Every year, a new hotel made entirely of ice and snow is built on the outskirts of Quebec City: the Hôtel de Glace. This unique structure is the only ice hotel in North America, and it offers a magical and unforgettable experience for visitors (day) and guests (night). It’s an attraction which is a real hotel.
In this article, we will explore the Hôtel de Glace, including its history, construction, different parts, and more. Please note that this article will not include information that may change, such as entrance fees, prices, current layout, and sponsors.
My name is Xavier and I have been a tour guide at the Hôtel de Glace, as well as a behind-the-scene guide and a night guide. I hope that the information provided in this article will be helpful. However, it is important to keep in mind that the true experience of the hotel cannot be fully captured in photos or videos. The magic and beauty of the hotel can only be truly appreciated by visiting in person.
A brief history of the Hôtel de Glace
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of structures and attractions related to winter all over the world. However, Icehotel Sweden was the first to design a hotel entirely made of snow and ice. Jacques Desbois and his team did the same in Quebec City in 2001 with the Hôtel de Glace, which means “Ice Hotel” in French.
The first Hôtel de Glace was located at the Montmorency waterfalls on a 1,000-square-meter surface and had only six rooms, with a capacity of 22 people per night. At the time, there was no chapel, but a small cinema.
In 2002, the Hôtel de Glace moved to Duchesnay and became twice as large, constantly growing in size and number of rooms over the years. Amenities have been progressively added to the hotel, such as a chapel, hot tubs, fireplaces, a nightclub (called the N’Ice Club), and artistic exhibitions of ice sculptures. Some amenities have been removed, such as the cinema and the nightclub, but they may return in the future.
In 2011, the former zoo of Charlesbourg welcomed the ice structures. Closer to the city, there was a huge increase in visitors.
After several successful years as an independent company, Village Vacances Valcartier bought the Hôtel de Glace. The famous hotel is now located at the winter resort in Valcartier.
How the hotel is built and maintened
During the summer, the team of the Hôtel de Glace prepares for the upcoming winter season. Their two main tasks are to create a plan for the hotel and to work on a theme.
The plan will not only outline the layout of the hotel’s structures and their spatial organization, but it will also specify the order in which they will be built. When the hotel opens, only a portion of it will be ready; the rest will be completed in the following weeks.
The theme is determined by the artistic director, who will also oversee the decoration of the common areas. The artists will then bring this vision to life.
Some of the previous themes:
- Biodiversity (Bio diversité).
- Peoples of the North (Gens du Nord).
- Journey to the center of Earth (Voyage au centre de la terre).
- Tales and legends of the world (Contes et légendes du monde).
- Space-time (Espace-Temps).
- Views from the North (Vues du Nord).
- Circus (Cirque)
- The gardens of the Hotel (Les Jardins de l’Hôtel).
- 20 years (Vingt ans).
- Tales and legendes of Québec (Contes et légendes du Québec).
- Journey into a surreal world (Voyage dans un monde surréaliste).
- Travel (Voyage).
As soon as it is cold enough, snow is produced using snow cannons. There are several reasons for using this method rather than gathering snow around:
- It is much faster and more reliable to produce thousands of tons of snow by spraying water into the cold air than by scraping the ground.
- It is possible to control the humidity of the snow produced, while the snow in Quebec City is often too dry and fluffy.
- Builders need the snow as soon as possible, while we can have cold temperatures for weeks without significant blizzards.
When water from pipes is used, the snow has a white surface with a bluish thickness. When water from the river is used, the water can be brownish and gives the snow a marble-like style thanks to the tannins.
Within an hour, dozens of tons of snow are produced and the hotel requires over 35,000 tons of it each year (for the past years).
If there is enough snow, construction can begin and will not be greatly impacted by warm days, which often occur in November and December.
Construction of the structure
Thousands of tons of snow are placed on the ground to form a 60-centimeter-deep floor of compacted snow.
Giant metal molds are then placed and aligned according to the plan for the year. This setup is surrounded by formwork at the bottom only.
A snowblower blows the snow over the molds, inside the formwork. Originally, the team waited up to two days for the snow to naturally compact. Over time, it became clear that this wasn’t necessary.
Once the snow structure becomes ice-solid, the formwork is removed and the molds are pulled out. That’s why they are on skis. Angels will immediately go into action to smooth out the ceiling and hide any marks left between the molds.
The Hôtel de Glace has several shapes and sizes of molds. The tallest is over five meters tall. To have even taller ceilings, they can be raised. Smallest are for the corridors.
The shape of the biggest molds is a pointed arch, like in gothic churches. This shape provides extra safety and makes it impossible for the structure to collapse even during the warmest days until the end of the season. If it is too warm for too long, the ceiling will simply melt without falling.
The two-meter-thick counterforts (or buttresses) on each side have been raised over time to limit the shrinking of the roof during the season. The smaller counterforts didn’t affect the safety of the structure, but its aesthetic.
The molds and formwork are reused to expand the structure.
To close the sections, a snow wall is built by using a snow blower to fill formwork with snow, or an ice wall is constructed by laying ice blocks in a brick-like pattern.
There are no levels at the hotel; everything is located on the ground floor. However, there are stairs to access the top of the indoor slide.
Everything you need to have a functional hotel
Once the structure is ready, it’s time to carve doors into the walls, dig trenches for wires (which will later be covered by compacted snow), install lights, Wi-Fi routers, outlets, and more. The bar requires many appliances, including fridges that have been modified to prevent beverages from freezing. The rooms need beds, curtains for doors.
Exit signs, emergency lights, and fire extinguishers are placed throughout the hotel in case of an emergency.
There is no running water in the hotel as it would freeze. Therefore, there are no toilets or showers inside the ice structure. Porta-potty are provided outside the building, however.
Many fireplaces are installed, including in some rooms, but none of them increase the temperature of the hotel. They are well insulated and their purpose is to create a cozy ambiance and warm your heart.
As soon as the structure is ready, artists begin to work on the common areas (main hall, chapel, bar, indoor slide) according to the instructions of the artistic director.
For the rooms, the process is different: artists form teams and each team is responsible for decorating one or more rooms. They are free to do as they please, as long as they respect the theme and the constraints of their room (e.g. the number of beds, the presence of a fireplace). The artistic director coordinates the teams to ensure a nice variety of decor and design in the rooms.
They use tools similar to those used for wood sculpture to sculpt and carve ice. However, mistakes in ice sculpting are difficult to fix, while snow sculpting is easier to adjust by simply adding more wet compacted snow. To clean finished ice sculptures, curved surfaces are heated with a torch, while flat surfaces are heated with an iron.
Ice used at the Hôtel de Glace
The Hôtel de Glace does not produce its own ice, as it relies on Glace Frontenac in Lévis. Ice is made from pure water, which is frozen in a large container. However, the resulting ice blocks are not always crystal clear due to the air trapped inside them. To produce transparent ice, which is commonly used at the Hôtel de Glace, the ice supplier shakes the container slowly to remove the air as the water freezes.
Ice received from the factory are basic blocks. Hundreds of them, cumulating hundreds of tons. They are cut, assembled, carved, and sculpted directly on site. To ensure the stability of these structures, the surface of the ice blocks are sanded and glued together using ice glue, which is simply cold water. Warm water is never used to avoid causing heat shock and potentially damaging the ice.
Ice is used for various purposes at the hotel, including ice walls, sculptures, bar counters, and sometimes columns. In the rooms, mattresses are placed on wood supports, while the frames of the beds are made of ice. The transparent ice is also used to cover LED lights, which do not produce heat.
To add color to ice, various techniques can be used, such as using LED lights, mixing edible colorant with water at the factory, placing fabric behind the ice and freezing it with water, or applying colored sand to the back of the ice and covering it with compacted snow.
It is even possible to see objects inside ice blocks by filling half of a container with water, placing the object inside, freezing it, and then adding more water and freezing it again.
Many blocks will be cut, and each small cube drilled to produce ice glasses. Thousands of them.
How the hotel is maintained
The maintenance of the hotel is an underrated part of the adventure. It is certainly impressive to build and decorate the hotel, but then it must be kept clean and functional despite thousands of visitors and many people sleeping there.
After spending days working there and seeing the workers of the opérations (former flottants) put in so much effort into their tasks, you enjoy the results even more.
The most time-consuming task is to clean the floor, which is made of snow that is compacted by thousands of boots. The last thing you want is a gray, icy floor. To prevent this, the opérations team has developed a special machine to break and crush the icy surface. When the snow is too dirty, they shovel it away and replace it with clean, fresh snow. This has to be done regularly in the busiest areas. To experience the freshness of a newly cleaned hotel, visit it as soon as it opens in the morning.
If someone spills their cocktail in the bar, the staff will dig out the spoiled snow and replace it with clean snow.
This is just a small glimpse of what the opérations team does, and you are likely to see them on site. They are responsible for a wide range of tasks that help to keep the hotel clean, safe, and enjoyable for all guests.
While remaining perfectly safe, the structure of the hotel evolves during the season and is monitored. The snow structure slowly shrinks and the ice blocks sometimes crack: this is why curtains are used instead of doors. The sunlight alters the look and texture of the ice walls, both on the surface and deep inside.
Some parts are repaired, especially when vandals or bad-behaving people destroy the sculptures. Graffitis (carvings in snow) are quickly and systematically erased.
The heat from people at the bar also changes the surface of the ice counter, causing superficial cracks to appear and details of sculptures to be lost. The countertop of the bar is sometimes scratched and ironed to clean it and simply changed when too thin.
Parts and purposes of the Hôtel de Glace
Every year, the hotel has a new design and is arranged differently, but it always has the same components with the same purposes. For example, the chapel might be inside the hotel itself or detached on the side; it could have many small rows of benches or few wide ones; but there will always be a chapel.
The main hall of the Hôtel de Glace serves as the main access point to various parts of the hotel while also displaying ice sculptures in its vast open space. There is always a nice fake welcome desk and a huge “chandelier” without candles, but with LED lights instead. Directly inside or attached, you’ll usually find the sponsors of the hotel and a photo booth.
The main hall is typically the first area that visitors see when they arrive at the Hôtel de Glace. The beauty of the hotel is immediately apparent, and it sets the tone for the rest of the experience. It is a breathtaking space that showcases the skill and creativity of the artists who work on the hotel.
While the chapel at the Hôtel de Glace may sound religious, it is not a sacred place. You can privatize it for any event you want, such as press conferences, oaths of Canadian citizenship, and of course weddings and vow renewals. No baptisms have been organized there yet.
An important tip for ladies who usually wear beautiful but thin dresses with bare shoulders: you can find many designers in the Quebec Province who can create a beautiful, comfortable, and warm wedding dress for you. This will ensure that your ceremony can last longer in the chilly environment of the ice chapel.
The bar at the Hôtel de Glace is not just a place where you can get drinks with background music. It has several sections that can be privatized by local businesses for their employees or by newly married couples and their guests.
The most original part of the experience at the bar is that you will receive your cocktail in an edible ice glass. There is a little trick about this, but I cannot share it publicly – it’s a little secret for the people I guide (contact us to check if I can guide you).
You can also enjoy a beer (in a plastic glass), hot chocolate, or coffee in a regular cardboard cup. However, this is definitely better to enjoy a drink with an ice glass.
If you plan on leaving a tip for the bartender, it is important to note that coins should be placed in the designated cup provided for this purpose rather than on the ice. If coins are left on the ice, they may become frozen and difficult to retrieve without the use of a tool.
Please pay attention to the trash can in the bar: there is one bin for regular waste and another one specifically for the ice glasses. If you want to take your ice glass home as a souvenir, make sure to keep it in the freezer.
Kids from 1 year old to 99 can enjoy the indoor slide. If construction time permits, this is usually where you’ll find the highest ceiling in the hotel.
The speed of the slide varies depending on the fabric of your clothes. Visitors wearing jeans are not doomed to push themselves along with their hands if they have a proper jacket to lie on their back and carefully raise their butt.
If the freezing temperatures at the Hôtel de Glace weren’t enough to convince you to dress warmly, here’s another reason to consider: ski suits are the best attire to fully enjoy the slide. For more tips on how to dress appropriately for a winter, check out this article.
Rooms at Hôtel de Glace are open to the public during the day and reserved for guests at night. While all rooms have comfortable beds with nightstands, only the suites are sculpted in unique designs. Some rooms also have power outlets for medical equipment. There is a switch next to each bed to turn the lights on and off.
Reminder: rooms with fireplaces are not warmer. It’s just for the ambiance.
Since the ice structure gradually shrinks, it is not feasible to have traditional doors in the rooms. It would be too time-consuming to regularly adjust the door frames and potentially dangerous if people were trapped in their room. Instead, simple curtains are used to provide privacy.
There are no windows.
The ice workshop is not fully accessible to the public. It is where many tools and some ice blocks are stored, and it is also where ice glasses are produced. Since angels do not smooth the ceiling in this area, visitors can see what a rough ceiling looks like.
Hot tubs, saunas, and portable toilets are all located outside the ice structure. The latter are located in various places and are heated. Hot tubs and saunas are accessible to all guests, except for the most expensive room which has its own private hot tub and sauna. There are also fire pits near the entrance for guests to warm up.
The Hôtel de Glace has a regular, permanent building where guests can store their luggage and prepare for the night (e.g. showering, brushing teeth, etc.). For a long time, guests could pay extra for a regular room as a backup, but now it is included in the price.
This is also where guests will take their breakfast.
The hotel through the season
Working there the whole season allowed me to witness many things, especially the evolution of this magical attraction during the day and throughout the winter.
Obviously, the light changes the appearance of the building both outside and inside, next to the ice walls. It doesn’t look the same in the morning, afternoon, and evening. A sunny day or a blizzard will also make a big difference.
Temperatures, rain, sunlight, and people all affect the building itself. At its opening, the Hôtel de Glace is brand new and still expanding. By the end of the winter, parts of the hotel that are most exposed to sunlight have a different look.
Overall, the changing light and weather make the Hôtel de Glace a constantly evolving and enchanting place.
One thing remains constant every year, all season long: the temperature. It ranges around -5˚C. To help you dress appropriately for a winter visit, even at the end of March when it may be sunny and warm outside, I recommend checking out this article again.
The end of the season
We have warm summers in the Quebec City area and as a result, the Hôtel de Glace melts and disappears. The season typically ends in March, and the hotel is closed to the public.
All non-melting materials are detached, removed, and carved out: electric cables, mattresses, fridges, lights, fireplaces and so on.
For the final act, heavy machinery is used to destroy the structure. The ruins are spread out to allow for faster melting.
Without this process, it would take several months for the hotel to melt away.
Sleeping at the Hôtel de Glace
A night at the Hôtel de Glace
Guests check-in at the Hôtel de Glace just like they would at any other hotel. They are provided with a regular room to store their luggage and prepare for the night. At 9 PM, they are given access to their ice room and can go to bed at their own leisure. Many guests enjoy visiting the bar, hot tubs, and saunas before bedtime.
The hotel provides guests with a mummy-style sleeping bag, a liner, and a small pillow. While the room temperature is cold, the challenge is to prevent overheating and stay dry.
A night guide provides workshops to explain to guests how to properly sleep at the Hôtel de Glace.
As a night guide, my role was not only to provide instructions on how to sleep in the ice room, but also to reassure guests who were scared. It’s important to note that some people may not want to sleep in an ice room and only accompany someone who made that choice. When greeting guests at the workshop, I often observed couples – one smiling (the person who booked) and one scared (the person following).
The benefit of the workshop is that it is led by a person who has already slept at the Hôtel de Glace and can provide firsthand knowledge and experience. We know what we are talking about because we have personally experienced it.
A life experience
Based on my conversations with guests, although this is not a formal survey, I found that the majority of guests slept well. A small percentage had the best night’s sleep of their lives, while only a small minority did not enjoy their stay due to some issue. We will discuss these issues soon.
But why do so many people sleep so well in such a cold environment? In the ice room, there is something you just can’t experience at home – complete silence. At home, there is always noise like the fridge, a car in the street, or the rain on the roof. Even if we don’t notice it, it disturbs our brain and our sleep. In the ice room, however, it is perfectly quiet.
The snow naturally absorbs sounds, so guests don’t have to worry about the music in the bar being audible in their rooms. No one has ever complained about it. Sleeping at the Hôtel de Glace will be your quietest night ever. You’ll be able to have a deep and restful sleep, which is why people feel so refreshed when they wake up. They truly slept.
Instructions and tips to sleep at the Hôtel de Glace
The key to avoid being part of the small minority of guests who did not enjoy their experience because something went wrong is simply to follow the instructions provided by the hotel and their night guide.
The most common mistakes that guests make are dressing too warmly, not tightening the collar of their sleeping bag, wearing cotton clothing, and drinking too much in the evening. Sometimes it’s just because their partner snores too much. The only solution for this is to book two separate rooms.
To see the full guidelines, check out this dedicated article.
There’s more about the Hôtel de Glace
We discussed mostly technical topics. You now understand that the Hôtel de Glace is a blend of science and art, hard work and skill, and that you can only experience its magic by visiting it. You can imagine that there are also stories to share. Dear readers, I save these stories for the people I guide directly on site or remotely. If you want to enhance your visit of the Hôtel de Glace, please contact us for a private tour. It will be a pleasure to guide you through one of the most fascinating buildings in America.