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?