Situated ten minutes from downtown Montreal, on the Île Sainte-Hélène section of Parc Jean-Drapeau — that E20 head-turning mid-fleuve island, home to the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and the Six Flags Amusement-owned La Ronde — the bold new urban experiment Snow Village Canada describes itself accurately enough as a “recreo-tourism project.” Museum-level day rates allow locals and tourists daytime and evening access to the full operation, which predominantly consists of a labyrinthine ice hotel that is indeed open for overnight business.
Once you get your head around the idea that the high-end ice equivalent of tent city can work, the question becomes how. Co-founder Guy Bélanger, circulating the Village on the morning after my recent stay, describes the award-winning Finnish design process (note: Bélanger’s group sub-contracted from the Finns), which, compared to that of the early-’80s Swedish originators of the ice hotel concept, requires no structural reinforcement beyond the snow and ice themselves. Basically: the Swedes use steel poles, similar to traditional rebar, whereas the Finnish Snow Village is a legit, and at the same très Arctic Canadian, network of igloos and tunnels that do indeed settle, but reinforce themselves in the process of settling, and (probably) won’t collapse during the winter season.
It’s truly a fascinating place to visit. Otherworldly, even. There is luxury around every corner and curve, much of it ambient: the on-site chapel; the 60-seat high end restaurant and separate night club; ice sculptures everywhere, including various rooms; and subtly magnificent LED’s lining all walls and tunnels [pictured above], creating a luminous, almost misty, palpable atmosphere.
What does one get from an actual stay in one of the 30 rooms? A bed with a frame and box spring indeed made out of ice, plus what can fairly be called a good night’s sleep — undeniably crucial. But not much more: Rooms are available only at 9 p.m. and must be vacated within 12 hours (not-so-subtle music pipes through the complex as of 8.30 a.m.). That’s all fair enough in the bigger picture, which involves the rooms being electricity- and plumbing-free. Correct: no TV before bed, and no Ensuite. Within strategic walking distance is one very un-majestic trailer, housing women’s and men’s “necessary rooms,” so, keep your boots beside your bed.
Here are the salient facts that will be key for most potential visitors. Three room sizes available; mine was the top-end ($300/person) Prestige Suite [pictured below]. Controlled interior temperature, for all rooms, rests between -5° and -2°C, just cold enough to keep the snow white. Atop the icebeds are comfortable, insulated mattresses, and fur pelts over them; in fact, pelts cover all seating/bedding throughout the Village, ably dispelling the instinct that sitting on ice must be cold. All guests get complimentary (loaner) sleeping bags rated to -20°C. Open all night is the Snow Village Chalet: a far-from-glamorous, but warm, room in a “real” building, with four cots, for guests suffering 3 a.m. issues related to lizard blood. To put the warmth/comfort of the experience in some perspective: Though the hotel proper was not designed with children in mind, dozens have stayed there over the last eight weeks — including mine — and no child has yet ended up overnighting on one of those cots.
One needn’t be a hotel guest to attend the chapel services (yes, there has been a wedding), dine at the restaurant or party at the club. My group took the middle option and enjoyed a delicious three-course prix-fixe ($60/person) at the Pommery Ice Restaurant. For our starter, a hearty cup of vegetable soup followed by an Atlantic salmon Gravlax-style appetizer; a shared main of bone-in venison pot roast, braised six hours in red wine so that the meat flakes right off the bone at the touch of a fork (and presented, straight from the oven, in enamelled cast-iron cookware); and a Norwegian-style omelette, flambéed at our table. Indeed, fire on the ice.
Some of the planned on-site activities, including a maze and slides, were scrapped when winter failed to go full force. Didn’t hurt the traffic, th0ugh: An out-the-gate success officially operational from Jan. 6 – Mar. 31, the Village surpassed its seasonal attendance goals, hotel and restaurant included, with one full month remaining to run up the numbers.
As for the actual ice hotel experience, I’m happy to report that it’s not too hot and not too cold. It’s entirely unique, and it’s also pretty much just right.
2012 Snow Village Canada Ice Hotel
Starting at $195 per person for Polar Igloos (not connected to the main hotel)
Starting at $260 per person for Standard Rooms
Starting at $300 per person for Prestige Suites
Images courtesy of Marco Michaud.