Among New York's December rituals, the arrival from the frozen north of the tree sellers from Quebec upon Manhattan's pavements is one of Christmas's harbingers. Mostly college kids and musicians who possess not much beyond their furs and boots, they tumble out of battered vans and erect enormous Christmas-tree stalls.
They have an easy Gallic charm and hanker less for the wattage of New York than to return home to Montreal, just across the US's northern border or elsewhere into Quebec's mysterious villages, prompting some of those who've not been to the Canadian province to want to follow.
Our plan to travel to Quebec in mid-winter meets with unease from friends in New York; to travel in winter is one thing but to choose to go beyond the 45th parallel north into Quebec, to a hotel constructed from ice, seems to them the whim of a masochist.
Sculpted from 16,000 tonnes of snow and 508 tonnes of ice, the Hotel de Glace has, for the past 10 winters, been erected each January in the grounds of the eco resort of Duchesnay, about 50 kilometres north of Quebec City. This season, however, the ice hotel opens in a new location, 10 minutes' drive from downtown on the site of the old zoo. The change makes the ice hotel a much more convenient location for those wanting to explore the beguiling old city's twisting cobblestone streets, then retire to arctic sleeping bags and doonas made of reindeer skins.
The relocated ice hotel opened on January 7 and will operate until late March, when the northern thaw draws close. Larger and warmer than its predecessors, this year's ice hotel has bigger lobbies, extra heated pavilions and a theme of celebrating biodiversity. It will house 88 people a night and expects to welcome its 30,000th guest this season.
We travelled to Quebec last February and joined one of the daily tours through the ice hotel. This allows visitors to see all the rooms and suites and linger in the lobbies and bars until late afternoon. The late check-in time (8pm) isn't ideal for two young children, so we stay a few minutes' walk from the ice hotel at its neighbouring winter resort, the Station Touristique Duchesnay - recommended as a back-up for ice-hotel guests lest they find the temperatures unbearable.
The ice hotel assures guests that the overnight room temperatures will not drop below a chilly but definitely survivable minus 5 degrees. While all rooms are moderately heated, guests are urged to take a hot-tub plunge before retiring in order to elevate body temperature, layer up and crawl snugly into the hotel's sleeping bags.
Work begins on building the ice hotel's 36 rooms and themed suites in early December each year. The interiors are vast, with ceilings 5.4 metres high, lending the ambience of gigantic ice caves. In the hotel's ice bars, drinkers wear gloves to hold their glasses, made of ice, of course. The hotel has an ice cafe, hot tubs, saunas, working fireplaces, a room for receptions and even an elaborate chapel with pews and an altar carved from ice. Wintry weddings are frequent.
Of course, children love the fairyland enchantment of the place. The hotel's many interior statues, columns and engraved ice walls are works of art. The lighting is equally elaborate and gives the appearance of flooding from deep within the hotel's shell. Just try wrestling children off the 20-metre interior ice slide or away from the large ice statues of bears, mermaids and penguins.
The ice hotel's builders are a mix of tradesmen and artists. They take five weeks to build the 1.2-metre-thick walls and roof, starting with large wooden moulds. Once the structure is set, the craftsmen and artists sculpt huge blocks of ice into beds, tables, bars and stools.
An ideal time to visit is during Quebec City's fabulous winter carnival, from January 28 until February 17. The city fills with snow sculptures, music, dog-sled races, ice skating and late-night dance parties, where hundreds of people dance through the night in the snowfields, in front of a castle made of ice. Later, everything melts into the ground, leaving only cool memories.
The Hotel de Glace in Quebec City is open until March 27 and has rooms from $C235.50 ($237) a person and suites from $C599.50 a person. See icehotel-canada.com.