The idea of venturing to the snow village might give you cold feet, but visitors find that it is a magical place
The rest of the city is digging out from under winter's first really big snowstorm. More than 26 centimetres of snow has blanketed Montreal, slowed traffic to a crawl and sent crews of plows, droning, blowing and scraping, into the streets.
Over at the Snow Village on Ile Ste. Helene, though, it is possible - if only for a few hours - to forget the miseries of winter and see the snow-capped landscape differently.
Montreal's latest attraction is an ode to snow and ice, built from more than 40,000 cubic metres of white stuff shot from snow cannons like the ones used by ski hills.
Located at Parc Jean Drapeau, it is a winter wonderland complete with 25-room ice hotel, 60-seat ice restaurant, ice bar, as well as an ice chapel carved in the shape of St. Joseph's Oratory (four couples have already booked weddings there.)
Even the most ardent winter-hater can't help but gasp with delight upon entering a giant igloo lit by a chandelier dangling with ice crystals and furnished with rococo ice sofas covered with white sheepskin rugs.
At night the whole place glows with blue and purple light, the silhouettes of the hulking snow domes sketched over the night-lit Montreal skyline just across the river. Inside the igloos, with their two-and three-metre-thick snow walls, the silence is absolute except for the crunch of boot-clad feet on hard-packed snow.
Yanick Tremblay, one of the three Montreal entrepreneurs backing the $2-million project, says his aim is to recreate the kind of magic he experienced in the backyard snow forts of his youth.
"Everyone who ever built an igloo or a snow fort as a kid remembers the fun of it," said Tremblay, a lifelong lover of winter sports. Rosy-cheeked and clad in a white fur-lined parka, he seems impervious to the -15 degree C temperature as he escorts a visitor through the snow village.
"This isn't quite a museum, or an amusement park. But it is a place of magic. It brings the child out in people."
There's already an ice hotel in Quebec City. And Montreal's own Igloofest electronica festivaleen wildly successful, with revenues increasing by 15 to 20 per cent each year, according to Rami Kurtakko, whose family founded the original Snow Village in Finland 11 years ago.
So far, the Montreal reviews have been mostly good, too, even though the village officially opened just Wednesday. The restaurant has been full almost every night (Thursday to Saturday). The slow-braised beef and venison dishes and warming soups, created by well-known Montreal chef Eric Gonzalez, of Auberge Saint Gabriel, hit the spot. And on weekends, the ice bar is literally hopping with 20-somethings in snowsuits drinking from glasses chiselled from blocks of ice, dancing to keep warm.
All week long, there's a steady stream of cameratoting locals and out-of-towners wandering around the site.
The organizers say they are hoping to attract 80,000 visitors before the village is dismantled at the end of March. But there are challenges: the vagaries of the weather, for one. It dipped to -28C (factoring in the wind chill) last week and that froze things solid. But just a few weeks earlier construction of the project had to be delayed by nearly two weeks because of above-zero temperatures.
"It was pretty miserable here in the middle of December, when we were supposed to start. There was no snow anywhere. Just rain and mud," lamented Kurtakko, who is in Montreal sharing his igloo-building expertise.
"Yours is a difficult climate. In Finland, after we go below zero in early November, we stay there until early May."
The site isn't perfect either, rented as it is from the Societe du parc des iles. Ice hotel visitors, for instance, must trek outside and up the stairs to get to the nearest toilet in the middle of the night. The outdoor spa has a great view of Old Montreal, it's true. But when it's time to get out, there's a long (albeit brisk) walk to the changing room. A roaring fire would be just the thing to warm up by, but the city of Montreal doesn't allow open fires on Ile Ste. Helene.
And apart from the bar and the restaurant and a walk around the site, there isn't a whole lot to do, except for a maze and a giant snow slide that were being completed last week.
But for a group of tourists from Brazil, all decked out in mitts and parkas as they snapped pictures and sipped hot chocolate, it was all marvellous.
"Can you imagine anything more beautiful than all this snow?" one woman exclaimed.
Wonder what she'd be saying after four months of it.
A midwinter night's dream
There were warnings that this was not to be an ordinary hotel stay.
The welcome kit included foot-warming pads and a package of Kleenex, for instance.
"Put the clothes that you plan to wear the next day at the bottom of your sleeping bag, so it will keep its warmth," management's guidelines suggested.
But a night at the ice hotel at Montreal's new Snow Village seemed so romantic. It conjured images of pure-white snow and woolly blankets, mulled wine and snuggles.
So we pulled on our long johns and thermal socks and headed across the Jacques Cartier Bridge to Ile Ste. Helene to spend the night in a hotel made of nothing but snow and ice, in a room where the temperature hovered around - 5 C.
No one ever stays more than one night, the Snow Village promoter had explained. "Just have a nice bottle of wine and eat a good, hot dinner before heading to bed," he advised.
It all began well enough. Drinks at the ice bar were fun and dinner at the Pommery Ice Restaurant was divine: a bowl of creamy butternut squash soup, followed by braised venison with root vegetables and mashed potatoes.
But it was more than a little surreal. We all ate in our parkas and toques, sitting at tables carved from ice on ice chairs padded with lamb's wool. One of our fellow diners rose to dance a jig between courses, just to keep warm. The guy next to me never took off his gloves. By the end of the meal, the bottom of the table had begun to melt from the heat of our laps, and the waiter brought a sheet of plastic.
Come bedtime, our noses were red and our toes were frozen. We swigged a little grappa from a flask and headed for our room, a domed suite with a bed carved out of ice and topped with a fur-covered mattress. There's a warm dormitory to escape to in the middle of the night, but it is ignobly nicknamed "the chokers' room."
It took a certain kind of acrobatics to get out of our boots and into the sleeping-bag liners without touching the snow floor or the icy bed frame. We wiggled into our extra-thermal sleeping bags, zipped up and hunkered down for a long winter's night. Pulling down our hats and adjusting our neck warmers we hoped to dream, at least, of cuddling up before a roaring fire.
Courting the cold
Montreal's Snow Village on Ile Ste. Helene (Parc Jean Drapeau metro stop) is open daily until March 31. Admission is $13 for adults ($17 on weekends); $11.50 for seniors and students ($15 on weekends; $6.50 for children 6 to 12 or $8.50 on weekends).
Overnight ice hotel rates range from $195 to $255 per person, which includes lodging, access to the spa and continental breakfast.
A three-course dinner at the Pommery Ice Restaurant costs $59. Lunch is $16.
For more information, call 514-788-2181 or go to www.villagedesneiges.com.