Sainte-Catherine-de-la-Jacques-Cartier, Qubec-- The Ice Hotel first manifested its strange power well before my stay there, when my wife awoke from her night's sleep, waking me, too, and said, "I dreamed I was at the Ice Hotel." I asked what she'd done there. "I went to the bar for a drink." My Mormon wife never boozes, but the concept of vodka served in vessels of ice kind of grabs you.
So I began to wonder what I would dream when at last I slept in the Ice Hotel. My premonition, weirdly logical, was of being encased in amber. This did not deter me. In fact, I could hardly wait to go to Qubec because of the Ice Hotel's allure and because I would be driving the towering and indomitable Mercedes-Benz G500, the famous Gelndewagen, available at last in our market. Every element of the plan suggested adventure tinged with self-indulgence and mystery.
Even in advance of her dream, my warmblooded wife had declined the invitation to accompany me, but research assistant Reilly Brennan volunteered to come along. We would rendezvous with the photo team in Sainte-Catherine-de-la-Jacques-Cartier, a place much smaller than its name, lying northwest of Qubec, the provincial capital. And so, one day before sunrise, we climbed up and up into the G500 and blazed eastward across Ontario, led by the three-pointed morning star on the grille. (By my count, the constellation of three-pointed stars on board totaled nine fixed members.) When we climbed out for gas, which happened quite often, the people of Canada managed to hide their disappointment at learning we were not hip-hop stars, drug lords, or professional linebackers. Since the moment the G500 had gone on sale six weeks before, about a quarter of the 2000 units Mercedes hoped to sell this year had already moved. "It's the rapper's vehicle du jour," my editor told me. If so, then rappers have discovered the need for an ultra-luxury brute-ute equipped with three locking differentials and willing and able to climb a 58-percent grade.
At the second fueling, at a Napanee, Ontario, truck stop, I mistakenly grabbed the diesel nozzle. The G500 makes its 292 horsepower--and its soulful baritone tremolo--with premium unleaded, thank you, and I caught the error straightaway; nevertheless, this incident would come back to haunt me. Meanwhile, as I pumped 72.7 liters (19.2 gallons) into the tank for $45 Canadian, the guy at the next island sang out the G500's praises. "It's beautiful," he said in Hockey Voice, the oddly inflected and rather heavily cadenced English of Ontario. "Kinda looks like a Hummer." Someone else would say this later. To respond that the G-class antedates the Hummer was a waste of my precious breath, which needed to be saved for future shivering. A Hummer? No, no, the G500 looks like a NATO ambulance.
When we crossed through Montral, a French news station gave the day's stock prices, and the traffic reporter told of a truck that had discharged its load just ahead. We arrived at the Ice Hotel three hours later, well after dark. We saw construction equipment, a pole supporting floodlights, and a confusing array of tent-shaped barracks made of snow. I fancied that I had arrived at Prudhoe Bay or maybe the South Pole research station. The strange spiritual power, so strongly registered at home, barely nudged the needle now.
This initial sense of anticlimax was dispelled as soon as we entered the hotel, passing through a portal in a wall of beautiful ice blocks and finding ourselves in a salon with floor and walls of snow and splendid ice carvings everywhere we turned. One massive sculpture of flowing abstract shapes included the detailed representation of an Inuit hunter with a seal across his kayak's bow. Hanging from the cathedral ceiling was a classic-looking chandelier, also of ice, glowing pink, then blue, then white because of integrated fiber-optic lines. Whenever we expressed our wonder, the drifting vapor clouds carried farther from our lips than our voices did.
Just ahead was another rectangular opening; I am five feet, eight inches tall and could barely get through. This room was the theater, with snow formed into four broad steps and deerskins spread for lolling viewers. I was more curious about the wedding chapel, entered from the passageway between the welcome salon and the bar. (A chapel and bar together!) Built in the traditional cross shape, it had pews of pure ice. There was an altar and a pulpit--always of ice; all the Ice Hotel's furniture was fashioned from blocks of ice--but instead of a crucifix in this province with every other place named for les saints, I found on the wall an eight-pointed New Age star. Or was it a snowflake?
The Ice Hotel's next section, a roomy hall, featured that gorgeous curving bar of my wife's dream. Little cubbies, furnished with tables and benches, were sculpted into the walls for those who sought intimacy while sipping vodka from their big, blocky ice glasses. A free-standing fireplace and a crackling wood fire generated the irony that, in 27,000 square feet of Ice Hotel, the only two sources of warmth were available in the bar. And another irony: Provincial code required a fire extinguisher within the bartender's reach, as if anything much could have burned.
After seeing the sleeping chambers, we ended our tour, and I checked in at the wooden headquarters building on the hillside. Only I would be sleeping in the Ice Hotel; Brennan and the photo team had conventional accommodations at the Station cotouristique Duchesnay. Formerly a timber camp and then a forestry school, this group of log buildings is now operated as an ecotourism resort by the Qubec government; the two-year-old Ice Hotel is the station's newest addition. A restaurant--which offered a haute-cuisine dinner menu but was understaffed, its few servers ill trained--is part of the Station, and meal vouchers were handed out with room assignments.
By this point, I felt nervous. It helped little that on this night, a Thursday, few, if any, other Ice Hotel guests were in evidence. A video crew slugged down vodka back at the bar, but these guys were sleeping elsewhere. Could the whole thing be some elaborate publicity stunt, a way of getting free air time for the major commercial sponsors and even the local electrical contractor whose names were carved into every nook and cranny? Before I'd left home, anybody I told of this place had already read of it or seen it on TV. Where were the adventurous souls paying their own money to nestle down atop a bedstead of ice mitigated only by a pad and deerskins?
If I got to the sleeping chamber and found that, instead of a Bible, the Gideon Society had placed The Gulag Archipelago, I was moving out to the G500. I'd put the hard front passenger's seat through all ten adjustments, turn the seat heater up high, and let the engine idle, running the automatic climate system until that 25.4-gallon fuel tank was empty.
Well, then, time for bed. With the words of Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener on my lips--"I'd prefer not to"--I readied myself in my chamber, the one sponsored by a Montral microbrewery that puts out a beer called La Fin du Monde, this very slogan being inscribed at the entrance. I drew shut the doorway curtain and took off my boots, parka, and insulated overalls. This left me chattering in my stocking cap, cotton turtleneck, long johns, and socks. I kept on the thin polypropylene gloves I had worn all day. Switching off the internal light that imbued the bedstead with a deceptively inviting glow, I wriggled into the thick sleeping bag provided by the staff.
I waited to fall asleep. My wing of the hotel was dead silent. The compressed-snow walls, floor, and ceiling squelched any sound. The sleeping-bag flap covering much of my face did not warm my nose, but it did stagnate the air; meanwhile, a gagging odor emanated from mid-bag--from my gloves, in fact, which in Ontario had absorbed a trace of diesel fuel. I cast out the little devils and breathed fresh air. The pint bottle of water alongside my thigh, where it would not freeze overnight, was the exact opposite of the stove-heated brick that went into my grandmother's bed in her youth. I kicked it away. I lay on my back, side, stomach, back. Falling asleep after a couple of hours, I dreamed of prostrating myself on a bed of volcanic stones interspersed with shards of broken crockery.
Eventually, a French-accented voice in the doorway called, "It's seven o'clock. Hot chocolat at the bar." I poked my head out into the cold. Wan daylight penetrated the chamber, and I beheld the gigantic carving in the wall to my right: a relief representation of Lucifer himself, pellucid as all get-out and grinning sickeningly, his wingspan measuring a full fifteen feet. This image, I was told, was reproduced from the label of another of the microbrewer's products. If they kept this up, they were sure to remain micro.
But even if it is to flee the archfiend, getting out of bed in the freezing cold is like jumping off an eight-foot ledge. You know it won't hurt you, but some thought is necessary. And some more thought. I lay there for twenty minutes before shooting out and dressing in my down-filled and Thinsulate-lined outerwear, putting on my glasses, which had remained dust-free, and searching for the heated toilet trailer adjoining a passageway.
After this, the rest of the day galloped by. A plus for the Station cotouristique Duchesnay is that concessions and guides are on the premises. Finishing our interviews and photos, the bunch of us had an exhilarating tour on what the French Canadians formally call motoneiges, or snowmobiles. I also had arranged to go dogsledding and did so just after night settled and the waxing crescent moon assumed command of the sky.
As thrilling as all this activity was, so that one more upcoming night in the Ice Hotel meant nothing, the G500 remained in mind, like a secret life. Here was this amazing privilege, this handcrafted object. Around it, inside it, people came unhinged. Passing us on Qubec's bobble-head highways, they waved and slobbered, while the rigid axles underneath the vehicle worked to tamp down the high spots, and we went thrumming along. The old-world precision was always evident. Pulling an inside door latch was like deploying a cadre of tin soldiers who executed our orders between the panels; enemy tin soldiers probably were being bayoneted in there. Often, when operating some control requiring unusual firmness, I thought of the workers in Graz, Austria, who manufactured this beast. I could imagine going home with them to dinner. That tactility spoke so strongly, but other features were unobtrusive. For instance, when the transmission changed gears, this seemed to have been accomplished through a successful resolution at the United Nations.
This is not to call the G500 perfect. Braking response was exceptionally deliberate, and I sometimes hoped the computer would intervene and force down the pedal. When I wanted to adjust the automatic climate controls, I had to wear my reading glasses to see the buttons. As for the instrument panel, it looked like something handed out to immigrants by the ship's purser just before arriving in port. And speaking of glaring deficiencies, the flat side windows so vividly reflected passing nighttime traffic that the eighteen-wheeler to the right appeared as a doppelgnger to the left.
At Pub Jacques Cartier, not far from the Ice Hotel, our captivatingly dcollet waitress had brought out complimentary shots of Goldschlger. After downing his, Brennan said, "It's like having a sweater inside." It struck me as the apt simile for the entire experience.
Pulling up at the border between Windsor and Detroit, we were asked to explain our activities in Canada. If only I had thought to respond truthfully. I should have told the customs agent that in every aspect, Qubec and the G500 had pushed us out to the precipice of reality.