Montreal's Snow Village
Sleeping with the Rocket


By Ilona Kauremszky

TORONTO STAR
February 4, 2012

MONTREAL, Snow Village I spent the night with the great Maurice Richard. There I said it.

Nicknamed “The Rocket,” Richard was the Montreal Canadiens legendary and most beloved Hab. His figure and famous steely stare now rendered in a large slab of ice seems to watch my every move as I disrobed in the Montreal Canadiens Room aka the Sainte Flanelle ‘holy cloth’ at the Village des Neiges (Snow Village).

By the unsparingly harsh St. Lawrence River hovering on the edge of l'île Sainte-Hélène with the lofty disco cross perched on Mount Royal in the distance, the manmade snow village sits nicely atop another manmade incarnation. This reclaimed island was a glorious by-product from Montreal’s subway construction and ironically was the location for another crowd pleaser: Expo 67.

Now snowsuit donning crowds spill into the Snow Village after 11 am when the billetterie opens. Some were there to sightsee; others to dine. Me -- I went for the overnight experience, and besides it was the curiosity, the incessant urge to learn what beckons one to this lunar landscape of white powder.

Jean Francois Gauthier, a lead carver, was sculpting an unfinished snow repro of Montreal’s historic market Bonsecours when I spotted him.

“I am a snow warrior,” he says, waving his trowel like a sabre surrounded by luminous snow mounds glowing in candy red and icicle blue. An accomplished carpenter whose previous stints include Quebec City’s fabled ice hotel, Gauthier cracks an infectious smile when asked about the mild weather conditions, a balmy -5 Celsius on my visit last week.

“I work day and night and it’s been hard at times,” Gauthier admits but it’s evident that his persistence has helped transform the Parc Jean Drapeau into a winter wonderland.

Indeed. North America’s first snow village has hot superlatives and takes a front seat to other snow village locales like Finland and Norway. Take the size and urban location. Spanning a football field three minutes from a subway station, nowhere else in the world will you find this grand scale with a close proximity to public transit. Imagine 45,000 sq metres of snow from snow cannons were blasted and sculpted in a record three weeks.

“It was a miracle,” laughs Carl Fugere, 38, one of the visionaries, behind the current concept who collaborated with his partners Yanick Tremblay and Guy Bélanger.

“I’ve been called a serial entrepreneur,” quips the co-founder over a beer at the bustling Amarula Ice Bar describing his previous IT companies he successfully created but raves about his love affair with this snow village.

“I love winter. For me it is magical and because the concept is a snow village each year we want to reproduce another big city in the world.”

A scaled snow model of Montreal captures the best highlights of the city. A hip resto helmed by Eric Gonzalez, a Michelin star chef, captures sublime hearty fare inspired by Quebec flavours at this fixed menu igloo. There’s an ice chapel with a wall of flying doves by the altar; and even a conference room ready to host fashion label Rudsak during the upcoming Montreal Fashion Week.

Inside the 30-room hotel, the room numbers are cleverly encased in ice and presented as frigid minus degree numbers. Local designers like Rudsak’s luxe leather apparel company furnished the chairs and bed covers, while suites are themed in enchanting parodies of local fixtures. There’s a nod to the vibrant music scene with the Music Room, the Formula One Grand Prix room, and of course, the love of the circus.

“If I slept here, I would pick this circus room,” reveals Arouny Nokya, 24, a credit analyst from Paris on her first trip to Montreal which included a tour of the make believe village. She giggles when I add how very French as France has its own love affair with the circus.

Over by the Amarula Ice Bar, Alessandro Pinho from Rio de Janeiro Brazil quaffs down a whisky in an ice cubed shot glass. “I arrived this morning and tonight I am here to witness this. It’s beautiful and I’m not missing the tropics one bit.”

Then there’s Amy Surla, a Niagara Falls resident, whose 34th birthday wish was to overnight there. “This place was on my bucket list,” she beams surrounded by her two kids and husband, each embracing the magical setting in their own way. “I’m so glad we’re here. We love it!” she raves.

Dinner was served in an igloo themed to the bubbly Pommery Champagne Company in Reims France. Surrounded by golden ribbons of curtains puddling onto the snowy carpet with Pommery Champagne bottles delicately ensconced on the fleeting white walls, diners shuffled by ready to try whatever main course the chef dreamed up. For the appetizer, I chose a creamy butternut squash soup with crispy bacon garnish but the hearty stick-to –your-ribs main was a slowly braised deer shank cooked in red wine with root vegetables.

Slowly the sightseers left, leaving the die-hard overnighters to prepare for a night to remember. In this lunar world caught between reality and fantasy, I plunged fast into the steamy hot tub, as a light snow dusted the village. In the distance Montreal’s skyline was ablaze in colourful lights that seemed to dance off the river. The vantage point from Isle Ste Helene was heavenly.

Body core temperature elevated, I dashed to the nearby change room, and jumped into my thermals, long johns, tuque, woolly socks, and scarf.

Past the misty hot tubs and the tundra setting with igloo pods scattering the village, I parked my urbanite sensibilities outside the red curtained doorway to my abode and zipped into the thermal hi-tech sleeping bag unfurled on the fur bedcover atop my bed of ice. Finally it was time to face Maurice.

He was poised looking at the sculpted Stanley Cup at the foot of my bed. Above my head was a Canadiens hockey jersey and in the corner a couple of antique wooden seats, relics from the old Montreal Forum.

The mood was set by red, white and blue lights that illuminated the room. For a fleeting moment I imagined being at the Forum cheering for the Rocket as he dekes through the Maple Leafs. He shoots, he scores!!

The room was blissfully silent, the air cool, the sleeping bag divinely warm – I drifted off into a dream with Maurice by my side.

-30-

photos: Ilona Kauremszky


JUST THE FACTS


ARRIVING VIA Rail Canada has special one way economy class rates limited to specific trains 50 and 51 from Toronto to Montreal for $39. Book by March 31 and travel by April 3.
See www.viarail.ca or call 1 888 842-7245

SLEEPING Ice Hotel. Standard room rates from $259 per person includes: sleeping bag, welcome cocktail, breakfast, hot tub, and lockers. www.snowvillagecanada.com. Tel: 1 (855)788-2181.
The Snow Village is scheduled to close on March 31, 2012.

DOING Watch for future events like kiddie shows, ice and snow sculpture competitions, and an outdoor disco. In Montreal, there are tour operators galore for outdoor activities.
Les Amis de la Montagne offers fun Mount Royal snow shoeing www.lemontroyal.qc.ca. Fitz and Follwell has guided snow tours in the heart of Montreal.
This operator even has parka, boots rentals if needed www.fitzandfollwell.co.

Don’t miss the upcoming MONTRÉAL EN LUMIÈRE, North American’s largest culinary showcase and one of the largest winter festivals in Canada attracting over 900,000 participants popular with ample free events scheduled at the new Quartier des Spectacles. Dates: February 16 to February 26, 2012. montrealenlumiere.com.

Nuit blanche à Montréal with over 180 mostly free events is scheduled February 25, 2012. www.montrealenlumiere.com/nuit-blanche-en

For more travel information on Montreal, visit www.tourisme-montreal.org

ICE HOTEL SURVIVAL TIPS Refer to the handy tip sheet downloadable from The Ice Hotel’s website. The rooms are between -2 Celsius and -5 Celsius.
Hit the hot tub for body core heat elevation. (Bathing suit, robe and flip flops required).
Pack an eye patch because the room lights never shut off.
Wear fleece fibre due to non-perspiring fabric so you won’t ever break out in a cold sweat like with old fashioned cotton.
Take handy slipper booties for an easy off and on should Mother Nature call in the middle of the night.
Pack sunblock and lip balm.
Don’t breathe inside the sleeping bag. This creates condensation which just makes for a nasty damp inner sleeping bag.


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