old Town braving treacherous snow and hardship – me risking death and dismemberment with my slick and slippery dress shoes – and found a ton of statues to explore (including an inexplicable one of Gandhi) and just generally had a great night.
When we finally swooned ourselves back to the hotel we opted for a final nightcap in our room and fell off to dormir.
030407 The Ice Hotel
We got up early and headed out to see more of Old Quebec under the (relative) first light of morning. Again we strolled through the gates and wandered aimlessly, gaping in unending wonder at the crazy Crashed Ice downhill skating track as we passed tons of shops. We followed the old stone wall up one side of the city and noticed that it is still topped with cannons aimed at the river. We discovered a great breakfast place that more than made up for our previous pub’s shortcomings and then rode a funicular up the hill for a visit to the Chateau Frontenac.
Up and overlooking the water stretches the Governor’s Walkway. We followed the path as it wound around the citadel and watched canoeists as they braved the ice floes that raced with the current of the mighty St. Lawrence River below. The pathway ends at the Plains Of Abraham Canada’s most historic battlefield. We walked though the snow-covered park, once again crossed the lawn of Quebec’s parliament and made it back to our hotel. Resting our weary bones for a drink in the lobby bar was necessary after so many hours of walking, and it wasn’t until about 4:30 that we finally departed Quebec City. We drove through the gates and found the highway, headed ouest on route 40 and stopping for liquor and fast food along the way.
Once we got going we soon found ourselves in yet another fat-flake snowfall. We had been running into the stunning seasonal precipitation so often (and would continue to do so until we arrived home) that it seemed as if every few hours someone was picking our world up in a souvenir snowglobe and giving it a shake. After the brief and beautiful wintry drive we found ourselves at the Ice Hotel.
One of just two such enterprises in the world (Sweden holds the other), the Ice Hotel is exactly what it sounds like; it’s a hotel made entirely of ice and snow. Obviously seasonal, the Quebec Ice Hotel boasts thirty-six rooms and suites, a lounge and a nightclub, a wedding chapel and more, and all at below freezing temperatures and sizzling prices. It is built in a rural field slightly away from a row of cabin resorts and chalets. We checked in at one pf the buildings and were directed to another where we would find our locker and receive our orientation demonstration.
On paper the place sounds like the worst hotel in the world. You have to keep all of your luggage in a wooden cupboard in the basement of a small cottage-type building away from the Ice Hotel. This cabin is next to the shared bathrooms and showers, as there is be no plumbing whatsoever in the rooms. Guests aren’t allowed to check-in to their rooms until the insane hour of 9pm, as the daylight hours are dedicated to giving hotel tours. And very most importantly: it’s well below freezing in your room, in the hallways, everywhere. In fact, guests actually sleep on a block of ice. There are no doors on the hotel rooms – the only privacy from the common-area hallway is a simple curtain – and the first of three wake-up visits comes at 8am; all overnight rooms must be vacated by the strict checkout time of 8:45am. And for all of this, basic rooms start at $500 per night, though we paid less than half that price thanks to our good friend “the internet”.
And we absolutely loved it.
Entering the front door we found ourselves in a foyer of ice benches and ice chairs covered with animal pelts, an ice desk lined with ice vases, a real ice fireplace sporting a fake fire, and art painted directly on cascading walls of snow. A beautiful frozen chandelier hung above ice sculptures of Neptune and Atlas and a stunning wall of pillared ice-women separated the grand hall from what turned out to be a nightclub. We toured the premium suites, each of which was themed and completely unique. Highlights were a chess theme with frozen knights and a king and queen as bedposts, with icy pawns and bishops scattered strategically about, another room where the bed was encased in a beautifully carved opaque ice igloo, and the Yeti suite, which artfully carved a bed, endtables, and other accoutrements out of the the space in such a way as to suggest a naturally frozen cave of ice.
We visited the chapel and the lounge and opted to have our first drink (which was included in the booking) in the nightclub. It felt like vodkas were in order and we opted to have them mixed with cranberry juice. They came served in hollowed cubes of ice which – when sipped a few times – our lips melted into custom-shapes. For refills we both opted for maple whiskey on the rocks which was thick, sweet, and delicious. Once it neared 8:30 we took our frozen and lip-smoothed glasses to our room for future use and went for dinner.
Our dinner reservations were in another lodge altogether, again outside of the Ice Hotel and just up the hill from where we had checked in. The restaurant was in a really nice hotel and it was a damn fine restaurant too. The waiter was good, the menu looked spectacular, and the prices weren’t off the charts either. We weren’t too hungry so m’lady opted for just the onion soup and a salad while I hummed and hawed over the bison tartar before opting for a cheeseburger instead (perusing a menu in great detail before inevitably ordering the burger is my standard MO).
When I tried her soup I declared it possibly the best French onion soup ever and when she tried my burger she said it tasted like fine sirloin steak had been freshly ground for the patty. We both agreed with each other. Too full to order dessert, we took our bloated and smiling stomachs back to the Ice Hotel and finally checked in to our room, where we found a couple of furs and two arctic sleeping bags sitting on our ice bed, which was lit up from inside. A lit candle sat upon the only other accoutrement in the room; a small glass-like ice table that jutted out from the wall. M’lady got busy making us a pair of martinis and before long we found ourselves settling down in one of two hot tubs that were outside in the courtyard alongside the only non-ice structures in the Ice Hotel (aside from the two hot tubs): a pair of changerooms/bathrooms and a sauna.
The moon overhead was nearly full and the water was glorious. The snowglobe got shook again and huge fat snowflakes started to fall all around us. We both tried a bit of sauna but m’lady easily outlasted me. I went back to the hot tub while she bounced between the sauna and jumping in the nearest snow bank. Many hours and drinks went by and our martinis were the envy of all the other guests, all of whom similarly spent the bulk of the evening in the hot tubs. Greased up on martinis as we were, we managed to outlast all of them (perhaps we drove them away with jealousy, I’ll let you decide) and at who-knows-when in the morning found ourselves alone and quite loaded. We crawled out of the hot tub, got changed and wandered through the empty hallways to the equally empty bar.
I noticed for the first time that the bar itself was an ice sculpture of an octopus destroying a ship, and looking around we realized that the whole room was designed around an ocean theme. I ran off to get the video camera from our locker in the other building while m’lady marvelled at the ice-canvas paintings that decorated the bar. When I returned we took the camera on a complete tour of the hotel (except the rooms of course) and re-amazed ourselves with the place at every turn. We were drunk and giddy and had the whole place to ourselves; m’lady even went down the ice slide twice!
Eventually we ended up back in our room, where we were struck by how quiet it was. With no heating system nor plumbing coupled with the insulating power of the walls of snow it must be the world’s quietest hotel.
We broke the pounding silence with peals of laughter when I turned around and almost shattered my swimming trunks. After the hot tubbing I had taken off my sopping shorts and simply held them against the arced wall for ten seconds until they froze there stuck to the ice, hanging themselves dry. After an hour tromping through the hotel we discovered that they had frozen stiff when I accidentally knocked the shorts off the wall and they hit the ground with the consistency and thunk of an umbrella. I actually leaned the frozen shorts up against the wall for the night like a cane.
We were having so much fun it was difficult to turn in, but as we were only hours from our wake up call we forced ourselves to unfold our sleeping bags and crawl in to bed…er…I mean ice block. M’lady went to bed pretty much fully dressed while I opted for just my boxers, t-shirt, and the robe that came with our hot tub towel bag.
Though our frozen bed lacked a mattress, we both slept fairly well. I was warm all night, though m’lady said she got a bit cold around 6am. Immediately after our wake up visit I grabbed my frozen shorts and hit the hot tub again. I’m amazed that I was the only person enjoying a hot tub after spending the night in a frozen hotel room, but who’s to figure people?
(Yes, I walked to the courtyard wielding my still-frozen swimming trunks like Little Tramp sporting his hobo-cane. When I got to the hot tub I submerged the solid mass of swimsuit in the water where it instantly melted itself back into wearable fabric. It was a rather odd and unique experience.)
After my soak I got myself dressed and m’lady and I went to the lodge adjacent for our complimentary buffet breakfast, which proved to be the best buffet breakfast I’d had up to that point (and only bested once since, in Bucharest). Sausage, bacon, beans, scrambled eggs, mini tortiere, home fries, fruit, toast, coffee, juice, and I even went back for seconds. Stuffed to the gills we retrieved our things from our locker, bid farewell to the ice hotel and hit the road. M’lady slept the whole way back and we made record time once again.
It’s hard to believe all that magic managed to fit in just one weekend, but it did. And what a fantastic weekend it was too. Highly recommended.