Québec — May I have that in the rocks?

28 02 2011

In the Ice Bar, bartender Barbara McKnight takes a deep breath after whipping up a half-dozen of the hotel’s signature drinks. “I meet people from all over the world,” she tells me. “Everyone seems to have a good time, and I like looking at the expressions as they read the drink menu.” All of the drinks are served in the rocks. The clink of ice is not from cubes in the glass, but the giant ice cube in which the drink is served.

Behind the ice carved bar, built into the ice-carved bar-back, is a refrigerator. “We need the refrigerator,” Barbara says reacting to my laughter, “in order to keep some of the drinks and mixers from freezing. The temperature in the refrigerator is above freezing, so it’s warmer than the rest of the bar.”

Crystal-clear cubes of ice are filled with colorful winter-themed libations. “People like to try the different drinks,” says the bartender, and she turns back to take another order. Most of the drinks are mixed with vodka. “It works well in the freezing temperatures here,” she says. With names like the North Pole, Aurora Borealis and Polar Bear, the Ice Bar also serves as the core-warming traditional brandy, Amaretto, rum and Scotch. Beer is available as well, served ice cold.

Laughter echoes through the bar as the ice hotel staff plays out games and competition for prizes. In an alcove of one of the lounges, a Québec-based television program is taping an interview with two of the guests. It looks like the lobby of any hotel — art adorns the walls, conversation and music fill the air — it’s just the 23°F air making Hôtel de Glace unique lodging from mid-January to late March.


Québec: Sleeping on a Block of Ice

27 02 2011

Set at 23°F degrees, the hotel room thermostat cannot be changed. Shaking loose the sleeping bag and its microfiber liner, I kneel on the ornately carved block of ice supporting my mattress. Outside, an Arctic wind sends the temperature plummeting to nearly 5°F degrees. These are the final steps preparing to snuggle into the bag for a night in the Hôtel de Glace (Ice Hotel) in Ville de Québec (Québec City).

Earlier in the evening, the nearly 80 guests gather in the Ice Bar for winter-themed drinks and a few minutes in front of the roaring fire. Holding bulky ice goblets with drinks named “Caribou,” “Minus 56,” “the Nordique” and others, music thumps from ice-encrusted speakers as guests participate in an array of games.

There is a challenge staying at the ice hotel, which of course is the reason to stay there. With 36 rooms and suites, every one carved of snow and ice, Hôtel de Glace is the destination, not the journey. Check-in takes place at the Four Points by Sheraton Québec, located about five minutes from the ice hotel. Guests are assigned to a “normal” hotel room. Unpacking at the Sheraton, only nightclothes, toiletries and the next day’s outfit are taken to Hôtel de Glace. The shuttle runs 24 hours a day, so the few who cannot make it through the night in the ice hotel are able to return to the Sheraton hotel room.

Later in my ice hotel room, I realized “normal” edge of the bed undressing means my legs are resting against ice. The only way to do this, I decided, is in stages. Using camping experience, I stuff tomorrow’s clothing into the foot of the sleeping bag. Next I remove socks and pants and slip halfway into the sleeping bag liner. Removing my coat, scarf, shirt and hat, I slide the rest of the way into the Arctic-standard sleeping bag, and reach out to pull camera, pen and iPhone into the warmth. Zipped up tight, I find myself so warm during the night, I open the zipper a few inches to let cold air seep into the sleeping bag. I slept like a rock on the rocks.

Québec: Hugged by a 7 foot snowman

24 02 2011

Serious stuff, Quebec’s Winter Carnival, and serious business for Ambassador Bonhomme Caranaval. “I travel all around Canada and the U.S. to let people know about the (Winter) Carnaval,” the 7 foot tall snowman tells us. “This is the time of year we celebrate winter.” Wrapped in his traditional Québecoise ceinture fléchée (multi-color sash) and topped with the traditional red stocking cap, Bonhomme took time before his opening night appearance to answer questions about the 57-year old event.

“I’ve been with Carnaval de Québec for 54 years,” he explains, “and have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles on its behalf.” Recently, Bonhomme used his ambassadorship to ask Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to help support efforts to build a new hockey arena in Québec City. The Minister had been avoiding a meeting with the provincial capital city’s Mayor about the issue. The Ambassador, however, typically avoids political involvement. Arguing with a towering, smiling snowman is not most politicians’ forte?

The traditional arrow sash is handmade for Bonhomme by a craftswoman in her 80s. “It takes her nearly a year to complete the sash,” he says, “which is in the style used by Québecoise as far back as the 1700s to keep the Arctic winds from blowing up their coats.” The Carnaval organization provided replicas for the members of the media attending the Carnaval’s opening weekend. Bonhomme spends most of the Carnaval wandering through the crowds and resting in his Ice Palace. The palace is built annually across from Québec’s Provincial Parliament building using more than 6,000 bricks of ice. “The foreman turned 83 this year,” Bonhomme adds while talking about his Carnaval residence, “and has built every Ice Palace since the designing and building the first one in 1957.”

Fellow journalists tossed questions like snowballs as the snowman turned to go, “I’m due on stage in 45 minutes,” he says over his shoulder, “Look for me in the Ice Palace. I can answer questions then.” Later when visiting his palatial, or perhaps better stated, glacial, palace, hoards of children are lined up all the way out to the sidewalk waiting their turn to see Bonhomme. “He’s probably about as popular as Santa,” explains one parent trying to keep her three kids in line.

Warmth in the cold: A week in Ville de Québec

22 02 2011

“You’re going where? It’s January! You live in Arizona for a reason,” I was told while sharing plans to visit Ville de Québec (Québec City) for its annual winter carnival. “We get a lot of winter in Québec, we may as well celebrate it.” explains Patrick Lemaire, Responsable, relations de presse (Media and Public Relations Manager) for Carnaval de Québec to a group of print, Internet and broadcast travel journalists from the U.S., Canada and Europe. And celebrate Québec does for three weeks from the end of January to the middle of February (January 27-February 13, 2012). Parades, rides, music, fireworks and the International Snow Sculpture Competition are scattered throughout the Carnival.

Greeted with sub-freezing weather – the warmest day was 21°F – the events and people turned the cold weather into warm hearts. During my five days in North America’s only walled city, I will stay the night at an ice hotel, cross country ski in the city and snowshoe in the country, and dip my body into a river with a 31°F water temperature. If that weren’t enough, found long underwear in Phoenix, embarrassed myself in French and had hot chocolate in a shop that was everything a chocolatier should be, except that Juliet Binoche wasn’t behind the counter, and Johnny Depp wasn’t fixing the door.

The old city, Vieux Québec, has held my heart since my first summer visit 20 years ago. Since then, I’ve wandered the narrow streets and historic buildings three times. Loading the car at the end of my last excusion in 1996, I turned to my friends and said, “I want to come back here for Winter Carnaval some time.” I also asked how well I did trying to speak French full time during that week in Montréal and Québec City. I was told, “Eric, tu ne parle pas français, tu parle anglais avec les mots français.” Roughly translated, it means, “Eric, you don’t speak French. You speak English with French words.” Sacre bleu!